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Black Elk Wilderness

Black Elk Wilderness

Black Elk Wilderness

Page Type: Area/Range

Location: South Dakota, United States, North America

Lat/Lon: 43.87389°N / 103.51971°W

Object Title: Black Elk Wilderness

Elevation: 6000 ft / 1829 m


Page By: panhandletrails

Created/Edited: Jul 31, 2009 / Nov 4, 2013

Object ID: 535476

Hits: 9014 

Page Score: 76.66%  - 7 Votes 

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Harney Peak 2008
Harney Peak's summit lies in the Black Elk Wilderness
The Black Elk Wilderness is a 13,426 acre area at the center of the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve. Precambrian rock formations, consisting of granites, slates, and schists, form the central core of the Black Hills. Harney Peak, the most prominent landmark in the Black Elk Wilderness, is an example of this. There are not many other prominent landmarks actually within the boundaries besides Harney Peak and Elkhorn Mountain. However, several prominent Black Hills landmarks and features border the wilderness. Those would include Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Cathedral Spires, Horsethief Lake, and Sylvan Lake. The Wilderness is an incredibly beautiful area of towering granite columns, small streams, and thick forests of ponderosa pines, spruce and aspen.

History of the Black Elk Wilderness

Granite formation in the wilderness
A small granite formation near Horsethief Lake
The Black Hills were inhabited by many Native American tribes in ancient times, including the Ponca, Kiowa Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kiowa, up to the late 1700's, when the smallpox epidemic broke the hold of the Arikara tribe. After that, the Sioux tribe moved into the Black Hills. The mountains were considered sacred to the Native American tribes. They gave the area the name "Paha Sapa", meaning "hills that are black". The Black Elk Wilderness was named in honor of the Oglala Sioux holy man, Black Elk.

The wilderness was first established as part of the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, in 1920. In 1980, the Colorado Wilderness Act was passed by congress, establishing the Black Elk Wilderness. The whole area is part of the Black Hills National Forest, and is managed by the National Forest Service. The wilderness is surrounded by the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and Custer State Park.


Bighorn sheep in the area
Bighorn sheep are common in the Black Elk Wilderness
Wildlife found in the Black Elk Wilderness includes mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, pronghorn, mountain lions, coyotes, and white tailed deer.

Large birds frequently seen include bald eagles, hawks, osprey, pregrine falcons, and wild turkeys. While these birds may be more obvious, another 200 species of birds inhabit the area.

Rattlesnakes are occasionally seen in the Black Hills, though not usually in the higher elevations. If bitten, please seek medical attention as soon as is possible.

Getting There

There are a number of trails in the wilderness area, so access can be from Highway 244 from the north, Highway 16A from the east, or Highway 87 from the south and west. Picking up a Black Elk Wilderness map (free) from the Norbeck Center, at Mount Rushmore, or at the chamber of commerce offices in Keystone, Custer, or Hill City, will be very helpful to your planning.

Red Tape

Custer State Park is adjacent to the Black Elk Wilderness, so you may need a state park permit, if you choose to access it from that side. No motorized vehicles, are allowed on the trails. Neither are carts of any kind, chainsaws, bicycles, strollers, or hang gliders. Pets are required to be on a leash or strict voice control. Camping is not allowed within 1/4 mile of Harney Peak. Groups over 25 are not allowed. Open fires are prohibited.

External Links

Black Elk Wilderness Boundary
The National Forest Service manages the wilderness through the Hell Canyon Ranger District. You can get more wilderness information online, including maps at:

US Forest Service

Black Elk Wilderness

For maps and more trail information, click here: Black Hills Hiking

Wilderness.net also posts information about the Black Elk Wilderness at: Wilderness.net

Other useful links:

Custer Chamber of Commerce

Keystone Chamber of Commerce

Hill City Chamber of Commerce


Camping is allowed, so long as it is not within 1/4 mile of Harney Peak. Open campfires are not allowed. The "Leave no trace" principle is encouraged for all visitors. If you prefer to camp at one of the many campgrounds in the hills nearby, please check out the latest camping information on the chamber of commerce links above.

Black Elk Wilderness Trails

Stream Crossing on Trail
The Black Elk Wilderness has quite a few great trails. Many are situated so that one can form loops or use them to access peaks. They are all well-maintained, and few are ever crowded. If you prefer solitude, Trail 9 south from Sylvan Lake to Harney Peak would not suit your interest. There are alternate routes to reach the summit of Harney Peak. Here is a list of the major trails in this wilderness:

# 2 Lost Cabin Trail - 5 miles
# 3 Norbeck Trail - 6.3 miles
# 4 Little Devils Tower/Harney Peak - 3 miles
# 5 Willow Creek/Rushmore Trail - 1.9 miles
# 7 Grizzly Bear Trail - 6.3 miles
# 8 Willow Creek Loop - 2.8 miles
# 9 Harney Peak North - 4.7 miles
# 9 Harney Peak South - 3.6 miles
# 14 Horsethief Lake Trail - 2.7 miles
# 15 Iron Creek Trail - 2.4 miles
# 16 Iron Mountain Trail - 1.4 miles
# 89 Centennial Trail - 8.9 mile section of the 111-mile trail
# 89B - Centennial Bypass - 1.7 miles

Note: Some of these trails are partly in Custer State Park, but are also in the Black Elk Wilderness. Other trails, such as # 6 Sunday Gulch Trail, the Blackberry Trail, Little Devils Tower Spur, Sylvan Lakeshore Trail, and the Cathedral Spires Trail, are all nearby, but not actually in the the Black Elk Wilderness.

Rock climbers will find many challenges in this whole area. Daryl Stisser, at the Sylvan Rocks Climbing School, advises that no one is currently permitted to guide climbing in the wilderness. So, climbing here is probably best left to those who are either already familiar with the area, or those with great expertise, who can accurately evaluate opportunities. Beginners and those relatively new to rock climbing will find a much more constructive approach by contacting the Sylvan Rocks Climbing School which operates in the area next to the Black Elk Wilderness and elsewhere in the Black Hills.

Free Black Elk Wilderness maps are available at many national forest service offices and Custer State Park offices. Please check the maps for complete details.

Wilderness Safety

At just over 13,000 acres, this is not a huge wilderness area. Nevertheless, there are still risks to hikers and climbers. Summer storms can bring hail and lightning. Heat can bring dehydration, while winter cold can threaten with hypothermia. Ticks, though small, can carry Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Poison Ivy is found in the hills, particularly along streams. Mountain lions are occasionally seen in the hills, though rarely threaten humans. Rattlesnakes exist in the hills, but are not often seen. Long ago, there were gold mines in the area. There are no comprehensive maps to show the where they all are. So, the wise visitor will stay out of them and watch out for both the horizontal and vertical entrances - sometimes covered by rotten old planks. And, of course there is always the risk of getting lost. That usually happens after dark, in storms, hiking off-trail, or when people do not check out good maps to make sure they know where they are at and where they should be going. Because of the rock and steep terrain, it is a mistake to assume cell phones will work in the wilderness. Solo hikers should not assume a cell phone will get them out of a bad situation.

Please plan your trip in the Black Elk Wilderness wisely, and then enjoy this fantastic area!


Granite formation in the wildernessElkhorn MountainIron Creek, in the Black Elk WildernessStream in the wildernessHorsethief LakeArea by Horsethief LakeView from Trail 2
Black Elk Wilderness BoundaryHarney Peak 2008Iron Creek Crossing FloodBlack Elk BoundaryWilderness center