Start 7:35 AM, 46°F, USFS Road No. 352 just NW of the end of Sylvan Hill’s N ridge.
Expedition day! Lupe was excited! She frolicked and rolled in tall green grass, wet from overnight rain showers. Before SPHP was even ready to set out, Loop was already a soggy doggie, but happy as a clam. She led the way, trotting S on perfectly good USFS Road No. 352, expecting SPHP to follow.
Instead, SPHP left the road right at the G6, climbing a slope to the SE to begin the 1.75 mile trek up Sylvan Hill’s N ridge. The Carolina Dog doubled back. This was more good news! Loop loves off-road, off-trail exploring most of all.
Sylvan Hill (7,000 ft.) is the high point of Custer County, SD. Situated only 3 miles SW of Black Elk Peak (7,131 ft.), the highest mountain in South Dakota, and a mile W of Sylvan Lake, it lies near the heart of the most rugged territory in the Black Hills, an area characterized by large ancient granite formations.
As the Custer County high point, Sylvan Hill gets climbed more frequently than many Black Hills peaks. The vast majority of ascents are made by the shortest route possible starting from a dirt parking lot off Hwy 87/89 located 0.5 mile W of Sylvan Lake Lodge in Custer State Park.
From the dirt parking lot, a short trek up a switchback on a gated side road ends at a sod-covered water storage facility. A subsequent steep climb WSW through the forest skirts around the S end of a big granite formation, and leads to a saddle on a ridgeline with more granite to the S (High Point 6849). The summit of Sylvan Hill lies less than 0.25 mile NW of this saddle along a deadfall infested ridge.
This popular route from the E is no more than 0.75 mile one way, and involves less than 800 feet of net elevation gain. The first time Lupe climbed Sylvan Hill slightly more than 3 years ago on Expedition No. 89 (5-17-14), she had also used this route. Not today, though! Now she was intent upon exploring the longer N ridge.
Lupe gained a little under 200 feet of elevation going up the slope to the first high point on the N ridge. Scattered boulders were at the top, but no large rock formations. Lupe angled S, losing a little elevation. Off to the W, a short stretch of USFS Road No. 352 was in sight again a little lower down. Lupe had been right, it would have been easier to follow the road this far. Ahh, well. Que sera.
Continuing on, Lupe’s climb resumed. This next section was shorter, and led to more boulders strung out along a higher part of the ridge. Lupe got up on one of the biggest boulders offering a partial view of what lay ahead.
For a while, the ridge narrowed considerably. The edge was steeper than before. Sometimes Lupe could go over the top of rock formations she came to. Other times, it was easier to go around. SPHP often expected Lupe was about to have to lose some elevation, but she seldom lost much. A way through to higher ground always seemed to appear.
The ridge widened out again, and Lupe came to an abandoned road. The road was switchbacking its way up, so Loop followed it. Why not? It was the easiest way.
The road didn’t take Lupe very far. It ended at what appeared to be an old prospecting site where a hole had been blasted in the side of the ridge.
With the forest also blown away in this area, Lupe would have her first real shot at some distant views from rocks she could see above the blast site. Loop scrambled up for a look around. She had a nice look back to the N at Saint Elmo Peak (6,458 ft.) and Zimmer Ridge (6,600 ft.).
Dingo, ho! Lupe was climbing steadily now. The ridge was getting steeper. The longest, steepest part of her journey up the N ridge was underway. Loop was approaching the high forested area she had seen from the first big boulder early on. Before the final big push, she reached another high point with a view.
Onward! Up and up. After several hundred feet of sharp elevation gains, the terrain began to level out. Lupe was still going up, but at a more moderate pace. The forest started thinning out. Lupe came to meadows with minor high points a short distance off to the SSW. She went over near the top of the first one.
Lupe had her first view of Sylvan Hill’s true summit ahead.
The rest of the way was easy. The slope of the terrain was gradual. Lupe romped through open fields. To the E, she had views of impressive rock formations and many peaks she had been to before. The true summit wasn’t far off now.
The NW slope of the knobby summit would have been an easy climb, but was full of deadfall timber amid a thick stand of young aspens. Lupe found it easier to circle around to the SW, where she faced a momentary scramble between a few big rocks. A couple of bounds up, and she was there! Lupe sat comfortably on a small grassy spot on top of Sylvan Hill (7,000 ft.) for the first time in over 3 years.
The views from Sylvan Hill were magnificent! Lupe could see far off in every direction. The summit area was small, but not the least bit scary. The American Dingo had plenty of room to relax and take life easy. First, though, it was time to enjoy those views!
The cairn at the top of the mountain had been considerably improved upon since the last time Lupe had been here on Expedition No. 89. She got up near it for a good look around.
N of the true summit was another rock ledge Lupe could comfortably pose on. She happily agreed to get up on it for a few photos in this direction, too.
Before taking her break, Lupe returned to the summit cairn for another look. Of all the grand views available from Sylvan Hill, the best was toward Black Elk Peak, South Dakota’s loftiest mountain.
That was a bunch of pictures. Lupe was ready for her break. She curled up to enjoy her usual Taste of the wild. SPHP had nectarines instead of the usual apple. After devouring both nectarines, SPHP wandered around the summit a bit more while Lupe continued chilling out.
The weather had been becoming increasingly unsettled while Lupe came up the N ridge. After 20 minutes at the summit, the first of a series of squalls blew in. Suddenly, Lupe really was chilling out. SPHP feared a cold, drenching shower was imminent, but none materialized.
What did materialize was a snow storm! The micro-blizzard was dramatic, and came on driven by a frigid, stiff N breeze. The snow wasn’t flakes, but arrived as tiny pellets. Neither the Carolina Dog nor SPHP was particularly pleased with this turn of events, but snow was better than a bone-chilling rain.
The Sylvan Peak micro-blizzard lasted all of 3 or 4 minutes before it began to taper off again. Typical in this country. More squalls would come, but in the meantime, Lupe would have 20 minutes or more when the skies would clear somewhat and the sun might shine.
Loop was ready to move on. A few more minutes at the summit, and SPHP was ready, too.
Lupe’s next peakbagging goal for Expedition No. 206 was Peak 6733, located nearly 1.5 miles SW of Sylvan Hill across the upper end of Bear Gulch. The plan wasn’t to head directly for it, but to explore the entire length of the long, undulating ridge going all around the S end of Bear Gulch.
The first part of Looper’s route to Peak 6733 would follow the same SE ridge which is the last segment of the popular route to Sylvan Hill from Hwy 87/89. SPHP remembered this trek from Lupe’s Expedition No. 89 as being dreadfully slow due to all the deadfall timber killed by pine bark beetles.
The deadfall situation hadn’t improved at all over the last 3 years.
Fortunately, it wasn’t nearly as far to the first big granite formation SE of Sylvan Hill as SPHP remembered. Despite the deadfall, Lupe made her way over there fairly quickly. She climbed most of the way up the granite into a narrow crack between nearly vertical walls.
Lupe was near High Point 6849 on the Peakbagger.com topo map. She needed to get past the highest vertical wall of granite blocking her way S. SPHP didn’t see an easy way over it, and was fearful of the potential drop that might be waiting for Lupe on the other side.
After a half-hearted search for a way over, Lupe and SPHP gave up. Lupe went W looking for a way around High Point 6849.
Loop had to lose more elevation than SPHP expected, but she did get around the W end of High Point 6849. Good thing Lupe went around it, and hadn’t tried too hard to go over the top! Looking back after regaining the ridgeline on the other side, it was clear that going around had been the only feasible option.
Now that she was past High Point 6849, Lupe followed the ridge SW. The ridge was broad, and the terrain wasn’t bad at all, with no big climbs or drops. Lupe still had excellent views to the S.
Despite these advantages, the ridge walk wasn’t fun. Deadfall timber was strewn so thickly about, Lupe’s progress was excruciatingly slow. She did reach one area that was kind of cool. A lumpy platform of solid granite had a few big puddles on it, and was free of the aggravating deadfall.
The views were great, but beyond the platform, Lupe was forced right back into the deadfall infested forest. Up ahead, High Point 6855 loomed as the next obstacle. It really didn’t look like Lupe could get all the way to the top, but she could clearly get quite high. She shouldn’t have a hard time finding a way past the summit.
Another squall came and went. Cold N breeze, same deal as before, except this time it was a mix of snow then rain. As before, it didn’t last long. These squalls might come and go for hours. If they turned completely to rain and got worse, Lupe’s long trek around the deadfall infested ridge was going to be unpleasant. She still had a long way to go to Peak 6733.
Upon reaching a saddle leading to the now imminent climb up High Point 6855, the American Dingo discovered a faint road. Lupe was doing fine, but SPHP was fed up with all the deadfall on the ridge. Come on, Looper, let’s just take this road down into Bear Gulch. Even though you’ll have to regain a lot more lost elevation, we’ll get to Peak 6733 way faster.
Lupe didn’t mind. In fact, she preferred the road, too. The road went by meadows where she could run around, instead of wasting her energy hopping over dead trees. The faint road led to a better one, which ultimately brought Lupe down into the upper end of Bear Gulch from the E.
Peak 6733 was now in view ahead.
Lupe came to USFS Road No. 352 again 2.5 miles S of where the G6 was parked along it. Nearby, a little stream crossed the road. Lupe crossed the road, too, staying S of the creek. Boggy forested terrain interlaced with small rivulets trickling through it all forced her SW.
Loop drank from the rivulets. She loved the feel of the soft, damp, boggy ground on her paws. SPHP was less enthused by the mud, but managed to avoid the worst of it. Before long, the Carolina Dog was beyond the bog and climbing a hillside. She had skipped past a big part of the long ridge to Peak 6733, but now she needed to get back up there again. SPHP had her aim for the saddle between High Point 6627 and Peak 6733.
About the time Loop regained the ridgeline, a third squall hit. This squall was mostly dark clouds and wind, accompanied by only a little rain. Apparently the squalls were weakening instead of strengthening. Good! Lupe turned NW following the ridge. She still needed to regain another 300 feet of elevation to reach Peak 6733’s summit.
In keeping with its annoying tradition, the upper part of the ridge was strewn with deadfall. At least it wasn’t quite as bad here as before.
The summit of Peak 6733 is a block of granite with small cliffs facing NE. Lupe had an easy time scrambling up from the SE. The views were superb in most directions, except to the W toward Thunderhead Mountain (6,567 ft.) and the Crazy Horse Memorial where trees interfered.
After a look around, Lupe and SPHP took a break. Lupe had water and more Taste of the Wild. SPHP had foolishly devoured both nectarines back on Sylvan Hill.
By the time Lupe’s break was over, another squall could be seen coming in from the N.
This fourth squall was the weakest and final one of any note. The sun soon came out again. Lupe made another tour of Peak 6733’s summit before beginning her descent.
The easiest way down seemed to be to the SE back the way Lupe had come up.
Once Lupe was down off the summit, she stopped briefly by another high point a little to the SE. It was somewhat lower, of course, but offered a final, unobstructed view of Sylvan Hill (7,000 ft.) and Bear Gulch.
From here, Lupe headed N, passing below Peak 6733’s summit along the base of the NE facing cliffs.
Once beyond the cliffs, Lupe and SPHP stayed on the N ridge making a long trek through a battle zone of deadfall timber. The terrain was easy enough, but the deadfall was horrid the entire way. Lupe finally reached a road at a gated pass immediately S of High Point 6634.
Once again, Lupe was glad to reach the road! She made another descent into Bear Gulch. The road took her a long way back to the SE, before eventually curving N again. Lupe didn’t care. She was free of the deadfall. Now she could have fun sniffing around. She was entertained by numerous deer she saw along the way.
The road finally reached USFS Road No. 352 down by the creek at the bottom of Bear Gulch. Here, the side road Lupe had been following was marked as No. 352.2B. The G6 was still a good 2 miles N along No. 352.
It was only mid-afternoon. The sun would be up for hours. However, Lupe had gotten off to an early start this morning, and the long stretches of deadfall had been wearying. The Carolina Dog turned N on No. 352, and headed for her ride home. (5:01 PM, 59°F)
Note: USFS Road No. 352 (marked by a brown fiberglass wand) leaves the W side of Hwy 87/89 in Sunday Gulch (S of Hill City) less than 0.25 mile S of privately owned Horse Thief Campground & RV Resort just as the highway begins a 3 mile climb up to Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park.
Stay to the L at a “Y” where No. 352 levels out. Park along the road here (like Lupe did), or go a little farther to a small parking area at a locked gate in Bear Gulch less than a mile from the highway. High clearance vehicle not required.