Hike: Black Elk Peak, the highest point in South Dakota at 7,244 feet (#15 of the 50 United States, and our highest peak thus far–beating out #16 Mt Mitchell by 560 feet). This lies in the Black Elk Wilderness, in the Black Hills National Forest. This peak was formerly known as Harney Peak, named for an American military expedition commander in 1855. The named changed in 2016, when the Lakota Sioux Indians’ request to name the peak after one of their notable leaders, Black Elk, was finally approved (Source).
Goal: Getting to the summit safely, with the parents joining us, was goal #1. My parents have been doing training hikes near their home in PA, so I wasn’t too worried about their ability to make it a 7-8 mile round trip, with over 1,000 ft elevation gain/loss. We also hoped to avoid any issues with the trail maintenance closures (mentioned in yesterday’s post). We really wanted to add summit #7 to our list of completed highpoints! (The others are NC, TN, SC, GA, NY, and VT)
Gear: I wore my Smartwool shirt + socks, The North Face running jacket, Oiselle bra + pocket jogger shorts (mainly for the pocket that easily holds my phone), Altra Lone Peak shoes, plus my Osprey daypack with snacks, first aid kit, hat, space blanket, and 3 bottles of water (approx. 56 oz–I didn’t need all of it). Plus Black Diamond trekking poles and my Petzl headlamp–with fresh batteries… learned from this mistake.
Weather: Colder than I’ve experienced in months, mid-50’s at the start, then warmed up to the 70’s by the time we were done. Hence the need to wear shorts!
Pre-Hike: We had a fairly smooth day of travel on day 1 of our trip, and I had gone to bed VERY early (8 PM?!) so I woke up at 4:15, which felt to me like 6:15 east coast time–my usual wake-up time. I very quietly got ready, in our little cabin’s bathroom, then tip-toed out to the living room and had a quick snack of trail mix. At 5 AM, my parents and Joel showed up (their cabin was about a mile away, so they had the rental car). We quickly prepped our headlamps and trekking poles, left the car keys on the table for the boys, and snuck out so we wouldn’t wake them.
The Hike: The first portion was down a dirt road “shortcut” that Asher and I found the night prior on our walk. Our headlamps helped immensely, as the waning crescent moon didn’t illuminate much, and the street lights were few and far between. We walked along Sylvan Lake, through the parking lot, to the trailhead for trail #4 (after some debate if we should take trail #9–I told them that all the reviews I read on AllTrails advised taking trail #4 up, and trail #9 back).
I would normally be a little creeped out by walking in darkness (still haunted by memories of night land navigation while at West Point and in the Army). However, having my parents and brother there made it so much easier. I took the lead, with Mom behind me, and Joel and Dad picking up the rear. We joked and laughed, walking up and down the first few rolling hills with relative ease. We had a few moments where trails split off, and we needed to check that we chose the correct one. The trail blazes, blue diamonds, gave us confidence that we were on the right path.
I could tell the air was thinner, here at 6,000 feet above sea level, but our moderate pace helped even it out.
Soon, we could see the spires–the trail wound between Little Devils Tower and Cathedral Spires.
We took plenty of photo breaks, and a few water breaks too. Everyone’s good spirits made the hike very enjoyable, and go by very fast.
The trail joined up with trail #3, and we signed the self-issued permit.
Typically more technical near the top, this trail was no different. More rocks, more carefully placed steps. We saw a someone’s tent… and a gorgeous sunrise.
Finally, we reached trail #9, the final push to the summit. We saw a note about the trail closures, hanging from a directional sign, but no barriers or people working the trail yet, so we kept going.
The final half mile was not only gorgeous views, but somewhat mysterious–we had seen the tower on top of the peak from a distance, but now the hill/mountain obscured it from view. At last, we could see it again in the distance. We came across a lady hiking down, who told us it was windy, and the basement of the tower was worth checking out for its varied views.
We went up steps through a little cave…
…then more staircases that wound around, up and up.
I haven’t read/seen Lord of the Rings, but it had a very epic quest to a mysterious faraway place feel to it, that I imagine Lord of the Rings has as well.
Joel and I reached the tower, then waited for our parents.
Whew! We did it 🙂 With all our breaks, it took 2 hours and 20 minutes to reach the top. Completely worth it!
The wind whipped our hair, as we explored the tower and had some snacks/drinks.
My parents had gone for supplies in Hill City the night prior, so we had Clif Bars, and they also brought bananas. A favorite memory: Dad eating a banana, and he says “Want one?” Before I could answer, he disappears for a moment on the tower platform, then comes back with a bunch of 3 bananas. I laughed and said, did you just run to the store to get those? Since I hadn’t seen him pull them from his bag, it seemed he procured them from thin air 😛
We checked out the basement–creepy!
And took a few more pics for good measure.
Then began our journey back. We took trail #9 for a change of scenery, and it felt easier (less rocks, less ups and downs).
We made a bathroom pit-stop, then started seeing the maintenance crew, all kinds of workers carrying pitchforks and sledge hammers and other equipment. Most people we saw commented “Wow, you already went to the top! Great job going so early!”
We did feel very accomplished after hiking over 8 miles. We got back to the cabins around 9:30ish and had some celebratory beers (and I ate the leftovers from the boys’ breakfast in Hill City–they said the food was amazing but the service was awful!)
Recommend: Yes! I’d give this a 10/10–amazing views, not too strenuous but still makes you work for it, and the tower + stairs at the top make it extra special. If I haven’t already mentioned, the Black Hills are absolutely gorgeous! Go at sunrise for the most stunning scenery.
Maps: My Strava info. As usual, I forgot to stop my watch when we arrived at the summit. You can see the way back was slightly shorter.
Up Next in our High-Pointing Adventures: White Butte, North Dakota!
Up next in our vacation: Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Monument 🙂