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Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek

Black Hills, South Dakota

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Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek

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  • Near the Trail #9 Trailhead at Willow Creek Horse Camp.- Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek
  • The trail ascends through the forest until it approaches the first granite cliffs.- Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek
  • Entering the Black Elk Wilderness en route to the summit.- Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek
  • Looking south from the ridge that leads toward the final ascent to the summit.- Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek
  • Views of the summit (and fire tower) to the west.- Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek
  • Looking back down on the Black Hills near the summit.- Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek
  • Expansive views from the summit.- Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek
  • More views from the summit.- Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek
  • The historic fire tower at the top of Black Elk Peak.- Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek
  • A perfect spot for a snack.- Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek
  • South Dakota's take on Tibetan prayer flags at the Black Elk Peak summit.- Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek
  • View from the fire lookout.- Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek
  • Crowds below the fire lookout. - Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek
  • View from the top of Black Elk Peak.- Black Elk Peak via Willow Creek
Overview + Weather
Pros: 
Beautiful vistas. Abundant wildlife. Solitude (below the summit).
Cons: 
Crowded summit.
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Region:
Black Hills, SD
Congestion: 
Moderate
Pets allowed: 
Yes
Net Elevation Gain: 
2,200.00 ft (670.56 m)
Parking Pass: 
Sometimes
Preferable Season(s):
Spring, Summer, Fall
Suitable for:
Hiking, Horseback
Total Distance: 
10.00 mi (16.09 km)
Trail type: 
There-and-back
Trailhead Elevation: 
5,000.00 ft (1,524.00 m)
Current Local Weather:
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Hike Description

Hike Description

Contributor

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.

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