Custer State Park: Winter Hikes

When we scouted places we might want to live in South Dakota and Wyoming, the Black Hills area was at the top of our list.

One of our favorite days was driving Needles Highway and down through Custer State Park to our accommodations in Hot Springs, South Dakota. We promised ourselves we would be back, and we like to keep our promises!

Way back in 2010/2011 we took a winter vacation to Germany and loved experiencing a familiar place during a new season. Everything was so different – from the way it looked, to the activities available, to the types of people interested in visiting during the off-season – that it might as well have been our first time.

Since then, we’ve explored many places during their off-season, taking advantage of lower prices, fewer people, and new experiences. That was certainly the case during our return to Custer State Park where the single digit temperatures on Saturday and negative temperatures on Sunday allowed us to witness this winter wonderland and its wildlife almost completely on our own.

While we’ve acquired the right gear to hike in all seasons and weather, three degrees and falling was hitting our limits in terms of comfortable hiking conditions on Saturday. We stopped in the Custer State Park Visitor Center to talk to the docent, pick up some snowshoes, and set off for a couple shorter trails in different areas of the park.

While there wasn’t quite enough snow on the trails to necessitate snow shoes, we thoroughly enjoyed our snowy hikes on the Prairie Trail and Sylvan Lakeshore Trail.

Prairie Trail

We drove from the visitor center along the wildlife loop to the Prairie Trail parking area without passing a soul. After a very chilly stop at the trailhead amenities, we set off on this quiet, 2.1-mile loop.

There were a couple sections with steep inclines where coming down the snow and ice did more to increase our heart rates than going up, but the views across the prairie lands and forests were worth it.

I was especially grateful for the blue diamonds posted on trees and rocks along the trail to help us find our way. In some places the trail was obvious, but it others the snow had drifted and we were looking around for our next markers to guide us back to the car.

Sylvan Lakeshore Trail

We completed the wildlife loop and headed around Custer to the Sylvan Lake area. During warm weather, this is where you can catch Needles Highway, which closes each November through March. This is also where you find the trailhead for a bigger hike we plan to tackle at some point – Black Elk Peak (7.1 miles roundtrip, 1,469 feet of gain).

The area is beautiful with granite cliffs and ponderosa pine surrounding the large Sylvan Lake. There was construction underway for a new general store and cabins for rent. I imagine this is a very popular destination during the summer.

The temperature was down to 0 degrees so we decided to only tackle the 1.1-mile lakeshore loop trail. This was prudent and ultimately necessary as the more strenuous Sunday Gulch trail (3.2-mile loop) we were considering ended up being closed due to the wintery conditions.

Sylvan Lakeshore Trail is considered easy to moderate since you are primarily following the lakeshore, which is is flat. However, around the dam you have several sets of stairs, all of which were hidden under the snow during our trek. As such, we got this moderate section out of the way early in our counter-clockwise circuit and enjoyed snowy views across the lake for the remainder of our hike.

The visitor’s guide has a wonderful flow chart to help you determine what hikes you’d like to do, and I plan to keep it so we’re ready the next time we head to Custer State Park – maybe in spring or fall next time.

What a wonderful and relatively unknown area to explore not that far from home!

One thought on “Custer State Park: Winter Hikes

  1. Pingback: Winter Weekend in Custer State Park – Heather's Compass

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