Monday, October 26, 2015

Hike, Lake, and Tunnel

South Dakota's Custer State Park is hands-down the best state park in the US.  Easily on par with most National Parks (and better than some IMHO) it's got sparkling mountain lakes, dramatic granite pinnacles, loads of wildlife, and winding scenic byways.

Granite spires near Sylvan Lake

When I'm back visiting family there's one place in the Black Hills I always go - Sylvan Lake and the Needles Highway, both in the heart of Custer State Park.

Cute cabin near Sylvan Lake

Usually my parents and I hike the loop trail around picturesque Sylvan Lake.  But this day I wanted to try something new - the trail to Sunday Gulch.

Entering Sunday Gulch

Snaking through a scenic canyon just below Sylvan Lake's dam, this trail claims great views of the park and unusual granite formations to explore.  Although I'd heard lots about it, it was one hike I'd yet to complete.

Last of the summer wildflowers

After parking near the Sylvan Lake Lodge, my parents and I traveled down a wide, gravel road past some of the cute guest cabins.  A few of these cabins had outstanding views of many tall granite spires jutting up from the Black Hills.

A steep downclimb into Sunday Gulch

Behind Sylvan Lake's dam, the Sunday Gulch trail nosedived into the canyon.  The "trail" consisted of a path worn into huge granite boulders.  Metal handrails provided something to cling onto while navigating the steep rocks.  Footing was dicey in many places.  Although my parents keep active and are in great shape for their ages, I started to worry that this trail might be too difficult for them.

Light filtering through the trees

My parents were good sports and didn't complain.  But I could tell my mom was a little bit unsure.  She didn't look like she was having any fun.

Sunny yellow flower

Then we met another woman climbing up the opposite direction.  She warned us that further below, the trail got even worse.  The path was steeper, with larger gaps between steps, and the rock very slippery.  After hearing her dire story, I decided not to risk it and suggested to my folks that we turn around and hike something else instead.

Heading behind Sylvan Lake dam

I was happy when both my mom and dad agreed to go elsewhere.  We gingerly climbed back out the canyon without incident.  Luckily, there's another wonderful hike just around the corner - the path around beautiful Sylvan Lake.


After climbing up a stone staircase behind the dam that led through a crack in the granite, we arrived at Sylvan Lake's grassy shores.

My parents admire Sylvan Lake

The crown jewel of Custer State Park, this gorgeous lake is surrounded by impressive granite formations and green Ponderosa pine forests.

Granite reflections

The water's surface was so still, it provided perfect reflections of adjacent granite formations.

Still some lakeshore wildflowers

I lagged behind my parents, trying to capture these reflections.  And a bit of late blooming wildflowers added color to the shoreline.

Looking back towards the dam

Oh yeah, you just can't take too many photos of this lake!

My mom enjoying the scenery

My parents and I hiked the mile-long loop that circled the lake.  Although I hike this trail every year, it never gets old.

I love photographing this lake!

After finishing our trip around Sylvan Lake, there was one more place I wanted to see.  I asked my dad to take a drive up the Needles Highway.

Granite close-up

Snaking through Custer State park, this byway passes through a vast swath of tall granite spires known as "the Needles."

The Needles Highway

This narrow, winding road was purposely designed to be driven slowly, allowing visitors to fully appreciate the amazing scenery.

Funny granite pillars

The highlight of any trip is a drive through the tunnels blasted into the granite.  The most famous one is called the "Needles Eye." 

"Needles Eye" tunnel

A super-narrow one lane path through the rock, vehicles must first stop and honk to warn traffic on the opposite end.  Vehicles take turns cueing through this tunnel.  There is a parking area on one side, and many people get out of their cars for a closer view.  The main entertainment is watching some of the larger trucks and campers inch their way to the other side.  If you're lucky and happen to catch it, tour buses often squeeze through - very, very slowly!

I love driving through tunnels, and my dad was happy to oblige with a couple of trips through the Needles Eye.  And so all of you can experience it too, here's a short video.

A fun day visiting some of my favorite spots in "the Hills."  But tune in to my next post and I'll share pics of some of the critters we found in Custer State Park.

Sharing with:  Through My Lens and Our World Tuesday


  1. Wow, why isn't this elevated to a national park yet?

  2. In my mind, I've always pictured South Dakota to be flat grasslands, this park looks like everything but that. It looks really cool. I've found that a lot of national forests have just as many (if not more) cool features as the national parks but without all the crowds, entry fees, and ridiculous camping prices.

  3. What awesome scenery! The pinnacles remind me of the ones I visited a few weeks ago here in NZ. What gorgeous lake shots--I love them all!

  4. Beautiful series, brings back wonderful memories.

  5. That is an incredible place to hike. WOW the rocks are so huge, view magnificent and reflection gorgeous.

  6. A few more stunning places you have taken me.

  7. I am lovig this Custer State Park! I wonder if there is lots of hiking in the area to make it worthy of a trip down from Alberta!

  8. Hello Linda, wonderful post on the Custer State Park. I would like to stay in one of those cute cabins. I love the view of the lake and the wildflowers. The tunnel looks tiny, I can just imagine a bus going thru that tunnel.
    Wow! Great post and images. Thank you for sharing your trip! Enjoy your week ahead!

  9. Fantástica esta caminhada com belas fotografias.
    Um abraço e continuação de uma boa semana.

  10. Nice series - pretty wildflowers- was this earlier in the year ?

  11. Hi! It's very nice to hike with your parents. The Granite reflections photo is breathtakingly beautiful. You were very lucky to meet the another woman who explained the trail was not easy to go. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Wow. What a gorgeous spot! I'm adding this to my list of future vacation spots ....

  13. You have some amazing shots of rock formations. I live beside a Sylvan lake in Alberta , Canada.

  14. Now those are some serious rocks!

  15. Boy Sunday Gulch sure looks different without water pouring through it! ;-) Sylvan Lake is truly a special setting!

    Another thing I loved about that area was the wonderful FREE one-page maps that Custer National Forest puts out for their hikes. I wish more forest areas were so accommodating to their visitors!

  16. I love those granite reflections especially, but all the pictures are truly wonderful. Your parents are definitely in good shape! :-)

  17. We loved the needles highway, I agree - Custer State Park is a standout on a more national level. An incredible land! Glad you enjoyed this day with your mom and dad, Linda. You are very blessed!

  18. Linda, what a gorgeous place, and I love your perspective of things in your photos! Thank you so much for sharing!

  19. Incredible place and amazing images. I love those granite formations.

  20. I've now heard of the Needles from several bloggers. What a neat place! Great tunnel video.

  21. I had forgotten the tunnel through the Needles Eye....loved the video. After seeing it, I think I may have closed my eyes...good thing I wasn't driving! Custer State Park is a beautiful place! :)

  22. Beautiful granite. We live next to a tall granite wall and I love it. Ours has a coating of dark lichen in places because of our wet climate. - Margy

  23. Love CSP. I worked there in the 80s.

  24. Keep the posts coming Linda - I'm taking notes! Custer SP is one of the stops on my list.

  25. Awesome shots! Did you get your folks those bright red shirts to brighten your pics?

  26. What an amazing tunnel--love it! Of course, I am not the one driving through it:) The lake and granite rock formations are gorgeous as are the wildflowers. Lovely.
    Blessings, Aimee

  27. Amazing place. The USA has so many great locations we never see in the UK I'm starting to wonder if there is a ban on them being filmed. I watch a lot of nature and wildlife programmes yet apart from Yellowstone we never see the rest of America's natural wildlife or landscapes. We get endless amounts of reality TV and comedies from America but not a single new fact about the natural environment there. Most of our animal info comes from old cartoons, chipmunks, gofers, roadrunners, etc... It's a puzzle as the BBC seems to send wildlife camera crews to every other corner of the planet, except unknown America. For example...Never seen chipmunks being filmed in the wild as they are really cute but we are neck deep in Meerkats every year.

  28. The lake was wonderfully smooth the day you were there. And I'm a big fan of granite, one reason I love the Precambrian Shield north of where I live.

  29. I'm not sure where my first comment went, but I'll keep this one short...totally enjoy these trips with you...I almost found myself holding my breath in the tunnel!

  30. such beautiful scenery and wonderful images of it.

  31. What beautiful scenery and landscape


  32. That does look like a wonderful place - I often think its a bit hit and miss for which places get 'top billing' in terms of parks and protection.

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  33. What a truly wonderful park! I enjoyed your photos and narrative very much, and that video was awesome! How on earth do they handle having cars come through the other way??? Beautiful granite reflections! What a wonderful sharing trip for you all!

  34. Really enjoyed your photos of this park. Although i have been up in this area, I have never been to this park or through that narrow tunnel. Heard you talking about buses in there. Reminded me of a place in Italy where two huge tourist buses met on a similar road. Could not believe we actually passed without a collision. I think your mom was really smart to change the hiking plans. I was amazed when I saw her going down that steep incline. Good for her on keeping fit to do that. Bet you had a great trip!

  35. That's a beautiful park, great hikes and photos. But some of the Colorado state parks would like to have a discussion about best state park in the USA ;)

    1. And I was just about to add a comment about not being convinced that Adirondack Park in New York or Baxter Park in Maine weren't on the top of the list. Great pictures nonetheless.

  36. The lake is beautiful and the granite formations are awesome. I'm glad you decided to take the safer path.


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