Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Tour Through the Black Hills

If you read my last post, you know that a couple of weeks ago I traveled to South Dakota to visit family. 

My parents and of my three siblings live in the wonderful Black Hills of South Dakota.  Every summer I return, there's one place that I always visit - Custer State Park!

Sylvan Lake

The centerpiece of Custer State Park is scenic Sylvan Lake.  Of all the lakes in the Black Hills, this one is hands down the prettiest.  Surrounded by blocky granite formations and forests, this small blue body of water is drop-dead gorgeous.  When my folks asked what I'd like to see, this place was foremost on my agenda.

Sampling the dream desserts at Alpine Inn

But for an afternoon of sightseeing one must first fortify themselves!  Before beginning our grand tour of the "hills" (as the Black Hills are affectionately called by locals) my family made a lunch stop at the Alpine Inn, located in the nearby town of Hill City.

This small Bavarian-themed restaurant serves the best German food around.  A favorite of residents and tourists alike, the Alpine Inn is always packed, even during weekday lunch hours.  Yes, the food is scrumptious, but the best part of dining here is sampling their out-of-this-world yummy deserts.  Denise and I shared a German chocolate waffle, piled high with chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup, and mounds of whipped cream. 

Lakeshore view

Bellies full to bursting, everyone needed to work off those calories.  My Dad drove to nearby Sylvan Lake, and me, my parents, sister, and daughter all rolled out of the car and made our way to the shoreline path.

Huge granite blocks line the lake

A well-graded trail follows the water's edge, encircling the entire lake.  Although a very short hike (probably about a mile in length) it packs a lot of scenery in such a small distance.  My family headed towards to the lake's dam, while I trailed behind, snapping loads of photos.

Bridge over the dam

Sylvan Lake was created in 1881, when a dam was built across steep, narrow Sunday Gulch.  A popular recreation area ever since, this place boasts boat rentals, swimming, fishing, rock climbing, a lodge and campground.  It's also the starting point for several well-known hiking trails, such as the Sunday Gulch Trail, and the trail to the top of Harney Peak (the highest point in SD).

Walking back across the rocks

The dam had a narrow bridge over top, offering visitors amazing views back across the lake, and down into Sunday Gulch.

Checking out the bridge

Of course, I had to go out on the bridge and see things for myself.

Fabulous lake view!

Yeah, the views were absolutely fabulous!  Now you can see why I love coming back here.

My family back on shore

And look - there's my family lined up along the bank.  Wonder what they're all looking at?

Couldn't pass up these neat reflections

Well....I wasn't able to tell what was so interesting.  But I did capture some nice reflections of everyone.

Climbing over the granite

Below the dam was a large crack in the rock, creating a tunnel for visitors to walk through.  One the other side was a long set of stone steps that took visitors down below the dam, into the head of Sunday Gulch.  I was really interested in hiking the trail through this gulch.  It's supposed to be very scenic.  But I'd just taken my parents up Bear Butte the day before, and they were definitely not ready for another strenuous trek. 

More wonderful lake views

So we stuck to the lakeshore.  From Sunday Gulch trailhead, we climbed up a huge granite slab.  On top was another lovely view of Sylvan Lake.

Heading around the opposite shore

From there, the dusty path wound around a field of huge granite boulders and scrawny ponderosa pines.  I could see many of these trees were brown and dying due to a bark beetle infestation that is decimating the forests here.

Grassy shoreline

Sylvan Lake was featured in the 2007 film National Treasure: Book of Secrets.  The funny part is, the movie made it appear that the lake was located directly behind Mt. Rushmore, when in reality it's about five miles southwest of the famous monument. (Oh Hollywood!)

Wonderful reflections on this side

Rounding the final side of Sylvan Lake, our path paralleled the main road and a lush grassy bank.  Afternoon light broke through partly cloudy skies, lighting up granite monoliths on the far shore, creating amazing reflections in the still waters.

The Needles highway

Returning to the car, I requested we travel one of my favorite roads in Custer State Park - the Needles Highway.  This narrow, twisty road winds through an area of tall granite spires known at "the Needles."  The road features hairpin turns, and a couple of narrow tunnels blasted straight through granite rock.

Granite spires everywhere

We stopped at an overlook called the "Needles Eye."  One of the attractions here is a very narrow one-lane tunnel.  Autos are required to honk their horns before entering, to alert any vehicles on the other side.  This system seems to work, as the short time we stopped, drivers were politely taking turns traveling through.

Narrow tunnel

If you're lucky and happen to be here at the right time, visitors will see full size tour buses squeezing their way through this tunnel.  It doesn't appear to be possible, but I've personally witnessed huge buses making successful trips, with nary a scratch.

Sadly, we missed seeing any buses.  But I did observe a group of classic Mustang sportscars, a few Harleys, a couple cars with Go-Pro cameras attached to their sides, and one vehicle with a kid sticking up through the sunroof holding an ipad, recording their journey.

Light at the end of the tunnel

After spending some time watching traffic at Needle's Eye tunnel, we loaded into the car and completed our trip through "the hills."  It was great to be back, and I enjoyed visiting some of the favorite places from my childhood.

But my sightseeing adventures weren't quite over yet.  I still yearned to see the Badlands, one of my favorite places in Western South Dakota.  Stick around for my next post - you won't be disappointed!

Sharing with:  Weekend Reflections.


  1. Wow! What a truly unique, amazing, incredible place! LOVED this post--more, more!

  2. What incredible beauty.
    Loved your post!

  3. Beautiful scenery. They last shot going through the rock caught my eye.

  4. Amazing scenery. These images are simply spectacular. It looks like such an incredible place to visit. And that German chocolate waffle? OH my...

  5. I have always wanted to visit this area and see some of these places - thanks for sharing. Pinning to my vacation board.

  6. Such a lovely tour!

  7. How gorgeous, Linda! And the dream desserts...mmmm. :)

  8. We are planing on doing Harney Peak in just about 1.5've got me so excited!

  9.'s the thing: I read this post and adored all your photos, but when I got to the comments spot at the bottom, all I could think about was that waffle. Wow, it looks good!

  10. Totally gorgeous scenery around the lake. We drove through Custer SP but missed this gem.

  11. What a great serie... It is such a pleasure to discover this place through your pictures ! The water reflection with the grey clouds is amazing.

  12. Wonderful scenery, food, company and you even got a perfect reflection.

  13. That is a beautiful area. That desert looks out of this world!

  14. lovely..but that tunnel through the rocks looks scary!

  15. Very nice- beautiful shots of the area

  16. Great shots of Sylvan Lake, I never get tired of how pretty it is there whether it's sunny or cloudy it's always gorgeous. I made my mom hike around it when we were there and she liked it too.

  17. It's very beautiful there, Linda. All your photos are great and make me want to go there. I especially enjoyed the photo of you and your daughter sampling that delicious treat!

  18. Linda, the scenery is beautiful. Sounds like a great visit with your family..And that waffle looks delicious. Enjoy your weekend!

  19. Awesome boulders. Lovely reflections. I had noticed the sad pines. If only something could be done to halt their decline.

  20. Beautiful reflection photos and what a wonderful place to have family to visit! Gorgeous country! Glad you had a great time! ~ Yummy food too!

    artmusedog and carol (A Creative Harbor)

  21. That is a lovely place, I can see why you like to visit there. The scenery is awesome!

  22. Bom dia, excelente foto reportagem do lindo passeio pela zona rochosa, é fantástico caminhar pelo meio da natureza, as fotos são exemplares.

  23. I can see why you keep going back there - wonderful looking place. Rock Climbing, fishing (and birds no doubt) - which could ask for more!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  24. Definitely beautiful and amazing! I would love to watch a bus go through the needles eye! There was a place in Tennessee at Rock City called the needles eye to walk through, I thought it was the coolest thing when I was a kid. It was fun to take my own children there too, and always remember my mother's tales of my grandmother getting stuck in there! :)

  25. That was awesome. What a gorgeous lake and all those rock formations were fantastic. I would so enjoy touring this area.
    Found another post on another blog about the Black Hills, very different from your post but equally lovely.

  26. Linda,
    Your Sylvan Lake pictures are wonderful! You did a great job capturing the beauty of the Black Hills.

    The Alpine Inn is a fabulous place to eat. We have only eaten there in the evening and always leave room for desert.

    Climbing Harney Peak is still on my to-do list.

  27. Custer State Park was our favorite of all our SD travels! GORGEOUS shots of Sylvan Lake, and I was so happy when I got to the part where you mention The Needles Highway, I was hoping you would. :) It's awesome.
    That dessert didn't look half bad either!

  28. Gorgeous! The photos you took of the rock formations at the Black Hills just blew me away. I remember that one from a childhood movie I saw and I've always wanted to see the hills. Just seeing it, even in pictures, always takes my breath away. Of course, the delicious food and wonderful people are a definite plus. Thanks so much for sharing your adventure! I hope everyone is having an awesome fall!

    Naomi Foster @ Mountain View


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