We just spent a few days at Custer State Park in South Dakota. We’ve been there before a couple of times in the spring and I’ve been there in the middle of summer. We thought we’d like to see it at a different time of year. Intentionally, we arrived the day after the bison round-up was over. We stayed four nights in one of the housekeeping cabins at Sylvan Lake Lodge which means that we were down the hill from the lodge in a cabin nestled in the pine trees in close proximity to other cabins. We walked around a little the day that we arrived, but I wouldn’t really call that hiking. We found that our cabin, while within walking distance of the lodge, it wasn’t really going to be walkable after dark without hiking boots and a flashlight. The next day, we set out on the Needles Highway and on to the Wildlife Loop. Both of these are really scenic drives. One of our goals on the Wildlife Loop was to hike the 3 mile Prairie Loop Trail. We’d meant to hike this trail once before, but on that occasion, many bison were lounging and grazing everywhere around the trail head and not approaching the wildlife was more important than getting on the trail. No bison this time, so we set out on the trail. This trail boasts an impressive number of plants typical on a short grass prairie. All the plants that I saw except for asters were done blooming, but there was lead plant, bergamot, little bluestem, sideoats, a couple of kinds of goldenrod and some other grasses just for starters. That trail included some stream crossings, usually dry by this time of year, but with running water this year. At one point near a stream crossing, we came across some mule deer including a buck.
Later that evening, we walked the short trail around Sylvan Lake with really pretty views of the rock outcroppings and we found also the starting point for the Sunday Gulch trail which we’d do a couple of days later.
The next day, we planned for more or less an all day hiking trip, starting out from the cabin with a packed lunch. We walked past Sylvan Lake to the trail head of the Harney Peak trail which we’d done before. We arrived at the summit of Harney Peak before noon. The number of chipmunks or ground squirrels that can be seen running around up there is alarming given the lack of food for them that naturally occurs up there. It means that people are both careless with their food and that people feed them despite the warnings not to feed the wild animals. Feeding them supports a population larger than would naturally occur and may make them more aggressive, it increases the potential for rabies and distemper and the food that people give them may not meet their nutritional needs. Besides the ubiquitous chipmunks, we were luck enough to see a couple of mountain goats who were grazing and resting near the summit. We took another route down and didn’t run into anyone else on the trail down to Little Devil’s Tower. After losing the trail when it changed from blue diamonds mounted on trees to blue diamonds or splotches spraypainted on the rocks, we did get to the summit which gave us a nice view across to Harney Peak. We both thought this trail was easier than we’d remembered.
The last full day we were at Custer, we decided to do two of the shorter hikes. First, since it required a short drive, we hiked the Cathedral Spires Trail. This fairly short out and back trail starts begins at a parking lot on the Needles Highway and while the 2010 park magazine says it does not connect with the Harney Peak Trail System, it does connect with the Little Devil’s Tower spur trail now. The trail winds through pine woods past quite a number of granite spires. Later in the afternoon, we set out from the cabin to Sylvan Lake and we picked up the Sunday Gulch Trail. This trail descends rather steeply with the help of numerous rails, a couple of which were rather shaky into Sunday Gulch which is a beautiful riparian environment. Sometimes the trail is next to sheer granite walls. We were lucky enough to see a snake, some deer, lots of bird life and fish in one of the stream’s small pools. The climb out of the canyon is managed with a number of switchbacks and while it is definitely a steep ascent, I’m glad we hiked the loop in the direction that we did.
Hiking in Custer during the week at this time of year is really pleasant. There don’t seem to be many people once one leaves the roads and the views, plant communities and animal habitats are quite varied. The one thing that is really troubling right now is the damage done by the mountain pine beetle. There is more evidence of damage from these insects now than I remember from previous trips to Custer in the last few years. Many sections of forest stand dead due to this pest. Furthermore, walking around the park, there is evidence of several strategies being tried to eradicate the beetles or slow their progress. I hope this is a war that the wild life ecologists and foresters can win.