Sylvan Lake, South Dakota has very few peers — Tahoe, Crater, Powell, the great ones — and takes its place in the uppermost pantheon of heavenly lakes. The best part? Most folks haven’t figured it out. Bringing every component one could want to a body of water — beauty, variety, activity, accessibility — Sylvan Lake does so with a “locals only” intimacy amidst all the Black Hills tourism.
From the moment we stepped out of the car, this gorgeous, lakeside setting captured our complete attention. It is a stunning confluence of water and tree-covered boulders, as whimsical, dramatic and wholly mesmerizing as any we’ve ever witnessed.
One can only imagine this picturesque valley before Sylvan Lake, when the Sunday Gulch stream rolled across the grassy floor and disappeared behind a wall of boulders. A man by the name of Theodore Reder had the vision — and ten thousand sacks of concrete — to create this magnificent oasis we see today.
Located on the Needles Highway, Sylvan Lake, South Dakota lives amidst the granite boulders that enunciate Custer State Park. CSP is one of the more beautiful parts of the United States and is an absolute must-do when you visit.
The lake was formed in 1881 when Theodore Reder damned the creek at Sunday Gulch. From the backside of the lake you can get a good look at the 30′ high dam, or if you like, you can walk out onto it via the little bridge you see centered in the photo below.
To take it all in, walk the circumlocutory path that ducks behind the boulders at the back of the lake. The path is one mile long and full of surprises. On the backside of the boulders is access to the Sunday Gulch Trail (more on that later). If walking isn’t your thing, you can swim, fish, rock climb, kayak, or picnic to your heart’s contentedness.
Sylvan Lake, South Dakota is an active lake that maintains serenity even when the crowd arrives. During the peak months the parking lots will fill, especially during Sturgis, but even so the vibe is chill.
We suggest blocking a full day to fully enjoy all there is to do at Sylvan Lake. A splendid way to spend your time would be a morning hike followed by a few hours boating around the lake. There is lodging if you want to stay here, and a campground as well.
Swimming: On the east side of the lake is a charming man-made beach. There are no ropes to designate the swimming area, but the off-shore rocks lend some definition. While shade and grass is in short-supply here, those that arrive early will grab what is available.
Cliff Jumping: Beside the swimming area, a rocky prominence almost dissects the lake and offers some of the best views in the area. If you’re feeling up to it, swim out and scale one of the tiny rock islands and show off your cliff jumping skills.
*I know an ER nurse that worked at Monument Hospital in Custer for years. He said their emergency room frequently treats the broken ankles and cracked skulls of imprudent lake-goers that didn’t investigate the landing before they jumped. So be ye warned — look before ye leap!
Seriously. People hurt themselves jumping off these cliffs. Please be careful.
Rock Climbing: Around the lake and in the surrounding wilderness are opportunities to rock climb and boulder. Rather than name drop routes and posture we have real knowledge of classification systems, “It’s a sick 12v dihedral, bro,” we’ll include some links to local climbing sources here and here.
Kayaking / Paddle boarding: On the south end of the lake, a small flotilla of colorful kayaks are docked beside the reeds. You can rent them, as well as canoes, or paddle boards, from the Custer State Park Resort.
Fishing: Folks fish from shore all along the circular path. A boat launch is located between the two parking lots (rowboats only).
Lodging: There is no end to the places you can stay in the Black Hills. Custer State Park and Sylvan Lake, South Dakota are as good (or better) than any. Cabins and lodges are available.
Campgrounds are also available here. Tent sites are $15, and RV sites w/ electric are $30.
Get Married: Our first trip to Sylvan Lake, South Dakota there was a sweet wedding (two photos up). What a beautiful place to get married! Check it out.
Black Elk Peak is the highest point in South Dakota, and probably the best hike in the state. The hike is 6 miles RT and moderate, with significant elevation gain in the last mile. The trailhead is located near the east parking lot by the restroom.
The views from the top are pretty epic. Check out our article, Black Elk Peak, South Dakota.
The Sunday Gulch Trail (below) is a strenuous, three-mile loop. The trailhead is found behind the large boulders on the north end of the lake. On your way down into the gulch you will scale boulders and descend staircases with the help of handrails. The trail can be very steep in places, and in the springtime it can become submerged with the water from Sylvan Lake.
The pathway has sections of moss-covered rock that are beautiful. At times you will have to cross the stream on rocks, logs, or footbridges. And remember, what goes down must come up, so be prepared to huff and puff on the ascent.
This might be my favorite place in the Black Hills. The buffalo herds of Wind Cave National Park, Mt. Rushmore, and the Devil’s Tower are all incredible points of interest, but I find myself wanting to come back to Sylvan Lake, South Dakota, again and again. I’ve been three times, and in two days I will visit again at sunrise. Hopefully there will be blue skies to photograph this time.
We love the Black Hills of South Dakota. In two weeks our job has us headed to Charleston, South Carolina, so we will spend our remaining days here as judiciously as possible.
Sylvan Lake is special — four visits special. Be sure to check it out.
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