Little Devils Tower (7-7-19)
Little Devils Tower is a place I discovered, almost by accident, the better part of a decade ago and have been longing to return to ever since. A high rocky summit in the Black Elk Wilderness of South Dakota's Black Hills, Little Devils Tower rises to an elevation of 6,971'. Though it's not the highest peak in the area, it's close...and its position between Black Elk Peak (South Dakota’s highest) to the north and the famed Cathedral Spires just to the east provide it with what I'm sure is one of the finest views in the area. The best part…the beauty doesn’t come at the cost of an extremely long or difficult hike, the last short scramble to the summit being the only notable exception along the entire route. There are two options for starting points. The first is the one I used back in 2011, a small gravel parking area located about a half-mile (by trail) east of neighboring Sylvan Lake. You can also begin from Sylvan Lake itself adding an extra, relatively easy, mile of walking to the hike. It was Sylvan Lake that I had decided to embark from to hike Little Devils Tower on this trip.
Sylvan Lake is a spectacularly beautiful little body of water with high cliffs rising directly from the shore. There’s a small beach and numerous picnic tables surrounding it. It also serves as the primary trailhead for hikers headed for Black Elk Peak. Needless to say, Sylvan Lake gets extremely busy during the summer months. The good news is, that despite the crowds surrounding the lake, relatively few head in the direction I’d be heading this day. Case-in-point, we ended up sharing the summit of Little Devils Tower with about a half-dozen people while just across the way countless tiny dots could be seen scurrying all over Black Elk’s upper slopes. The trail departs from the upper end of the large parking area at Sylvan Lake. There are no signs to designate the trail but it is well-marked with blue blazes. The route begins with an easy ascent through a large grove of ponderosa pine before breaking out into the open alongside huge jumbled cliffs, typical of this area. The trail rises for about a quarter-mile, dips slightly, rises again and the drops to the Little Devils Tower Trailhead I mentioned earlier. It’s a good half-mile warm up for what lies ahead.
Departing the Little Devils Tower Trailhead, the route now levels off for a bit as it continues alongside the cliffs through a beautiful forest of mixed aspen and spruce. Eventually the trail does begin gaining elevation again but it’s at a very gradual pace. Just over a half mile past the Little Devils Tower Trailhead the path enters a huge grassy meadow backed by an almost unbroken wall of high, jagged cliffs. It’s a beautiful spot and a great place to take a quick break…the climb gets a bit more difficult from here. Leaving the meadow the trail now has its sights set on the ridge crest about 4/10-mile east. The ascent isn’t all that steep but, compared to what has come before, it’s noticeably harder. On the upside, gaining elevation means that the first long-distance views begin to open up…particularly back down the valley from which the trail climbs. Before long the winding ascent ends at the open crest, the trail bears left, and within a few feet you’ll see the clearly marked Little Devils Tower Trail breaking off to the left.
Turning here, the route now ascends an open ridge covered in small pine saplings and the remaining debris of the older forest decimated a decade ago by the accursed Mountain Pine Beetle. In fact much of the open area along the trail, even up to this point, is also due to the removal of infested trees in the last decade. Of the nearly 20,000 ponderosa pines removed from the Black Hills, a majority were harvested in this area. The trail maintains an easy to moderate uphill grade as it approached Little Devils Tower…the summit of which can now be seen ahead for the first time. The famed Cathedral Spires also appear to the east, just beyond the ridge. Soon the trail cuts into a narrow slot in the summit cliffs, and this is where things get interesting. If conditions are wet or icy, DON’T attempt to go farther…the rest of the route involves steep scrambling up bare rock. The start of the final climb to the top begins where blue arrows, painted on the cliff face, point you up a narrow crack in the rock. This first steep pitch is short and the trail now emerges onto an open rocky shoulder. Keep watching for blue trail markers on the rocks to stay on track. The next section pretty much ascends straight up a long, moderately-steep, sloping open rock face. Make sure to take a minute to enjoy the view of the Cathedral Spires opening up to the east…it’s just a taste of the scenic goodness which now lies just a short distance above. The final scramble to the summit involves another steep climb up a narrow crack in the cliffs.
The summit of Little Devils Tower is completely open, fairly broad, and very uneven. Stunning panoramic views open up in every direction but you have to wander around a bit to see everything. Dominating the northern skyline is the massive and rugged Black Elk Peak, rising to 7,242’, the highest point in South Dakota. To the east are again the famous Cathedral Spires, huge fingers of stone erupting from the forest below. A keen eye might pick out a small, rectangular rock peak rising in the far distance between Black Elk and the Spires. Believe it or not, you’re looking at the backside of Mount Rushmore. To the south the views are a bit less dramatic, though no less beautiful, with the pine-covered ridges of Custer State Park extending out to the far horizon. If you’re anything like me, the summit of Little Devils Tower is a place you’ll struggle to depart from. However, all good things must come to an end as they say, so eventually it’ll be time to head back. Be careful, once again, descending the open ledges below the summit. Returning to the main trail simply retrace your steps. It’s mostly downhill on the way back, with the exception of the minor climb between the Little Devils Tower Trailhead and Sylvan Lake.
This is an exceptional short hike. Just difficult enough to make it feel adventurous, yet not so long or rugged to place it out of reach for most, the trek to the top of Little Devils Tower should definitely be on your itinerary during a visit to the Black Hills. Ever since my first visit it was a place I knew I needed to someday return to…hopefully to share the experience with my sons as well. This hike was the realization of that dream, making it all the more special for me personally. All that said, let’s get to the hike shall we? It’s my privilege to share with you what has to be one of South Dakota’s premier short dayhikes…the hike of Little Devils Tower from Sylvan Lake…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 43.846221, -103.559221
Route Type: Out-and-back Difficulty: HARD (due to exposed summit scramble) (Petzoldt Rating: 6.00)
Hike Length: 4.0 miles Hike Duration: 2:00
Trailhead Temp: 75'F Trail Traffic: 25-50 people
Min. Elevation: 6,200' Max. Elevation: 6,971'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,000' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 500' (approach only)
Trails Used (blaze color): Cathedral Spires/#4 (blue), Little Devils Tower/#4B (blue)