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How to Hike Black Elk Peak + Little Devils Tower, South Dakota

Nestled among the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota, Black Elk Peak, the highest point east of the Rockies, and the Little Devils Tower loop is the ultimate day hike in South Dakota!

I have a tremendous love for high peaks and high altitudes. I do whatever I can to spend as much time in the mountains as possible and if it weren’t for surfing, I would probably never leave altitude. 

With my obsession for bagging 14ers, traversing ridgelines, and spending most summers adventuring in the Rockies, I did not expect to fall in love with South Dakota. But I did. And though I don’t swoon for the Dakota peaks as I do for the Alps, there is something really special about this last little slice of the Wild West. The skies are bluer, the trails are quieter, and the rivers look like a picture from a fairytale.

Climbing Black Elk Peak and Little Devils Tower opened my eyes to how beautiful mountains can be below 10,000 feet and this hike is the best of them. In this blog, find out how to hike both of these Sylvan Lake peaks in 1 day!
Hiking Sylvan Lake Trail
You don’t have to go far to experience incredible beauty at Sylvan Lake

And what Dakota’s peaks lack in size, they make up for with the tall rock spires that cap their summits like Black Elk Peak.

In fact, Black Elk Peak, formerly known as Harney Peak, is the highest peak between the Rockies and the Pyrenees. Crazy, right?!

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You Might Also Like: 8 Best Hikes in the Black Hills

Trail Stats: Black Elk Peak + Little Devils Tower Loop

Distance Roundtrip: 7.8 miles
Total elevation gain: 1700 feet
Starting elevation: 6145′
Black Elk Peak elevation: 7242′
Little Devils Tower elevation: 6960′
Hiking time: 4-6 hours

Black Elk Peak only:

Distance Roundtrip: 7 miles
Total elevation gain: 1100 feet
Hiking time: 3-5 hours

Little Devils Tower only:

Distance Roundtrip: 3.5 miles
Total elevation gain: 600 feet
Hiking time: 2-3 hours

Map overview of Sylvan Lake Trails:

Sylvan Lake Trail Map
Trail map of the Sylvan Lake area. Photo via Custer State Park trail guide

Getting to the Trailhead

As one of the most popular hikes in South Dakota, getting to the trailhead, located at Sylvan Lake, is very simple.

Travel east on Needles Highway (Hwy 87) for 6 miles from Highway 395 until you arrive at the Sylvan Lake toll booth and parking area.

If approaching from the south, proceed east through Custer for a short distance, then head north on the 89 until you reach Sylvan Lake at the dead end.

Important: Highway 16A and 87 have low clearance tunnels. This means if you in an RV that’s taller than 9’8”, you won’t be able to drive to Sylvan Lake via the west junction of Hwy 87, the only way to get to Sylvan Lake is via the town of Custer on Highway 89. Fortunately, everything in the Black Hills is close together so the detour isn’t too long.

There are other additional low-clearance tunnels in the area around Sylvan Lake. If you are in an RV, find more details on tunnel clearance on our blog on visiting Custer State Park in the Black Hills.

Once you’re at Sylvan Lake, there are two different parking areas. If it’s not crowded, you’ll make the second left after the pay station to the first parking lot. The trailheads are hard to miss and they’re located at 3 different points on Sylvan Lake, shown in blue markers in the map below.

  • If you’re hiking the Black Elk + Little Devils Tower Loop, you start on trail #9. This trail heads to the right from behind the bathrooms near the lake.
  • If you only want to hike trail 4 to Little Devils Tower, the trailhead is located on the southeast side of the paved parking lot loop across from the bathrooms.
  • For a bonus hike after the Black Elk/Little Devils Twoer Loop, tack on the 4-mile Sunday Gulch (trail 6). This begins on the northwest side of Sylvan Lake.

Trail Guide to Black Elk Peak + Little Devils Tower Loop

Trails in the Sylvan Lake region are all marked by numbers making it hard to get lost.

When hiking the loop, you’ll be traveling along trails #9, #3, and #4.

Sylvan Lake Trailhead, Black Elk trail
Sylvan Lake, the trailhead for Black Elk Peak, Little Devils Tower, and Sunday Gulch, delivers pretty amazing views

Sylvan Lake to Black Elk/Harney Peak

Begin your hike on trail #9 following signs to Black Elk/Harney Peak.

30 minutes in, you’ll reach your first amazing viewpoint of Black Elk Peak off in the distance. Be sure to fill out 1 (free) wilderness permit per group when you enter Black Elk wilderness.

Black Elk peak viewpoint, Sylvan Lake, hiking
View of the summit trek that lies ahead

After about 1 hour and 15 minutes, you’ll reach the main junction for Black Elk Peak. Stay left on trail #9 to continue to the summit.

15 more minutes of hiking will bring you to the summit which delivers a unique combination of beautiful panoramic views, awesome rocks, and boulders to scramble on (similar to Stawamus Chief in Squamish), and a cool historic fire lookout tower that you can explore.

Black Elk Peak to Little Devils Tower

After taking in the views (give yourself at least half an hour), backtrack down to the junction and either head back from here or continue to the Little Devils Tower loop by making a sharp left.

Here, the crowds dissipate and the trail moves into a more open forest filled with smaller trees. A little over an hour from Black Elk’s summit, you come to an opening with a large rock and an unmarked spur trail to the left. This isn’t the trail, the trail is marked with bright blue arrows to the right, however, if you head off to the left for a moment, you get awesome views of the backside of the Cathedral Spires.

Little Devils Tower Hike, Custer State Park
Beautiful Cathedral Spires seen on the way to Little Devil’s Tower

Continuing along the well-marked trail with blue arrows, you’ll travel through some lush, mossy forest. 1 hour from the summit of Black Elk, you’ll reach the junction for Cathedral Spires Trail.

Bonus: If you’re an experienced hiker, you can tack on the short 2-3 mile round trip detour to explore the Cathedral Spires from below.

I think the spires are more beautiful from afar and just 100 yards or so after the junction, there’s a spur trail next to a bench that takes you to the most incredible, hidden viewpoint of the Cathedral Spires.

You don’t need to take in the view long here, because the views are even better from on top of Little Devils Tower.

5 minutes past the junction for Cathedral Spires (1hr 20min from Black Elk Peak) is the junction for Little Devils Tower. This junction is unmarked so it’s easy to miss but when you reach an opening on the trail, go right and follow and blue markers you see. A short 10-minute jaunt through trees, a rock corridor, and up some rocky boulder faces will bring you to the highlight of the trek.

Little Devils Tower stands in stark solitude compared to Black Elk and with epic panoramas and views of rock spires all around, this is easily my favorite destination in the Black Hills. If you’re lucky, you may even spot some mountain goats.

Devils Tower to Sylvan Lake

From Little Devil’s Tower, it’s a 2-mile hike (1 hour) back to Sylvan Lake. When you reach the Little Devils Tower trailhead, continue on the obvious trail across the street to get back to your car.

It took us 2 hours and 30 minutes to get from the Black Elk summit to the trailhead via Little Devils Tower.

Bonus: Add Sunday Gulch

Sunday Gulch Trail Stats

Distance Roundtrip: 4 miles
Total elevation gain: 800 feet
Hiking time: 2-3 hours

If you’re a pretty good hiker and you want to experience the most bang for your buck hike in the region, tack on another 4 miles to your Black Hills Hike by continuing onto the Sunday Gulch Loop and creating a figure 8.

Sunday Gulch trail isn’t strenuous but isn’t just a walk in the woods either. Sunday Gulch, as the name says, is a steep gulch full of fun and beautiful rock features and a weaving river that zigzags the gulch.

The Sunday Gulch trail is a loop. I recommend hiking it clockwise therefore when you get back to the parking lot, head left around the south and west side of the lake and follow signs for Sunday Gulch.

The beginning of the trail will take you on a wide, gradual descent down the hillside near the gulch. Then, once you reach the bottom, you’ll power out a 1-2 mile push up the steep but wildly beautiful gulch.

Free Hiking Resources and trail Guides

Hope this helped you gear up for South Dakota’s coolest hike and highest peak! If you liked this blog don’t forget to share it or pin it for later reference! Check out our Black Hills Travel Guide.

Black Hills Travel Guidebook by Nomads With a Purpose


Hiking Black Elk Peak & Little Devils Tower (+ Other Sylvan Lake Trails)
Climbing Black Elk Peak and Little Devils Tower opened my eyes to how beautiful mountains can be below 10,000 feet and this hike is the best of them. In this blog, find out how to hike both of these Sylvan Lake peaks in 1 day!

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Saturday 23rd of October 2021

A great breakdown of this set of trails. Couldn’t agree more with everything you wrote. I stopped once to camp overnight at sylvan lake campground on my way through to more well known parks out west and I now go back to Custer state park as often as I can. Just reading this makes me miss the black hills. Mount Harney and Little devils tower was my first taste of hiking in the area and it still surprises me with how beautiful it is each time I go back. I look forward to seeing more of your posts!


Tuesday 26th of October 2021

Happy to hear! It's quite a special place!

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