Custer State Park: A Black Hills Gem

Custer State Park in the beautiful Black Hills of western South Dakota is full of lush forests, quiet and serene meadows, and majestic mountains. Few truly wild places remain in this country. Custer State Park is one of them.

Thirty to sixty million bison once roamed the great plains of North America. By the close of the 19th century, it’s estimated that less than 1,000 bison survived. Historically, the animal played an essential role in the lives of the Lakota (Sioux), who relied on the “tatanka” for food, clothing, and shelter.

The name for the Needles Highway comes from the needle-like granite formations which seem to pierce the horizon along this curvy route. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The name for the Needles Highway comes from the needle-like granite formations which seem to pierce the horizon along this curvy route. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, nearly 1,300 bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres of mountains, hills, and prairie, which they share with a wealth of wildlife including pronghorn antelope, elk, white-tailed and mule deer, big horn sheep, mountain goats, coyotes, wild turkeys, a band of burros, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs.

The bison herd roams freely throughout the park and is often found along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road in the southern part of the park. Bison seem docile, but can run very fast and turn on a dime. Weighing as much as 2,000 pounds, these animals are forces to be reckoned with. Visitors should stay inside their vehicles when viewing the bison, and not get too close.

Visit the last Friday in September and feel the thunder and join the herd at the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup (September 29, in 2017). Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they roundup and drive the herd of approximately 1,300 buffalo. Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, it is also a critical management tool in maintaining a strong and healthy herd.

The Wildlife Loop Road is particularly known for its common sightings of buffalo. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Wildlife Loop Road is particularly known for its common sightings of buffalo. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to wildlife, the park features several historic sites, including the State Game Lodge, the Badger Hole, the Gordon Stockade, the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center, and the Mount Coolidge Fire Tower. The Black Hills Playhouse, which hosts performances each summer, is also located within the park, as are four resorts, each offering lodging, dining, and activities.

The park also has four mountain lakes. These lakes, along with several streams, offer many water recreation and fishing opportunities.

Officially established in 1919, Custer State Park is South Dakota’s first and largest state park. Each year, more than 1.5 million visitors enjoy the numerous and varied activities, attractions, and events found year-round within Custer State Park.

Pronghorn antelope are also a common sight along the Wildlife Loop Road. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pronghorn antelope are also a common sight along the Wildlife Loop Road. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park boasts several scenic drives that explore the diversity of the area. From the granite spires of Needles Highway to the bison along Wildlife Loop Road.

The Needles Highway is much more than a 14-mile road—it’s a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains. The road’s name comes from the needle-like granite formations which seem to pierce the horizon along the highway.

The roadway was carefully planned by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, who marked the entire course on foot and by horseback. Construction was completed in 1922.

Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing, and thawing.

The 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road takes visitors through open grasslands and pine-speckled hills that much of the park’s wildlife call home.

Wild burros make a frequent appearance along the prairie grasslands and pine-speckled hills of the Wildlife Loop Road. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wild burros make a frequent appearance along the prairie grasslands and pine-speckled hills of the Wildlife Loop Road. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 18-mile Iron Mountain Road winds between Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the junction of U.S. 16A and SR 36. Constructed in 1933, only a portion of this road lies within the park, but it is a must-see.

The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway complements the park’s three scenic drives and includes some of the most dramatic natural and historic features in the Black Hills.

Custer State Park campgrounds offer a variety of scenic sites. Set up camp along a flowing stream, in the midst of pine forest, or near a mountain lake. The choice is yours! Each campsite has a gravel or paved camping pad, a fire grate, and picnic table. Electric hookups are available in most campgrounds.

Custer State Park campgrounds offer a variety of scenic sites. Electric hookups are available in most campgrounds. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park campgrounds offer a variety of scenic sites. Electric hookups are available in most campgrounds. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The clear mountain waters are inviting, and the open ranges are waiting to be discovered. Bring your family to Custer State Park, and let yourself run wild.

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

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