Picking the best trail to hike in the Black Hills is hard, really hard. The area’s landscapes vary tremendously, making the trails quite diverse. You may find yourself walking through grasslands, crossing creeks, traversing pine forests, or even scrambling over boulders. Yet no matter where you hike, you’re sure to find jaw-dropping views and little bit of history along the way.
While the Black Hills has a whopping 450 trails ready to be explored, get started with these 10 routes you don’t want to miss.
1. Sunday Gulch Trail
The Sunday Gulch Trail is a 4-mile loop that begins behind the famed outlets near Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park. At the beginning, you’ll traverse over large boulders down a valley. Towering granite spires frame views here all the way to the northern Black Hills. Don’t let the handrails and stairs fool you into thinking this trail is easy. It would be challenging to get down the valley without them.
2. Crow Peak Trail
Crow Peak Trail is a 7-mile (round trip) out-and-back located to the west of the northern Black Hills near Spearfish. Once you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with views of the Black Hills and the prairies to the east, including a great view of Bear Butte. Take a summit selfie with the elevation sign at the top then head back down to the brewery that shares a name with the peak.
3. Flume Trail
Flume Trail, a designated National Recreation Trail near Rapid City, stretches between Storm Mountain and Sheridan Lake, which both offer ample outdoor activities of their own. During the 1880s, the trail carried water from Sheridan Lake to the placer mines near Rockerville. Today, historic tunnels and parts of the flume are still visible along the trail’s 11-mile length. Although the full 22-mile round trip would wear out most, some experienced hikers opt for the additional 3-mile loop that’s accessible from the trail as well.
4. Horsethief Lake Trail
Horsethief Trail, situated behind a lake of the same name, is a genuine mountain wonderland. A hike back here makes you feel like you’re in the Pacific Northwest. Along this 3.5-mile trail, you will discover waterfalls, granite spires, mossy boulders and Old Man’s Beard dripping off some of the largest trees in the Black Hills. Horsethief Lake can be found on Highway 244 west of Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
5. Summit Trail
Bear Butte, or "mato paha" in Lakota, is an igneous intrusion – essentially a volcano that never erupted – with historic and prehistoric significance. People have discovered artifacts here dating back 10,000 years ago. Located near Sturgis within Bear Butte State Park, the Summit Trail is a 1.85-mile hike one-way and follows along the Centennial Trail. The hike can be a bit steep and strenuous in places, but the views from the top are well worth the work. On a clear day, you can see four states from its 4,426-foot summit. During your trek to the top, you’ll notice Native American prayer flags serving as a reminder of the mountain’s sacredness.
6. Cathedral Spires Trail
The Cathedral Spires Trail is a 1.5-mile (one way) out-and-back in Custer State Park that is commonly used as an approach to some of the best climbing in the Black Hills. The trail leads to Cathedral Spires, or "The Spires" as locals call them. Wandering amongst these structures, you’ll be amazed by the geology that formed the Black Hills. Look south for awe-inspiring views of the park and the prairie beyond.
7. Lover’s Leap Trail
Yet another trail nestled in Custer State Park, the 3-mile Lover's Leap Trail offers views of Cathedral Spires, Black Elk Peak and Mount Coolidge. According to folklore, a Native American woman and her lover jumped to their deaths from the summit of this hike. The trail follows a ridgeline and then descends. The route will challenge even experienced hikers with multiple creek crossings.
8. Centennial Trail
Centennial Trail, one of only two routes in the Black Hills exceeding 100-miles in length, beckons experienced hikers and backpackers from around the world. The trail spans from Bear Butte State Park in the north to Wind Cave National Park in the southern hills. Depending upon where you start, you could find yourself covering prairie grasslands, navigating the mountainous region of the Black Hills, or hiking alongside any number of creeks and streams. There are plenty of opportunities to camp along the way, but many campgrounds require reservations, so be sure to plan ahead.
9. Black Elk Peak
A list of the best hikes in the Hills wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak). At 7,242 feet, it’s the highest point east of the Rockies in the United States. The Lakota call the mountain “hinhan kaga” and regard it as sacred ground. It’s said to be the site where Lakota leader and medicine man, Black Elk received his famous vision, detailed in the classic book Black Elk Speaks.
The peak was used as a fire lookout tower from the early 1900s until 1967. Like many other historical buildings around the Black Hills, the fire tower was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Today, Black Elk Peak is used by adventurous locals and travelers alike and is one of the area’s most popular hikes. The summit can be reached from two trailheads in Custer State Park: from Sylvan Lake to the south or from Willow Creek to the north. If you’re looking for solitude and a moderate hike, head for Black Elk Peak from the north. You can also link up a hike to the summit of Little Devil’s Tower if you’re up for a challenge.
10. Little Devil’s Tower Trail
At 3.1 miles out and back, the trail to Little Devil's Tower in Custer State Park isn’t nearly as long as the hike up to South Dakota’s highest point, but the payoff is equally rewarding. The views of Black Elk Peak and Cathedral Spires, as well as the Black Hills and the surrounding prairie, perfectly cap off this short hike. To start, you’ll make your way through sub-alpine valleys and along switchbacks that wrap around granite boulders. Unlike other trails, which have been adapted for any level of hiker, a Class 3 scramble to reach the top of Little Devil’s Tower makes this hike every bit as challenging as it is rewarding.