It was Day 5 of our South Dakota road trip and we intended to spend the entire day exploring Custer State Park. We hiked three trails that day: Sunday Gulch Trail, Sylvan Lake Shore Trail, and Cathedral Spires Trail and drove Needles Highway. After an incredible experience, Buddy and I are sharing our Top 10 Tips for Hiking the Beautiful Sunday Gulch Trail.
First, the details. Sunday Gulch Trail is a 4-mile loop trail that is listed as moderate to strenuous. The Custer State Park Trail Mix guidebook lists the trail says the trail will take 2-4 hours. We completed the trail in 122 minutes, slightly under two hours. The trail is beautiful, and we highly recommend it!
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10 Tips for Hiking the Sunday Gulch Trail
1. Start early to beat the heat (and find parking!)
We left our cabin in Hill City at 9am and arrived at the parking lot by 9:30am. Even then, the parking lot was pretty full. We hiked on a Tuesday in July, so I imagine that the parking lot will fill up even quicker on the weekends. Get there early if you can.
Because we wanted to finish our hike before the sun reached its peak in the sky. We planned our hike so that we would finish around noon so that we could have a picnic lunch at Sylvan Lake.
2. Where to park
There are two parking lots for the Sunday Gulch Trail. One is near the Sylvan Lake General Store and the other is near the Black Elk Trail head.
We recommend parking at the Black Elk trailhead parking lot as it is closer to Sunday Gulch trailhead. The Black Elk trailhead parking lot was also less crowded the day we visited. It might be easier to find parking in that lot. But no matter which parking lot you chose, arrive early to get a spot and to avoid having to park alongside the road.
3. Enjoy the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail
The Sunday Gulch trail begins on the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail. You will have to take the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail to the Sunday Gulch trial head.
The Sunday Lake Shore Trail is an easy 1-mile loop trail. From the parking lot near the Black Elk Trail head to the Sunday Gulch Trail Head is approximately 0.5 miles on the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail.
The trail has beautiful views! This is a great option for families with younger children.
After hiking the Sunday Gulch trail, we completed the Sylvan Lake Shore trail continuing the loop where we made a pit stop at the general store before heading back to the parking lot.
All in all, Sunday Lake Shore Trail was a nice warm up and cool down to the Sunday Gulch hike.
4. Be prepared to climb over rocks, steps, and boulders
You will traverse many steps and boulders on this hike. The rocks and steps can be slippery at times. Hold on to the railing and be prepared for a climb or descent, depending on direction way you choose to hike.
“The hike had beautiful scenery, but some places are super slippery.”Buddy
Speaking of slippery rocks…
5. Be prepared to get wet
There are multiple waterfalls and streams on this trail. You may get wet. Buddy’s foot slipped in the water a few times.
Because of this, Buddy hiked the trail in his swimsuit, and I had my swimsuit under my hiking clothes, just in case. We also wore waterproof hiking shoes. Buddy wore his Kid’s Hydro H2O Hiker Sandal by Merrell. These are Buddy’s go to summer travel shoes! He has been wearing these shoes since our trip to Disney World in 2018. Each year we buy the same pair but in a larger size.
Inspired by Buddy’s shoes, I purchased the Merrell Women’s Waterpro PANDI 2. When buying new shoes for a trip, I usually wear them around town to break them in. Unfortunately, I did not have time to do that before this trip. I am happy to report that after three hikes in one day, I only had one very small blister from these shoes!
6. Look for teal diamonds
There were some instances during the hike when the path was unclear. Keep a look out for the teal diamonds that mark the trail.
7. Choose your loop: Clockwise or Counterclockwise
I had planned for us to take the trail clockwise preferring to climb up the steps, rocks, and boulders rather than going down. But I goofed! We ended up taking the trail counterclockwise descending the sometimes-slippery rocks and steps.
Choose your path based on if you prefer to ascend or descend the steps and rocks near the beginning (or end!) of the trail.
8. Bring a rain poncho
Bring a rain poncho. It rained near the end of our hike, and we were without ponchos! It was a mountain sprinkle that lasted less than 15 minutes or so. However, when it rained, it was wet and chilly. I highly recommend keeping a poncho in your pack.
9. Visit the Sylvan Lake General Store
At the end of your hike, stop by Sylvan Lake General Store. There you will find souvenirs, water, and snacks.
We bought some buffalo jerky and a key chain. We also rented a canoe, which brings me to…
10. End your hike in Sylvan Lake!
Canoes, paddle boards and kayaks are available for rent at the Sylvan Lake General Store. There is also a small beach where children and families were playing in the lake.
After much persuasion by Buddy, we rented a canoe for 30 minutes and went out on the lake. I had my reservations. As a child of the deserts this was my first time in a canoe (!). Buddy was steered the way and we had a fun time paddling around the lake. We did not get in to swim, however. The water looked cold!
“Canoeing is also a fun thing to do if you haven’t done it before.”Buddy
After our time in the canoe, we found a quiet place to eat our packed lunch that was waiting for us in a cooler in the car.
Bonus Tip: Enjoy the views!
Sunday Gulch Trail was absolutely beautiful! We stopped from time to time to time to take in the views. We event spent a few minutes filming a Movement Postcard on the trail. A few fellow hikers event stopped to watch the performance!
Have you visited Custer State Park? Are you planning a trip to Custer State Park? Let us know in the comments!
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