Hiking in Custer State Park

We had two fabulous family hikes while in Custer State Park, South Dakota. I highly recommend both the Cathedral Spires and Sunday Gulch trails. These trails provided both short bursts of challenging trail and incredible visual delight.

Cathedral Spires

This hike is great! The park considers it a strenuous hike, but I would consider it to be of a moderate level.  It is also quite short at only 1.5 miles, so you will have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, as well as rock scramble up near the spires.

Cathedral Spires Trailhead Parking

There is a convenient pull-out for parking near the Cathedral Spires Trailhead. You will need sturdy hiking shoes and water. Though this hike is short, you have an elevation climb…and if you are hiking fast, as we were…you will need to rehydrate!

The trail is also easily marked with blue tags.

Setting out on the Cathedral Spires trail.

My kids loved scrambling the rocks on the way up. Apparently this is a popular rock climbing destination…and we were able to see some advanced climbers in action.

The Barry kids love to climb!

It is a little boys paradise up here.


Eventually, we came to this! Hello gorgeous skyscrape!!


At the end of the trail, we found a perfect spot to rest and have lunch. The kids even found snow in some crooks of the hills to have a snow-ball fight with. And this hard-working daddy, well….he found a moment of bliss.

Our Happy Hammock hikes to Cathedral Spires with us in Custer SP

We were able to view a mountain goat perched up on one of the spires as we were descending down the trail, which was pretty awesome.


We enjoyed every aspect of this hike. If you are planning a visit, you should know:  that there is quite a bit of climbing up and then back down. The closest restroom is probably those at Sylvan Lake, which is not super close. Bring your good camera! If you have young kids who are accustomed to hiking and climbing, then this is totally doable…just allow triple the time and bring a picnic to reward them at the top.

Sunday Gulch

Our absolute favorite hike of the year so far has been on the Sunday Gulch Trail. This hike rocks!

This trail is listed as being 2.8 miles. It is a strenuous hike. You will need lots of water, sturdy hiking shoes and I suggest trekking poles!

We parked near the store at Sylvan Lake Lodge. I HIGHLY suggest using the restrooms inside the store before you hit the trail. We then walked west along the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail on the southern side of the lake. The lake view is amazing as you walk to the trailhead.


When you get to the end of the lake, you will see some photo-worthy stepping stones on the water to your right…which lead to a viewing platform. Stay on the trail, which leads straight ahead through the rock. You will walk through this:


As soon as you walk through this rock entrance, you will see these trail signs:


Now, we did receive an awesome piece of advice, which I will share! I think it enhanced this hike to the max. Here it is….ready?

When you see these signs, take the trail to your left. Left, not right. This will lead you through the hills, along the hardwood trees and you will then loop around and end at the gulch, crossing the water. Ending with the gulch was amazing! As we were coming out, we found many people going the opposite way, not only did I think it was more strenuous, slippery and harder to cross the water, but I think it would be a bit anticlimactic, especially with kids. With that said, we went to the left and hiked along this:


There is quite a bit of effort in the upward climb. I was reminded that I need to increase my cardio, as I had to stop and catch my breath….just a few times. The path narrows as you come down the backside of the hill that you just climbed up.


As we were hiking pre-season, we were delighted with how few people are on this beautiful and well-known trail.

It was at this point where my kids picked up the pace…mind you, we were already rocking’ this trail at a fairly fast speed. We gave them a bit of freedom as we were not in bear country, and let them move down the trail with a bit of distance between them and their parentals.

The trail continues down…and you eventually follow a tiny muddy creek as it spills down to the gulch.


You then begin a series of switchbacks. I took advantage of the fact that the kids were further downhill to capture a photo. Can you spot them in the middle? Hint…they are all wearing a shade of blue.


Now, we were already having a fabulous time. But here is where it got even sweeter! We eventually met up with the kids before we hit the gulch. At this point we were all loving the diversity of the trail. Then came the water.


Scrambling over the rocks we made our way down to cross over the stream.


I loved the hand rails to help me pull myself up the slippery parts…and yes, it does get very slippery.


As we worked our way up the gulch, my crew enjoyed wetting their bandanas to cool off, Rambo style.

Tying wet bandanas on each other…Rambo style.

So what is a gulch anyway? My dictionary defines it this way…

Gulch = a narrow and steep-sided ravine marking the course of a fast stream

Sunday Gulch Trail
Climbing stairs on the Sunday Gulch Trail

And at the top of the stairs…

The Sunday Gulch Trail, Custer State Park

As we came out of the gulch, my three kids said this was one of their favorite hikes…and that it was perhaps the most fun trail of all time. Brendan thinks we should do more hikes like the Sunday Gulch Trail. In his words, this hike “is fun and adventurous!”

And me…well, this hike was absolutely, hands-down, the most fun trail I’ve been on. Now why is that? After all, we have been on some amazing hikes in some stunning places.

Easy…I stole my hubby’s trekking poles. I cannot believe what a difference the poles made on this hike. I cruised at such a great speed. I’m normally a lot more cautious with my footing when on steep and uneven trails. With the poles I had extra support and grip. Loved it! I told Chris that he is not getting his poles back! You can easily shop for poles on Amazon HERE.

Pole hiking in Custer State Park

And out we went. In the end, we did this trail in one hour and twenty minutes. The park suggests allowing 2-3 hours for this hike…but like I said, we went fast. Honestly…we were having so much fun that we got into a really great rhythm. This, and the fact that it was not busy on the trail…allowed us to really crank through it, in the best of ways!

Big rocks on the Sunday Gulch Trail.

We loved the Sunday Gulch trail and hope you do too. One thing I will note is that I thought there would be a bit more water, so we wore our Keen Hiking Sandals (check them out HERE and HERE). From what I hear, there sometimes is more water. When we do this trail again, we will opt for boots with ankle support and throw the sandals in our packs in case we stop to play in the stream.

If you are bringing small kids on this trail, you need to know that it will be tough for them. Although the scrambling will be fun…in my opinion, this is for the most part, a trail for bigger kids. If your young kids are used to the trail, then I definitely suggest ending the hike with the gulch.

Next time we visit, I plan to hike to Harney’s Peak. We considered tackling that hike this trip, but with all of the exploring, hiking, National Park visit’s and scenic drives…we wanted to take time to simply chill and enjoy our amazing campsite at Game Lodge Campground. Harney’s Peak would take most of the day, so now we have a bucket list item for next time!

If you are planning to hike Custer State Park, you can find info on the trails HERE.

Have you experienced an amazing hike in Custer State Park yet?

2 thoughts on “Hiking in Custer State Park

  1. Can’t remember if I told you or not but we attended a Sweem family reunion in Hot Springs, SD several years ago but did not see the sights you are visiting. In fact I had no idea it was such a large, diverse and beautiful area. We tried to see the presidents monument but after the long drive to get there, we found it was fogged in. You were wise to check that out first. Your writing is excellent Jen and I hope you will consider publishing it as wonderful travel guide and revelation of a different and better way of living, as well as a better way to educate your children. Uncle Derrell


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