Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Our Fall Vacation To South Dakota, Day 5: Custer State Park, Black Elk Peak Trail

This is a continuation of a travel series to South Dakota.  To start at the beginning, go HERE.  The rest of the posts in chronological order are  HEREHEREHERE HERE,  HERE,  HERE,  HEREHERE, HERE, and HERE!

Day five of our trip to South Dakota was one of the most exhilarating and rewarding days of the entire vacation, for it was the day we climbed Black Elk Peak Trail (formerly known as Harney Peak Trail).

The Black Elk Peak Trail would probably rank in the top three of the most difficult hikes I've ever done.  The other two difficult trails I've hiked were the Delicate Arch Trail  where we hiked it in the middle of the day and got the worst sunburn of our lives, and a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park  where we had to turn back because we got caught in a snowstorm in May.

The Black Elk Peak Trail is a challenge because it gains 1,110 feet in elevation in 3.5 miles (one way).  You have to be in good  cardiovascular shape to conquer this trail as you will be climbing up, up, and up!  I can't tell even begin to tell you how many people I saw on this trail struggling (many a lot younger than me!)  But it is worth every step because the views from the top are AMAZING!

There are other places you can catch the trail to make it a bit shorter and easier, but we started from the very beginning, the Sylvan Lake parking lot where we picked up Trail 4.  From this spot, it takes between 4 to 8 hours to get to the top of the summit and back.  It took us 6 hours, but we took a couple of detours (smaller trails that break off the main Black Elk Peak Trail) and we spent a lot of time at the summit enjoying the views and feeding the chipmunks.  Even though you're not suppose to feed animals in the park, be sure to bring natural, unsalted nuts for these cuties because they are so tame and come right up to you for foods.  I loved it!

It is recommended that you start this trail bright and early in the morning as it is an all-day hike.  I can't even begin to tell you how many people we ran into around 2:00 pm just starting the climb and asking us "Are we almost there?" when they had miles to go.  My husband and I would look at each other and say "They're never going to make it."  Also, there are no bathrooms on this trail.  Why, I have no idea.  It's kinda hard to go all day without using the restroom, then again, when you're sweating all day, you don't really need to use the restroom.  Be sure to bring PLENTY of water.  You will need it!   And bring food too, not just for chipmunks, but for you.  Even if you're not hungry, you will need to consume it for energy.  Energy bars, trail mix, are perfect!

We started the trail in the crisp coolness of the morning.  It was so peaceful when we started,  we seemed like the only ones out there.  We ran into one single father with three little kids who really seemed to be struggling.  We thought the guy was nuts for bringing little kids on a trail like this.  One of them kept crying to be carried.  He had no stroller or backpack of any kind.  We think he eventually turned back for we never saw him again.  After that, we didn't see people till we hit the Cathedral Spires and then the trail got busy.

The trail covers a huge mix of landscape.  You will walk through gorgeous grasslands, see amazing boulders and unusual rock formations, and of course stunning mountain vistas.

From Trail #4 there are two trail head spurs (or detours I like to call them) that you can take to see other neat natural landscapes.  One is Little Devil's Tower and the other is the Cathedral Spires.  After seeing the Cathedral Spires from my car on our scenic drive of Needles Highway, I was excited to see them up close, so we took this little detour.

Even though it took us a little out of the way, I was glad we took this detour for we were able to get some great pictures that we couldn't take from our car.  It was also surreal to see these "needles" so close and get a better idea of how huge they are.

When we got back on the main trail to the summit, the climbing really intensified but so did the views.  I constantly wanted to stop and just soak in the view!  But that's one of the advantages of starting the hike early in the morning, you can take your time!

If hiking it all in one day seems too much for you, or perhaps you want more time to explore some of the other trails nearby without having to hike half way up again, feel free to spend the night!  Camping is permitted anywhere along the trail as long as it one fourth mile away from the summit.  Here we found some one's old campsite, and thought it was the perfect spot to rest and enjoy some lunch.  

As  I said earlier, the higher you climb, the better the views.  They provide great motivation to keep going!  

You know you're almost there when you see this sign.  Here you have to fill out a form and put it in a box so they know who is in the area in case they have to come looking for ya!  That was a bit alarming to me.  I never had to fill out a form when hiking a trail before.

By the time this picture was taken, I was pretty hot and exhausted.  Every time I thought we were almost there, we weren't.  I didn't think we'd ever reach the summit.  Hikers coming back down were always encouraging the hikers going up, telling them to keep pushing forward, it's not much further.  

But eventually we saw it, the Harney Peak Tower!  We knew we made it to the summit!  I couldn't remember the last time I was so proud of myself!

The tower was an architectural marvel.  "How in the world did anyone build this thing on the top of this mountain in the middle of nowhere?" I wondered.

Can you just imagine putting these stone steps in?  All the stone had to be hauled up over three miles in two wheel carts by horses and mules.

I felt I discovered a castle in a foreign land and I was no longer in Custer State Park anymore.

I could tell you more about this tower, or you could just read the plaque below (ha ha!).

You can go inside the tower to get even higher views than the ones outside the tower.  I let my husband do that, as I waved to him from the deck below.  I had climbed high enough for one day.

If you're afraid of heights, you may not want to take this trail.  I am always nervous about heights, but I managed to control my fears.  It's also very windy up there, at times I felt the gusts of wind were going to blow me over the edge.

They say that on a clear day you can see four states:  South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska.  Of course, I had no idea what land was what state, but I did think it all was breath-taking beautiful.

There is a little water hole up here.  My husband went down to investigate, but the steps made me nervous so I hung back and fed the chipmunks.

The tower served as a fire lookout until 1967.

This is a view of the water hole as seen from the tower.

And here is one of my little buddies munching on a raw almond I shared with him.

The Lakota still come up here for religious ceremonies and leave colorful prayer cloths and other offerings.  Visitors are asked to not disturb them.

I wish I could say going down was easier and quicker than going up, but it was not.  It seemed we climbed a lot going back down too (don't know how that's possible 😊), or perhaps I was just tired and really had to pee.  Now it was our job to encourage the hikers as they attempted the climb.  By now I was ready to do just that.  I kept telling them "You can do it!"  "It's so worth it!"  "Don't give up!  You're almost there!"  for that's exactly how I felt when I finally reached the top.

The tower had a mix of stone and metal staircases which I thought was so interesting.  I love how they aided the visitor to the top of the rock yet blended in with the natural surroundings as much as possible.

When I finally reached the parking lot,  I was exhausted but I felt pretty good about myself.  I wanted a tee shirt that said "I climbed Black Elk Peak" so we stopped at the Sylvan Lake Gift Shop.  They had some tee shirts referring to the trail that said:   "Hiked it and liked it", but those whimsical ones did not reflect what I was feeling:  a great sense of accomplishment;  so I didn't buy one.

After hiking this trail, we were spent, so we left Custer State Park and went back to our hotel to shower and rest.  Then we went out to eat and ordered the largest pizza we could find and ate the entire thing!  We were hungry!

If you are in good physical shape, I highly recommend hiking this trail.  I didn't see any young children other than the ones I mentioned earlier in this post, but I did see a lot of older people.  They were slower, and took longer, and stopped and rested a lot, but they did it!  It is possible.  If you're worried at all, just start super early in the morning and bring plenty of food and water and you'll be fine.  Also, bring sun protection, and wear lots of layers.  Sometimes you'll get really hot and need to remove clothing, and other times you might get cold. It is quite a bit cooler at the summit, but I found the cool air refreshing after the difficult climb.  I don't recommend a hat as the top of the mountain is super windy and I saw lots of hats flying in the air.  I wore a headband to cover my ears, my husband had a hat with a string around his neck.

Have A Great Day!  Amy

Linking Up with these Fabulous Blogs HERE!


  1. Those are some amazing views... and I just know my husband is going to try and make us all climb this. Ha! We do not do well with all day; uphill hikes. :)

    1. I’ll be honest, I had no idea I was hiking this trail: my husband tricked me! I thought we were just going up as far as the Cathedral Spires or Little Devils Tower. He planned on reaching the summit all along. Little stinker! But I’m glad I did it! It was worth it. You can cut time off this trail to make it shorter if you can find spots in the smaller parking lots farther up from Sylvan Lake.

  2. that's an amazing hike. And you seriously didn't pee all day?? Have you ever checked out a Go Girl?? My mom actually just bought one, and I think it's a great idea.

    1. It was amazing, and 'no', I didn't pee but hubby sneaked off the path into the woods. Even though I could have used a bathroom, I think I sweated so much it wasn't that urgent. I never heard of a Go Girl so I had to google it. That is one crazy contraption, ha ha! I don't think I'd feel comfortable using it. What an invention though.

  3. What amazing views Amy and so worth the long hike! We did not attempt this trail as my dad was hiking with us this time, and he has knee problems, so we decided to stay on easier trails.
    It's wonderful to see all these amazing photos!

    1. Oh my, no one with knee problems could do this hike as it is very steep at times. I wish they would provide other alternatives to get to this spot so everyone could see it. But I read that there are a lot of issues with using the land and the Lakota tribe.

  4. Magnificent views, Amy and those steps to the Tower would have certainly given you a workout. There are some stunning places to visit in the US and I love the mountains that seem to go on forever. Thanks for sharing at #MLSTL.

    1. Thanks Sue, yes, it was quite the workout. The US has so many beautiful views and such a diverse landscape.

  5. Sounds like a really tough hike. Impressed with you all!

    Amy Ann
    Straight A Style

  6. Very rugged and beautiful country Amy - it looks like a reasonable level of fitness would definitely be a requirement! Also choosing pleasant (not too hot/wet) weather would also be on my list if I visited!
    Thanks for linking up with us at MLSTL and I've shared on my SM :)

    1. Thank you! Yes, one has to be fit for this hike. I don't know if I'd want to make this hike in the heat of the summer. We were there in early fall.

  7. Oh wow what beautiful trails and views in the end, definitely worth the hikes! :)

    Hope that your week is going well :)

    Away From The Blue

  8. Gorgeous views and photography! Thanks for sharing. I enjoy walking that's for sure. One to check out perhaps!
    Laura xoxo

  9. so you mean to tell me that someone else made that hike every day or stayed the night up there to man the fire tower? That's crazy in a way but looking at those views, I'd pitch a tent too. I'm an early morning hiker too. Much rather have a view all to myself than to share it with a bunch of other people. Thanks for linking this up with us at #OMHGWW!

    1. I don't know for sure, but I think they would have stayed overnight in the tower. The basement of the tower looked like it could have formerly been used as a living space. This trail does get crowded, so hiking super early in the morning is best.

  10. Congratulations Amy! That's quite an accomplishment. I'm curious, was the trail treacherous in spots or just steep? I can handle the cardio and leg work (though I would need to work up to 6-8 hours of hiking), but I get nervous if the trail is too narrow next to a steep drop-off or is really rocky. The views are stunning, and I can imagine the sense of accomplishment upon completing such a massive hike. Thanks again for sharing this trip with us. #MLSTL

    1. Thank you. Most of the trail is just a constant gradual incline. However, the closer you get to the tower and the tower steps, it gets very steep. The steps up to the tower can be kinda scary if you're afraid of heights, but there is a railing so I wouldn't call it treacherous. I'm terrified of heights, and I managed.

  11. Excellent photos and descriptions (as always) of your fantastic hike, Amy.
    Thanks for taking part in the Travel Tuesday meme.


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