Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak) is the highest point in the continental United States east of the Rocky Mountains. First summited by an expedition led by General George Armstrong Custer in 1874, the peak has become an extremely popular day hike in the Black Hills, and it provides spectacular and unobstructed views from the imposing stone fire tower that was constructed on the summit during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corp.
Several trailheads provide access to Black Elk Peak. The most popular starting point is at Sylvan Lake, located within Custer State Park. The Sylvan Lake approach is the shortest and least strenuous approach to the summit. As such, it is also quite crowded, particularly during the summer months.
The northern approach from the Willow Creek Horse Camp is longer with significantly more elevation gain, but it provides the tranquility that is sorely lacking on the Sylvan Lake approach. Trail #9 leaves the Horse Camp and ascends into ponderosa pines and occasional meadows, which are full of wildflowers during late spring and summer. Deer and elk are frequently seen in these lower sections of the hike. After gradually climbing through the forest for the first few miles, the trail reaches the Black Elk Wilderness boundary. Once inside the wilderness the trail navigates through various fascinating rock formations while it begins a series of switchbacks that lead toward a ridge, affording the first views of the summit with the fire tower protruding from massive granite crags that rise above the ponderosa pines. As the trail follows the ridge, expansive views of the Black Hills begin to open in all directions, including the back side of Mount Rushmore to the east and the awe-inspiring Needles formation to the west. After reaching the base of the summit, the trail quickly ascends through several more switchbacks until it finally breaks out of the forest with a final climb to the fire tower, where hikers are rewarded with 360-degree views of the surrounding Black Hills.
Hikers entering the Black Elk Wilderness must complete a Use Registration Form, which is available at the trailhead. Once on the trail, there is no access to fresh drinking water, so hikers should plan accordingly.