The Black Elk Wilderness area is named after the Lakota medicine man, Nicholas Black Elk. The 13,426 acres of wilderness are home to some of the best and most unique trails in the Black Hills National Forest, as well as wildlife such as mountain goats, mountain lions, and a variety of species of birds. Because of how many trails are in the wilderness area, it’s easy to make 2- or 3-day backpacking routes. This route summits the 7,244-foot Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak), the highest point in South Dakota, from the less-traveled north side and makes a loop through ponderosa pine forests. It also travels through the only designated wilderness area in the Black Hills.
Starting your overnight trip from the Willow Creek Trailhead, you’ll traverse the foothills of Black Elk Peak before pushing past Elkhorn Mountain on Black Elk Peak Trail 9 (signs may be labeled for Harney Peak Trail 9). This area makes up the core of the Black Hills. Large ponderosa pines, grassy meadows, and moss-covered rocks make up a majority of the terrain.
Set up camp anywhere along the way as long as it’s at least one-fourth mile from the summit of Black Elk Peak and the trail. After packing up camp the next day, push toward Black Elk Peak. You will be able to spot the summit because of the stone fire tower at the top. After summiting the highest point in the hills and the highest point east of the Rockies, take the five-mile long Lost Cabin Trail 2 back to the Willow Creek Trailhead. Because these trails are a bit more strenuous than the ones south of Black Elk Peak, you will easily find solitude amongst the giant ponderosas and granite rock formations.
Warning: Experienced Backpackers Only!
This trip is for an experienced backpacker as there are few places with water, large obstacles to cross, and large elevation gains on the way to summiting Black Elk Peak. Because of the mountain pine beetle epidemic, there are many downed trees that make these trails a bit of an obstacle course. You will also have to carry lots of water, as there are few sources to filter along the higher trails. If you have an athletic dog, these trails are especially fun, as pets are allowed off leash and the switchbacks and logs are practically a naturally made dog agility course.
Tips for Getting to Black Elk Wilderness
The entry and exit trailheads are both located at Willow Creek Horse Camp, which is on the south side of South Dakota Highway 244, to the west of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Willow Creek Trail makes a loop and intersects Black Elk Peak Trail 9 near the middle of the loop, so either way works, but the section that starts at the south side of the parking area has a waterfall and creek crossing. While the five miles up Black Elk Peak are fairly strenuous because of the elevation gain, the five miles down are bit less strenuous. Just remember – no camping within one-fourth mile of the trails or the summit of Black Elk Peak. You’ll need to complete a free backcountry permit at the trailhead so the United States Forest Service knows you’re on the trail in case of an emergency.
Difficulty: 4 stars
There are a variety of trails in Black Elk Wilderness, of varying degrees of difficulty. Many are not cleared of trees, and some rocks require a little scrambling at times, and some require water crossing, depending on the exact trail.
Time To Complete: 15.0 hours
There are many different routes that you can take, but allow for an afternoon, an overnight, and a few hours in the morning to get in a summit, make camp, sleep, and then hike back the next day.
Distance: 10.0 miles
Black Elk Peak, the Black Hills' highest point, can be accessed from Willow Creek Trail 9 from the North, or Lost Cabin Trail 2 from the north. Using these trails makes a 10-mile loop.
Seasonality: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter
The trails are open in the winter, but may become slick with snow and ice. The Black Hills generate strong thunderstorms in late spring and through the summer, so be alert for rapidly changing weather conditions. Spring and fall are generally the best time to go.
Dog Friendly: Yes