If you are ready for a hike that’s a little more challenging than the hikes I have offered you in the past, than I have a hike for you! The Sunday Gulch Trail in located in Custer State Park and is listed as one of the more strenuous hikes out of the trails located in the park. However, if you are up for the challenge it will be well worth it.
The trailhead is accessed from Sylvan Lake, which is a few hundred yards from the intersection of highways 87 and 89. Nearby highways include 385 and 16A, and the closest towns are Custer, Hill City, and Keystone. There is a park entry station near the highway junction, and just beyond the station is Sylvan Lake, with a tourist store and cafe. A large parking lot is in front of the lake and tourist store, however if this parking lot is full you can also park just across the lake in the larger parking lot that is used by hikers going up to Harney Peak from Trail 9 or Trail 4.
The Sunday Gulch Trail is somewhat unique for trails in the Harney Peak – Black Elk Wilderness area, in that it immediately descends for about a mile and a half from 6,145 feet to 5,700 feet on the trails low point, then loops back to the start. It is recommended to hikers to take a counter-clockwise route. But you can go either way you prefer. Many hikers prefer the clockwise direction, since they find the footing to be safer going down the smooth trail on the western end of the loop, where they do not have to descend boulders, but can instead do the boulders going up on the eastern side of the loop. This is especially true when the boulders are wet. If you prefer to go the counter-clockwise loop, look for the narrow passage between high granite walls near the dam on Sylvan Lake. The other end of the loop is about 100 yards back toward the Sylvan Lake Store and behind a large granite outcropping. That trail comes out to a tiny bridge. Both trail heads on the loop are accessible from the 1-mile long Sylvan Lake Shoreline Trail.
I took the counter-clockwise route and found it to be quite lovely. The first part of the trail is very relaxing and full of beautiful scenery, you walk in between two huge granite walls that make you feel as if you were walking through a huge granite maze. When the trail opens back up it will lead you down a huge boulder path that has been carved into large boulder stairs. They have also added hand rails for your safety and to make it little easier to navigate down the twists and turns of the staircase. As you walk down the staircase you will walk along a nice quite stream that will give you a glimpse at some beautiful waterfalls. Once you have reached the trails low point you will be guided back up the hill and around the loop. You will be surrounded by ponderosa pine, but there are many aspen and birch along the stream, as well as some Black Hills spruce. If you are lucky you will be able to spot some of the local wildlife such as deer, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, coyotes, badgers, raccoons, porcupines, and hundreds of species of birds that inhabit the area. This loop will bring you back to the top of the hill where you will get an amazing view of Custer State Park. From the top of this hill you can see all the beautiful wonders of nature that tower above the trees such as the Needles, Harney Pike, and many other beautiful aspects the park holds.
Just be aware that to access Custer State Park, you must have either a daily or annual park permit. Additionally, while some trails remain open all year, the Sunday Gulch Trail is closed in the winter due to the dangers that the trail would hold when the rocks get slippery. As far as essential gear you would want to use in preparation for the hike I would make sure to wear sturdy footwear with good grips, bring some water, insect repellent, and maybe a hiking stick. The trail is pretty shady, so a hat or sunscreen may not be all that necessary. However, for camera buffs, there are some great opportunities along this trail so be sure to bring your camera.
I absolutely recommend this trail to every South Dakota local. This is definitely one of the better, well known trails that we live by and it would be a tragedy for any of us to live near such a beautiful wonder of nature and have never experienced it for all of its beauty.