The Rocks of Black Elk Peak

IMG_3819I looked out into the fog, thinking of sunshine, searching for the rocks that make the Black Hills famous.  Kerry, always cold, says “I hope this weather clears up”.

From Keystone, we took Hwy 16 to the trail head in the Sylvan Lake area.  As we passed through Hill City  we not only found a grocery store, but a great breakfast.  So with food in our stomachs and our packs, we were ready for the day.

The rocks did show up;  this rock tunnel on our approach was our first big rock sighting.   The fog was just fading as we pulled into the parking lot at Sylvan Lake.


Sylvan Lake in the mist

We snapped a few photos as we went in search of the trailhead.  Our plan was to take Trail #9 up and then head back down, veer left on Trail #3 and hook onto Trail #4 for a loop back, catching detours to both the Cathedral Spires and Little Devils Tower.


We should have reversed this direction. Why?  Because Little Devils Tower is NOT to be missed, but the scrabble up a granite monolith is best done early in a hike.  Also, Trail #4 has 2 parking lots, one at Sylvan Lake and another about 10 minutes further down the trail.  When you come down Trail #4 and hit the first parking lot, its a total bummer realizing you aren’t finished.

We started off on a easy Trail #9 at 9:15 am and by 11:00 am we were at the top.  Honestly I wasn’t watching our time as closely as I normally do because the views are outstanding.

The steady uphill trail to the peak is a moderate climb.  This peak has over 2,900 ft of prominence, but on this trail you only gain about 1,500 ft.


View of Black Elk Peak and the Fire Tower from Lower down on Trail #9


The signs on Trail #9 are very clear going to the peak.  When you are near the peak, the moderate trail to the Summit gets steep and involves a lot of steps.  There is even a metal staircase.


Harney Peak was renamed Black Elk Peak in August of 2016.  You still see some references to Harney Peak on the trail.


The stone fire lookout was built by the CCC.  All the materials were toted up the trail by carts pulled by donkeys and mules.  It was completed in 1939, and used as a fire lookout until 1967.  Now, its just there for us tourists.


Once there we took a ton of photos, celebrated with a toast, and had a little snack.  We explored all 3 levels of the tower, and walked out to the marker (which I failed to photograph) on the nearby mound.



We spent over 30 minutes at the peak before heading back down.  It took about 20 minutes to descend to the junction of Trail #4.


Right away, we were at the Cathedral Spires.


We explored these a bit and then continued on the trail, where we saw a sign pointing us back to where we had been.

About 5 minutes further we came to the spur to Little Devils Tower.  After 20 minutes on the trail you come to the bottom of a rock and the trail goes straight up.  It only takes about 10 minutes to finish the climb from there.  We left Jason and his poor knees at the bottom of the rock (I left my camera with him, so I missed out on the photos).  Kerry and I gazed for 10 minutes and slid/climbed back down to meet Jason.  We headed back to the car – and this was when we were bummed out by the first parking lot.  Our feet were hot and we wanted to dip them in the lake!


Black Elk Peak sits at 7,242 ft above sea level, it is the 15th highest state summit of the US state highpoints.  The trail head to Black Elk Peak sits at about 6,145 ft, for an elevation gain of just over 1,550 ft to the top.   The round trip distance  on Trail #9 is about 6.8 miles.  In our estimation, detours made our Loop route about 8 miles. We started up at 9:15 am and made the summit in 1 hour 45 minutes, with photo op stops.  We spent 35 minutes on the summit.  It took us just over an hour to reach the Little  Devils tower spur with a long photo stop at the Cathedral Spires.   It took us 30 minutes to hike from the spur up to the top of Little Devils Tower, and 30 minutes back to Trail #4.  We spent about 10 minutes on the top.   Finally, we were back at the parking lot at 2:20 pm.  Our total Loop hike time was Just over 4 hours, not including the hour we spent between the top of Black Elk, Cathedral Spires and Lil Devils.   Parking at the Sylvan Lake Day Use area is $20.00/car.  The trail is identified by blazes on trees along the trail, but honestly #9 is so straight forward you should have no trouble.  There are no facilities on the trail, bring water & food.  We didn’t have any bug problems, shorts and light hikers were fine.   Of course, pack out all your trash, including TP.

We left Sylvan Lake via the needles highway on the way to Rapid City.  At one of the tunnels there was a traffic jam caused by a huge bus scraping through.  I didn’t catch that photo but here is the tunnel with a regular car.

We stopped at the Custer State Park visitor center and the Coolidge General Store.  The visitor center is vast and although it has a lot of information, there is nothing for sale here.  We went back to the store to look for Black Elk Peak stuff, but didn’t really find anything.  All this time in Custer State Park, and we didn’t see any Bison roaming. Bummer.

To end the day we drove off to Rapid City for dinner and a hotel.  Rapid City is small, and rather unremarkable except that on almost every street corner is a full size bronze sculpture of a president.   We didn’t go around and find them all, as we were starving. Good think we spotted Murphy’s pub cause it was fantastic.  I highly recommend the steak and potato salad.  Maybe one day I’ll start taking pics of my food… but I think trails are enough for now.

Until next time, Happy Trails

3 thoughts on “The Rocks of Black Elk Peak

    • I read your post before we took off on this trip! We were going to go south to hit NE, KS & OK this trip also but didn’t have the time. We could have been at Mt Sunflower at the same time, otherwise…

      • Those are all great high points too! My dad and I just came back from a road trip and we go MO, KS, OK, AR, and LA!! 🙂 I wanna go back some day and hike SD again – especially since the name has changed since I was there!

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