Custer State Park

After years of planning and months of prep Pam, Hugo, and I were finally ready to set out on our epic journey. I guess this wasn’t technically the beginning – we actually began the trip by travelling north to visit Pam’s family in North Dakota and Minnesota. But after a couple of weeks of family time we were ready to start knocking things off our “must see” lists. We had decided that with winter already eminent we would head back to Austin so that we could vote and then would spend the winter months in the south. Turns out there’s not a ton to see between the fam’s and home. But, after looking over the map we found destinations that turned out to be a really cool. And they even had cool names – the Badlands and the Black Hills.

So it was settled. The first stop on our journey would be western South Dakota. This trip actually started off with something that has me questioning how we approach all our travelling for the duration of this journey. I had inquired on a couple of on-line forums about peoples’ recommendations for SD. What should we definitely try to see during our stay? I received several helpful responses, one of which stated specifically to take state highway 44 from east to west to and avoid the interstate. This is something I have been excited about for a long time. I love to take the back roads and really see the countryside. The interstate can sometimes be the shortest distance to a destination, but doesn’t always offer the most interest. Also, since we rarely drive the RV over 60 mph we don’t lose much by taking the smaller highways because we can’t cruise at 75 anyway. So, it’s settled. We’re taking Highway 44.

It took about an hour for me to regret that decision. Highway 44 was a series of bumps that shook the bus to the point that I thought we were going to throw a hub cap. It was as if the entire roadway had been compressed like an accordion and there were little creases at every section of asphalt that were pushed up like tiny speed bumps. Driving over this never ending series of speed bumps was not aided at all by the fact that there was absolutely nothing to look at!!! I don’t know what the person who advised me to take this road was seeing, but we saw nothing but wide open spaces. And when I say nothing I mean no scenery, but also no rest areas, no cities…heck, we didn’t even see a place to pull over and use the restroom for hours! Now I’m torn – do we continue to drive the scenic routes which usually take longer only to have underwhelming experiences like this? Or was this a one-time fiasco? Time will tell.

So, back to SD. We basically just skipped the Badlands. That is to say we drove through without stopping. I don’t think our route took us by the more interesting parts of this place. We saw lots of grasslands and some of the geologic formations, but opted to press on to the Black Hills. In our research of the area we quickly found that Custer State Park is one of the best places to camp. There are public lands and other camping areas available, but Custer seemed to offer the biggest slice of everything we wanted to experience. As it turns out, we barely made it in time. Unbeknownst to me as a lifelong southerner, many campgrounds in the north shut down for the winter and Custer was no exception. A few sections of the park had closed already and the rest were set to close Oct. 31. We barely made it a week before closing!


Highway 44 through the South Dakota Badlands


Custer State Park is as enormous as it is beautiful. I grew up camping with my family at wonderful places like Tyler State Park in east Texas which is about 1000 acres. By comparison, Custer is 71,000 acres! Yes, there are bigger parks out there, but none that I had visited, so this was a new experience for me. We had to drive about six miles just to get from the entrance of the park to our camping site! Another thing that struck me about the park was how much it was developed. There were four different lodges with restaurants. You could technically stay there for a week and never have to cook a meal. As usual our main interest was the adventure activities and Custer had plenty of that. We didn’t break out the bikes or kayaks, but we did a trio of hikes, cruised a couple of scenic drives, and saw a ton of wildlife.

The first day we decided to take a “warmup hike”. So, we drove over to the Lover’s Leap trail to get started. That proved to be the most difficult part of the hike. Despite the fact that Custer is a very nice park, we found the signage for the trails a little wanting. It took us forever to find the trailhead despite the fact that we were driving right by it. Once set out on the hike it became apparent that the trail was being re-developed or something. Most of the trail wasn’t really a trail at all, but a path that had been plowed through the woods with a Bobcat skid steer. Not very natural, but I guess necessary for the new layout. We found the Lover’s Leap trail to be a moderate difficulty trail. Pam and I really prefer difficult trails with lots of climbing so we tend to grade hikes a little harder than the parks do. The scenery was just okay until we reached the peak of the trail where the payoff was pretty nice. It had a rocky peak that you could make your way up and be rewarded with some lovely 360 degree views of pine forests and rock outcroppings. We were pretty impressed at the time, but those views would later prove to be heavily outdone by the views from Harney’s Peak.

Lover’s Leap Trail
The peak of Lover’s Leap Trail

We also did the Stockade Lake Trail, which was a decent little trail but was relatively short and low difficulty. The lure of this trail was supposed to be the views of the little lake it was adjacent to, but we found most of the views to be blocked by trees and we couldn’t really even get any decent pics.

Stockade Lake Trail

Now we were on to some of the activities that we were really excited about for this trip. The Needles Highway scenic drive was first up. This is a section of South Dakota highway 87. It’s called Needles Highway because of the tall granite rock formations that it winds through. It’s a great drive full of switchbacks, climbs, decents, some 180 degree and even 270 degree turns. The scenery is just amazing with giant pines and sprawling junipers scattered amongst the towering granite formations. We stopped several times to take pics and there were so many great views that we couldn’t even begin to capture them all. The highlights of this drive are the tunnels that were blasted through the solid granite walls. We had to make the drive in the Jeep because the RV is too big to fit through the tunnels! They are only about eleven feet tall and only wide enough for one car to pass through at a time. Approach with caution to avoid a head on collision with drivers coming from the other direction!

Needles Highway
Tunnel near Needle’s Eye


Needle’s Eye


Our biggest adventure of the South Dakota portion of our trip was hiking the Harney Peak Trail #4. This trail is a little more ambitious. It’s rated as moderate difficulty, but definitely becomes more taxing as you near the summit as there are several switchbacks and steeper trails. The course is 3.5 miles one way, making for a seven mile round trip with 1100 feet of elevation. Fortunately there is a ton of scenery to take your mind off the strenuous climb. The trail winds by the Cathedral Spires which is a section of the granite formations that are particularly tall, narrow, and pointed. It really is breath taking and pictures just don’t do the beauty or the scale justice, but we took a ton regardless. One aspect of the trail that we really appreciated is that at a certain point the path leaves Custer State Park and enters the Black Hills National Forest. Custer requires that dogs be on leash at all times, but the National Forest allows for dogs to be off leash as long as they are in verbal command distance. Hugo definitely enjoyed this because it allowed him to sniff around as well as effortlessly run circles around us as we trudge up the increasingly steeper grade.


Cathedral Spires


As you near the summit of Harney Peak the trail becomes steep and the switchbacks begin to multiply.  The temperature clearly dropped a few degrees and the wind began to whip around.  The last few meters have a couple of open steel staircases that Hugo found quite frightening if not simply uncomfortable for his paws. With a little coaxing we got him to climb up them, but going down was a little too much for him and I had to hoist him and carry him down the stairs.  Thank goodness he only weighs fifty pounds!  The peak reaches 7,242 feet at its highest point and unbeknownst to us is the highest peak in the US east of the Rockies.  Who knew?  I thought we were just out for a little fun, but tag on some bragging points! At the summit is a stone fire lookout tower that was built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in the mid 1930’s.  And talk about views!  The scene from the tower seems unending and encompasses four states in addition to the awesome Black Hills and Cathedral Spires.  The trip down was a lot easier and much faster, not only due to the decent, but the fact that we took all our pictures on the way up and were all pictured out on the way down.


View from Harney’s Peak


After the trio of hikes we desperately needed a day off so we decided to spend the last day of our stay at Custer State Park relaxing and exploring the Wildlife Loop drive.  I wouldn’t say it was saving the best for last, but it was definitely worth the wait.  Our bar was already set pretty high since a couple of days earlier we had seen a bison grazing by the side of the road literally 10 feet off the pavement.  But the Wildlife loop did not disappoint.  It’s an 18 mile drive mostly consisting of rolling hills of grasslands.  It didn’t take long for us to spot more bison and tons of chubby little prairie dogs.  Next, we came across the bison corrals.  Every fall they round up all the bison so that park workers can vaccinate them and sell some in order to control the population since the park can only sustain a certain amount.  Seeing the bison up close like this really made it apparent how enormous these thing are.  Huge heads!  Moving on, we drove past several white tail deer, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope.  The pronghorn gave us a giggle as their big, white butts look like diapers.


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We had read that there are bighorn sheep and elk in the park and were really excited to see some.  We kept our eyes peeled the entire drive, but alas, it wasn’t in the cards.  We did, however, get a big treat when we came across a gang of wild burros.  Burros were originally used as work animals during construction of Custer State Park mostly to carry supplies and materials up the Harney Peak trail for the tower.  When construction was completed, the burros were released to live in the park where they have thrived ever since.  Despite the fact that the burros are feral and live wild on the land, they are quite used to humans and have been nicknamed the “begging burros” because they will walk right up to your car and stick their heads in the windows looking for a snack or a scratch behind the ears.  They were super friendly and this turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.


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Overall Custer State Park and South Dakota in general was a great destination.  Lots of wildlife, great hikes, gorgeous terrain, and scenic drives…  Definitely worth the visit!


Gallery of Custer State Park Photos


Side note:  I recently discovered that as of August 11, 2016 the name Harney Peak was officially changed to Black Elk Peak to honor the significance of the summit to Native Americans.  Black Elk was a respected elder of the Sioux nation.  Seems like a small, yet respectful gesture.