Custer State Park’s Sylvan Lake: This Lake Can’t Be Real

When I saw Sylvan Lake, my jaw dropped. Literally. My first impression was that this could not be real. The scene was a mirror-smooth lake backed by massive formations of seemingly sculpted stone that looked every bit as if it belonged at Disney World, a secret lagoon created by a team of Imagineers. The only thing missing was a jolly-roger-flying man-o’-war. And Johnny Depp.

When I recovered from my wonderment, we set out to take a hike around this suspiciously magnificent lake. At just over one mile, this is a short and easy walk that should not be missed.

We started north along the west shore of the lake on a wide, gravel path. Expect to share this part of the circuit with many others. We barely saw them. With every step, we gawked at the lake, its crystal-clear countenance sparkling in the early evening sunlight.

Soon we reached the north end of the lake, which, to this point, could possibly be accessed by a wheelchair user. At the north end, the trail passes through the massive rock wall via a narrow fissure, barely two feet wide. I could walk normally, but just barely, and once or twice I scraped my arms as I shuffled through the craggy crevasse. When we emerged on the other side, it was to descend an earth and timber staircase that deposited us at the Sunday Gulch Trailhead and behind the lake wall. Here, the rocky rampart loomed nearly fifty feet above us, and lake water trickled down within the rents and rifts of the great stone barrier to splash down the Sunday Gulch, where we would hike the next day (read here).

As we followed the trail east, we were fascinated to discover patches of something white scattered in the brush. These turned out to be tiny balls of ice, and another hiker confirmed that it had hailed earlier that afternoon.

A rocky staircase rose through a hall of forest and stone, and we emerged on the northeast corner of Sylvan Lake. There were many small inlets on this side, each one was surrounded by grass, rock, and spindly pines. The trail weaved among massive formations, offering new terrain and varied views of the lake at every turn. The landscape opened up as we reached the southern end of the Black Hills tarn, Sylvan Lake visible through reeds and wildflowers as the trail leveled out. Moments later, we were back at the trailhead. We headed for the Sylvan Lake Campground.

Note: Sylvan Lake Campground is another gem. The campground is beautiful and serene, the toilets and showers clean, and the host pleasant. When we arrived to find the pad at our reserved site too small for the two tents we needed to pitch, the host offered us one of four campsites not available on their website. The one we selected required us to drag our gear a little further (uphill), but for our trouble we gained a very private, ridgeline site with a magnificent view over a Black Hills valley. Our two nights at Custer State Park were some of the best camping I’ve ever done.

The Canyon Cream Ale I am holding is made at Crow Peak Brewing in Spearfish, about 50 miles north of Custer State Park. It gets a solid “meh” (74 points) from Beer Advocate, but in my opinion, it paired well with this view.

Custer State Park is one of those amazing parks you might not have have heard of. It sits quietly in western South Dakota between Mount Rushmore National Monument to the north and Wind Cave National Park to the south. There’s plenty of spectacular scenery, pleasant camping, scenic drives, and exciting hikes to keep you busy. And then there’s the lake. In addition to hiking around it, you can swim, paddle boat, fish, or just relax on the shore … and it’s real – I swear! But still – let me know if you see Johnny Depp. ♦

Date: July 7, 2022
Location: Custer State Park, SD
Trailhead: 43.843817, -103.562805
Distance: 1.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 42 feet
Difficulty: Easy

BIT|Hiker acknowledges the indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Tséstho’e (Cheyenne), and the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ.

5 thoughts on “Custer State Park’s Sylvan Lake: This Lake Can’t Be Real

    • Thank you so much, Diana! Sorry you had fog, but I bet that was cool too. My wife and planned to cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge but on the morning of the whole bay was socked in with fog. We almost bailed but went ahead with the ride. It was amazing in its own way and we were glad we did!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, it was actually kind of eerie and Lord of the Rings like in the fog. I do wish we’d had views though. Cycling the Golden Gate Bridge sounds fun, fog or not!


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