Sylvan Lake is one of the most popular and unique lakes in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Its popularity is widespread from locals to travelers abroad looking to see this incredibly scenic lake. Looking much like a movie backdrop with rock formations jutting out from around the shores, Sylvan Lake leaves people breathless as they get their first glimpse. Not only does it have diverse recreation but the location in the heart of the hills offers many activities to entice anyone traveling the area. The unique shoreline differs from other lakes in the region offering some surprises and hidden gems along the way.
Located directly in Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake has 17 acres of water to play in and around all summer long. In 1891 Theodore Reder built the Sylvan Lake Water Dam across the Sunday Gulch Creek which blocked the creek and formed Sylvan Lake. Yep, hard to believe it but it’s manmade!
With Sylvan Lake being my favorite place to visit in the Black Hills, I frequent the area several times a month throughout the spring, summer, and fall. I can help you plan out your day or even a weekend trip with many of my favorite activities. Keep reading below, adventure awaits!
Hiking is my first choice on my list of “to-do’s” at Sylvan Lake. The lake is a hub of several popular trails that people literally travel all over the globe to hike. I’m going to highlight some of the most popular and also a couple of my personal favorites.
I’m going to start with Cathedral Spires. This might be my favorite hike in the area because of the gorgeous views you can get without much work. With the hike only a mile and a half there and back, it makes it doable for almost anyone. The trail is very well-marked and easy to follow. One section is a bit laborious up rocks and steps but it’s over before you know it. This section is also one of the coolest parts, so look around, take a breath, and enjoy the views.
This hike is right off of the Needles Highway with its own tiny parking lot so get there early for a spot. There are lots of people stopping here to take pictures or start the hike, as this is a trendy place to stop.
Black Elk Peak
This is one of the most popular hikes in the Black Hills but it can also be confusing as there are many different angles to approach it. This hike is not for everyone. Even though it has a strong elevation gain, the hike itself isn’t too technical aside from lots of steps near the end. That being said, the end is the best part so take a break if you need to and soak in the views!
Round trip this hike is about 6.4 miles with an elevation gain of 1500 feet. It is totally worth the views from the top! You might be able to see several states that border South Dakota on a clear day. Sunrise and sunset views are hard to match! Check out our article on how to do this hike because it can be confusing.
Little Devils Tower
Though this hike is only 3.8 miles and shorter than Black Elk Peak, don’t let that fool you. It’s a much more strenuous hike with rock scrambles and climbs that are not easy. The views are amazing but I struggled the last portion of the hike with my bad knee. If you can only make it up some of the hike then you will still get to see some stunning foliage, meadows, and rock formations. I recommend doing at least part of this hike. You may also see some cool wildlife up in the rocks.
I LOVE this hike. It would be my favorite hike if not for the way back up! This is roughly a 4-mile loop with what feels like 2 miles straight down and then 2 miles straight back up. That isn’t the case but it feels like it. Don’t forget to bring lots of water and maybe a picnic lunch or snacks. I like to bring beef sticks and hard-boiled eggs.
The controversy on this hike is whether you should go clockwise or counterclockwise. I did counterclockwise and loved the first half of the hike. It was gorgeous, unique, shaded, lush, and green with water elements and bridges. I was in heaven.
When we came back out we were in full sun, going up and up and up. Though we had sweet views as we returned, it was tough. Again I have a bad knee and that definitely plays a part in my experience. Many have no issues with this hike!
2. Paddleboard, Kayaking, and Canoe Rentals
This lake is special because motorized boats are not allowed on the lake so you can feel safe to row around the lake at your leisure without worry over a fast-paced boat headed your way. My husband and I bring our own paddle boards and we like to paddle around and take breaks in the middle of the lake sitting on our boards with our feet hanging in the water as we relax.
As I mentioned, they have rentals if you don’t have your own equipment. Rentals are available for ½ hour, full-hour, or half-day sessions. Ranging from around $12 per half hour, $20 for an hour, and $80 for a half day. The rentals are all first come first serve basis but they do have a generous amount of each item.
Of course, swimming is a given when visiting a lake. The warmest months of July and August are when you will most likely see the lake full of families swimming. Our winters are harsh and cold and the lake does freeze so the water tends to be pretty chilly. Swimming is comfortable in the heat of summer. Again with the lack of motorized boats, this is a safe place to swim. There are however no lifeguards.
Fishing is my husband’s second or third favorite thing to do at Sylvan Lake. He always manages to catch a trout or two each time we stop to fish. This is a great lake for fishing and can be done from shore or in a canoe. The most popular fish caught are trout and they certainly like my husband’s lures and night crawlers.
Make sure you grab a fishing license here before casting that line!
5. Jumping Off Rocks
For the mini adventurists who want to climb rocks and jump in the lake, this is a fun place to do so safely as the rocks aren’t terribly high from where everyone typically jumps. You can jump from different elevations depending on your skill and bravado! Always make sure to check the depth of the water.
6. Drive the Needles Highway
Grab the Dramamine and head just up the road to the famous and stunning drive of the Needles Highway. When I was first told about it, I questioned what could be so cool about driving a highway. Now I think it’s one of the best places to drive in the Black Hills as it twists and turns around rock formations and even THROUGH them at many points. Stop at all the lookout points for pictures and maybe a glimpse of some wildlife. The mountain goats are my favorite!
- Discover more 11 Gorgeous Drives You Have To See To Believe.
7. Sylvan Lake General Store & Eatery.
This newly built store, as of the summer of 2023, has it all. You can find the coolest Sylvan Lake or Custer State Park souvenirs like hoodies, t-shirts, stickers, postcards, etc. here as well as snacks and drinks found at a normal convenience store. It also houses a grill with fabulous cooked-to-order food and plenty of tables and chairs to eat outside. Not to mention some of the cleanest bathrooms I’ve seen at a state park.
8. Rock Climb
Sylvan Lake and the Needles Highway are home to some of the best rock climbing in the area and offer climbing for all levels of expertise from beginning to expert. You can even join a climbing tour or have a guide teach you the ropes. No pun intended!
For more information on classes and guides contact Sylvan Rocks Climbing School & Guide Service.
9. Walk Sylvan Lakeshore Trail
I’ve mentioned hiking in the area but the Sylvan Lakeshore trail is more of a walk than a hike. You’ll encounter a very small section of rock scrambles, but that offers some of the coolest views of the lake. You’ll be glad you did. You can also turn around and go back the way you came if it’s too difficult but I have seen older people with canes accomplish this trail.
The walk around the lake is a must-see. The backside of Sylvan has many cool features and scenery and the spring and summer months decorate it with flowers and butterflies everywhere. Worth the journey. It’s a mile in total if you do the whole loop.
Sylvan Lake does have a campground with RV and tent sites. They have electricity but no water or sewer. There is a playground and bathroom with a shower house. The campground is first come first serve and books fast and is open from May through September.
- Don’t miss other great campgrounds in the area.
I always bring a picnic anywhere with me in the Black Hills and Sylvan Lake is no exception. There are always beautiful spots to stop off on the side of the road, and enjoying a meal outside is not only fun and different but it’s great for body and mind. If you can’t find a picnic table or bench to sit on then just drop your beach towel or blanket on the grassy shoreline and eat there. Plenty of places to enjoy!
There are always birds to watch but in particular, I enjoy watching the Eagles and Osprey circle the lake. This last summer I got to witness an osprey dive down and grab a fish and fly away. The next time I was out there I saw an eagle and osprey have a little territorial tift. Bring some binoculars if you want to see some wildlife close up.
Know Before You Go!
Custer State Park charges a fee of $20 per vehicle. It lasts up to 7 days. If you want to get a year state park pass that is totally worth it and a bargain then that will cost you $36. There is a $3 charge per person if you are driving a motor home.
How to Get There
There are many ways to get into Custer State Park. This will depend on where you are coming from. My favorite way to enter Sylvan Lake is from the town of Custer.
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National Treasure 2, Book of Secrets was filmed at Sylvan Lake as well as some of the surrounding areas. The movie does not accurately represent the location of the lake and Mount Rushmore, but it’s still fun to see our great state on the big screen. The scenes in the movie are very brief so if you watch the movie just to see the Black Hills you may be a little disappointed.
Dances With Wolves was filmed in various locations in South Dakota as well. It wasn’t filmed at Sylvan Lake but it’s worth mentioning for movie buffs who will soon head to our neck of the woods.
Best Coffee Nearby
I’ve mentioned many times and in many articles my favorite coffee shops in the area. Calamity Jane is one I always mention because I love the ambiance and options on the menu. Plenty of places to sit down for a break or a meal. They also stay open later than any of the other coffee places in Custer.
This summer my husband and I discovered Miners Cup coffee as we headed out of Custer State Park into Custer one early morning. This coffee shop is just a small little log cabin drive/walk-up building. The options are endless and FUN as well as some creative and delicious menu items with reasonable prices. If you don’t get there by 1 p.m. they will be closed so make sure to get your coffee and breakfast early!
- Check out dining options in The Best Places To Eat In Each City Of The Black Hills.
Road to Custer
There is a really quick and beautiful road to and from Sylvan Lake that is my favorite way in. Coming from Custer’s Mount Rushmore Road, aka 16A, you turn onto Sylvan Lake Road and follow it until you get to the Custer State Park entrance. I love this back way in because it’s quick and beautiful but it also passes the coolest ranch that has their own herd of buffalo and Texas longhorns. They are not always in the pasture and visible to traffic but when they are it’s a real treat and you can be sure to see people pulled over taking pictures.
- Another great way to see buffalo is at Custer State Park’s Annual Buffalo Roundup.
Sylvan Lake is a true gem of the Black Hills. From a quick glance, you may see just another pretty lake and not even think about stopping but I hope this article will give you pause to at least take a few minutes to soak in the beauty, take a stroll around the perimeter and smell the crisp clean air mixed with the fragrant ponderosa pine trees. You’ll be glad you did!
Is There Anything Else I Should Know?
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MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO THE BLACK HILLS
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WHERE TO EAT: Check out the best places to eat in and around Mt. Rushmore plus where to eat in each city
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