The Cathedral Spires hike is relatively short, but what it lacks in distance, it more than makes up for in dramatic scenery. You’ll find yourself walking amongst towering pillars of granite, part of the Black Hills’ famed Needles rock formations, and one of the most unique geological formations in North America.
There are a couple of different ways to access Cathedral Spires. The main trailhead is located along the Needles Highway (Hwy. 87), approximately 2.5 miles east of Sylvan Lake. Alternatively, if you’re hiking Little Devils Tower (Trail #4), you can catch the spur that connects you to Cathedral Spires. It’s a nice way to tack on a couple of extra miles, and this section of trail is mostly flat.
The main trailhead, by contrast, features a gradual ascent for the first half-mile or so. You’ll have to climb over some rocks and boulders, but nothing too steep; most kids should be able to tackle this without any problems. Spruce and aspen trees intermingle with ponderosa pines, making this a particularly beautiful hike in the fall. In late September and early October, you’ll find an explosion of colors along this route.
After conquering a series of switchbacks, the trail veers sharply to the right; it’s wide open and basically flat from here to the end, roughly a mile to the east. It’s a good thing, because you’ll be so busy taking in the incredible views you won’t be able to keep your eyes on the trail. From here on out, you’ll find yourself behind the spires, their jagged peaks jutting into the sky like sharp teeth.
Be on the lookout for mountain goats, which are common in this area. You might also spot deer and, if you’re really lucky, elk. One thing you are sure to see (or at least hear) are mountain climbers; the Cathedral Spires are a big draw for those who aren’t adverse to scaling steep rock.
Before long, you’ll come to the end of the trail. You’ll know you’ve reached the terminus because there is a sign that literally says “end of trail.” This is a great spot for a picnic lunch, or at least a little quiet contemplation, as you take in the scenery before turning around and retracing your steps.
PROS: Spectacular views of the back of the spires; much of the hike is level, making it a good choice for kids. CONS: The parking lot can fill up quickly, especially during the summertime; a large stretch of the trail is open and treeless, leaving you exposed to the elements.
Insider’s tip: Come here in the fall for spectacular colors and easier parking.
The Wow Factor
The Needles—a region of eroded granite pillars, towers, and spires—are both breathtaking and iconic. They were sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s original choice for his carving of four American presidents, but the rock proved too thin to work with. Toward the end of the trail, look for a stand of about 200 limber pine trees; common from the Rocky Mountains westward, these are the furthest east you’ll find them in the U.S. and the only stand in the Black Hills. For this reason, the Cathedral Spires and Limber Pine Natural Area was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1976.
Odds & Ends
Because of its distance and relative ease, this is a great hike to tack onto a longer trek through Little Devils Tower or Black Elk Peak.
You’ll need to pay an entrance fee to access the trailheads in Custer State Park. A seven-day pass costs $20, while an annual entrance license can be purchased for $30.
There are no restrooms along the trail, so plan accordingly.
Don’t forget these essentials: Sunscreen, water, extra clothes in case weather conditions change.