Black Elk Peak
Amid much controversy in the state of South Dakota, the former Harney Peak is now officially Black Elk Peak, following a ruling by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names on August 11, 2016. That ruling will affect how the summit is named on all federal maps in the future. Black Elk Peak is the high point of the state of South Dakota and is located in the Black Hills in the southwestern portion of the state.
The peak is also the high point in the Black Elk Wilderness as well as the highest summit in a line between the Rocky Mountains and the Pyrenees Mountains in France. Black Elk Peak has over 2,900 feet of prominence. The mountain and surrounding range is granite that many geologists believe was uplifted during the Laramide orogeny between 40 and 60 million years ago. Although the mountain is well below treeline, the summit is mostly bare rock with uninhibited and spectacular views.
On a clear day, one can see four states – South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska. There is an old stone tower that was used as a fire lookout on the summit. It is no longer in use but is open to hikers. Hikers have multiple route options to reach the summit from Custer State Park and various locations in the Black Elk Wilderness. Black Elk Peak is probably the most popular hiking destination in the Black Hills.
The forest on Black Elk Peak has suffered serious damage from pine beetles in recent years, plus Winter Storm Atlas in 2013 felled many more trees. Much of the damage has been cleared away, but some still remain. The forest that remains on the peak consists mostly of Ponderosa pines, spruce, and aspens. Despite the large numbers of hikers on Black Elk Peak every year, wildlife is in abundance there, with deer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and pronghorn antelope seen regularly. There are rare sightings of mountain lions and coyotes, but they generally do not like being around large numbers of people. Bird watchers enjoy the opportunities afforded by the variety of trails to the summit.
From Rapid City, SD--For the Sylvan Lake approach, take Highway 16 west for about 30 miles to Hill City, SD. Drive through Hill City on Highway 16, and about 3.2 miles out of town turn east onto Highway 87. Follow this for 6.1 miles to Sylvan Lake recreation area on the north side of the road, which is in Custer State Park.
Trail 9 South and Trail 4 both start at different places along the large parking lot on the east side of Sylvan Lake. For the Willow Creek approach, take the same drive to Hill City, and then follow Highway 16 south out of Hill City, SD, and after 3 miles out of town, turn east onto Highway 244. Follow this for about 3 miles to the Willow Creek Horse Camp on the south side of the road. The trail starts on the east side of the day-use area.
Not many hikers use Norbeck Trail 3 or Grizzly Bear Trail 7 to reach Black Elk Peak, but the trailheads for both of those trails are located along Forest Road 345, which can be accessed from Highway 87, the Needles Highway eight miles southeast of Sylvan Lake.
There are multiple routes to the summit and the Black Elk Wilderness Map (free map from Black Hills National Forest) details those routes. The most commonly-used route is Trail 9 South from Sylvan Lake. This route is approximately 3.8 miles one way (BHNF figures) with about 1,000 feet of relative elevation gain from trailhead to summit. I would rate this hike as easy to moderate.
This trail receives heavy use. Trail 4 from Sylvan Lake also sees quite a bit of traffic, because it is about the same distance to the summit, but follows a more southerly route by the Little Devils Tower and Cathedral Spires, with short spur trails to each. Trail 4 also has a second trailhead along the Needles Highway about 1 mile southeast of Sylvan Lake. From Sylvan Lake to where Trail 4 joins Trail 3 (which then joins Trail 9 South), is listed by the BHNF as 2.3 miles.
From that junction, it is approximately another 1.4 miles further to the summit of the peak. The northern approach is longer and more difficult and receives less use, but is more scenic. This route starts at the Willow Creek Horse Camp and follows Trail 9 North for 5 miles one-way to the summit, with about 2,200 feet of relative elevation gain. This trailhead is also easier to access from the Rapid City area than the southern route. Both trails are well marked and easy to follow.
No climbing permits are required. Black Elk Peak is located in the Black Elk Wilderness, within the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve in the Black Hills National Forest. There is a counter at the trailhead that records all people coming through.
Free maps can be found at the Forest Service offices in the area. Though Black Elk Peak lies in the Black Elk Wilderness, the Sylvan Lake trailheads are in Custer State Park. Custer State Park requires a per-person and/or vehicle entry fee.
No camping is permitted in the day-use area at Willow Creek, but you can simply grab your tent and walk a little way into the forest, and camp there. The NFS prohibits camping within a quarter-mile of the summit. There are a lot of great locations north and south of the summit.