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"Whether hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, or rock climbing, find your  
   adventure along our roads and trails. Custer State Park's early pioneers, ranchers,  
and loggers have left behind miles of trails and backcountry roads to explore."
~ from the Custer State Park website

Jim and I both covered a lot of miles on those roads and trails in the Black Hills today.

In the last entry I wrote about his 40-mile bike ride on the Mickelson Trail from Hill City to the town of Custer, around Stockade Lake, and through part of Custer State Park.

Sylvan Lake has lots of interesting granite rock formations.

In this entry I'll cover the 8-mile double-loop hike I did with Cody in the park around Sylvan Lake, past Cathedral Spires, and up to Harney Peak, the highest point in South Dakota. It also has the distinction of being the highest peak east of the Rockies in the USA.

I'll also include photos of colorful fall scenery on the Needles Highway as I drove to the point where I picked up Jim.

Here's a map section that shows the route I drove from Hill City to Sylvan Lake, then on to the location where I picked up Jim near the question mark on the lower right. That route is highlighted in yellow:

I drew an approximation of my hiking loops in orange. Green sections = the northern part of Custer State Park. Pink = Black Hills National Forest and some private land.


Custer State Park has many miles of dirt trails to hike. Some are also open to cycling and horseback riding. You can download a park map at this link and specific trail maps at this one.

Here's a section of the Harney Peak area map, with the trails I hiked highlighted in yellow:

I was on several of the park trails today -- the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail, a bit of the Cathedral Spires Trail, and a large loop incorporating Trails #4 and #9 to Harney Peak. Harney Peak is outside the park boundary in the Black Hills National Forest and the Black Elk Wilderness.

Dogs are allowed on all of these trails so Cody was able to hike with me. Bikes are allowed around Sylvan Lake but not the other Harney-area trails I hiked today.


After I dropped Jim off in Hill City I drove south on US 385 to SD 87 AKA Needles Hwy.

This scenic road winds through thick forests and has several narrow tunnels over its 14-mile length. Its name comes from all the needle-like granite formations that are visible from the road:

I paid the $15 Custer State Park entry fee at Sylvan Lake and parked near the trailheads for Harney Peak.

The entrance fee is good for one week in the park. An annual pass is $28. If you're just driving through the park on US 16a and not making any stops you don't have to pay.


To stop and picnic, hike, camp, see the visitor centers, etc. or to travel on any of the scenic roads in the park -- the Needles Hwy., Iron Mountain Rd., or Wildlife Loop -- you need to pay the entry fee.

I think it's worth it, even for one day in the park. The longer you stay or the more frequently you visit, the more cost effective the price. We plan to come back a couple more times while we're at Ellsworth.


Cody and I did just about the same hike that we did last fall. [At the time I'm writing this, the 2011 entry hasn't been uploaded so these photos will be new to readers.]

This time we hiked clockwise the whole way around the very scenic lake first, not just the southwest side. Total distance around the lake is about a mile.

Here's a map segment from a photo I took of one of the interpretive panels, with my route marked:





The eastern and southern half of the trail is easy and wheelchair-accessible -- flat and smooth crushed rock -- for about half a mile to the far side of the lake, where there is a pedestrian bridge overlooking the lake:




The bridge is a dead end. To continue on the trail around the north side of the lake visitors need to walk through this tall, narrow rock slot on the far side of the lake:

The path between the tall rock walls is about three feet wide;
the wedged boulders are about fifteen feet above the path.

You can better see the height of the rock walls from this direction.

The boulders stuck between the rock walls remind me of the "guillotine" formation on the Appalachian Trail near Apple Orchard Mountain in Virginia. It's a little nerve-wracking to walk under them!

Once through this rock formation the trail becomes more hilly, rocky, and rooty for at least a quarter of a mile.

The Sunday Gulch Trail loop begins within a few hundred feet of the tall rock slot:

I haven't hiked that three-mile loop yet. Per the park website and brochure it is strenuous and "offers perhaps the most unique scenery of all the park's hiking trails."

With a description like that, I'll have to check it out some day.

The north side of the lake is more difficult to negotiate with a bike, stroller, or with physical limitations but you get different perspectives of the water and it's interesting to get up into the rock formations:

The two people give some perspective to the height of the rock formations.

Cody checks out the gnarly trail ahead.


The Lake Shore Trail is marked with blue diamonds through the rocks.




This would be a great place to just hang out for a while to watch birds and kayakers.

In the last quarter mile on the northeastern part of the loop, heading toward the Harney Peak trailhead parking area, the trail is more flat and smooth, perfect for picnicking and relaxing:

If you have very limited time at the park and can hike on only one trail, I recommend walking around part or all of beautiful Sylvan Lake.

Continued on the next page:  hiking up to the stone fire tower on Harney Peak, the highest point in South Dakota

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil