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Hiking Black Elk Peak to visit the Harney look out tower

Hiking Black Elk Peak (aka Harney Peak)

Custer State Park likes to claim Black Elk Peak, but it really is in the Black Elk Wilderness and managed by the Black Hills National Forest.

The most popular trail head starts near Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park and is often still being called Harney Peak trailhead since the 2016 name change is still fresh in many peoples minds.  Custer State Park did put up new signs in 2018.

South Dakota likes to claim that Black Elk Peak is the highest point east of the rockies, but Guadalupe Peak in Texas may actually have that claim coming in at 8,749 feet.  Then there is the argument about how tall Black Elk Peak actually is. 

The most popular way to Black Elk Peak is up Trail #9.  Park in the Sylvan Lake beach parking lot and look for Trail #9 in the north west corner of the lot.  Follow trail nine up to its junction with trail #3.  Follow that to the spur trail that heads to Black Elk Peak.  Turn left onto the Spur, and up to the summit.  Great views from the summit make this a super great hike.

Take plenty of water, and dress for weather since it can change quickly.  Even if it’s 70 when you leave Custer State Park, it could be 45 and raining when the afternoon thunder storm moves in and hails on you!!!  In the summer it is best to do this hike in the morning to enjoy the cool temps and less chance of thunder showers, as they most often occur in the afternoon between 2 and 5pm.

Taking trail 9 up and back is the shortest way, but if you want to add in some variety, consider the loop you can make using trail 4 past the turn off to Little Devils Tower in Custer State Park and links into the same parking lot.  

There are also many more trailheads that lead up to Black Elk Peak.  You can stop into a Black Hills National Forest Visitor Center for more information.

Take water and stop by the Forest Service office for a GOOD map.  People do get lost up there!


Plan on a 4 – 5 hour round trip hike if you start at Sylvan Lake.  Backpacking is possible in the Black Elk Wilderness area. There is no camping allowed within 1/4 mile of Black Elk Peak though.

photo of Black Elk Peak.