Although I grew up in the same state, it wasn’t until I was exactly 10 that I visited Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills of South Dakota for the first time. I say exactly because I took the trip to the Hills with my Mom who is a country music diehard. And I wasn’t. We spent all six plus hours of the 55 mph drive listening to AM country radio stations. Elvira, a song by the Oak Ridge Boys, was popular and was getting a ton of airplay in the summer of 1981. And for whatever reason, I made it my theme song for the duration of the trip. Yes, I was a weird kid.

A 10 Year Old’s Dream

The Black Hills are a 10 year old’s dream. From incredible hiking trails and generally gorgeous mountain views to Needles Highway, Mount Rushmore, Spearfish Canyon and Jewel Cave to the tourist attractions like Cosmos, Reptile Gardens and Hill City’s 1880 Train. Combine those attractions with the western legends of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, and there is plenty for a 10 year old with a vivid imagination to explore.

A fine art sunset photographt Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills of South Dakota by Sioux Falls SD based travel and landscape photographer Paul Heckel
I’m always optimistic that the sky will do something cool at sunset.

Our home for a week was a little cabin complex called Lewis Park Cabins in Hill City, South Dakota. Incidentally, the cabins are still standing 37 years later, albeit under a different name (Trails End Cabins) and ownership. Directly behind the cabins was a large (at least to a 10 year old) “mountain”. My mom and I hiked to the top of that “mountain” every day of our vacation. With me, most likely signing my new favorite song, Elvira.

It was the third or fourth day of our trip that my Mom and I drove through the Norbeck Byway and Needles Highway and found Sylvan Lake. That morning, I fell in love with the cold mountain lake with it’s huge diving rocks.

South Dakota: A Divided State

I grew up in north eastern South Dakota which has totally different vibe than the western side of the state. Mostly due to the topography. South Dakota is divided in half my the Missouri River. East is flat with a lot of corn, soy bean and wheat fields. West begins with the bluffs of the Missouri River Valley which slowly roll into hills and draws and ranch land. The Black Hills are located near the Wyoming border in the west central part of the South Dakota and extend from Belle Fourche to the north and to the Nebraska border on the south.

On several occasions, I’ve taken my family to the Black Hills as tourists and not as South Dakotan residents. We’ve been to all of the same places that my mom and I visited in 1981.

South Dakota Solo

Last summer, I toured South Dakota solo on a 12-day photography trip. I started in Sioux Falls and headed north to Roy Lake. From there, I traveled west through Aberdeen, Mobridge and spent some time at Reva Gap. Some friends had turned me on to Reva, a hidden gem in the northern hills.

From Reva, I headed south and spent five days in Hill City staying in the same cabins my Mom had booked 37 years earlier. I spent a couple of days scouting photo locations and taking in the southern Black Hills. On the third evening, I made my way to Sylvan Lake for a sunset photo.

Sylvan Lake Revisited

I parked my rig in a lonely Sylvan Lake parking lot and grabbed my camera bag and tripod. The evening sky was somewhat overcast, but I remained hopeful that I could still get a shot. I trudged along Sylvan’s banks shooting as I walked listening to the voices of families echo across the lake. Towards sunset, I found a great angle, sunk my tripod legs into the sand and waited.

As the sun began to set, the blue sky revealed the sun’s warm colors in dramatic fashion. I made several exposures and was pleased with how the rock features separated the sky reflections in the water from the real clouds in the sky.

I’m not an overly emotional guy. I only cry when I crack my knuckles on a bolt while wrenching on a car, but I can honestly say being at Sylvan Lake by myself that summer evening brought back a flood of memories.

I was thankful that I had a Mom who took time out of her busy life to take a geeky ten year old on an adventure. A tradition I’ve always tried to keep alive with my own daughter. And hopefully one that she will continue with her children. And, mostly, I was thankful that we found our way to Sylvan Lake.


For more information about the Black Hills, Custer State Park or the Sylvan Lake, visit the South Dakota Tourism website. It holds a wealth of information.