Custer State Park

Dis­cover the Black Hills and sa­cred bi­son along stun­ning scenic drives and miles of trails.

Country - - SPECIAL SECTION - STORY AND PHO­TOS BY CHUCK HANEY

Hik­ing boots, cy­cling gear, pad­dles or a cam­era? Choos­ing what to grab first is a com­mon dilemma when vis­it­ing Custer State Park in South Dakota. The choice is never wrong—there’s some­thing for ev­ery­one here (and de­cid­ing where to start is best done over a crack­ling camp­fire).

Lo­cated in the heart of the Black Hills, this park is a gem, al­beit one of­ten over­shad­owed by its more fa­mous neigh­bors: Mount Rush­more Na­tional Memo­rial, Bad­lands Na­tional Park, Crazy Horse Memo­rial and Devils Tower Na­tional Mon­u­ment in Wy­oming. South Dakota’s first and largest state park, Custer is a place held sa­cred by Plains In­di­ans and is an in­vari­ably com­pelling des­ti­na­tion for trav­el­ers with a va­ri­ety of in­ter­ests.

The park has over 71,000 acres con­tain­ing forested hills ac­cented with small lakes and dra­matic rock for­ma­tions linked by the scenic Nee­dles High­way (also called South Dakota High­way 87). Com­pleted in 1922, this thrilling 14-mile road twists and turns sharply through a for­est of pon­derosa pine and spruce. Driv­ers can ex­pect to travel through sev­eral tun­nels and emerge to en­counter nar­row gran­ite spires—in­clud­ing the famed Nee­dle’s Eye, which juts sky­ward in dra­matic fash­ion.

Iron Moun­tain Road con­nects the park with Mount Rush­more and fea­tures a se­ries of pig­tail (spi­ral) bridges that al­low trav­el­ers to gain and drop al­ti­tude quickly. When the road was be­ing planned, crit­ics said it couldn’t be done. But con­struc­tion teams led by Owen Mann, then the su­per­in­ten­dent of Custer State Park, proved them wrong when the high­way was com­pleted in the 1930s. The route was never in­tended to be a su­per­high­way. In fact, then-Gov. Pe­ter Nor­beck fa­mously said, “To do the scenery half jus­tice, peo­ple should drive 20 or un­der; to do it full jus­tice; they should get out and walk.”

But my fa­vorite scenic drive is Wildlife Loop Road—18 glo­ri­ous miles along which the Black Hills tran­si­tion to open prairie. I like to drive here slowly at sun­rise and then stop to lis­ten to a va­ri­ety of col­or­ful and lovely song­birds rang­ing from mead­owlarks to moun­tain blue­birds. Of­ten I will spot them perched on fence posts.

For the keen ob­server, an­i­mal sight­ings are plen­ti­ful along the Wildlife Loop. Bring your cam­era and pa­tience. Pre­pare to see prairie dogs, pronghorn an­te­lope, bi­son, elk, coy­otes, deer and wild bur­ros. In late spring, the an­i­mal pop­u­la­tion surges with new­borns.

There are nine camp­grounds in the park, and most pro­vide easy ac­cess to small lakes where fish­ing and ca­noe­ing are pop­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties. I like to lace up my hik­ing boots and wan­der along wild­flower-strewn mead­ows, then head up­ward for amaz­ing views like the one from the 7,242-foot-high Black Elk Peak (for­merly known as Har­ney Peak). It’s the high­est point east of the Rocky Moun­tains, with a full view of the Black Hills and the prairie lands be­low.

Be­gin the hike at Syl­van Lake. Take Trail 9 through the Black Elk Wilder­ness, gain­ing 1,100 feet in 3.5 miles. For an eas­ier op­tion, stick near the trail­head and walk the flat loop around the lovely lake where mas­sive gran­ite boul­ders meet the shore­line.

Another fa­vorite place to ex­plore is French Creek as it gen­tly flows through the park. The col­or­ful canyon gorge area is par­tic­u­larly scenic. The banks ex­plode with bright yel­low clover in the sum­mer, and the area is known for di­verse wildlife and abun­dant veg­e­ta­tion. Bring your fish­ing gear and try your luck catch­ing rain­bow or brown trout.

Cy­cling is another pop­u­lar pas­time in the park. I bring my bi­cy­cle along, as the Ge­orge S. Mick­el­son Trail trav­els over 100 miles through the Black Hills at an easy grade—a won­der­ful way to take in scenery and small towns such as Custer and Hill City.

Bi­son are sa­cred in these lands, but the mas­sive herds were nearly wiped out a cen­tury ago by set­tlers. To­day, many of the nine tribes in South Dakota keep bi­son herds, as do sev­eral parks, in­clud­ing Custer. Ev­ery Septem­ber, the park hosts a roundup. Lo­cals drive over 1,300 head of bi­son into cor­rals for vac­ci­na­tions and herd man­age­ment (some are auc­tioned off). Bring a pair of binoc­u­lars and come early to re­serve your spot for the best view of this event. To most fully en­joy all of the op­tions, first visit the Custer State Park Vis­i­tor Cen­ter where you can watch a short film that high­lights the park’s his­tory and its ge­o­log­i­cal fea­tures. Later, you can dis­cover as I have what a joy it is to ex­pe­ri­ence this grand park first­hand, whether it be on a trail, on the wa­ter or from the seat of a car.

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