The Black Elk Wilderness in southwest South Dakota is in the heart of the Black Hills National Forest and adjacent to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The wilderness is tucked in between Custer State Park and the shadows of Teddy, George, Abe, and Thomas. It is located approximately 25 miles from Rapid City, South Dakota.
The trail system is outstanding and has a plethora of trails that loop in different directions and provide many options for day hikes, two day hikes, and longer. Ask a backpacker what they prefer in a trail system and most will reply that they enjoy the option to walk in loops. A loop is preferable to an out and back as it is more interesting to explore new trails and terrain instead of returning over the same footsteps.
This is where the trail system in the Black Elk Wilderness rocks. There are 18 trails inside the 13,426 acre wilderness area. Some are only a mile or less and dead end at an overlook and several are five miles or longer including the 111 mile Centennial Trail.
Speaking of rocks, the scenery is outstanding. The Black Hills are highlighted by massive granite outcroppings that seem to thrust out of the ground around every bend. I have hiked the Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, and Big Bend to name a few and the views in the Black Hills are on par with any overlook in the above mentioned parks.
The highest peak in the Black Hills is Harney Peak. There is a trail that summits its peak and there is a fire tower at the top where one can see four states. The overlook is a must, but be prepared for a crowded trail as it is the most popular in the park. For those who seek solitude there are many trails where one can escape the masses.
The trailheads along 244 just west of Mt. Rushmore are a great place to start. There are several including one that accesses the Centennial Trail. I started at the Willow Creek Horse Camp and hiked the Lost Cabin Trail to the Little Devil’s Tower Trail, and looped back on the Harney Peak Trail. This is about 13 miles and covers some of the most incredible topography including the Cathedral Spires, the Needles, and Harney Peak.
For those that are looking for some more miles they can loop east on the Grizzly Bear Creek Trail and return on the Centennial Trail. This extension would increase the mileage to 21 miles. Another alternative is to take the Norbeck Trail and circle around to the Centennial Trail.
The point is that with so many linking trails there are unlimited options for any distance hike that one chooses. With Custer State Park next door and the 100 mile plus Centennial Trail it is also possible to extend the hike outside the park. For assistance, information, and maps there is a National Forest information center on U.S. 16 between Rapid City and Keystone.
The incredible part of the whole experience is it is free. There are no fees for camping in the Black Hills. Complete a backcountry permit at the trail head, so the park can monitor who is inside the park. Remember to always let someone know your itinerary, so a loved one can contact authorities if you have not checked in by a certain day.
Hike the wonderful trail system in the Black Elk Wilderness in the Black Hills National Park.
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