Custer State Park – South Dakota

Ashamedly, I have never heard of Custer State Park. It is one of the few truly wild places that I have found remaining in this country. Located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the park is home to a variety of wildlife and magnificent scenery spanning 71,000 acres.

The Trail Challenge

I stop in the visitors center for a trail map and the attendant informs me of the 2018 Trail challenge. Complete 8 of the dozens of the available trails and approximately 20 miles of hiking (trails rated moderate to strenuous) and I’ll receive a coveted lapel pin. She hands me a form to use for my “rubbings” of the medallions on each of the trails. I am a sucker for this type challenge and head out for the first trail.  Enroute to the first trial, I pass the Prairie dog town and see one stray Bison.

This alone would have made for a great park experience,  little do I know what I have in store over the next few days.

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Prairie Dog

Murphy and I select the Lovers Leap trail for our first go. It is a tough 3-mile trail up along a ridge. I can’t help but notice the large number of big greenish Bison puddin plops along the way.  I am a little concerned about running up on the herd.  Those fears are unwarranted as I see no bison on this trail.

Nearly 1,300 bison roam the prairies and hills of the park, which they share with pronghorn, bighorn sheep, elk and curious burros.

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The park has a strict no animal feeding policy. These rules, however, don’t seem to apply to the Begging Burros. The burros are overly friendly and actually came running to me when I pulled over with a bag of mini carrots.

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These burros are descendent from a herd that hauled visitors up Black Elk Peak. Those rides were discontinued years ago so they now enjoy retirement at Custer entertaining guests.

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Begging Burros (One in training)

I can’t wait to see what’s next

Every day brings a couple of new trails and new experiences. Where I see bison one day I may see antelope the next. Most encounters are along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road that winds around the southern edge of the park. Along this loop, I’ve seen: Bison, Antelope, fox, turkey, prairie dogs, and fields of wildflowers.

Murphy and I make great strides on completing the trail challenge but a rainy day practically floods out one of the required trails. We try to make it but it goes from strenuous to treacherous quickly and we call it off. They call it Sunday Gulch for a reason.

Curious Craig - Sunday Gulch Flood
Murphy on Sunday Gulch Trail

A little bummed that I won’t have enough time to complete the challenge, I am thankful for the views I get of a foggy Sylvan lake as the rain lifts and of wildlife coming out from their shelters.

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Sylvan Lake
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Marmot seeking shelter from the rain

The mascots of the park would have to be the Bison. The herd is wild and forages on its own. The number is managed however and the park hosts a bison roundup every September.  These gentle giants are fascinating to watch lumber along.

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The bison can cover a lot of ground in a short order. I see them almost every day but never in the same place twice.  Where there is a herd one can expect numerous cars.  Bison, you see, don’t understand traffic laws and they go where and when they want.  I really get a sense of the size of these guys when they walk along beside me in the car.

Curious Craig - Bison Traffic Jam
Waterhole Traffic Jam

Best of Show

It has been years since I have been to Yellowstone Park and I recall thinking it is the holy grail of parks.  I can say that Custer State Park is a national gem. At $20 for a weekly pass (includes all state parks) it is a steal.  I am at the park every day for 4 days and feel I only scratched the surface, and I’m 3 trails short of the darn label pin.  I’ll definitely be back!

The photo gallery below highlights some of my favorite moments at the park but for a more immersive view of the park check out the video here:

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2 comments

  1. That photo of Sylvan Lake should be on your wall when you get ‘home’, stunning. Love seeing these. I know I am in the midst of God’s country here in Lake George but you are proving the point I have always said….there is so much of the United States to see I don’t need to go to Europe to travel. Thanks for so many wonderful stories and pictures and ideas for my travels in the future.

    1. Thanks Trinket, I had been sitting in truck waiting for it to quit raining. It was worth the wait, when I hit the trail the fog was just lifting. It was a unique experience for sure. Like you, I have no desire to travel outside of US.

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