Scenic drives are a wonderful way to see the Black Hills. But when the opportunity to hit the trail arises, take it. Every hike is a different experience. You’ll discover areas that you just can’t experience from the highway.
The trails in Custer State Park are abundant, each providing unique views and interesting terrain. I hiked Sunday Gulch with my family a couple days ago – it’s now my new favorite getaway.
Sylvan Lake Trail (on the parking lot side of the lake) starts out as a dirt path, but quickly turns rocky as you climb along the granite that backs Sylvan. Once you’ve made it to the top, be sure to pause, breathe deep, and take in the view. Which is beyond photo-worthy. Looking out across the lake will rouse your senses and tug at your emotions. Once you turn back toward the trail, your view of the lake disappears. You won’t see it again until you’ve completed the loop.
What goes up must come down, and there are a lot of ups and downs on this trail. Deep steps lead downward and you’ll find yourself behind the lake. Follow the path across a footbridge and you’ll come upon a trail map, showing the Sunday Gulch Loop.
To me, the trail is comprised of three segments. The first being a descent that feels like walking into another world as the summer heat dissipates and foliage thickens. Towering spruce trees are accompanied by occasional groves of aspen, wild raspberries, lush ferns and fennel. Huge, granite formations reach skyward like grey castle walls that practically block the sun, making the sky look further away than usual. This new world is what peace and quiet look like.Hold tight to handrails as you continue to make your way down. (Be careful – the railing is loose in a few places) Don’t forget to look up and into the distance. A beautiful glimpse of national forest blankets the horizon.
After the steep descent, you’ll be treated to a walk through a heavily forested segment of the trail. The path winds through waist-high vegetation, spruce trees draped in moss and plenty of wild roses. Step carefully as you cross the stream and be prepared for more steps. Small pools lend to the damp air and algae covered rocks. If you watch carefully, you’ll likely spot a few small caverns in the canyon wall.
The third portion of the trail opens up to a landscape of pines, low brush and lots of rocks. And it’s a climb! You’ll be able to hear traffic on Highway 87, which is initially above you. But as you continue to ascend, you’ll soon be looking out and across to the highway and will be able to see vehicles disappearing into Hood Tunnel, then reappearing on the other side.
To the northeast, Harney Peak is visible, along with another panorama of national forest that spans for miles and miles. And if you hear voices overhead, just look up. This is a popular area for adventurous rock climbers.
The final bit of trail will drop down where you’ll once again be behind Sylvan Lake. Past the dam, and waterfall, then one last climb onto the rocks that frame the backside of the lake. The view no less spectacular than it was three hours ago.
** When you find Sunday Gulch in your guidebook, Tatanka magazine or on a map take note of the word strenuous. If you plan to hike this 2.8 mile loop, be prepared. Nothing ruins a good hike like a bad fall, a painful sunburn or hitchhiking ticks looking for a free meal. Wear supportive hiking shoes or boots with good tread – the rocks and steps are steep and can be quite slippery. It’s not uncommon for water to be running across the rocks and steps in many areas. Watch your step! Take plenty of drinking water; you’ll need it. Protect yourself from sun and insects before hitting the trail.
Watch for blue markers and arrows on trees, these will keep you on the right path and prevent you from making a wrong turn – which could connect you to a different trail, all together.