South Dakota

I had never been to South Dakota before, so I spent a little time looking at our options.  I very often just have a rough idea of where we are going.  I knew we wanted to see Mt Rushmore and Theory wanted to see the Crazy Horse Memorial and I wanted to see the Black Hills, so we based ourselves in Custer State Park.  We loved the park and surrounding area and stayed 3 nights which allowed us to see Crazy Horse twice, Mt Rushmore once, hike to the top of Black Elk Peak (was Harney Peak).  We geocached, did the scenic drives, enjoyed a couple meals out in Custer, hike Sunday Gulch and visit Sylvan Lake and spend a couple of hours driving half a mile an hour along a dirt road across the border into Wind Cave National Park looking at prairie dogs and watching the bison roll in the dust.  We LOVED it.

A warning about SD state parks: you must have a reservation ahead of time.  Custer has one campground out of the 5 or 6 (plus backcountry sites) that allows for same-day reservations.  There’s no cell coverage at the campground (Center Lake) so there’s a phone on a pole that rings the reservation number automatically.  They charge $2 for phone reservations (online, that fee is waived) and it’s $7.70 for anyone booking who lives in another state.  I think that’s crappy.  At Custer, there’s ALSO a $20 per car license fee that’s good for the week there or any other state park, so if passing another en route-get a pass from them for $4 and save a few bucks!

After all of that, THEN there’s the campsite fee.  $7 per person per night backcountry fee was going to be $21 a night, so we opted to just car camp for $20 and change.  We arrived on Saturday and there were loads of other campers.  By Sunday, just 3 other setups were left.  It was great.  The campground was VERY quiet.  No power or water, vault toilets that they kept very clean and as stink free as possible.  Across the bridge at the swim beach were hot showers (free).  No laundry or flush toilets at that location though.

Custer has so many things to see, do and places to hike that listing them all would take too long, just check out the website and I’ll post a few pics.  They call their bison buffalo, which we never managed to pick up on.

The Crazy Horse Memorial is $11 a person or $28 a carload (3 or more) to visit. They give back part of the ticket at the welcome center and it can be used for one return visit. So we went during the day and another time at night to see the laser light show. Both visits were well worth the time, be certain to watch the movie in the visitor center and bring a couple dollars to donate and take home a rock that was blasted off the mountain. We got 2! One per visit.
Wind Cave National Park, backroads edition
Watched bison and prairie dogs for several hours one morning

The park also has elk, mountain goats and burros.  We never saw the burros.

Iron Mtn Road on the way to Mt Rushmore from Custer has pigtails (loops) tunnels, curves, overlooks and more overlooks.
Sylvan Lake is the lake that appears to be above Mt Rushmore in the National Treasure Book of Secrets movie. It has a gorgeous loop trail
Sunday Gulch trail is off the Sylvan Lake loop trail and is 2.8 miles and loops back to the lake trail after heading off into the valley a while. It’s beautiful, too! I loved the handrails, which were vital to getting back up! I was sore the next day.
Black Elk Peak is amazing, and a really great hike.  The climb is right at 1,000 feet but spread over 3 miles, so it’s a challenge but not too hard.  For reference, the slowest hikers were me and a 10-year-old kid, mainly because we had paired up to alternately gripe and marvel.  I saw him at the top from the tower and yelled, “Hey!  Was it worth it?” and he yelled back “YES!”
The views are breathtaking.
We took the trail from the Cathedral/Spires parking lot, not from Sylvan Lake.  Little Devil’s Tower parking lot would be another good starting point.  Both are a LITTLE higher than Sylvan Lake, so there’s not as much climb!
We routed through the Badlands on the way home.


Not of anything, I just really like the land/sky ratio.

We stayed in a camping cabin at Lewis and Clark State Park before leaving South Dakota behind.  It’s another huge state park, but we didn’t like it as much.  It’s more of a ‘set up your big rig and stay a while’ kind of place with no big hikes or cool drives.  Just the river.




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