Custer State Park Has A Lot To Offer

In Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota, visitors can lunch with a bison, go fishing, hike or visit Mount Rushmore. Some 1.5 million people travel to Custer State Park every year and about 70 percent are non-residents. The park is popular because it has a lot to offer.

Custer State Park is about 25 miles south of Rapid City in the southwest corner of the state. There are a number of roadways into the park, some direct, and some that are windy and narrow, yet scenic.

Bison in Custer State Park
Bison are plentiful in Custer State Park.

Visitors can spend a day just watching the local inhabitants. The park has the country’s single largest herd of free-roaming American buffalo, some 1,500 animals. Yellowstone Park has more bison, but it’s spread among three herds. Sometimes, the bison wander into the guest areas, surprising unsuspecting picnickers.

“One buffalo wouldn’t leave the picnic area,” a park ranger recalled. “It was tough convincing him to go elsewhere. At times, they can get ornery. But for the most part, they don’t bother anyone.”

If you wish to take pictures of these mighty beasts, it’s best done from your vehicle and with a zoom lens on your camera.

200 Species Of Birds

Other animals in the 73,000-acre park include 200 species of birds, also elk, mule and whitetail deer, bighorn sheep, burros, mountain goats and marmots. The marmots often peek over the cliffs that rise above the lakes, keeping a watchful eye on anglers. Custer’s big plus is there are no bears and very few bugs. Most of the wildlife can be viewed by car along the Wildlife Loop Road or by chartering a Jeep ride into the backcountry.

Fisherman holding rainbow trout
Fishing is part of the action at Custer State Park in South Dakota. Here’s a nice rainbow trout caught in Center Lake.

For those who enjoy fishing, Custer State Park is the perfect place to drop a line. Rainbow trout and largemouth bass can be found in the park’s lakes — Center, Legion, Sylvan, Stockade — and creeks.

Center Lake, located in the north-central section of the park, offers both rainbow and brook trout. There’s also a swimming beach near its campground. Beyond the lake is an outdoor amphitheater. Slide shows provide insight into the past of the Black Hills or Paha Sapa as the Lakota Sioux called the area. The Black Hills were and still are a sacred place for the Sioux.

For those who enjoy hiking and fishing, the Grace Coolidge Creek is a natural. The creek runs behind Center Lake campground, into the lake, and then tumbles down a rocky waterfalls at the south end of the lake. It meanders through the park, providing interesting possibilities for hikers and trout fishermen.

The State Game Lodge, at the south end of the creek, is a huge pine and rock structure originally built to house the state’s game keepers. Now a family facility, former Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower were once guests. Native game dinners are offered in the Pheasant Dining Room.

Legion Lake, found along U.S. 16A, offers a beach and recreational facilities as well as the Legion Lake Resort. This resort was once maintained by the South Dakota American Legion, hence the name. Mountain bike rentals are available at the lodge. Trout and largemouth bass are available for anglers.

Sylvan Lake is possibly the prettiest of the four lakes. Located about six miles north of the town of Custer on Rt. 89, it has magnificent cliffs lined with ponderosa pine trees. Because the water stays colder longer due to its higher elevation, this area always is a popular summer retreat and includes the Sylvan Lake Lodge.

Some Excellent Fishing

Stockade Lake is located just within the park’s boundaries. Here anglers will find a number of possibilities — feisty bass, rainbow trout, northern pike, crappie, perch and bullhead. There’s also a replica of the old Gordon Stockade Fort, originally built by the first white settlers and gold prospectors of the Black Hills.

French Creek, which flows in and out of Stockade Lake, travels through a nature area, which can only be reached by hiking. Horatio Ross, part of General George Armstrong Custer’s exploration team, discovered gold in this area. The trail eventually reaches Blue Bell Lodge along Rt. 87. The lodge, built in the 1920s, was named, not for the flower, but for the symbol of the telephone company, which once used it as a base. The lodge has horseback rides through the park and overnight trips.

The Peter Norbeck Visitors Center is worth a look-see. The Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, using native logs and stone built the center, named after one of South Dakota’s early governors. It still maintains its rustic character and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Needles Highway Drive along Rt. 87 is not for the faint of heart. Peter Norbeck, who traveled the route on foot and horseback, mapped out the highway. It’s 14 miles of hairpin curves and narrow tunnels, which thread through granite spires of all shapes and sizes. Wind and rain, freezing than thawing, created one particular rock formation known as Needles Eye. Rock climbers love it. If you have a big trailer or RV, be careful. Some passes are as narrow as 8-feet, 7 inches and as low as 10 feet, 8 inches.

This section of the United States also was the stomping grounds for some of the Old West’s most colorful and sometimes desperate desperadoes and Indians. Names like Calamity Jane, the Sundance Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Crazy Horse and, of course, Sitting Bull and General Custer. It was Custer who led the first expedition into the Black Hills in 1874.

Probably the area’s best know attraction is Mount Rushmore, located about 20 miles north of Custer State Park. Other places worth visiting near Custer State Park include the Wind Caves, Mount Coolidge Lookout, Crazy Horse Monument, Jewel Cave National Monument and Thunderhead Underground Falls. Also the town of Custer, just outside the park, offers lodging, campgrounds and restaurants.

For more information, contact Custer State Park, HC 83, Box 70, Custer, SD 57730, 605-255-4515.

Don’t forget to visit Sportsman’s for the latest assortment of camping gear.

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