Short on time but want to experience varied views and terrain? Skip the long hike up Black Elk Peak and bag these three shorter hikes in one day. But don’t sleep in or you’ll have to follow Yoda’s advice, “Choose you must.”
Sunday Gulch – 7:30 a.m.
Start in the morning at Sunday Gulch, which is located at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park. You’ll get a short hike along the Sylvan Lake trail as you head to the trailhead behind the dam. This 2.8 mile-loop and has some moderately strenuous terrain. The loop takes approximately 3 hours, though it can be done in 2.5 hours if you’re motivated and don’t spend half an hour on the perfect Instagram shot. Once at the trailhead, descend down into the gulch over boulders; these can be slick even when dry, but there are handrails. In spring or in wet years, there can be water running over the trail, so it prepare for wet feet or bring a pair of sandals for this initial section. This part is beautiful with the water running along the trail. After you descend to the bottom, you have to climb out, but the trail is less gnarly, and the views open up so you can see the granite formations. Also, at times you’ll hear Needles Highway but you can’t see it. You’ll return to the Sylvan Lake shore at about 10:30 am. On to the next!
Hustle back to the parking lot and head down Highway 89, Sylvan Lake Road, to Highway 16 and take a left. You could head down Needles Highway (Highway 87) to Highway 16, take a left and head toward the Custer State Park Visitor’s Center and State Game Lodge, but this will take about 45 minutes. Highway 89 will be a bit a faster, around 30 minutes. Also, to save time, use the facilities at Sylvan Lake.
11:15 a.m. – Lovers’ Leap
Lovers’ Leap trail is located across Highway 16 from the Peter Norbeck Education Center; look for the old schoolhouse as the trailhead is behind it. Keep an eye out for buffalo since this a popular hang-out for them. This is also a 3-mile loop and begins with a fairly strenuous uphill. After that initial climb, the terrain levels off a bit. Once you attain the top of the ridge, you’ll be rewarded with outstanding views of the Cathedral Spires, Black Elk Peak, and Mount Coolidge. You can also see the remains of the Galena Fire from the late 1980s. Also at the top of the ridge, you’ll see that famous sign inviting you to sit on a log and get your sanity back, but don’t sit too long—you’re on a schedule. You’ll begin to descend down the trail and be faced with several stream crossings. In wet years, prepare for wet feet; however, sandals aren’t recommended because there is an abundance of poison ivy. Long pants are also a good idea, unless you enjoy scratching. Watch for buffalo again, as they are known to hang near the creek on hot days. (Or any day, because buffalo do what they want.) After you cross the last crossing, you’ll come out along the Creekside Trail near the Grace Coolidge Store. You can walk along the trail back to the trailhead and be back at your car around 2:15 pm.
Jump in your car and head to your last stop, the Prairie Trail. From Lovers’ Leap, head east on Highway 16 about one mile. Go past the State Game Lodge and take a right on the Wildlife Loop Road, and then head south for about 14 miles. You’ll see the trailhead your left, on the south side of the road.
2:45 p.m. – Prairie Trail
The Prairie Trail is a lollipop of 3 miles. We’ve saved the least strenuous trail for last. Once again, keep an eye out for buffalo since this area is a favorite hang-out. Immediately, you’ll cross a small creek where you may get wet feet in the spring. Expect to see varied plant life on this trail as it’s much more open, not the timber you’ll experience in the first two hikes. You may also notice different birds, including the meadowlark which enjoys the prairie habitat rather than the granite heights. As you hike, expect to go through a couple of gates in the buffalo fence. You’ll also hit a couple more creek crossings and come to Hay Flats. Eventually, you’ll end up where you started around 5:15 pm. You’ve definitely earned a burger and beer!
Driving times may vary based on traffic in the park. For a Custer State Park trail map, click here. A Custer State Park pass is required for entrance into the park.