We hadn’t been to Custer State Park for many years. For those not familiar with the Black Hills of South Dakota, you are likely under the impression that you only go to this area to see Mount Rushmore or the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. But there is so much to see and do in the Black Hills. There are five national park sites in the area, for example.
But perhaps the best park in the Black Hills is Custer State Park. The park contains gorgeous scenery, wildlife galore, and lots of opportunities to explore! Sylvan Lake is so picturesque and lovely, the Needles Highway is jaw-dropping, and the bison are majestic and beautiful. I will go so far as to say that I cannot understand why Custer State Park is not a national park. It’s that amazing.
Discovering the Sunday Gulch Trail By Accident
With the pandemic bearing down on us, we decided to embark on a road trip from our home state of Minnesota to visit state and national parks in North Dakota and South Dakota. You can read more about our hike on the Caprock Coulee Trail in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
While in the Black Hills, our original plan was to hike up to Black Elk Peak, the highest point in South Dakota. Our goal was to re-enact a photo my husband and I had taken as newlyweds on top of that peak 19 years earlier, and to add our kids to the picture as well. And, of course, to take in the stunning views from the top.
That didn’t happen.
The day we arrived at Custer State Park, the rangers informed us that, due to forest fires in the area, the only hiking trail open in the Sylvan Lake area of the park was the Sunday Gulch Trail. (This information was not on the park’s website prior to our visit.) Of course, we had done a lot of background research on the Black Elk Peak trail before we left. We knew nothing about the Sunday Gulch Trail.
We decided to give the Sunday Gulch Trail a try. Why not, since we were already there? We knew it was a little shorter trail than Black Elk Peak, just a few mile day hike, so we were equipped enough to handle it. We also knew it was going to be a busy trail, since it was the only one in the area open, so we figured we would be safe should something happen along the way (like a wrong turn or a turned ankle).
Hiking the Sunday Gulch Trail
Here is a map of the trail. As you can see, it’s a 2.8 mile moderate-to-strenuous loop trail. (If you also count the easy path to get to and from the trail from the parking lot, walking along Sylvan Lake, the total hike is more like 4 miles.) We love loop hiking trails, because you won’t repeat any scenery on your hike.
I highly recommend that you take the trail counter-clockwise, so start at the sign (pictured at the top of the post), where the star is on the above map. The reason I recommend this direction is that the first thing you encounter when you go counter-clockwise is a steep downhill on boulders. Thankfully it has rails, but it’s still pretty tricky.
We all agreed that, had we started the trail in the other direction, we would NOT have wanted to go up this boulder hill at the end of this fairly strenuous trail! The end of the hiking trail is uphill when you go counter-clockwise as well, but it’s not nearly as technical or severe as this boulder hill would be to go up. As I said, definitely go counter-clockwise around this trail!
On the first half of this trail we were serenaded by little babbling brooks with small waterfalls. It was lovely. And the scenery throughout the trail — hills, mountains, needles and spires — is truly breathtaking.
Here are some scenes from the hike.
While we may have felt a little disappointed at first about not being able to re-enact a classic photo from our younger days at Black Elk Peak, we were far from disappointed with this hike. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s funny how things sometimes work out the way they were supposed to. Black Elk Peak can wait for another day. This hike was a treat we will all remember.
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