When passing near the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Needles east of Sylvan Lake is easily one of my favorite locations to stop and hike! In fact, it would be a shame to not stop in the Black Hills (permitting that you have the time).
One of the best hikes that I have found yet is the Cathedral Spires Trail along the Needles Highway in Custer State Park. Luckily, I had the chance to venture up to the spires again this summer, and to spend some time checking out the area!
When arriving at the trailhead, there is a fantastic parking area on the switchback-turn in the road… However, parking space is quite limited here. Depending on the time and/or day, this area could be busy with climbers, hikers, and tourists.
The Cathedral Spires Trail is part of the Harney Range Trail System. This trail system borders the north edge of Custer State Park and extends beyond the borders of the park north to Mount Rushmore and west through the Black Elk Wilderness.
The Cathedral Spires Trail can be found on the Needles Highway just east of Sylvan Lake. The trail itself is about 1.5 miles one-way with a 3-mile round trip from the parking area on the Needles Highway. As a trail runner, this was a very fun, quick jaunt into the Black Hills! Even at a casual pace, the Cathedral Spires can be a fun and enjoyable hike.
The display board at the beginning of the Cathedral Spires Trail. You can find some great trail information, geological details, and cultural history at this spot!
All trails in the Harney Range Trail System are marked with Blue Diamonds. On the Cathedral Spires Trail, these markings were especially visible to hikers such as myself.
The trail was well maintained, and most deadfalls were cleared from the trail. However, the hike is still rated “strenuous,” so be ready for an fun adventure!
Some of the first spire formations looming alongside the trail! All along the trail, even from a distance, incredible rock faces tower over the landscape.
Another picturesque formation on the West side of the trail (about .75 mi in).
Probably the only deadfall that had to be navigated when I ran the trail here.
Huge spires coming up alongside the trail! The terrain began to get significantly steeper in this section of trail (about 1 mile in).
Once navigating up the steep portion of trail, the landscape opens up into a valley between large, rocky ridges. In this valley, you can see evidence of forest management — burning, cutting, etc.
When reaching this point, the Cathedral Spires Trail intersects with Trail 4, which provides access to Harney Peak.
The directional sign indicates clearly how to remain on the Cathedral Spires trail toward the ending of the 1.5 mile trail.
Looking back down the trail after hiking away from the intersection sign. The trail was a bit washed out in these sections and significantly uneven. Troughs and other drainages are found in the trail in this area, but may be repaired soon by maintenance crews.
Looking South off of the trail toward some of the tallest, most impressive, spire formations.
Although it is often hard to tell from photos, these are the Cathedral Spires! They are extremely impressive rock formations, hundreds of feet tall!
Can you spot them now? Two rock climbers taking a rest between pitches in the crevasse between these two spires. The Black Hills and the Needles mark a famous American climbing spot with mostly traditional and some sport climbing (bolted rock).
Looking North off of the trail toward some smaller spire formations on the other side of the valley. Pretty incredible views here!
At 1.5 miles, the singletrack opens up to a wide area that marks the terminus of the trail. When you reach this point, there are no connecting trails or opportunities for official hiking, although many folks tend to explore the area surrounding the terminus for quite some time.
Pretty obvious with a sign such as this, eh? 🙂
View off the “backside” looking East over the Black Elk Wilderness.
Monument plaque next to the trailhead and a distant overlook of the first spires.
Plaque dedicating land to preservation and human benefit. This inscription is one of the most meaningful that I’ve seen in some time: “This site possesses exceptional value as an illustration of the nation’s national heritage and contributes to a better understanding of man’s environment.”
Overall, this hike was a short, but incredibly scenic venture into the depths of the Black Hills. I would recommend that anyone who has time to spare should take a drive down the Needles Highway to enjoy the spectacular views and amazing side-hikes in the area! The Cathedral Spires Trail is a hike that I will remember forever due to its incredible scenery, unique natural environment, and wide views of the Black Hills.
Cathedral Spires Trail Information
Location of Trailhead: 2.5 miles east of Sylvan Lake on Needles Highway (fee area).
Length: 1.5 miles to Cathedral Spires (one way)
Details: Features the Cathedral Spires/Limber Pine Area, a Registered National Natural Landmark. Cathedral Spires trail intersects with Trail 4 and can provide access to Harney Peak; however, the trail itself (Trail 4) is a one-way trail.
For more information on the Black Hills National Forest Trails:
Hell Canyon Ranger District
“Walk softly… To protect our resources, it is important to recreate responsibly. Take responsibility for leaving no trace of your visit and keep Custer State Park and Black Hills National Forest beautiful.”