Custer State Park: A Majestic Corner of South Dakota’s Black Hills

Custer State Park is one of the most beloved and diverse parks in the U. S. featuring breathtaking natural scenery, diverse wildlife, and a wide range of outdoor activities

An ever growing one of a kind event is putting South Dakota’s Custer State Park ever more on the map. Those who experience the thrill of the park’s annual late-September Buffalo Roundup quickly discover that nearby Mount Rushmore is not the only dramatic site in this southeast corner of the Black Hills region. Some two million guests a year who now make the trek here are on to something, after all.

Composed of one of the oldest and most diverse geologic foundations in America that makes for hairpin curves and tunnels that you can follow for fourteen miles along Needles Highway, Custer State Park is as much a natural treasure as any lands that make up America’s national parks. And you will no doubt eventually wonder why this spectacular landscape hasn’t been declared one.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t worry about it: South Dakotans are perfectly content to manage it themselves and a great job they do indeed with fine roads and an excellent tourism infrastructure. No matter the park’s official status a few days or a week in and around these 71,000 acres promise to reveal one adventure after another.

Within the southern part of the Black Hills National Forest the mile-high town of Custer serves as a gateway to the state park that lies just a few miles to the east. As your base, book yourself straight into the cute family-run Bavarian Inn in the hills just outside of town. Another of all things named for the notorious commander around here, The Custer Wolf is a locally popular casual pub restaurant.

Strolling Mt. Rushmore Road—effectively Custer’s main street whose broad width was designed to allow oxen freight carts to turn around—you’ll delight in many of the town’s fun and quirky brightly painted buffalo statues.

Also there, Keely and Damien Mahony operate the Black Hills Balloons adventure outfit. The American wife and Irish husband’s crew will take you on a short early morning drive to a forest clearing while you watch the balloons get filled in anticipation of the launch of your hour-long flight. Below you, Black Hills ridges and valleys are filled with ponderosa pine, while fog swirls around rock spires and rises from the surface of forest ponds below.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After your flight, you’ll be ready for a hearty breakfast at Baker’s Bakery & Café hash house whose tagline You’ll Love Our Buns is placed under a cheeky logo of a waitress with baked buns peeking out from her skirt.

For lunch or dinner the Pounding Fathers Restaurant/Mt. Rushmore Brewing Company is the place to sample some of dozens of Dakota state beers on draft. So massive is the complex that you could get lost there after knocking back a few (opened seasonally from May through October).

Just north of the Custer State Park boundaries book ahead for the super popular 1880 Train that runs between the towns of Hill City and Keystone. You’d think you’re in an Old West movie when at one point the vintage train will create a steamy scene by blasting sand through the flues to clear soot and whenever the tracks curve over the hour journey and you spot the engine chugging along. Conductors with old-timey facial hair help set the mood.

Anyone whose route ends in Keystone certainly needs no introduction to Mount Rushmore National Memorial which lies minutes away.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seemingly content as they are with the superb vantage point from the Grand View Terrace and to take in the extensive displays in its visitor’s center the vast majority of park goers don’t follow the half-mile-long looping Presidential Trail whose wooden stairs drop and rise again and get you right below the talus slope. You’ll have a close up of the presidents all to yourself at various viewing platforms to suss out just where Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint dangled from and scampered down those granite faces.

Headed west back to the town of Hill City, stop and sample what at Prairie Berry Winery will surely be your most unusual wine tasting ever—that is, unless you have already tasted rhubarb wine or their raspberry-inflected Red Ass Rhubarb blend. They have a brew pub as well for that mango IPA you never knew you wanted.

Taking up a huge house that you wish you could live in, Hill City’s Alpine Inn restaurant was built in 1884 as a hotel serving the mining and railroad companies. The lunch menu is ample but for dinner it’s just two sizes of filet mignon or spaetzle primavera followed by a massive homemade dessert selection. It’s cash-only and it’s wildly popular.

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A massive site off the highway between Hill City and Custer, The Crazy Horse Memorial mountain carving is a truly odd slice of Americana. Still far from completion since sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began blasting rock away in 1948 the work depicts the warrior whose Oglala Lakota people knew as Tasunke Witko, famous for his role in the defeat of Custer at Little Bighorn. Funded by donations and entry fees and finally advancing quickly with newer rock carving technologies, the memorial now includes the chief’s hand pointing in the distance to go along with his long-ago finished head.

The memorial museum is filled with artifacts and art from many Indian nations across the continent. One wall display you might not have expected is made up of small early 20th-century advertising illustrations of romanticized Indian and Western figures and scenes that were made for a gum company by Winfried Reiss, a German born artist recently rediscovered for his murals in the Empire State Building and Harlem Renaissance portraits.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Back in Custer, you might think you’ve stumbled upon a slice of Brooklyn in the Black Hills. Were Skogen Kitchen actually in Brooklyn, the restaurant with the Norwegian name would be a hit there too for its urban vibe and dishes like hiramasa sashimi and duck leg.

Rapid City is now well-known for its nearly-life-sized bronze statues of presidents around town. Back in the 1930s, the WPA erected a truly delightful curiosity on a hill outside of town, where the life-size concrete creatures in Dinosaur Park have fared remarkably well in the near century of their existence. You can expect the unexpected in this southwest corner of South Dakota.

Custer Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Pronghorns in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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Worth Pondering…

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.

—Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)