The small town of Custer, named after the infamous former Union brevet major general, is located in a lush forested valley deep in the heart of the Black Hills (He Sapa) region of South Dakota. The sleepy former mining town is now the focal point of a tourist boom which sees as many as 1.9 million visitors passing down Custer Street each year en route to South Dakota’s largest state park, an expansive 71,000 acre nature preserve famous for its towering granite spires, sprawling forests and annual September Buffalo roundup.
Custer State Park offers visitors a variety of activities including hiking, fishing, rock climbing and horseback riding as well as numerous photo opportunities for those wishing to get an up-close view of the park’s vibrant animal population which includes; Bison, Pronghorn, wild Burros, Bighorn sheep, Mountain goats, White-tailed deer and black-tailed Prairie Dogs (check out the slideshow).
If you only have limited time here are a few must see areas of the park:
1. The Wildlife Loop Road – not always a hive of animal activity but you could luck out and see a wide selection of wildlife on this route (including the 1500 strong Bison/Tatanka herd),
2. The Needles Highway, a 14-mile drive that takes in “The Needles Eye” and the “Cathedral Spires” with plenty of opportunities for hiking or taking a picnic along the way,
3. The scenic 18-mile Iron Mountain Road traverses the Black Hills via a series of tunnels, pigtail bridges and mountain switchbacks and some 45 minutes to an hour later deposits you at the entrance to the Mount Rushmore National Monument.
Address: Custer State Park, 13329 US HWY 16A, Custer, SD 57730 • Park Entrance Fee: Annual Pass $30 or a Temporary Vehicle License (1-7 consecutive days): $15 per vehicle • $10 per Motorcycle •
Where to eat:
Although there are a number of decent eateries in Custer there’s absolutely no doubt that one of the best restaurants in the local area is the Blue Bell Lodge Dining Room & Lounge which forms part of the Custer State Park Resort. The timbered ambience of the restaurant coupled with excellent service and well prepared food makes dining here a real pleasure. The epicurious amongst you can choose from a nicely balanced and competitively priced menu that includes; a Rabbit & Rattlesnake Sausage starter ($9.50), a Log Cabin Club sandwich ($10), a mouthwatering Black Hills Buffalo Stew ($15), a Maple Whiskey Glazed Salmon entree served over Quinoa ($20) and an exquisite Char-grilled Buffalo Tenderloin ($27).
Hours of Operation: End of April thru mid-September: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily • Mid-September thru 3rd week of October: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily • Address: 13389 US Hwy 16A, Custer, SD 57730 • Tel: (605) 255-4772 •
Where to stay:
I actually stayed in two campgrounds in Custer, The Custer/Mount Rushmore KOA and Beaver Lake Campground (which are actually right next to one another). There really was not much to choose between them in terms of the (excellent) service levels and amenities though the Custer KOA had better Wi-Fi (more access points and better bandwidth) which could be a factor if you work over the internet (like myself), whilst Beaver Lake Campground offered cable TV (26 channels) which is always nice if you like to kick back and relax in the evening.
RV & Tent Camping
The Custer/Mt. Rushmore KOA, 12021 US Highway 16, Custer, SD 57730 • Reservations: 800-562-5828 • 30/50 amp Service • Full Hookups •
Beaver Lake Campground, 12005 U.S. 16, Custer, SD 57730 • (605) 673-2464 • Open March 15 through November 10 •30/50 amp Service • Full Hookups • Good Sam Campground •
Cabins & Lodges
Located just to the north of French Creek – and described by the park concessionaire (The Regency Hotel Management Company) as a “mini dude ranch” – The Blue Bell Lodge (with its 29 log guest cabins) offers visitors a variety of entertainment including horseback rides and western chuck-wagon cookouts. If I hadn’t been travelling in an RV this certainly looked like an idyllic place to stay located as it is inside Custer State Park.