I don’t know how I’ve spent so much time hiking in the Hills and hadn’t hiked Sunday Gulch. It just may be now my favorite hike in the Hills. It may have supplanted Hell Canyon as #1, believe it or not. It also happens to be one of the eight hikes on the Custer State Park Trail Challenge, but unfortunately we kind of forgot about that and didn’t find the bronze relief medallion to take a rubbing as proof that we did the hike. Oh, well.
Sunday Gulch is rated as moderately strenuous, and is mapped at 3.9 miles in length. The trailhead is at the far end of Sylvan Lake. Due to the steep and rugged bouldered part of the trail, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it for kiddos with their little legs, but it is a doable hike, for sure. We hiked the loop clockwise, leaving the steep stuff for the end, but hiking it counterclockwise would get that all over with in the first half hour or forty-five minutes. It was the perfect length for an afternoon, and I’m guessing will be particularly stunning on an autumn day, due to the large number of hardwoods that will turn color before too long! We’ll have to hike it again, clearly.We hiked Sunday Gulch on a very rainy, wet afternoon, just after a heavy downpour and during the ensuing drizzle, listening to gentle grumblings of thunder and the patter of raindrops on our waterproofs. The clouds were low and hung low over and between the tops of mountains and granite spires. The first half of the trail, if you hike the loop clockwise, winds through granite spires and formations, along a creekbed, through open and forested terrain. Some great views of the Hills are visible in the first half mile or so.The trail, due to the rain during and for weeks previous to this hike, was in many places a muddy, soggy, puddled mess. And slippery. At times the trail narrowed to little more than a deer trail, with wet shrubby undergrowth nearly overgrowing the trail. I tried to keep my feet dry for awhile, but eventually even the waterproofing on my boots wasn’t enough to keep out all the wet. Which was fine.The first half of the hike is beautiful, of course (it’s the Black Hills, after all), but when the trail finally emerges in the gulch, the trail is breathtaking. Here in particular, the trail became rather mysterious, and we could see under the not-gently flowing water the trail was there somewhere. Beautiful, moss-draped trees towered up between the walls of Sunday Gulch, and little rivulets of water spilled delicately down the faces of the rock. Ferns clung in closely to the damp earth. The creek chattered noisily, the waterfalls churned, and still the rain fell gently.
After the gulch, the fun begins. The trail climbs rather steeply through a bouldered creekbed. Although I generally like trails with no manmade helps, the handrails were nice, particularly given how slippery the boulders were, and it was helpful that it marked a route up. The boulders were big enough in places that finding a route through them, particularly with a creek flowing through them, would have been pretty laborious. I’m guessing this trail is usually drier, with the creek generally well-contained. But as I mentioned, we’ve had a wet summer, and this was a wet day. In many places, water was flowing over the bouldered trail. Keeping dry feet no longer seemed as important.The following pictures are of my favorite part in the trail, simply due to humor. Yes, that’s the trail, or was the trail, going between those two boulders. Dryness no longer seemed even remotely important. It was entirely futile to even attempt to keep dry, so we embraced the water. Under the little waterfall is a staircase. We all got quite wet.The loop trail starts and ends at Sylvan Lake, and we emerged into a silvery drifting fog bank that enveloped and released the spires across the Lake. We drove down to Custer to get ice cream, but some of us were absolutely freezing by this time, since we been soaked and were now evaporating. Coffee and a muffin sounded better than ice cream. So we stopped at the Bank Coffee House in Custer, a historic bank that was renovated to be a coffee shop. They have coffee and ice cream. Excellent.What a wonderful, glorious, wet, cold, rainy, humid, delightful day.