We often get asked by visitors to the Black Hills area what our “must-do” adventure recommendations are. We love to share the best local places to visit because there are just so many locations in the hills to explore. On the top of our Must See List is Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park.
This lake is located along a winding highway that is a must-see in its own right. Approaching the lake from the west on Highway 87 means you’ll pass through tunnels and between the Needles on Needles Highway (no RV’s or large vehicles this way!). Coming up from the south on Highway 89 out of Custer provides expansive, forested views of the state park.
Located above 6100 feet in elevation, the waters in this lake are cold, clear, and beautiful. What sets this area apart are the rock formations surrounding the lake, and the fact that there are so many things to do here: swim, fish, boat, hike, climb, camp, and more! Of course, our favorite time at Sylvan is spent playing in the sand – no matter what the weather!
There is a 1-mile hiking loop around the lake that passes through a pedestrian tunnel, and allows visitors to see the back side of the dam that created the lake in 1881, when Sunday Gulch (seen below the dam) was blocked off. Adventurous hikers can walk out above the dam to get an idea of its height and breadth. In addition, hikers can scramble over the granite boulders along the trail, find a “hidden” waterfall in the Gulch, and take off on side trails to Little Devil’s Tower or even Harney Peak (3.5 miles) for the most adventurous types.
Summertime is busy time for Sylvan Lake, so be ready to park away from the lake and hike in to the beach or trails. Swimming here is COLD but very fun and adventurous, and experienced swimmers can reach a large rock formation in the middle of the lake where they can climb up and enjoy the sunshine. Fishing is best accomplished here by boat, as the shores are often over-fished in the summer. However, off-season visitors can have good luck fishing from shore once the crowds disperse.
There is a very nice campground at Sylvan Lake, although we would avoid it if you have a large RV or even tent as the sites are very close together. Proximity to Mount Rushmore and the Needles Highway, and being reservable, makes this campground a good location for families and sight-seers.
If you do plan an adventure to the Black Hills, be sure to drop us a line via Twitter, Instagram, or Email and we will gladly offer ideas and itineraries that should help make the most of your time here! Besides, we love to meet and shake hands with fellow travelers and take a few moments to swap stories with you.