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Get Outside: Sylvan Lake, or, parts of South Dakota


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South Dakota, for some reason, is a very popular vacation spot for my family, so, I have been there five times throughout my life. Whenever we go, we always try to visit Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, which is in Custer, S.D. and is a part of the Black Hills. You may know Sylvan Lake as the lake “behind” Mount Rushmore in the Nicholas Cage movie, “National Treasure 2.” While that’s not true, many visitors to South Dakota know they should visit Custer State Park, where they’ll eventually discover the beauty of Sylvan Lake. 

For context, the Black Hills region is a mountainous area covered in greenery that spans from Deadwood and Spearfish down past Custer. It is given the adjective “black” because “the Lakota Sioux tribe called the small mountain range covered primarily by ponderosa pine trees Pahá Sápa, or ‘Hills That Are Black.’ While looking at the Black Hills from afar may give you that impression, it’s the trees doing all the work — you’re seeing the shadows they cast on the stone” (South Dakota’s tourism website). The Black Hills include popular destinations like Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial (to honor the “the Oglala Lakota warrior,” Crazy Horse), Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument; Badlands National Park is nearby.  

Of course, another popular destination is Custer State Park, which “encompass[es] 71,000 acres in the Black Hills” (South Dakota’s Game, Fish and Parks website). It’s set up to accommodate scenic drives, including the Wildlife Loop Road and our favorite: Needles Highway. We preferred Needles Highway because of its breathtaking views, and my grandpa felt comfortable driving it. I remember that my family always looked forward to going to the state park to see all the animals, especially at dusk. When we’ve gone, we’ve seen many prairie dogs, buffalo, donkeys, mule deer and mountain goats and have some funny stories to tell about the friendly donkeys. Though we usually stayed in the car on our trips to Custer State Park except to stop at the lookouts, have a picnic or walk at Sylvan Lake, it was a very relaxing drive full of animal sightings — perfect for little kids.  

Now, to Sylvan Lake! I’ve finally homed in on the topic, great! So, Sylvan Lake is a part of Custer State Park, which is a part of the Black Hills region in South Dakota, and I’ve been there a lot. It is beautiful, and my cousin even made a painting of it! I have some distinct memories involving Sylvan Lake, including five-year-old me quacking/honking at ducks or geese (there’s some uncertainty of the bird type between my parents) in my attempt to be like them; as a result, they chased me … which, surprisingly, I did back home a lot too. 

Since these trips to Sylvan Lake have been throughout my lifetime (roughly when I was two-, five-, nine-, 13- and 19-years-old), they all kind of blur together. My most recent trip is the clearest; my grandparents and I visited Sylvan Lake in early September before Lawrence started. When my brother and I were little, my family never really explored too much of Sylvan Lake by foot. We would have a picnic and walk by some of the rocks around the lake, but that was really it. For this 2019 trip, though, I got to see a whole different side of Sylvan Lake. There were rock climbers and a group of “abandoned” little kids trying to go into a hole, which we actively tried to stop. There were many routes and even a nearby wedding!  

I think that coming back to a place over and over again is really comforting and a bit like studying abroad — the location becomes like a second home. I have always been fond of South Dakota, and I would like to offer some other great places to visit as well (some are not nature-focused): Deadwood (take a trolley!!), the Super 8 in Deadwood (good pizza), Wall Drug (a site to see), the Mammoth Site (see an active dig site!), Corn Palace (new corn-based designs every year!), the Chamberlain Visitor Center (see a beautiful statue), the KOA campground in Kennebec (a very memorable place with a great pool) and Spearfish Canyon (very beautiful). My personal favorite non-nature place is Deadwood; if you go, make sure you see the shoot-out reenactment and visit Mount Moriah Cemetery.  

Ultimately, I wanted to share how important South Dakota is to me and how, even if it may seem like a silly vacation spot to you, it is a wonderful place to visit. The sites truly never get old!