13329 US Hwy 16A
Arguably the greatest treasure in the Hills, this breathtakingly beautiful State Park encompasses 71,000 acres and is home to about 1,500 buffalo (American bison) plus mountain lions, coyotes, pronghorn antelope, mule and whitetail deer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, burros, prairie dogs and a huge array of other mammals, as well as large populations of fish and birds (birdwatchers can pick up a checklist at the visitor center). A spectacular annual buffalo roundup takes place around the last weekend in September (call to confirm actual dates), and the Park has had a long tradition of inviting private citizens on horseback to help. Those without mounts can start the day with a pancake feed, watch the entire event from high ground, and then attend an arts festival with 150 or so booths near the new visitor center.
Families visiting the Park can take Jeep tours to view buffalo up close, be part of a hayride and chuck wagon cookout, go horseback riding, rent watercraft, go rock climbing, or follow any of the numerous hike/bike/horseback trails. There are lots of organized programs, too – Junior Naturalist, Story of the Buffalo, Hook & Cook Fishing, and Canoeing Basics, to name a few. There are guided nature hikes, birding for kids, and even a Wildlife Loop Road Caravan several times a day.
The Park also offers Òfamily-friendly patio talks on topics ranging from Lakota uses of bison, pine-needle basket making, horns and antlers, geology, animal tracks and more. Patio talks are designed as a hands-on, come-and-go, informal presentation allowing visitors to interact with a park naturalist on the patio of the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education CenterÓ. And for those interested in geocaching, the Park offers eight locations with lists available at the visitor center.
If you get there in April, thereÕs usually a bluebird house workshop on Earth day, and throughout the summer there are special activities designed to let kids and campers of all ages learn about this exquisite resource. There are two lakes (Legion and Sylvan), four resorts, and lots of accommodation within the park in lodges and campgrounds.
A one-day state fishing license is $16 for non-residents ($67 for a family annual), and fishing is allowed in any of the streams or lakes. Trout limits are 5 daily and 10 possession. If you have physical restrictions, just driving through the park is a feast for the eyes – with tunnels, Needles (rock formations), and abundant wildlife.
1-7 consecutive days pass is $20 for a vehicle or $10 for a motorcycle (2016).
Camping fees are extra.
13389 US Hwy 16A
(605) 255-4772 (Custer State Park Resort)
A magnificent native rock and pine structure built in the early 1920s, the lodge was the summer White House for President Coolidge in 1927, and Dwight Eisenhower stayed here in 1953. ItÕs the largest resort in Custer State Park (see Where To Stay in Custer below), and if you book a room here you may see buffalo from the front porch.
The town, county and state park are named for Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, who led an expedition here in search of gold in 1874. A discovery of ore in French Creek led to the 1876 Gold Rush that begat the towns of Lead and Deadwood farther north. There was a treaty in place with the Lakota nations (the Sioux) at the time, forbidding European settlement in the Black Hills. Greed, better weapons and larger numbers led the miners and settlers to believe they could take the prize by force, which indeed they eventually did. But not without a price: Custer and 267 of his men were dispatched in the Battle of the Greasy Grass at the Little Bighorn creek on June 26, 1876. The battlefield is now a National Monument, located about three hours drive northwest of the Black Hills. Interestingly, the National Park Service names it Little Bighorn Battlefield. Though the government lost the battle, it won the war and thereby earned the naming rights. CusterÕs Last Stand was against a combined force of primarily Lakota, but also Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes.
The State Game Lodge is a beautiful place to stay, but if youÕre budget conscious there are several other options within the park, including cabins and camping. For accommodations with a roof, call 888-875-0001 for details, or visit custerresorts.com. If youÕre bringing your own bedroom (RV or tenting), visit the Game, Fish & Parks website or call 800-710-2267. You can also book sites at campsd.com
13329 US Hwy 16A
In violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which had ceded the Black Hills in perpetuity to the Lakota and banned white settlement, a group of prospectors from Sioux City, Iowa followed on CusterÕs heels and settled on French Creek in the winter of 1874/5. The first thing they did was to build a log fort, which has been recreated in the state park and is a free attraction now.
The original stockade was only used for a few months before the US Cavalry evicted Mr. Gordon and his party. But over the next eighteen months a flood of prospectors overwhelmed the limited resources of the army, and by 1876 the white population the Hills exceeded ten thousand. The current stockade is actually the third reconstruction. Locals built the first one in 1925, right after the State Game Lodge was constructed (above). Then, a CCC crew rebuilt that in 1941, and that lasted until the new millennium. A visit to the site gives one a feeling for what life was like just before the Black Hills changed hands.
Well worth a stop.
13329 US Hwy 16A (Park Headquarters). Mount Coolidge is actually about three miles south of Hwy 16A, on state road 87.
Originally known as Sheep Mountain and then Lookout Mountain, it was finally renamed for Calvin Coolidge in 1927. He was a Vermont lawyer, Governor of Massachusetts, and the 30th President of the United States (1923-1929). He enjoyed the outdoors and set up his summer White House in this part of the southern Black Hills in 1927. Known as Silent Cal, he spoke little but had a good sense of humor. Most historians agree that he was a relatively successful chief executive, leaving the country in better shape than he found it, and he was a strong advocate of racial equality. But the Wall Street Crash quickly followed his term, and this has affected his reputation: some analysts believe his small government policies and lack of federal oversight helped in part to create the Great Depression. In 1932, he actively campaigned for the re-election of his successor, Herbert Hoover, who was soundly defeated by FDR.
The fire tower atop the mountain named after Coolidge sits at 6,023 feet and the air is a little thin at this elevation. YouÕll need a smaller vehicle if you want to drive all the way to the top. The 1.2 mile gravel road leading to the summit is closed to RVs, and is open to cars, pickups and SUVs from about Memorial Day through late September, depending on the weather. The winding unpaved road is a bit of an adventure on a motorcycle (road bike), especially coming down.
At the top, the tower and caretakerÕs accommodation are of native stone and were constructed by the CCC in the late 1930s (that link goes to the CCC Museum of South Dakota, in Hill City). The architectural style will be familiar to patrons of the National Parks. The view is astonishing – one can see all the way to the Badlands some sixty miles to the east (if the day is clear), and the entire southern Hills are at your feet. Being a fire tower (still active), there is an emphasis on its function: plaques along the observation deck recount the 1988 Galena Fire that destroyed some 17,000 acres of the park.
13329 US Hwy 16A (Park Headquarters)
In addition to the Coolidge tower and the Gordon Stockade, the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) was quite active in the Hills during the 1930s. These young men, facing unemployment during the Depression, chose to become part of a dignified and rewarding effort to rebuild some of the countryÕs infrastructure.
Throughout the Black Hills you will come across examples of their work, such as several bridges and roads in Custer State Park, plus the parkÕs Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center, the Wildlife Station visitor center and the dams that created many of the reservoirs in the Hills, including Stockade Lakes and Legion Lake. Families sometimes make a game of finding as many CCC commemorative plaques as they can while on vacation, which is also a nice way to inform children of their heritage.
Governor Peter Norbeck was the force behind the establishment of Custer State Park back in 1919. The center has animal mounts, exhibits, info, interpretive programs and a bookstore.
24834 S. Playhouse Rd
This is the home of a professional theater company, Dakota Players, which delivers Ôtop-quality plays at friendly South Dakota pricesÕ every summer (June through August) in the heart of Custer State Park. The Playhouse began as the dream of Dr. Warren Lee of the University of South Dakota, back in 1946. It sits on the site of the old Camp Lodge CCC camp, and in its early days the audiences braved fire trails and dirt roads to watch great theater in the middle of the forest. The University of South DakotaÕs theater department has been a long-time supporter of the project, as has the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks, and Custer State Park. In 1998, the BHP was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant to form the ChildrenÕs Theatre Company of South Dakota (CTCSD). Today, Dakota Players serves children and adults in South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota through touring theatre programs, camps and workshops. Show times are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30pm with matinees on Wednesday and Sunday at 2:00pm. To reserve tickets, call the number above or visit the website. Prices for adults (as of spring 2016) are $34.00, and children eighteen and under are $16.00.
There are discounts for adult students, as well as for seniors and members of the military. As the Playhouse is actually within the Park, a state park pass is required (available at any Park entrance). This is professional theater, and most productions are not recommended for small children.
12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse SD 57730
Located about five minuteÕs drive from the town of Custer, this is self-billed as Ôthe worldÕs largest ongoing mountain carvingÕ. ItÕs a tourist attraction that was begun in the 1940s by a Bostonian of Polish descent, Korczak Ziolkowski, and it is only partially finished – the first blast occurred in 1948, almost seventy years ago. According to the MemorialÕs website, ÒHenry Standing Bear, a Lakota chief, conceived the idea of a portrait likeness of the Lakota leader, Crazy Horse, carved out of the lasting granite of his Paha Sapa.Ó The site goes on to say that: Òthe mission of Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation is to protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of the North American IndiansÓ. The site is certainly worth visiting as an engineering feat, and there is also a museum, a gift shop and even a restaurant. About a million people visit the sculpture every year. For information on Lakota culture, see the section on interpretive centers near the end of this book.
This groupÕs website has a calendar that lists whatÕs happening in the arts in the Custer area – local musicians, artwork, dance, theater and so on. Just click on the Calendar link at the top of their home page.
411 Mount Rushmore Road
Constructed of local bricks, the Italianate building was dedicated in 1881 when this was still a Territory. It served as an active courthouse and government center until 1974. On the National Register, it became a museum in the centennial year of the Gold Rush, 1976. There are Lakota cultural exhibits; natural science displays; a room dedicated to the Custer expedition (which includes photographs taken on the excursion plus one of his guns and some campsite artifacts); mining and mineral exhibits including gold ore and a mine replica; a look into Victorian life and an interactive dollhouse where children can arrange furniture; a ranch room with barbed wire, saddles and branding irons; the original courtroom and judgeÕs chambers; a one-room schoolhouse replica; military and forestry exhibits; and outside a carriage house, outhouse and log cabin. Visitors can also tour a general store, two jail cells, and some antique guns and knives. Across the street is the oldest building in the Black Hills: the Flick cabin was constructed in 1875 and is furnished as a pioneer home. The museum is open seasonally: call first. Handicap accessible.
12111 Us Highway 16
Open from the beginning of May through mid-October, this attraction is popular with woodworkers, Disney aficionados and art enthusiasts. The museum includes more than thirty hand-carved and animated scenes (many of life in the Old West), which were created by one of the original animators from Disneyland, Harvey Niblack. There are displays of work by nationally known carvers, and the facility also offers whittling and carving classes. There is a really well-stocked souvenir shop that carries carved items such as the exquisite work by Jeff Phares shown here (Walks on Sacred Ground), and lots of locally made gifts. But the heart and soul of the place is the Niblack collection, which kids find very entertaining and adults find completely engrossing. Well worth a visit.
24564 Hwy 16
About a mile and a half north of the Crazy Horse Memorial on Highway 16/385, youÕll find Black Hills Aerial Adventures. From early May through the end of October, the company provides tours around Crazy Horse, Harney Peak, Mount Rushmore, or the historic towns of Lead, Deadwood, Keystone and Custer. View the Wharf and Ingersoll mines and the largest and deepest gold mine in North America – the Homestake Open-Pit. One tour includes views of a portion of Spearfish Canyon including Roughlock Falls, the mountain lakes – Pactola, Sheridan and Sylvan – and the granite formations of the Cathedral Spires, Needles, Little Devils Tower and Harney Peak. Tours start at just $49 per person. Two other heliports at Mount Rushmore and the Badlands offer further choices. Reservations are welcome, but not required.
25158 Little Teton Rd
Witness untouched wilderness, a breathtaking 360-degree sunrise and local wildlife from a hot air balloon! Flights take place daily at sunrise – weather permitting – from May 1st through Oct 31st. Guests can expect an hour flight over the historic and beautiful Black Hills, with a champagne toast and a souvenir flight certificate included. For most of us, flying in a hot air balloon is a once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list adventure. Here in the southern Hills, the experience is even more spectacular as the craft flies over some spectacularly rugged terrain in Custer Valley and Custer State Park. There are mountains, valleys, lakes and prairies to view as you drift along on the morning breeze. Guests quite often see some unique wildlife including elk, antelope, buffalo and mule deer. If youÕre really lucky, you might even spot a mountain lion from the secure gondola! Reservations are required. Adults are $295 each, and children 4-12 are $245 (2016 prices).
25453 Highway 87
Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park operates stables where you can go on horseback rides or take in a chuck wagon cookout. A hayride travels back roads to a quiet meadow where youÕll be treated to a feast and entertainment. Or explore the 71,000-acre wildlife preserve on a peaceful, guided horseback ride. Beginners and experts are welcome, and there are one-hour to full-day rides available (5+ kids can ride the trail and there are pony rides for children under 5.
Custer FarmersÕ Market
400 Mt. Rushmore Rd
The market takes place at Way Park on Mt. Rushmore Road and 4th Street every Saturday morning beginning at 8, from June to October.
11921 West Highway 16
From mid-May until early October you can visit the ghost town of Moss City, about four miles west of Custer on Hwy 16. There are about fifty buildings including a school, saloon, jail, sheriffÕs office and a log cabin. Actors portray Western characters: call for schedule. Admission is $5 per person (kids 6 & under are free). Pet friendly.
512 Mt. Rushmore Rd
This studio has all the props you need to have your photograph taken in the Old West, or on a motorcycle. Drive your bike right in! ThereÕs also a wide range of wildlife prints, and bike rentals for the Mickelson Trail.
231 West Mt Rushmore Rd
18 hole mini-golf, 9:00 AM to 10:00 PM.
12181 West Hwy 16
(605) 673-4481 or (605) 517-1107
This is one of the prettiest Ôinterrupted walksÕ in the Hills, and the course is a teaser with narrow, tree-lined fairways, sloping greens, a few quite long holes, ponds, wildlife and sand traps. Great fun. Just west of town on Hwy 16.
This all-volunteer program offers a vacation in the Hills at little or no expense to qualified wounded Veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns.
12005 West Hwy 16
Max and Cindy Hammer operate the Beaver Lake Campground, and right out by the highway they have a nice water slide thatÕs open to the public for $10 a day per person, with a discount for campers.
This company provides a personalized, narrated, guided tour that showcases the many attractions of the beautiful Black Hills.
12021 US Hwy 16
Guided tours of the Black Hills and surrounding area.
370 West Main St
This is a magic show with illusionist Duane Laflin, 7:30 PM nightly in the summer.
24853 Village Ave
Trail rides and over-night trips with owners Randy and Peggy to capture the spirit of the Old West. There are a variety of rides, including 1 hour, 1½ hour, 2 hour and half day. Riders of all ages and experience welcome.
11149 US Hwy 16
ÒImmerse yourself within the third longest cave in the world. With over 180 miles of mapped and surveyed passages, this underground wilderness appeals to human curiosity. Its splendor is revealed through fragile formations and glimpses of brilliant color. Its maze of passages lure explorers, and its scientific wealth remains a mystery. This resource is truly a jewel in the National Park Service.Ó
TheyÕre not wrong. This is a family adventure thatÕs hard to top. ItÕs surprisingly accessible, especially the Discovery Talk program: ÒThis 20-minute ranger talk is a brief introduction to Jewel CaveÕs natural and cultural histories. Participants view one large room of the cave. This easy cave visit enters and exits the cave by elevator in the Visitor Center, and involves walking up and down 15 stair steps. The Discovery Talk is wheelchair accessible for people who have trouble negotiating stairs, and the tour is limited to 20 participants.Ó
For people with no physical challenges, thereÕs the popular scenic tour (a 1 hour 20 minute moderately tiring hike); the relatively strenuous but very engaging historic lantern tour that feels like a 1930s adventure; or the scrambling, belly-crawling, very strenuous 3 to 4 hour Wild Caving tour. Visit the website before deciding!
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