Black Elk Peak – Keystone, South Dakota - Atlas Obscura

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Black Elk Peak

The highest point in South Dakota contains the ashes of Valentine McGillycuudy, the "Holy White Man." 


“I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world,” the Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk was quoted as saying from Harney Peak, the highest point in South Dakota at 7,231 feet above sea level.

The view from the peak is as expansive as it is stunning, and it has been marked with a stone tower as well as the grave of the first white man to mount the summit. The stone tower was built in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and was used as a fire tower until 1967, commanding a wide view of the surrounding Black Hills.

The tallest mountain between Colorado’s Mt. Elbert (14,440 ft/4401m) and Spain’s Mt. Aneto (11,168 ft/3,404 m). Harney Peak was renamed Black Elk Peak on August 11, 2016, by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.)

Two plaque marks the tower’s history and another the interred ashes of Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, a friend of Crazy Horse and the first white man to climb the peak. McGillycuddy’s plaque reads: “Valentine McGillycuddy, Wasicu Wacan.” The latter phrase is Lakota for “Holy White Man.”

Many trails lead to the summit, with the easiest and most popular being Trail #9 from the Sylvan Lake Day Use Area in Custer State Park. This very scenic trail winds three miles through ponderosa pine forest and granite spires allowing for spectacular views until reaching the summit, one can take in the view of all the land below. In order to avoid covering the same ground twice, many hikers choose to take Trail #9 one way and Trail #4 for most of the way when going the other direction. Trail #4 offers the option of a spur trail to Little Devil’s Tower, with views that rival those from Black Elk Peak.

“And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.” - Black Elk


Know Before You Go

From the Sylvan Lake Day Use Area in Custer State Park, hike 3 miles on Trail #9 to the peak. There is a $20 fee to enter the state park. 

Dress in layers if you plan to hike the summit. The north side can be cold even in mid-summer. The south face can be desert hot. The summit is windy, with snow showers even in June.

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