I just want to say for starters that I really hate this hike. This may be the only hike in the Hills that I’ve actually hated. I’ve hiked St. Elmo’s Peak twice and hated it both times. And yet I’d do it again. It is probably one of the shortest hikes you can find in the Black Hills, and also one of the most vertical. And both times I’ve hiked it, I haven’t felt the best to start with, making the hike even less fun. In the space of a little under a mile, the trail gains about 1100 feet of elevation. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot to you, but it really is. Basically, it hurts on the way up and on the way down. There’s no winning on this hike, until you get to the top…and meet the frigid gale-force winds that are lying in wait for unfortunate hikers. Oh, right. There’s no winning on this hike.
Whoever built this trail was clearly looking for the shortest route to the top. Hardly a single switchback on this hike. Probably because if you started putting switchbacks in, where in the world would you stop? So basically you start at the base of this very cone-shaped mountain (easily identifiable from the highway) and trek your way straight up to the top. Miserable.
The trailhead is a little south of the intersection of Highway 87 and 16, between Hill City and Custer, on the southeast side of the road. The trail is a little hard to follow at times, since it crosses one or two logging roads, jogs a bit, and then starts upwards again. So beware of that. Other than that, it is a straightforward hike, and can easily be completed in a couple of hours, depending on how fast you feel like hiking vertically.
That said, it is gorgeous. And the views from the top are spectacular, particularly this unique view of Harney Peak. Sometimes misery is absolutely worth it.