The Sunday Gulch Trail: Grasping in the Gulch

What were we grasping, you ask? Handrails! The decent down Sunday Gulch is steep, uneven … and exciting. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I could have called this post “Gasping in the Gulch” as this was to be the most elevation I would climb since summiting Mt. Everett in Massachusetts in the fall of 2020, and I was still pretty out of shape. There was plenty of gasping, but why focus on that?

Our trip down Sunday Gulch began at 9:40 on a Friday morning. The first four-tenths of a mile were familiar ground – the surreal west shore of Sylvan Lake (read here). We followed the gravel path, slipped through the fissure in the rock wall, and clomped down the staircase behind the lake. The Sunday Gulch Trail looked unassuming from the trailhead, a level dirt path snaking off into the Black Mountain Hills of Dakota. Moments later, however, we were descending sharply, occasionally via concrete stairs, but more often down boulder-laden crevasses that looked like the secret land where ankles go to die. Fortunately, the good people at Custer State Park provided copious ankle-saving handrails throughout the descent. The nimble hiker (at 57, I still consider myself to somewhat fit that description) will navigate much of this first section without need of these rails, but there were places where the path pitched over a boulder and, sans rails, the traverse would have become a treacherous, downward scramble. It is tempting, as you descend, to look almost exclusively down at your feet. This is a wise choice, and the safe choice, but don’t forget to stop whenever you can to gaze around at the amazing topography.

That first section is an exhilarating descent through towering granite. Threading our way in and around bus-sized boulders we had often had a view down the gulch and out over Custer State Park. Behind us, grey stone thrust upward to heights of fifty feet or more. Moss covered the rocks closest to the creek, and pines rose from the spaces in between. We lost 550 feet in that first mile and reached the bottom with ankles intact.

There was a short section where we traipsed through the forest on level trail, crossing tiny rivulets via wooden plank bridges. This section was all too short, for no sooner had we reached our low point in the gulch than we crossed the creek and began to climb. There were many ups and downs as we followed the trickle of water northeast from Sylvan Lake. For a time, we navigated a narrow canyon between massive boulders and towering rock formations. We passed small waterfalls and crystal clear pools, while wildflowers peeked out from between rocks and at the bases of trees. Patches of marble-sized hailstones nestled in the shadows among pine needles, contrasting sharply with the verdant, summer foliage. At the two-mile mark, we turned southwest and began to clamber out of the ravine.

The climb up and out of this happy hollow was dry and often steep. We left behind the lush creekside undergrowth for open hillside covered in pines. The trail grew dusty under a nearly cloudless sky, and Bunchberry and vetch were replaced with stonecrop and paintbrush. Now and then, when the tree cover broke, we were treated to views over the gulch. As we climbed higher, the views stretched over the Black Hills, fading to blue paper cut-outs as they neared the horizon. The trail stretched southwest for three-quarters of a mile before turning back east toward Sylvan Lake.

We rambled through more massive rock formations as we tracked back toward the trailhead, but this time on level ground. That gave us leeway to spend more time gawking at our surroundings and less time staring at our feet. We crossed a simple, wooden bridge and found ourselves at the base of the stairs leading to the narrow fissure. Moments later, we strode alongside the singularly splendid Sylvan Lake.

Sunday Gulch is a terrific use of a few hours. This hike delivers in so many ways: rigor, beautiful views, diverse topography, beautiful lakes, waterfalls, wildflowers – I could go on, but those are the main points of interest. Had we not hiked around Sylvan Lake the day before, it would have been a no-brainer to incorporate that circuit into our Sunday Gulch hike. I have sung the praises of Custer State Park in my two preceding posts (read here and here) and will continue to do so. As of this writing 5,197 TripAdvisor users rated this park “excellent”, compared with 745 “very goods” and negligible lower ratings, most of which were the usual ill-informed complaints that the wildlife wouldn’t comply with their wishes. Whatever. Go there and hike Sunday Gulch, but if you’re the type to post a one-star review because you fell down, for gosh sakes, use the handrails! ♦

Date: July 8, 2022
Location: Custer State Park, SD
Trailhead: 43.847444, -103.566425
Distance: 3.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 707 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

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.

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