Discover the Epic Mountains of South Dakota: Black Elk Peak and Crazy Horse Memorial

South Dakota is home to some of the most remarkable mountains in the United States. From the highest point in the state, Black Elk Peak, to the monumental Crazy Horse Memorial, the Black Hills offer abundant opportunities for adventure and jaw-dropping views. In this post, I’ll share my ultimate guide to exploring these epic mountains and uncovering the geological wonders and outdoor activities that make the Black Hills a must-visit destination.

I have always been drawn to the allure of the mountains, and the Black Hills of South Dakota have captured my heart like no other place. The first time I laid eyes on the towering granite spires and expansive ponderosa pine forests, I knew I had discovered somewhere special. The Black Hills span over 7,000 square miles across southwestern South Dakota, rising dramatically from the surrounding prairie to elevations over 7,000 feet above sea level.

In my numerous trips to the Black Hills, I have been consistently awed by the natural beauty and rich history of this area. From hiking to the top of Black Elk Peak to marveling at the colossal Crazy Horse Memorial, the Black Hills offer a wealth of unforgettable experiences that keep drawing me back. I hope my insights and tips in this post will inspire you to embark on your own Black Hills adventure.

Explore the Highest Point in South Dakota: Black Elk Peak

No visit to the Black Hills is complete without summiting Black Elk Peak, the highest point in South Dakota at 7,242 feet above sea level. Located in the Black Elk Wilderness area of Custer State Park, this granite mountain offers a challenging but rewarding hike to the top.

The most popular route to the summit is the Black Elk Peak Trail #9, a strenuous 7-mile round-trip hike that gains over 1,500 feet in elevation. The trail begins at Sylvan Lake, winding through dense forest and rocky outcroppings before reaching the bare rock slopes near the peak. At the summit, you’ll find a historic stone fire tower built in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which offers panoramic views of the surrounding Black Hills.

To fully appreciate the Black Elk Peak hike, I recommend starting early in the morning to avoid crowds and afternoon thunderstorms, which are common in summer. Bring plenty of water, snacks, and layers as the weather can change quickly at high elevations. Take your time at the top to soak in the expansive vistas and reflect on the spiritual significance of this mountain to the Lakota people.

As John Muir, the renowned naturalist, once said: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” Standing atop Black Elk Peak, I felt a deep connection to the land and a profound sense of peace that can only be found in the mountains.

Uncover the Majestic Beauty of the Black Hills

Beyond Black Elk Peak, the Black Hills are filled with countless other natural wonders waiting to be explored. The region is characterized by towering ponderosa pine forests, clear mountain lakes, and dramatic granite spires that rise abruptly from the surrounding plains.

One of the most iconic areas of the Black Hills is the Needles Highway, a 14-mile scenic drive that winds through a maze of granite pinnacles and tunnels. The highway gets its name from the needle-like rock formations that line the route, some of which soar over 300 feet tall. Along the way, be sure to stop at the Needle’s Eye Tunnel, a narrow passageway carved through a massive granite spire.

Another must-see destination in the Black Hills is Sylvan Lake, a stunning alpine lake nestled among towering rock formations. The lake offers opportunities for swimming, kayaking, and fishing, as well as hiking trails that lead to breathtaking overlooks. For a unique experience, rent a paddleboat or take a guided horseback ride around the lake’s perimeter.

Black Hills DestinationHighlights
Needles Highway14-mile scenic drive, granite pinnacles, tunnels, Needle’s Eye
Sylvan LakeAlpine lake, swimming, kayaking, fishing, hiking trails

Embark on an Ultimate Adventure with Hiking, Biking, and Camping

For outdoor enthusiasts, the Black Hills offer an endless array of adventures. With over 450 miles of hiking trails, 800 miles of motorized trails, and 175 miles of mountain biking routes, there’s something for every skill level and interest.

One of the most popular hiking destinations is the Black Elk Wilderness, a 13,426-acre area that encompasses Black Elk Peak and several other scenic trails. The wilderness is known for its rugged beauty, abundant wildlife, and opportunities for backcountry camping. Be sure to obtain a permit before setting out on an overnight trip and follow Leave No Trace principles to minimize your impact.

For mountain bikers, the Black Hills offer some of the best riding in the country. The Centennial Trail is a 111-mile route that traverses the length of the Black Hills, offering challenging climbs, exhilarating descents, and stunning views around every corner. Other notable trails include the Deerfield Trail System, the Buzzards Roost Trail, and the Victoria Lake Trail.

As an avid hiker and mountain biker, I have explored many of the trails in the Black Hills and am always amazed by the diversity of landscapes and the sense of solitude that can be found just a short distance from the road. Whether you’re seeking a leisurely stroll or an adrenaline-pumping ride, the Black Hills have a trail for you.

Witness the Grandeur of Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore

No visit to the Black Hills would be complete without witnessing the monumental sculptures of Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. These massive works of art are testament to the skill and vision of their creators and offer a glimpse into the complex history of the region.

Crazy Horse Memorial, which has been under construction since 1948, depicts the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse astride his horse, pointing to the horizon. When completed, the memorial will stand 563 feet tall and 641 feet long, making it the largest mountain carving in the world. Visitors can learn about the history and culture of the Lakota people at the on-site museum and cultural center.

Just 17 miles away, Mount Rushmore National Memorial features the 60-foot faces of four U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. The memorial, which was completed in 1941, attracts over 2 million visitors each year and offers hiking trails, ranger-led programs, and a scenic drive along the Presidential Trail.

Standing at the base of these colossal sculptures, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe at the sheer scale and artistry of the work. The memorials offer a unique perspective on the complex history of the American West and the ongoing struggles of Indigenous peoples to preserve their land and culture.

Explore the Scenic Wonders of Badlands National Park

Just east of the Black Hills lies Badlands National Park, a 244,000-acre wilderness area known for its striking geological formations and abundant wildlife. The park’s landscape is characterized by towering spires, deep canyons, and multicolored rock layers that reveal millions of years of geological history.

One of the best ways to experience the Badlands is by driving the Badlands Loop Road, a 39-mile scenic byway that winds through the heart of the park. Along the way, stop at overlooks like Pinnacles Overlook and Yellow Mounds Overlook to marvel at the otherworldly landscapes and spot wildlife like bighorn sheep, bison, and prairie dogs.

For a more immersive experience, venture out on one of the park’s many hiking trails. The Door Trail is a short, 0.75-mile route that leads through a maze of towering rock formations, while the Notch Trail is a strenuous 1.5-mile hike that involves climbing a log ladder and traversing a narrow ledge to reach a stunning viewpoint over the White River Valley.

As I stood on the edge of a towering cliff in the Badlands, watching the sun set over the rugged landscape, I was struck by the raw beauty and power of the natural world. The park is a testament to the enduring forces that have shaped our planet over millions of years and a reminder of our own insignificance in the face of geological time.

Experience a Memorable Vacation in the Resort Community of the Black Hills

In addition to its natural wonders, the Black Hills are home to a thriving resort community that offers a range of accommodations, dining options, and attractions for visitors. The towns of Keystone, Hill City, and Custer serve as gateways to the region’s many parks and monuments, offering a variety of lodging options from cozy cabins to luxury resorts.

One of the most popular attractions in the Black Hills is the 1880 Train, a vintage steam locomotive that takes passengers on a scenic 20-mile round-trip journey between Hill City and Keystone. Along the way, the train passes through dense forests, crosses over wooden trestles, and offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains.

For a taste of the Old West, head to Deadwood, a historic gold mining town that has been lovingly restored to its 19th-century glory. Walk the streets where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane once roamed, try your luck at one of the town’s many casinos, or take a guided tour of the Adams Museum to learn about the town’s colorful past.

One of my favorite memories from my trips to the Black Hills was sitting on the porch of a rustic cabin, sipping a glass of local wine and watching the sun set over the mountains. The resort community offers a perfect blend of natural beauty, outdoor adventure, and creature comforts, making it an ideal destination for a memorable vacation.

From the towering peaks of the Black Hills to the rugged canyons of the Badlands, South Dakota’s mountains offer a wealth of unforgettable experiences for visitors. Whether you’re seeking adrenaline-pumping adventures, awe-inspiring vistas, or a glimpse into the region’s rich history and culture, the Black Hills and Badlands have something to offer. So pack your bags, lace up your hiking boots, and get ready to discover the epic mountains of South Dakota for yourself!

Photo of author

Paul Samis