The Cathedral Spires Trail (Trail #4A) features a unique area of the Black Hills, the Cathedral Spires and Limber Pine Natural Area, which was officially designated as a Registered National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service in 1976.
The Cathedral Spires trailhead is located in Custer State Park, 2.5 miles east of Sylvan Lake on Needles Highway (Hwy #87). This out and back type trail is 2.2 miles roundtrip and takes approximately two hours to complete. The trail also intersects with a spur to trail #4 which can take you to the Little Devil’s Tower and Harney Peak summits.
Even though it’s officially listed as strenuous, I’d personally rate the trail as easy to moderate with a small section of trail that involves some scrambling over rocks that’s slightly more challenging. The first half mile or so is mostly uphill, but the remainder of the hike levels out quite nicely.
While this trail won’t give you any big open vistas as one would see hiking other trails in the Black Hills area, you’ll get a great opportunity to see the spectacular “needles” granite formations up close and personal.
Fun Fact: the needles were the original site proposed for Mount Rushmore. The location was rejected by the sculptor Gutzon Borglum due to the poor quality of the granite and the fact that they were too thin to support the sculptures.
Near the end of the trail is a relic stand of approximately 200 limber pine trees. Limber pine generally grow in elevations at 4,000 to 10,000 feet, located from southern British Columbia to southern California. The Cathedral Spires area is the furthest east of its range and the only limber pine stand in the Black Hills. Mountain pine beetle and white pine blister rust are the main threats to its future existence.
At the official end of the trail make sure to explore the area down and around a large boulder off to the right hand side. Nice little view in that area with less foreground trees blocking the scenery.
If hiking during the busier summer months you will more than likely see rock climbers up along the spires as this location is probably one of the most popular areas for climbers in the Black Hills region. There’s also a small herd of rocky mountain goats that call this area home, so if you’re lucky you might spot a goat or two.