This trail is one of our favorite hiking trails in the Black Hills. If you only have an hour, this would be my recommendation. Cathedral Spires can be accessed via a trailhead on the Needles Highway approximately 2.2 miles (10 minutes) east of Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
This trail offers beautiful vistas of the southern Black Hills at the beginning, incredible pine-aspen groves and wildflower meadows on the way up, and a spectacular up-close view of the Spires at the top.
After you spend time climbing around the Spires, you can choose to take the trail up to Harney/Black Elk Peak or head back to your car. The climb up gives a great glut workout as it’s kind of like doing a series of step-ups and lunges for 30 minutes straight. The Hiking Doggie heartily approves this hike. She was able to handle the rocky terrain, and found some stream crossings for cooling off on a hot June morning.
It’s also kid-friendly – they love scrambling up the rocks – but may take longer if you have dogs or children. Our son was 6 or 7 when he first hiked this.
Later in the summer, you can find wild raspberries growing along the trail – they’ve taken the place of trees felled by pine beetles. This trail does not allow horses or bicycles, so you will likely only meet hikers along the way.
This is one of several trails that you can take to Harney/Black Elk Peak. If you choose to continue on to Harney/Black Elk Peak, take the spur that leads west to Trail #4 off the Cathedral Spires trail (there are signs along the trail that point to trail #4. At the T-section with Trail #4, turn right/northeast until you hit Norbeck #3, then turn north/left on #3 and continue until you meet up with Harney Peak #9 S. Turn right/north on #9S and you will run into the spur that leads left/west to the Harney/Black Elk Peak firetower. There are some pretty serious stairs leading up to the firetower, but the view is well worth the climb. It’s the highest peak east of the Rockies and west of the Pyranees Mountains in Europe. Hiking to Harney from the Cathedral Spires trailhead is around 6 miles round trip, and takes us approximately 4 hours including stops to rest.
About Harney Peak/Black Elk Peak:
Harney Peak was first named for U.S. Army Commander General William S. Harney, who led troops against the Sioux in the Battle of Ash Hollow. It’s the highest summit in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, and is the highest peak west of the Pyrenees Mountains in Europe. The Harney Peak Fire Tower was constructed by the federal Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938 as a place to watch for Black Hills fires, but was last staffed in 1967 when it was replaced by Mount Coolidge to the south. A U.S. Post Office was operated at Harney Peak from 1936 to 1942, and again from 1945 to 1946, and it was touted as one of the most elevated post offices in the nation. Harney Peak was renamed in 2016 for Black Elk, a famous Oglala Lakota Sioux medicine man. It’s said to be where Black Elk received his “Great Vision” as a child, as detailed in John Neihardt’s book Black Elk Speaks. The peak is sacred to the Oglala Lakota people, and you will see strips of cloth tied to trees around the fire tower honoring the area. Some signs and trail maps still refer to the peak as Harney Peak, which is why we refer to it as both Harney Peak and Black Elk Peak.