South Dakota: Black Elk Peak (7,244 feet)

Elevation gain: 1,500 feet
Distance: 7 miles
Bathrooms: At the Trailhead
Date: July 18, 2015
Route: Trail #9


Stone Tower on the summit in the distance



What could have been a complete disaster turned out to be a memorable, happy family event. Shortly after we pulled into the parking lot, the skies opened up. Great. None of us were prepared with rain gear; the weather reports had all suggested sun for every day of hiking. Finishing up our coffee in the SUV’s tailgate, staring numbly at the rain, we finally decided to just go for it. The up side to hiking in the steady rain for 20 minutes (even without rain gear) was that few other hikers cared to join in the fun. For that first leg, we mostly had the calm, peaceful trail to ourselves. Once the rain stopped and as the day grew later, this trail became super crowded, including a surprising number of trail runners.

Knowing in advance 7 miles would be a lot on a 5 year old, I needed to be creative in keeping her engaged. At the suggestion of a co-worker, I created a two page scavenger hunt, complete with images we would see on the hike (including the stone tower at the summit) and things she would have to count along the way. As a family, we found:

  • 22 different types of flowers (we think)
  • 13 dogs climbing the mountain, including 3 that were bigger than me
  • 7 gigantic piles of horse poop (wasn’t on the scavenger hunt; my husband just wanted to count them)
  • 6 butterflies
  • 4 chipmunks
  • 3 horses

DSCN6537The scavenger hunt was a huge hit. As an added incentive, I implemented advice from a hiker friend with daughters older than mine – bribery is best at that age… mileage in exchange for M&Ms. I’m delighted to say it worked. Every mile, I dished out a set amount of M&Ms, then awarded her with the rest of the bag after the hike. Without the scavenger hunt and M&Ms, I doubt we would have gotten her to the top and back.

Finally at the top, we all loved the stone tower (a castle, according to my daughter). Wrecked with exhaustion, she plopped herself on the floor of the castle and took a few minutes to herself dutifully completing her scavenger hunt counts. Once rested, she was ready to explore the summit, where the three of us enjoyed our lunch together on the rocks, taking in the view.

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View from our lunch spot on the summit

On our way down, hikers heading up seemed enamored with my daughter. She thought she’d be helpful by jutting her left thumb over the same shoulder with instructions to go, “that way.” Nearly everyone engaged her. A solo Millennial hiker dramatically proclaimed, “Oh, Thank God!” as he clumsily tripped over his feet toward the summit. Another hiker smiled warmly and named my daughter the official Trail Director for what was at the time, Harney Peak. Most, though, simply repeated her, asking, “That way?” To which my daughter would nod seriously. She whispered to me on an M&M break that she wanted to make sure she helped people. She didn’t want anyone to get lost. Made my heart swell with pride.

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Despite the long length, this is a nice family hike, achievable with a motivated 5 year old. I probably wouldn’t go any younger than that if you’re expecting your kids to get to the top on their own two feet. Several infants and toddlers were heading up in hiking carriers or Ergos, but I’m fairly certain she was the youngest to make it independently that day.

DSCN6549This hike might win my favorite for 2015 highpoints. The fun foot bridge stream crossing, fantastic views, and interesting rock formations stand out as highlights. Plus, the terrain is easy enough for kids and dogs to join as hiking companions. Add to that, you have the satisfaction of climbing the highest mountain East of the Rockies. At the end, we celebrated by putting our feet in Sylvan Lake, which made me fall in love with SD. What a nice end to the hike.



With so much in the surrounding area, this is a must-do vacation for the bucket list.  Grab your family (and, of course, some M&Ms) and spend a day enjoying Black Elk!


We filled several days with fun side trips. If you’d like more recommendations, let me know. Here are two musts:

Of course, Mt. Rushmore. I’m not even going to link to it because that’s obvious.

Drive the Custer State Park loop (Needles Highway) for interesting, fun rocks. Great to look at and the kids (or you) can climb on them in certain areas. It’s $15/car for a 7 day pass. You’ll need to pay that to climb Black Elk, so might as well take advantage of the rest of the park with that fee!


***I tested a Merino Wool shirt on this hike in a range of temperatures.  If you’re searching for a high performance shirt, look no further.***

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