Julie United States 6 Comments

Custer State Park has a great list of hiking trails, ranging from easy, lakeshore strolls to fun rock scrambles to challenging climbs to the highest peaks. You can combine three of these trails into one loop, creating what just might be the best hike in Custer State Park.

This loop includes three of Custer’s top hiking destinations: Cathedral Spires, Little Devils Tower, and Black Elk Peak. Starting at the Cathedral Spires trailhead, this hike is 8 miles long round trip, which I realize is a bit far for some people. But if you have the time and the stamina, this hike is an awesome way to experience Custer State Park.

On our one week trip to South Dakota, this hike was one of our highlights, which is saying a lot, after many busy days visiting the Badlands, Wind Cave, Mount Rushmore, and road tripping out to Devils Tower.

In this post, get all of info you need to know to do this hike. If 8 miles is too long for you, not to worry. We also give several options on how to shorten this hike.

Let’s get started.

Please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.

Overview of the Three Trails

This hike combines three different trails into one. Since they are all located near one another and share the same trailheads, it’s very easy to combine them into one hike.

Note: These hikes, including the loop trail we describe, can be started at either the Cathedral Spires Trailhead or Sylvan Lake.

Cathedral Spires: This short, sweet, somewhat strenuous hike takes you through a wide canyon. This is where you get to see spires of granite rock, aka, the Cathedral Spires. From the Cathedral Spires trailhead, this hike is 1.6 miles round trip with just under 500 feet of elevation gain. 

Little Devils Tower: This hike is the most thrilling on the list. The top part of the climb features rock scrambling in several places. From the peak of Little Devils Tower, you are treated to panoramic views over Custer State Park.

Black Elk Peak: Black Elk Peak is the highest point east of the Rockies. Sitting on top of Black Elk Peak is Harney Peak Fire Lookout Tower, a building that is now listed in the National Historic Register of Historic Places. The view from Black Elk Peak is spectacular. From here, you can see Cathedral Spires, Little Devils Tower, Wind Cave National Park, out over the Badlands, and on a clear day, the neighboring state of Wyoming. The shortest route to Black Elk Peak is from Sylvan Lake, with a total distance of 7 miles. However, you can hike to this peak, plus Little Devils Tower and Cathedral Spires for a total of 8 miles from the Cathedral Spires trailhead (the loop described in this post).

For more things to do in Custer State Park, don’t miss our Guide to Custer State Park. Learn about more things to do, how to plan your time, where to stay, and more.

The Best Hike in Custer State Park

Cathedral Spires + Little Devils Tower + Black Elk Peak

Hiking Stats

These hiking stats are for the round trip loop, starting and ending at Cathedral Spires Trailhead.

Distance: 8 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Total Ascent: 2,500 feet
Starting Elevation: 6,250 feet
Highest Elevation (Black Elk Peak): 7,250 feet
Length of Time: 3.5 to 6 hours

Black Elk Peak Hiking Map

Black Elk Peak Elevation Profile

Elevation Profile

Getting to the Trailhead

This hike starts at the Cathedral Spires Trailhead which is located on Needles Highway (Highway 87). This is a small parking lot as you can see in the photo below. Get here early in order to get a parking space. There are no bathrooms at this trailhead.

Cathedral Spires Trailhead

Cathedral Spires Parking Lot

Note: You can also start this hike from Sylvan Lake (details below). Starting at Sylvan Lake makes this hike longer, which is why we recommend starting at Cathedral Spires Trailhead.

Hiking to Cathedral Spires

From the trailhead, it is 0.8 miles to the end of the Cathedral Spires trail.

After a very brief descent, the trail climbs rather steeply up into the spires. The trail is steep, rocky, and you will have to hike up and over large boulders and tree roots. This part of the hike can be challenging, but it’s the most strenuous part of the entire hike, other than the final climb onto Black Elk Peak. It’s nice to know that you get one of the hardest sections of the hike over with very early in the day!

Cathedral Spires Hike

Rocky Trail

Cathedral Spires Trail Sign

The trail is well marked with signs like this one.

The trail turns to the right and then it is a short, gradual uphill climb to the end of the Cathedral Spires trail. In my opinion, the best view is right when you enter the canyon and I really see no need to walk the entire distance to the back of the canyon, especially with everything else you will see and do today.

Cathedral Spires

Cathedral Spires

 

End of Cathedral Spires Trail best hike in Custer State Park

View at the end of the Cathedral Spires Trail

Hiking to Little Devils Tower

Backtrack through the canyon and then take the trail to the right. This trail connects the Cathedral Spires Trail to the Black Elk Peak Trail (Trail #4). It’s a short, strenuous climb up a hill, but no boulders this time, just loose rock and gravel.

At the top of the hill you arrive at Black Elk Peak Trail #4. Turn left to go to Little Devils Tower. If you turn right, you will be hiking to Black Elk Peak, which is fine, if you prefer to do that first. However, we hiked to Little Devils Tower first, so that’s why I am describing the hike in this order.

It’s a short (0.2 mile), fairly flat walk to the start of the Devils Tower Trail. Turn right to take the trail to Little Devils Tower. The trail sign is marked with a blue trail sign and the letters “LDT” carved onto the post.

Little Devils Tower Sign best hike in Custer State Park

Little Devils Tower Trail best hike in Custer State Park

Little Devils Tower is the granite dome of rock.

It’s an easy hike to the base of Little Devils Tower and then the fun begins. There are several short sections of rock scrambling. It’s nothing too strenuous and no technical skills are required. Kids as young as 8 should do just fine. Younger kids will have a harder time here and will probably need a boost up from their parents at times. The blue-painted arrows and diamonds mark the best route up onto the peak of Little Devils Tower.

Rock Scramble Little Devils Tower best hike in Custer State Park

The view from the peak is awesome. You can look out over Cathedral Spires and the rest of Custer State Park. Snaking off in the distance are the smaller peaks connecting Black Elk Peak with Cathedral Spires. If you look closely, you can see the Harney Peak Fire Lookout on top of Black Elk Peak.

Black Elk Peak

View of Black Elk Peak

 

View of Cathedral Spires

View of the Cathedral Spires

 Little Devils Tower Hike best hike in Custer State Park

 

Retrace your steps back to the Black Elk Peak Trail (Trail #4) and go left at the fork for Black Elk Peak and Cathedral Spires.

Hiking Custer State Park best hike in Custer State Park

On trail #4, on the hike back towards the Cathedral Spires

Hiking to Black Elk Peak

The Black Elk Peak Trail (Trail #4) descends through a forest of ponderosa trees before starting its long ascent up to the summit. Once you emerge from the trees, don’t miss the viewpoint of the backside of Cathedral Spires.

In the Trees best hike in Custer State Park

Custer State Park Hike best hike in Custer State Park

Another nice view of the Cathedral Spires

The trail leaves Custer State Park and enters the Black Elk Wilderness. You will have to stop and fill out a permit to enter the wilderness. Permits are provided and there is no additional fee to pay. I recommend bringing along a pen, just in case one is not provided with the permits.

Black Elk Wilderness

Black Elk Wilderness Registration

 

The trail steadily climbs up to Black Elk Peak. It’s not too bad, just a constant, uphill walk. Once you get near the summit, the trail gets steeper and the winds get stronger. You know you are getting close once you reach a fork in the trail…stay to the left to continue by foot (the trail to the right is for horses). 

Black Elk Peak Trail

 

Then, it’s just one last steep hike. The final climb is up a series of stone and metal staircases as you enter the Harney Peak Fire Lookout.

Harney Peak Lookout Stairs

 

You can enter the Harney Fire Lookout building. There is a terrace with great views across Black Elk Peak and Custer State Park. You can also climb to the top of the tower for a slightly different view.

Harney Peak Fire Lookout

Hike Black Elk Peak

Black Elk Peak View

Looking east from Black Elk Peak

 

Harney Peak Fire Lookout Building

View from Black Elk Peak

 

We hiked out across the peak for views back of the tower. On the day we did this, it was very, very windy and we kept getting blown around. But what a view! And what an awesome hike!

Best Hike Custer State Park

About Black Elk Peak

Until recently, this peak went by the name “Harney Peak,” but there is a lot of important history behind this name.
 
This mountain peak is sacred to the Lakota Sioux. They called the peak Hinhan Kaga, or “owl maker” and Hehaka Sapa, or “elk black.”
 
In 1855, the name was changed to Harney Peak, in honor of US General William S. Harney, who led a military expedition that massacred Lakota Sioux warriors, women, and children in the Battle of Blue Water Creek in Nebraska. For decades, the Sioux tried to get the name changed, since Harney massacred their people.
 
In 2016, the name was changed to “Black Elk Peak” in honor of Black Elk, a noted medicine man.

To get back to your car, retrace your steps.

Shorter Versions of this Hike

Option #1: For Thrill Seekers

Distance: 3.3 miles | Total Ascent: 1,200 feet | Time: 2 to 3 hours | Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous

If you like the idea of a short hike that’s not too challenging but offers amazing views with a bit of rock scrambling, we recommend the Cathedral Spires + Little Devils Tower combo.

From the Cathedral Spires Trailhead, hike and scramble up Little Devils Tower and enjoy the view. On the way back to your car, add on the super short spur trail to Cathedral Spires.

Option #2: For Peak Baggers

Distance: 6.9 miles | Total Ascent: 2,200 feet | Time: 3 to 5 hours | Difficulty: Strenuous

If you like the idea of hiking to the highest peak in the park, with the added bonus of hiking through a very unique landscape, we recommend the Cathedral Spires + Black Elk Peak combo.

From the Cathedral Spires Trailhead, hike to Black Elk Peak and enjoy the view. On the way back to your car, add on the super short spur trail to Cathedral Spires.

Starting at Sylvan Lake

You can also hike this loop from Sylvan Lake. The advantages of starting here are more parking and the chance to use the restroom before and/or after the hike. The disadvantage of starting here is that the hike will be slightly longer.

Starting at Sylvan Lake, the round-trip hike to Black Elk Peak, without adding on Cathedral Spires or Little Devils Tower, is 7 miles.

Two trails lead to Black Elk Peak from this trailhead: Black Elk Peak Trail #4 and Black Elk Peak Trail #9. Both are a very similar distance, but if you want to add on Little Devils Tower and/or Cathedral Spires, you must take Trail #4.

The spur trail to Little Devils Tower adds 0.8 miles round trip. The spur trail to the Cathedral Spires adds 1.2 miles round trip. Adding all of this up, the hike Black Elk Peak + Little Devils Tower + Cathedral Spires is 9 mile round-trip hike.

You could do one big loop, hiking Trail #4 to Little Devils Tower and Cathedral Spires, then continue to Black Elk Peak. Return to Sylvan Lake on Black Elk Peak Trail #9. I don’t have hiking stats for this, since we did not hike Trail #9, but if you do this and want to share your experience, you can do so in our comment section below.

Before you go, get updated trail and park conditions on the official Custer State Park website.


Doesn’t this look like the best hike in Custer State Park? If you have any questions about this hike, or if you want to share your experience, let us know in the comment section below.

More Information for Your Trip to South Dakota:

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Custer State Park Hike

 

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Comments 6

  1. Hi. I’m tempted by the walk you outline. However, I would do the loop via Trail 9 (which other guides say is 3.5 miles one way). Given that, if I were to start on Trail 4 at Sylvan Lake and take the trail to Little Devils Tower and the BEGINNING of Cathedral Spires (where you suggest that has the better view) then returning to Trail 4 to get to the Black Elk Peak and back along Trail 9 to Sylvan Lake, how many miles would that be?

    1. Post
      Author

      Our trail measurements were based off of the GPS devices we were using…we had a Garmin GPS, a Garmin Fenix watch, and an Apple Watch, and these all gave very similar distances, which we used to write this post. The trail sign at Cathedral Spires says it is 2.2 miles out and back. Our devices all measured this around 1.6 miles. I say all of this because the measurements I’m about to give you are a combo of the park data and our GPS data, since we did not hike Trail #9.

      The loop you describe adds up to just under 8 miles: 1.3 miles on Trail #4 to Little Devils Tower, 3 miles to Black Elk Peak (including the spur to the Cathedral Spires viewpoint), and 3.5 miles on Trail #9 back to Sylvan Lake.

      If you do this loop and have some sort of GPS device, I would love to know what you get as the full distance for this loop. It’s a great alternative to what we describe, since you get different views throughout the entire hike.

      Cheers, Julie

      1. Hi Julie,

        Thanks for the guidance. Yes. I thought it would be about the same mileage. I’m also assuming that, given that I’m in my mid-50’s and a daily walker on the flat, I’ll probably be stopping a fair few times so I’m thinking it’ll probably be a 5-6 hour walk including breaks, which isn’t bad; it’s an all day walk!

        Yes. I’ll definitely be having a GPS device with me; I have my smart phone and smart watch with a step and mileage counter so, I’ll bookmark this page and when I’m done, I’ll let you have an accurate count.

        Regards,

        Anthony Armstrong

        1. Post
          Author
  2. Thank you for all your info & photos! Planning a big 4 week road trip out west this summer and your info is invaluable. And I use your links if I decide to stay somewhere you suggest to keep you going! We love to travel so I’m sure I’ll keep using your site.

    On our trip we are staying in a Sylvan Cabin the night prior and then following day exploring Custer. Looking at hiking the Cathedral Spires and Devils Tower trails only then return back down to the parking lot. I’ve seen a few other articles stating the Cathedral Spires #4A trail is One-Way only? Maybe this info is out of date on other websites? Just want to make sure we can get back to our car:). Thanks, Regina

    1. Post
      Author

      I did a little research and I see what you mean. There are 2 websites that refer to the Cathedral Spires Trail as a one-way trail (the South Dakota game fish and parks website and a Black Hills website). Referring to it as a one-way trail is misleading. This spur trail dead ends at the Cathedral Spires and because of this, you have to turn around and hike back out the same way you came. It’s impossible to continue straight or you would literally fall off of a cliff.

      At first, I thought maybe they made the traffic one-way because of Covid, but I highly doubt that. We were in South Dakota when Covid numbers were higher than they are now and there was two way traffic throughout the trails in Custer National Park. So, you should be fine. Have a great hike! Cheers, Julie

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