Custer State Park, Part 1: A Morning Sampling the Sunday Gulch and Sylvan Lake Trails

Our next 3 days in South Dakota we stayed near Custer State Park in order to take advantage of the trails through the piles of boulders, clusters of pine trees, and dramatic rock spires. We started our exploration of the park by turning onto the Needles Highway and driving up the mountains toward Sylvan Lake. As we threaded our way up the switchbacks the exposed granite peaks became closer and closer until we found ourselves level with some of the highest hunks of rock. Here we spontaneously pulled over at a wide spot in the road to the enjoy the views and found ourselves on a ridge of sorts. Hoping for some views we started walking and soon enough crossed a trail, which we immediately decided to turn onto. Very soon after we began to see glimpses of tall, rocky peaks through the ponderosas before the path began crossing an exposed ridge with some of the most incredible views of the hills and valleys spread out before us. We dallied here for quite some time. The vistas encouraged us to continue even further down the trail – which we did – and allowed us to see even more of the hoodoos and rock formations. We later learned this spectacular trail was the Sunday Gulch Trail, a hike we’d been wanting to do, which made me both glad we’d gotten to walk part of it and eager to return some day and finish the rest.

From our short foray on the Sunday Gulch Trail we drove to Sylvan Lake, a dammed pool of clear water framed by the rounded granite boulders characteristic of the park. Encircled by a mile-long trail, the picture-perfect lake is positively enchanting. As we walked from broad sandy path towards the dammed rocky end the trail abruptly became an exercise in rock-hopping, then ducked through a crack in the rock, followed a stream around the backside of the formations, and finally emerged on the bare rock above the surface of the water looking east. After passing through some trees we returned to flat ground and walked through the grasses back to the trailhead. For a trail of only a mile it was an incredible walk and included multiple beautiful views.