Nestled among the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota, Black Elk Peak, the highest point east of the Rockies, and Little Devils Tower loop is the ultimate day hike in South Dakota!
I have a tremendous love for high peaks and high altitude. 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.
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?!
In this blog, we’ll cover everything you need to know to hike Black Elk Peak and Little Devil’s Tower either separately or as one big loop.
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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:
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.
From highway 395, head East on Needles highway (Hwy 87) for 6 miles until you reach the Sylvan Lake toll booth and parking area.
If coming from the south, drive east through the town of Custer for a brief few miles before heading north on the 89 until you dead end at Sylvan Lake.
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.
Ther 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 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.
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 really 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 on 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 clearly 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.
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.
In my opinion, 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 for 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 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 really 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 basically 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 zig zags 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.
Our Favorite Day Hiking Backpack
Before you head into the Black Hills, check out our absolute favorite day hiking backpack, REI’s Flash 22. This backpack has seen over 3,000 miles and it’s our go-to pack for all our hiking adventures.
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 related blogs below for more South Dakota travel inspiration!