The Sunday Gulch Trail is located in Custer State Park within the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota. The trail is a 3.2-mile loop rated as strenuous. The trailhead for the Sunday Gulch Trail is located behind the dam of Sylvan Lake and begins with a nice descent and rock scrambling. There are handrails along the rocks to help with the scramble which can be slippery at times!
Once you have made it over the rocks, the trail turns to dirt and winds its way down through lush green trees and plants (assuming you are there during Spring and Summer). Once you reach the gulch at the bottom, you will find beautiful streams that you will cross and re-cross several times with small waterfalls surrounded by trees and rock walls. It is absolutely breathtaking!
The hike back out is beautiful but one heck of a workout! Make sure to bring plenty of water and snacks!
My Encounter With a Wild Fire
I had some amazing views, so much so that I noticed a lot of smoke in the area (I actually smelled it while in the gulch, which led me to hurry up to get to higher ground). After a thorough look to make sure a wildfire had not broken out, I realized the smoke was coming from the Wyoming wildfires!
My husband and children apparently also saw the smoke while I was hiking (although they didn’t have a vantage point to see where it was coming from), but they saw it and smelled it. My husband, the firefighter, apparently became very worried as there was no cell service which meant he could not get ahold of me.
I knew I was fine; they, however, did not! I knew the fire wasn’t in the area, they didn’t. Apparently, all my husband could think about was a ranger was going to come up and tell him they needed to evacuate and he would have to argue with him to let him stay because I was still out there. Apparently, the smoke got pretty bad where they were. For me, while I could see the smoke, the wind kept it pretty thinned out.
When I got back to the truck, they were all yelling at me. I thought it was because I took so long. Turns out they were truly worried to death!
I think it may be time to invest in a SPOT device, so I can ease my families mind when I am hiking alone. I will say my husband should have known I was ok. I am an avid hiker and a firefighter’s wife. If I smell smoke while I am hiking, the first thing I will do is get to higher ground (even if that means I climb a tree) to see where it is coming from, and get the hell out of dodge if need be! But, I get it. It is like when he goes into a house fire and I become worried sick and he is like baby I will be fine, I know what I am doing. I wonder how he liked how the tables turned that day?!
While I hiked this trail in the summertime, I have also been told that during Spring the creeks I passed along the trail can get rather deep (sometimes knee-high depending on snowmelt). If you will be hiking in Spring or very early Summer, I suggest also bringing water shoes for crossing the streams which were just a little more than an inch deep when I hiked.
Video of the Hike
About Sunday Gulch Trail
Sunday Gulch is believed to be named by the wives of the gold miners who once worked in the area and would take walks in the gulch on Sunday afternoons, hence the name Sunday Gulch.
Tips for Hiking Sunday Gulch
It may be a short trail, but it is rated as strenuous for good reason! Keep this in mind if you plan to hike with small children or those with health conditions. This will NOT be a leisurely stroll in the woods!
Bring plenty of water. I would suggest 2 liters of water/per person.
Bring your camera! Trust me, you will spend more time taking pictures than you will be hiking (ok maybe not, but you will want your camera)!
Bring water shoes if hiking in Spring or Early Summer.
Allow yourself plenty of time to complete the trail! They say 2-3 hours, I would plan for 4 hours.
Beware of poison ivy, it is located all along the trail!
Pack in a lunch, and have a sit down next to the cave (see the video above) it is a beautiful, shaded spot for a lunch break!
The 2nd half of the hike is mostly uphill, no matter which way you start, you will spend the 2nd half climbing uphill! Be prepared, it is a killer cardio workout.
Since the gulch doesn’t receive much sunlight, it can stay icy until June, so be prepared if you are hiking it during late Spring.
There is a fee to enter the park, I suggest getting the yearly park pass for $20 if you plan to hike any other trails, or plan to go back to hike other trails. We got the park pass which allowed us to enter several times while we were there for two weeks. We probably entered the park a good 20 different times which would have cost a small fortune if we had just done a daily pass!
When you get to about 3/4 of the way done, you will find that you have climbed in elevation to a huge rock formation where the trail seems to disappear. The trail at this point is not marked very well, although it has an amazing view. Stay to the right to get back onto the trail which will start to descend (see video above).
When you start thinking that you are almost done, or start telling youself “I should be almost done”, just know that no you aren’t! HAHA!
From Custer, drive one mile east on Highway 16A. Take Highway 89 north eight miles to Sylvan Lake.
From Hill City, drive three miles south on Hwy 385/16. Take a left onto Highway 89 and drive six miles to Sylvan Lake.
Park in the Sylvan Lake Parking lot and follow the trail that goes around Sylvan Lake to the back of the dam, from there you will see the trailhead for Sunday Gulch Trail.