Located in the famous Black Hills of South Dakota, Sylvan Peak is only about 4 air-miles west of the state highpoint at Harney Peak, and itself is the highpoint of Custer County. A thickly-forested peak, the summit ridge features many gigantic stone spires and cliffs, which make for interesting views and some hiking challenges, although the usual route to the top requires nothing more than simple scrambling at worst.
The usual hiking route is fairly short - about 1.5 miles one way with almost 800 feet in altitude gain from the parking area. However, the last half is through poorly-blazed forest and requires attention to detail to stay on route. In 2004, I experienced a section of downed trees which occluded the route and eventually 'helped' me get lost for one of the very few occasions ever in my life!
The pine beetle devastation of forests in the western USA has not left Sylvan Peak untouched. To compound that, the 2013 Winter Storm Atlas downed many more trees, leaving an even bigger tangle in the deadfall on Sylvan.
Sylvan Peak is not heavily promoted and probably does not see more than a handful of visitors per year, mainly county highpoint enthusiasts or Black Hills residents desiring a challenge. Views of Harney Peak from the summit are outstanding. For those who would like to avoid crowded trails, who enjoy off-trail hiking, and who like a little solitude in reaching one of the Black Hills few 7,000-foot summits, this is a solid bet.
Getting There & Route
If coming from Custer, head north on SD-89 about 6 miles to the 89/87 junction. Go left onto SD-87 a little less than a mile to the pullout, on your left.
If coming from the US-16/SD-87 junction (i.e. from the Crazy Horse and Rushmore Monuments), go south on SD-87 about 5 miles to the pullout. Steep switchbacks occur at about 3.5 miles, and the short tunnel is passed at about 4.5 miles.
The GPX file, attached, outlines the route to the summit from SD-87. Expect 2.1 miles roundtrip, and allow 90 minutes (roundtrip) at a moderate pace.
Please note that the parking lot on the Highway 87 turnout is technically in Custer State Park. For the most part, they do not have any different restrictions, other than a prohibition against carrying handguns.
The forest service office in Custer can be reached at: 605-673-9200
The forest service district ranger's office can be reached at: 605-673-4853
The main office in Custer State Park can be reached at: 605-255-4515
When To Climb
Summer can be pretty warm in the Black Hills, though at Sylvan Peak's altitude it will rarely exceed the high 80's. Beware of thunderstorms that can develop quickly. Mid-afternoon lightning can be treacherous.
For those who want to hike during fall colors season, late September through mid-October are the best times. But, significant snowfall can also occur at those times, sometimes with not much advance warning.
Custer State Park Campgrounds
Custer, SD Camping & Lodging
Hill City SD Camping & Lodging
Sylvan Lake Lodge
Weather Underground Report for Custer, South Dakota
Custer Area Forecast & Conditions
The pine beetle infestations plaguing the Black Hills, have hit Sylvan Peak pretty hard in recent years. This will mean snag dangers in the years to come. Winter Storm Atlas, in October 2013, caused widespread damage to the Black Hills National Forest. Many trails are almost impassable, due to downed trees. This is going to take the forest service a long time to clean up. Check out the link to the Custer Forest Service office here: Custer, SD Forest Service Office