Though we have discovered many amazing places in the US, few places have touched my soul the way that the Black Hills have. Black Hills National Forest is the gorgeous landscape that encompasses the southwestern portion of South Dakota. It cradles Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park, surrounds Mount Rushmore National Monument and sprawls out like a beautiful tapestry, stitched with some incredibly scenic highways.

This region hosts an abundance of adventures, simply waiting to happen. Years ago, I made a mental note of this area, upon reading about it in Sunset Magazine…and was determined to make its acquaintance. We had plans to visit in 2016, but that schedule did not pan out. This year, I planned ahead and was eager to explore the area. I knew it would be wonderful…however, I had no idea how stunning it’s beauty would be…let alone, the way it would capture our hearts.

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Wild & Free

The reward to planning ahead, was the privilege of staying in Custer State Park and having a campsite in Game Lodge Campground (these sites book far in advance). I do believe that anyone who drives through this park will notice the immense beauty it holds. However, I do not feel that you can fully grasp what this park has to offer, without camping in it. It is an experience in itself.

This was our backyard, complete with free-roaming entertainment, just on the other side of the fence:

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Bison near Game Lodge Campground

I loved observing the kids, as they  anxiously awaited the arrival of our evening neighbors. Bison are fabulous neighbors, especially when separated by a fence to keep your kids mindful around these mighty creatures.

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Game Lodge Campground

Along the backside of our campground was a great fishing creek, which provided my son with countless hours of happy fishing.

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The variety of wildlife and the pristine landscape create a gorgeous backdrop for relaxing and adventuring.

We loved the blissful relaxation that this campground had to offer. Wether enjoying our site, riding bikes are exploring near the stream…the kids had plenty of options.

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Playing cards near the campfire.

We also enjoyed the ability to watch an assortment of animals roam freely.

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Bison in Custer State Park

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Bull Snake in Custer State Park

Around The Water

We enjoyed visiting the various lakes…and obviously my boys fished them as much as possible.

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Fishing on Center Lake

The lake that we enjoyed the most was Sylvan Lake. We visited it a couple of times and enjoyed fishing, hiking and lounging along its shores. This area reminded me a bit of Mammoth Lakes in the Sierra Nevadas.

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Stepping Stones on Sylvan Lake

Fishing and cheesy smiles to appease the wife:

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Fishing Sylvan Lake

Though my girls usually have no interest in fishing, they will often opt to cozy up to a good book, while the boys do their thing.

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Reading in our Happy Hammock
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Reading lakeside…lightweight hiking chairs for the win!

Hiking

We had two fabulous family hikes while in the State Park. I highly recommend both. You can read my detailed post on both the Cathedral Spires and Sunday Gulch hikes HERE.

These are my favorite pics from that post:

 

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Cathedral Spires, Custer State Park
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Sunday Gulch Trail, Custer State Park

 

Scenic Highways & Easy Drives

This is one of those places where you must have an old-fashioned map…especially if you drive a truck! We obtained a great little tourism map that listed the Black Hills Tunnels and their dimensions and we had the State Park map as well. Why is this so important? Tunnels!

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9 Foot Wide Tunnel on Needles Highway

And then there is my favorite tunnel, The Needles Eye Tunnel which swallows up vehicles with a meager 8’4” opening…yikes!

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The Needles Eye Tunnel in Custer State Park

Driving our Chevy dually through this tunnel, we learned two things:

  1. We fit.
  2. With no more than two inches of clearance on either side, we can not drive through anything less than 8’4′ wide.

Most of the roads we drove were paved and very easy to navigate with a park map. Within the park, you will not drive over 45 miles per hour. Typically it is 25 mph, as there is plenty of wildlife to observe and be aware of, near the roads.

Everywhere you drive, it is simply gorgeous.

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The forest renewing itself after a fire near Mt. Coolidge Firetower 

Wildlife Loop Road

This scenic loop does not disappoint. It begins in the Game Lodge area and ends by the West Entrance, over near Blue Bell Lodge.

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Wildlife Loop Road, Custer State Park

If you make the loop from Game Lodge and back, plan about two hours for the drive, as well as pausing for animals and photos. You can go part way in…and then come back out, as the road is a two-way loop.

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Bison herd on the Wildlife Loop

You will find miles of rolling hills with countless bison, pronghorn and prairie dogs on the Wildlife Loop drive. You will also find a small band of friendly burros that will want to see what is in your truck.

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Wild burros on the Wildlife Loop in Custer SP

Iron Mountain Road Scenic Drive

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This scenic drive is awesome! Driving Highway 16A north from the eastern Custer Park Entrance to Mt. Rushmore, was one of our favorite drives.

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Don’t let this pretty mountain road fool you though, it is a bit squirly. I snapped this pic on my phones GPS to see just exactly how squiggly the drive was…definitely not a road to bring your RV on.

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The crown jewel as you summit the mountain is the gorgeous glimpse you get of Mt. Rushmore as you come through the tunnels.

Mt. Rushmore

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Driving Iron Mountain Road is the perfect path to visiting Mt. Rushmore. This drive is gorgeous and visiting the National Monument is a great way to stretch your legs after the hour long car ride from the state park.

Now Mt. Rushmore has been on our bucket list from the beginning, and it did not disappoint. We watched the weather and selected a sunny day to visit, in hopes that beautiful skies would enhance our photos….and they did!

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The Visitor Center is really well done. Between watching the short film and reading the displays, we gained a pretty solid appreciation for what it took to create this masterpiece. This icon of liberty and freedom truly is magnificent.

Prior to our visit, I had read several reviews online, where individuals expressed disappointment in the monument….stating that it was not as big as they had imagined.

Well, this was not the case for us. This statue is ginormous. Perhaps it was driving in, over Iron Mountain, seeing these four American Presidents surveying the hills from afar. Perhaps it was the perfectly blue skies that helped to give the monument prominence. Perhaps…it is just truly very grand.

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We have heard that the monument is beautiful at night and during the summer they have a special evening lighting ceremony that is quite patriotic. However, since there was ceremony, we opted to not drive the long windy road after dark into the park.

We did stop by the ice cream shop at the monument though. I’m pretty sure my kids will always remember  enjoying ice cream cones, while gazing up at Mt. Rushmore…and not just any ice cream…the recipe that Thomas Jefferson created (and that which they charge $5 for!…so be prepared!). It was quite delicious.

Why We Love Custer

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So, Custer is pretty awesome. Even with all these photos, favorite places and suggestions…it is hard to describe with my meager words…exactly what you find here. This photo though, seems to summarize the beauty perfectly. There is a depth to this area and you merely scratch the surface in your first visit. I am already scheming to return. The variety of wildlife and landscape, along with the history and natural wonders make this a truly special place.

Helpful Tips For Visiting

Custer SP Campgrounds

Now there are some fabulous, and diverse, camping options in the park. I spent a ridiculous amount of time considering my options, and ultimately…it was perfect for this trip. We required cell phone service, as my husband was working from home the week we were there. We found that the Game Lodge Campground, was the only area where we could get a reliable Verizon signal and utilize our MiFi (T-Mobile also worked here). It was also the only park I believe that has water and a dump station…both of which we utilized. Here are my notes on what we found:

Game Lodge – Very open campground feel, even thought the sites are near near one another. Electrical hook-ups. Dump station and water-filling station. Consistent Verizon cell phone signal. Small laundry room. Small Pond. Playground. The entire campground is gated off from the free-roaming Bison (will be helpful with small children or pets). There is also a beautiful Visitor Center here. You can read further campground reviews on Campendium HERE.

Blue Bell – I would love to camp here some time. It has a very woodsy feel, as it was more forested than the other campgrounds. There are horse stables here as well for riding, or take note if you have allergies. This campground did seem a bit more tightly packed, but the location was great.

Grace Coolidge Campground– I don’t know what amenities, if any, this campground has, but it is just up the road from Game Lodge and near a creek and a fishing pond. This campground was set closer to the road than ours was, but still in a convenient area.

There are at least two or three other campgrounds in the park, but we did not drive through them.

Another fun option for the non-RVer, would be to rent a cabin. There were some great little cabins in the Game Lodge campground. They were simply beds and tables with patios, but they were filled every weekend night we were there. There are also several lodges within the park for those that prefer the accommodations.

We stayed in Game Lodge Campground for eight days and then we spent another week outside of the park at Custer’s Gulch RV Park. Obviously, we absolutely loved the State Park. Custer’s Gulch is a beautiful, rustic and quiet park (at least pre-season it was). It is only a few miles outside of the park, so if you are not able to score a campsite inside of the park, this would be a good option. You can find park information on Campendium HERE for Custer’s Gulch.

Other thoughts after our visit:

  1. If you are coming from the east, I suggest visiting Badlands National Park in route to Custer. Either stop for part of the day, and continue on…or spend the night near the National Park. If you are RVing, the NP has a campground, or you can boondock on the BLM land near the park. Be warned though, I hear the boondocking can be very windy there. For those needing a hotel, you can find them in Wall and Rapid City. Badlands NP is a 1.5 hour drive from Game Lodge Campground. You can read my full post on this National Park HERE.
  2. If you are coming from the west, I would suggest visiting Jewel Cave National Monument on your way to Custer. It is literally right off of the highway, on your way in or out of Custer.
  3. We had hoped to visit Devil’s Tower National Monument during our stay in Custer. In reality, it is a very long drive there and back, with kids, especially after being on the go and visiting the other National Parks in the area. I would suggest adding this to your route before or after your visit to Custer.
  4. Plan your groceries ahead. Thankfully we had stocked up in Sioux Falls before making our way west. Rapid City is a 45 minute drive from the east side of Custer SP and has plenty of options for supplies. Custer has a local grocery store, it is about 40 minutes from Game Lodge and has a descent selection. Don’t expect to find anything in the towns of Hermosa or Keystone, other than gas and a couple of restuarants.
  5. You can find gas in Hermosa and Custer, both are just outside of the park. There may be gas at one of the lodges in the park, but not diesel.
  6. Sylvan Lake would be a great place to rent Kayaks. From what I remember, they are less expensive than many places we have visited.
  7. The weather in May is quite fickle. It ranged from snow and freezing temps at night to 80 degrees on our Saturday hike. Be prepared for every type of weather this time of year.

Will you be adding Custer State Park and the Black Hills to your bucket list? I certainly can not wait to visit it again and explore even more in this area.

4 Comments

  1. Mount Rushmore was the biggest disappointment of my life! We drove and drove to get there and it was totally fogged in…….but I have happily lived vicariously through your trip. Love, Uncle Patty

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    1. I am so sorry to hear that the weather let you down on your visit. It is a gorgeous location, so I am glad you can follow along on our travels! South Dakota is truly incredible. It just might be one of the most under appreciated states in the union.

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    1. I bet that was an amazing climb. I had really hoped that we could do that hike…next time! Thank you for the reply. It’s fun to hear from fellow travelers.

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