Climbing Black Elk Peak (renamed from Harney Peak in 2016) was a highlight of our visit to Custer State Park in South Dakota during our summer National Park road trip. When researching our time in the park, a friend recommended we climb this peak, and I am so glad he did! Since we had a couple of days to spend in the park, we started our visit to Custer State Park by setting up camp at Blue Bell Campground where we thoroughly enjoyed camping.
Blue Bell Campground in Custer State Park
The tall shade trees and spread out sites made camping here especially comfortable. The bathrooms were clean and the sites were level, well maintained and the campground is centrally located. We spent a lovely few hours snacking, hanging in our hammocks, reading and relaxing. By the way, if you don’t have a hammock that you take camping, you are missing out! We especially love the ENO Double Nest hammock we take with us on every single trip. Perfect for reading, napping, or just simply hanging out, it might be my very favorite piece of comfort camping gear.
Custer State Park Wildlife Loop
Late in the afternoon, we decided to drive the scenic Wildlife Loop Road because we had heard it was awesome and it was simply amazing. We saw tons of prairie dogs, bison and pronghorn along the scenic route, but a highlight was coming upon the herd of begging burros that have absolutely no fear of people sitting in their cars. We didn’t give them any handouts, but that was not for lack of effort on their part as they will stick their noses right into your open windows! If visiting Custer State Park, definitely take the time to drive this loop. Not only is the scenery spectacular, the wildlife is truly memorable. Allow yourself an hour or so to complete the loop at a leisurely pace.Up bright and early the next morning, we were greeted by wild turkeys roaming through our site as we cooked a big breakfast on our Coleman butane camp stove to fuel our hike. Another favorite piece of camping gear, this inexpensive little stove has served us well on our road trip travels. Small and lightweight while also being dependable and easy to use, this little stove is our go to choice when camping in our Adventure Van. Since budget is always a concern for us, I love finding gear that we love that is also budget friendly. Once full of grits, bacon and our favorite egg and veggie scramble, we hit the road. We travelled to the Black Elk Peak trail head at Sylvan Lake by way of the famous Needles Highway, which took about an hour to get there at a leisurely pace. The scenic highway was packed with gorgeous views and tunnels to squeeze our big van through. It was a beautiful way to start the day. Even if hiking isn’t on your agenda while visiting Custer State Park, you sure can see a great deal just by driving the scenic highways which make it an ideal wilderness destination for people of all ages and abilities. One tip- there are pull off throughout the scenic highways so if anyone is riding your tail, just pull over to let them pass.
Hiking Black Elk Peak in Custer State Park
There are several trails which lead to the summit of Black Elk Peak. We chose to hike the route via Trail 9 which starts from the Sylvan Lake parking area. While a popular destination, we didn’t have trouble finding a spot to park in the ample lot. In addition to bathrooms, there is a water fountain to fill up water bottles adjacent to the lot. Sylvan Lake is beautiful and would be a lovely spot to have a picnic at one of the many tables spread out across the area. Rental canoes, kayaks and paddle boards are also available at Sylvan Lake which would be a fun way to spend an afternoon.
The highest peak in South Dakota as well as the highest U.S. peak east of the Rockies at 7,242 feet, the 7 mile round trip hike to Black Elk Peak has an 1,100 foot elevation gain and leads to a beautiful old fire tower built by the CCC in 1939 which offers amazing views. While wooded, the trail led through an area that had clearly been affected by wildfire which made it shadeless in areas and quite hot on the sunny June afternoon we were hiking. Trail 9 is well marked and well maintained so it was easy to keep our bearings. Hikers are asked to register at a self registration kiosk on the way to the summit. We had each carried about a liter of water, but due to the heat and exposure, we definitely underestimated how much water we should have each carried up so ended up hiking thirsty on the way back down. Lesson learned.
Just below the fire tower, prayer flags and other momentos are attached to the trees as the Lakota use this space for religious ceremonies. They make a colorful backdrop to the gorgeous vista. Summiting Black Elk Peak was a moderate challenge which rewarded our struggle with gorgeous views of the beautiful Black Hills Wilderness. It took us about three hours round trip which allowed us to relax at the summit for a snack. I saw climbers of all ages at the summit as while challenging, this is a wonderful family hike. This is definitely a hike I’d do again and recommend to anyone ready for a challenge. It was truly a lovely way to see the Black Hills.
If You Go – Custer State Park and Hiking Black Elk Peak
- There is a $20 fee per car to enter Custer State Park which is valid for 1-7 days and can be purchased at any of the 5 entrance stations. Annual passes are also available.
- If traveling in an oversize vehicle, know the size restrictions for both the Needles Highway and the Iron Mountain Road which run through Custer State Park, both of which can be checked HERE.
- If hiking Black Elk Peak, make sure to wear sunscreen and bring plenty of water. The South Dakota sun is hot and intense!
- There is plenty to see and do nearby to Custer State Park including Mt. Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park and the Crazy Horse Memorial, so allow yourself plenty of time to explore. We found the Moon Guidebook to be especially helpful to help us plan out time in South Dakota.
- An additional guide book we used throughout our summer road trip was Fodor’s Travel National Parks of the West. In fact, we read that book so many times throughout the trip it is practically falling apart.
Exploring Custer State Park was something we will never forget. One of a kind wildlife, breathtaking scenic highways, comfortable campsites, heart pounding hikes and beautiful scenery make it a must visit destination on a road trip through South Dakota so make sure you plan a visit. Happy travels!
If you decide to make a purchase through any of my links, Amazon will pay me a small commission for it. This doesn’t cost you anything additional and these commissions help to keep the rest of my content free. Thank you for your support!