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Custer State Park

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

Towering granite formations, rivers so rich they once started a gold rush and pine forests
so thick the hillsides look black from a distance — you don’t want to be without a camera
in South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest. The wildlife is plentiful, too — some 1,500
free-roaming buffalo, spry pronghorn, shaggy bighorn sheep and even some shy prairie dogs.
To experience it all, head to the second-largest state park in the country — Custer State
Park. Although several routes lead to Custer, two are especially scenic and almost as
rewarding as the park itself. Iron Mountain Road (U.S. 16A) enters the northeastern part of
the park and provides grand vistas of the Black Hills’ rough-hewn peaks and profuse pine
forests. The road also offers 17 miles of hairpin curves, “pigtails” (unusual bridges that
double back on themselves in a curlicue shape) and square rock tunnels that perfectly frame
the landscape. If you’re towing a large or long trailer, though, use the Needles Highway
(State Route 87) instead. The less-narrow 14-mile road enters the northwestern portion of
the park through thick aspen, birch and spruce trees back-dropped by pointy rocky spires
(hence the name Needles Highway). This route also passes picturesque Sylvan Lake and
campground. Both corridors top any traveler’s list of scenic American drives. While less
famous than neighboring Mount Rushmore National Memorial 20 miles to the north, Custer
State Park has its own claim to fame — the infamous “begging burros.” More than likely
you’ll encounter them holding up traffic in hopes of a handout. These unofficial long-eared
park ambassadors are actually feral descendants of a herd of burros that were used by the
park in the 1920s to give trail rides up to 7,242-foot Harney Peak, the highest point in
the Black Hills. Much more tame than wild, the friendly burros often block the road, but
are harmless, and a toot of the horn will move them out of the way. If you have time, do
stop and share an apple or two. They won’t bite the hand that feeds them, and you’re sure
to get some fun photos. If you like your wildlife more on the wild side, you won’t be
disappointed when you drive the paved 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. The two-lane road in the
southern portion of the park traverses open prairie grasslands and over and around pretty
rolling hills dotted with colorful wildflowers. Deer, elk and antelope roam freely, as do
enormous buffalo. Also watch for coyotes, mountain lions, many species of birds and a
colony of cute prairie dogs you can view right from the road. Each spring, the Wildlife
Loop Road turns into a nursery for adorable buffalo calves. Sticking close to their
mothers’ hefty sides, young buffalo calves are fiercely protected, so use your telephoto
lens and never get too close — although they’re so cute, it’s tempting. The herds often
graze near the roadsides and, without warning, will walk in front of vehicles, so use
caution. Buffalo, or bison, may look slow and plodding, but they can outrun a horse, are
wildly unpredictable and should never be approached. To fully experience just how fast and
furiously bison can run, attend Custer State Park’s annual Buffalo Roundup held in early
October. To control the size of the park’s bison population, yippee-kay-yeahing cowboys and
cowgirls herd more than 1,400 huge beasts into a system of corrals along the Wildlife Loop
Road. It’s not only a sight to see, but with thousands of thundering hooves pounding the
earth, you’ll feel it too! Once corralled, the animals are sorted and the new calves are
branded and vaccinated. Most bison are released back into the park, but others remain in
the corrals until the November buffalo auction. Revenue received from this auction goes
toward the park’s annual operating budget. In conjunction with the roundup, Custer State
Park hosts an Annual Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival. For three days, visitors are treated to
continuous Western and Native American dancing and singing, and can admire and purchase
artwork made by South Dakota’s finest artists and craftsmen. Mounted shooting
demonstrations, a chili cook-off and other special activities make this event a South
Dakota tradition. You won’t want to miss anything that Custer State Park has to offer, so
stop at the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center, named for an early conservationist and former
South Dakota governor. Built from native wood and stone in 1935 by the Civilian
Conservation Corps, the structure is distinctive and houses exhibits and displays that
interpret the region’s natural and cultural history. Also, pick up a copy of the park
guide, Tatanka, (which means “bison” in the Lakota Sioux language) for details on hiking,
trout fishing, camping, geocaching, guided wildlife tours and the park’s year-round events.
The Wildlife Station Visitor Center on Wildlife Loop Road is the place to get your
questions answered about the flora and fauna you encounter along the loop. It won’t be easy
deciding on just one campground for your stay in the park. You can set up along a flowing
stream or lake, in the midst of a forest, or in open areas. With so many options — each in
a different setting, with a variety of amenities — you’ll need to sample more than one.
Many of the larger campgrounds — Blue Bell, Center Lake, Game Lodge and Stockade Lake
North — also offer interpretive programs during the summer. Naturalists educate campers on
a variety of park topics, and costumed characters from the 1870s have even been known to
make an appearance. Beautiful resort-style accommodations — State Game Lodge, Sylvan Lake
Resort, Legion Lake Resort, and Blue Bell Lodge — make it easy for non-campers to linger
in nature-loaded Custer State Park. But even if you are staying at the nice campgrounds,
take a peek inside these historic treasures and maybe treat yourself to a South Dakota
specialty meal of buffalo, trout or pheasant in one of their dining rooms. Each inn is
extraordinary: The State Game Lodge served as the “Summer White House” for President Calvin
Coolidge in 1927; Sylvan Lake Resort offers breathtaking views of Harney Peak; Legion Lake
Resort was once the site of the local American Legion post; and Blue Bell Lodge was built
in 1920 by an executive at Bell Telephone. You’ll also find general stores and gift shops
at each lodge. With 71,000 scenic acres, a large and diverse animal population, plus
first-rate visitor facilities and activities to suit the entire family, Custer State Park
could easily be mistaken for a national park. From the open grasslands and rolling hills to
clear lakes, streams and granite peaks, every turn in the road or trail guarantees another
fantastic view. And the 114 protected square miles means there is plenty of room to explore
and enjoy the beauty of the Black Hills. Bring your sense of adventure and wonder to Custer
State Park, and roam wild like the buffalo!

Campground Availability Custer State Park maintains an excellent Web site.
For a detailed descriptions and to view photos of each site — complete with length
restrictions and list of campground amenities — go to www.campsd.com. Or, you can call (800) 710-CAMP to make reservations.
Camping fees range from $13-18 per night. There aren’t any sewer or water hookups, but some
sites do have electricity.

  • Blue Bell Campground: Open May 5 – Oct 9
  • Center Lake Campground: Open April 28 – Sep 9
  • Game Lodge Campground: Open year round
  • Grace Coolidge Campground: Open May 19 – Oct 2
  • Legion Lake Campground: Open May 19 – Sep 5 and Sep 28 – Oct 2
  • Stockade North Campground: Open May 19 – Sep 5
  • Stockade South Campground: Open May 19 – Oct 2
  • Sylvan Lake Campground: Open May 19 – Sep 24
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