Cathedral Spires trail: What you should know before you go
The Cathedral Spires trail is one of the most stunning hikes found in Custer State Park in South Dakota.
The Cathedral Spires trail is located south of Sylvan Lake on the state park’s famous Needless Highway. As you can guess from the name, the hike takes you directly to the Cathedral Spires, or “The Spires” as locals call them.
These Spires are stunning, and highly unusual rock formations, which were formed millions of years ago and slowly eroded into granite formations that look like claws jutting out of the landscape. Because of their unique beauty, they are a registered national natural landmark within the state park. This is definitely a trail you shouldn’t miss – not only do you go through some beautiful forested areas, but once you reach the Spires it’ll feel like you are about to climb Mount Doom with Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings.
The length of the hike is about 2.3 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 500 feet. It can take you approximately 1:30-3 hours depending on how long you stop for pictures, or how long you want to hang out in this gorgeous trail; of course, your fitness level will also determine how long you need to hike.
This trail is marked as “moderate to strenuous” on the sign that leads to the hike because there is a steep section over boulders you will need to climb – this is by far the toughest part of the hike. There are other some parts where you will encounter rocky areas and might be a bit more daunting, but all in all it shouldn’t be too hard.
Tip: In the summer, be prepared for thunderstorms which can bring along hail, lighting, and rain. Make sure you bring the appropriate clothing (more on this later on the blog).
The Cathedral Spires hike
There is a very small parking section in the beginning of the trail; many try to park on the side of the curved road to get some extra space. When you park, you’ll immediately notice rock formations at the start of the trail which will give you a small taste of what is yet to come. Trust me when I tell you that this hike is totally worth the physical effort, as soon as you reach the Cathedral Spires you will be floored! The amazing views and opportunity to explore the area will lead to some memorable photos.
Tip: Custer State Park hosts a scavenger hunt throughout its many trails and attractions. The Spires is the site of one, so keep your eyes peeled for the clue!
To follow the trail, look for the painted blue diamonds identifying the path you need to take; the diamonds can be found either on rocks or trees. At the beginning of the trail, you will have to go up a few wooden steps, which are wider than you would expect. There are also several streams crossing from the trail including one where you will need to practice your balance skills! Remember you don’t need to be a mountain goat to hike this trail, but it has some challenging sections.
After a steep climb you will arrive at the base of the Cathedral Spires where you can find the best views of this amazing rock formations. You can continue following the trail until the end where you can find a couple areas to sit and relax. For the views it’s not really worth it, as the best view/photos is when you reach the canyon and you’ll just need to turn around.
Tip: You can combine the Cathedral Spires hike with the Little Devils Tower trail and Black Elk Peak trail #4. You will find a sign indicating the branch for these hikes in the Cathedral Spires trail. You can take a short cut to Little Devils Tower cutting your time in half by using the trail fork from the Spires. We highly recommend to do so you’ll save time and lots of energy.
There is a small parking space at the start of the trail located on Needles Highway. We highly recommend that you visit the Cathedral Spires early in the morning as it can get very busy and you probably will have a hard time to find parking.
What to bring
Sturdy shoes: Make sure they are suitable for rugged terrain. Even though we hiked in sneakers and we did just fine, it’s better to bring hiking shoes especially if the weather doesn’t cooperate with you. Below are our recommendations:
Water: Essential for when you are doing any hike. The Nomader Collapsible Water Bottle is a great choice as it is sturdy and comfortable to drink from; rolls up for compact travel; and attaches to your bag for quick access.
Extra clothes: It will be colder and windier as you go up. Make sure you bring a light jacket so that you don’t feel cold when you reach the Cathedral Spires.
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