Postcards from South Dakota

Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park

Our family just returned from a trip to the 40th state, South Dakota! On the advice from my friend Becky Lomax, author of Moon USA National Parks, we set up our base in Custer, SD and spent three full days visiting Custer State Park, Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and Jewel Cave National Monument. I think it’s safe to say we were all surprised by the greenery (thanks afternoon thunderstorms!), ponderosa pines, rainbow-layered rocks, blue lakes, and sheer granite spires. Here are eight highlights from our trip to South Dakota.

1. Notch Trail, Badlands National Park

The 1.5-mile Notch Trail is famous for its log ladder and steep drop-offs along the ledge of a canyon. The trail ends at a “notch” in the rocks with a scenic overlook of the White River Valley. We did the Window, Door, Notch, and Fossil Trails, followed by a drive on the Badlands Scenic Byway.

The log ladder on the Notch Trail.

2. Bighorn sheep, Badlands National Park

Bighorn sheep were just grazing next to the trails at Badlands National Park. We enjoyed watching them and taking pictures as we made our way to the Notch Trail. Later on, we passed a herd climbing and grazing beside the Scenic Byway. Sadly, we didn’t see bison on our trip, but maybe someday we’ll return and have better luck :)

3. Custer Skywalk, Big Rock Park
This short, 0.5-mile round-trip trail is right in the city of Custer. It is an excellent option for a quick afternoon hike. The Skywalk’s 55 wooden steps lead to a north-facing viewpoint of Custer and the Needles. Connecting trails give you the option to go to further viewpoints and add on more mileage.

4. Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Four presidents—Washington, Jefferson, T. Roosevelt, and Lincoln—were carved into Mount Rushmore between 1927 and 1941. Seeing the images in popular culture, you would think the experience would be underwhelming, but it was quite the opposite! Personally, I felt a rush of excitement mixed with reverence and pride as we walked the Avenue of Flags, stood in front of the amphitheater, and hiked the 0.6-mile Presidential Trail. It was also very cool hearing the story of how Mount Rushmore came to be from the ranger talk at the Sculptor’s Studio. Although the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center was closed for maintenance (bummer!) during our visit, we still felt lucky—it turned out the day we visited was the last day the Presidential Trail was fully open due to construction that was starting the next day!

An excellent tip from my friend Becky: Bring binoculars to see details of the sculptures up close!

5. Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park

Sylvan Lake, elevation 6,148 feet, is the highest lake in the Black Hills and a popular spot for swimming, canoeing and paddling. After parking in different places (the lake is big!), we spotted each other across the lake (no cell service!!) and met up to do the 1-mile perimeter loop. Later on, Onur and I rented paddle boards and paddled the lake’s perimeter. The granite spires surrounded the entire lake, making it feel like you were in a true mountain lake. It reminded Onur and me of Pinnacles National Park! The Lakota called the Black Hills “Paha sapa” in contrast to the Badlands, or white hills “Paha ska” to the east. Those white hills are steep and exposed with little water, so the Lakota deemed them “mako sica” or “land bad.” French Canadian trappers agreed it was difficult land to traverse, calling it “le mauvaises terres a traverser.” And that’s how Badlands National Park got its name!

View from the 1-mile perimeter loop.

6. Black Elk Peak, Custer State Park & Black Elk Wilderness

Oh boy, Black Elk Peak was a big highlight of the trip for me—a chance to hike deep into the Black Hills to a rewarding viewpoint. The shortest route to the peak is 6.6-miles round-trip hike, 1400 feet cumulative elevation gain. It is the tallest peak in the United States east of the Rockies at 7,242 feet. On the summit is a stone building built by the Civilian Conservation Corp between 1938 and 1940 that served as a fire lookout until 1967. The inside is open to explore and you can take a deserved rest on its terrace. Since the peak is so tall and sits in the very southwestern part of South Dakota, you have 360-degree views that includes four states—South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska—and a birds-eye view of the Needles, needle-shaped granite rock formations in the Black Hills. It’s a moderately strenuous hike, and one of the most—if not the most—popular hikes starting from Sylvan Lake.

View of the Black Hills and Needles from Black Elk Peak.

View of the Black Hills and Needles from Black Elk Peak.

7. Needles Highway, Custer State Park

The 14-mile long Needles Highway—a National Scenic Byway—runs west-east through Custer State Park with hairpin turns, narrow tunnels, tall granite spires, and overlooks of the Black Hills. Speed limits are generally 15-25 miles per hour, and I think we did it in about an hour or so, with a few stops at overlooks. It’s a nice drive after visiting Sylvan Lake, as the entrance is right next to it. There are trails you can pick up right from the highway too—one I had had my eye on was the Cathedral Spires Trail. A surprising aspect of the drive was the tunnels didn’t have signals, so you count on your fellow drivers to communicate and yield in the one-way tunnels :)

8. Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument was the first cave to be declared a national monument on February 7, 1908, just under a month after President Theodore Roosevelt declared Muir Woods a national monument on January 9, 1908. It is the third longest cave in the world, over 200 feet long. We took the 0.5-mile Scenic Tour, which is roughly an hour and a half. It’s a ranger-led tour, and I loved the chance to stop and look at the formations in the dark, underground cave. On the lower left is spar and on the lower right is bacon wave, a type of drapery formed when water drips down rocks and creates a fabric-like shape.

South Dakota was surprisingly green with lots of opportunities to hike, swim, paddle, drive, and wildlife-watch. We could have easily filled another couple days exploring more scenic byways, lakes, and hikes near Custer! The diversity of landscapes coupled with historic Mount Rushmore made it a fantastic outdoor getaway.

Happy weekend :)

P.S. I am very happy to share my most recently published hike for Modern Hiker: East Beach to Fort Point the Golden Gate Bridge. It is one of the most picturesque and historically engaging urban hikes I have ever done. Hope you enjoy :)

The top tier of Fort Point, a Civil War-era fort, is generally open on weekends.