Hike The Sylvan Lake Loop Trail Along The Needles Highway In South Dakota

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Well, we’re finally back to my South Dakota trip from.. October.  Today we’re looking back at the Sylvan Lake Loop Trail which is one of the best stops along the Needles Highway in the Black Hills. 

One of the hikes I knew I wanted to do was the Sylvan Lake Loop Trail, which is an easy 1.6-mile loop around Sylvan Lake.

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National Park Obsessed – This is the best national park planner.
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We got here pretty much in the middle of the day at the beginning of October so the weather was perfect for this.  Not too hot, not too cold.  There also weren’t very many other people out on the trail which is always nice.

The path around the lake is dirt, but it’s easy to follow.  There is some rock scrambling you can do to get up a little higher for better views, but be careful, the rocks were pretty slippery. 


On the backside of the lake, there is some rock scrambling (very minor) that you have to do to stay on the trail and there are a few stairs back there as well.

Turns out Sylvan Lake isn’t natural.  That park part is a little dam sort of thing and there a small man-made waterfall back there.  I won’t lie, that took away some of the charm for me, but when you’re up on top it’s just so pretty it’s hard to be mad it’s not real.


Is the Sylvan Lake hike the coolest hike ever?  No, but it’s definitely worth the hour or so that it takes to walk the loop.  It’s so pretty with the leaves changing and the rock spires coming out of the water and along the shore are just so cool. 

I’ve never seen another lake like it and would definitely go back.  If you want something a little different and more challenging, try the Cathedral Spires Trail a couple miles away.


What to bring on the Sylvan Lake Loop Trail

Hiking poles – These will be helpful on longer hikes that are on the steeper side.  They’ll be good if you have bad knees for when you’re going downhill and will give you something to lean on going up the hills.

Water bottle – It’ll be hot and you’ll need to stay hydrated.  Even if it’s not hot you need to stay hydrated.  A Hydro Flask will keep your water ice cold all day long.

Sunscreen – If you plan on being outside, you’ll want sunscreen.  I like the Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch a lot AND it’s reef safe! If you’re sensitive to fragrance though, it’s not a good choice. I also like the same one but specifically for your face.

Hat – You’ll want some kind of hat to keep the sun out of your eyes, or a visor.  A baseball hat should be fine but I like my giant sun hat, too.

Sunglasses – This is a must no matter where you are.

Light Jacket – Because you just never know.  Weather can change quickly depending on where you are, time of day, and season.  I usually use my rain jacket for this.

Headlamp – I tend to carry my headlamp around all the time when we’re hiking, just in case. 


Where is the Sylvan Lake hike?

Sylvan Lake is 36 minutes (almost 19 miles) from Keystone which is a great place to base yourself in the Black Hills for a few days.  It’s in Custer State Park along the Needles Highway scenic drive which is a must-do.


How long do I need for the Sylvan Lake Loop Trail?

I think two hours should be plenty for this, maybe even closer to an hour actually.  It will, of course, depend on how fast you walk and how much you stop. 

It could be a nice place to have a picnic lunch along the Needles Highway.  Actually a lunch here is probably the only way it could take two hours.  It’s only 1.6 miles and a relatively flat loop so it’s pretty easy and shouldn’t take too long.


What is the best time to hike the Sylvan Lake Loop Trail?

Spring, summer, and fall.  We went in early October and got to see the leaves changing which was fantastic.  The weather was also perfect. 

Summer could get hot and buggy and spring might not be as colorful, so if I was picking, which I guess I am, fall would be best, but really anything but winter is good because you can’t even get to it then since the Needles Highway is closed in winter.

Have you been to Sylvan Lake?  What did you think of it?  What is your favorite hike in the area?

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