The Ultimate Guide to Custer State Park

With spectacular towering rock spires, gorgeous lakes, scenic drives, and abundant wildlife, Custer State Park is a world of beautiful nature

Encompassing 71,000 acres in the Black Hills, Custer State Park is home to plentiful wildlife and adventure; camping, hiking, biking, swimming, fishing, or relaxing, there’s something here for everyone.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over 2 million people from around the world visit Custer State Park every year and it’s easy to see why. With its combination of rolling hills, stunning granite peaks, and abundant wildlife, Custer is a uniquely beautiful location. The park itself can be seen and enjoyed in two to three days but I suggest a longer stay to enjoy the area around the park and all it has to offer.  If you are planning a trip to South Dakota or want to be inspired, read on to find out all you need to know about this beautiful and unique destination.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History of Custer State Park

Custer State Park was born in 1919. Governor Peter Norbeck had long admired the beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota and once elected governor of the state, he set out to permanently preserve the area. Once the park was created, Norbeck himself helped to plan the layout of roads and scenic vistas throughout the park. The twisty turns and narrow granite tunnels of the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road are designed to offer breathtaking views while blending with the scenery they traverse.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When asked about the routes he had planned throughout the park, Norbeck famously said “You’re not supposed to drive here at 60 miles per hour; to do the scenery justice you should drive at no more than 20. To do it full justice you should just get out and walk it.”

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the summer of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge spent three months visiting the Black Hills and Custer State Park in particular. He and Mrs. Coolidge stayed primarily at the State Game Lodge during this time, earning it the nickname the “Summer White House.”

Related Article: Into the Hills: Can’t Miss Spots for Your Black Hills Tour

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was responsible for many of the projects we currently enjoy in the park. From 1933 to 1941 they built the dams, bridges, and buildings that makeup Stockade Lake, Center Lake, Wildlife Station Visitor Center, the Mount Coolidge Lookout Tower, and most notably the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Location of Custer State Park

Located in southwestern South Dakota, Custer State Park is a 30-minute drive from Rapid City, South Dakota. The drive south from Rapid City on Highway 79 is an easy and pleasant one offering impressive views of the Black Hills. Turn right onto Highway 36 and the main entrance to the park. Once you enter the park gates, the highway name changes to Highway 16A which can be a little confusing. Turning right onto Highway 16A takes you north on Iron Mountain Road to Mount Rushmore National Monument while continuing straight on Highway 16A takes you west on the park’s main road.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two of the Park’s lodges (State Game Lodge and Legion Lake Lodge) and three of its campgrounds (Game Lodge Campground, Grace Coolidge Campground, and Legion Lake Campground) are located along this route. Turning south just past Legion Lake, one encounters Highway 87 which takes you to the Blue Bell Lodge and campground and Custer’s famed Wildlife Loop Road.

The area immediately surrounding the park is a tourist playground with scenic drives, national monuments (Mount Rushmore), and private attractions such as the Crazy Horse Monument. The town of Custer is located just outside the west entrance to the park and is convenient for restocking on fuel and groceries or for grabbing a bite to eat.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Geography of Custer State Park

Granite spires, stunning mountain views, and rolling grasslands all combine in this very special and scenic location. Located in Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park encompasses approximately 71,000 acres of land.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The change in topography in this area is one part of what makes Custer so unique. Toward the south of the park there are rolling grasslands that provide a home for over 1,500 bison as well as pronghorn antelope, elk, wild burros, and prairie dogs. Toward the north part of the park, the elevation increases dramatically and tall granite spires appear to shoot out of the ground dozens of feet into the air. The sheer sides and steep drops from the spires create a magnificent landscape.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Woven throughout this landscape are several streams and lakes that further add to the beauty and ambience of the area. Taken together, Custer State Park offers a unique landscape that creates a stunning palette of colors, shapes, and textures that many consider to be unparalleled in its scenic beauty.

Related Article: Custer State Park: A Black Hills Gem

Bison along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife in Custer

Wildlife in Custer is abundant and includes bison, deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, coyotes, burros, and prairie dogs. While wildlife can be viewed throughout the park, the Wildlife Loop Road in the southern region of the park is known to have an abundance of animals that can be seen without even leaving your car. During our visit, I observed (and photographed) bison, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, and Custer’s begging burros during our drive along the road.

Burros along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The begging burros (as they are known) have inhabited the grasslands of Custer for nearly a century. Originally, these donkeys were used as pack animals to shuttle visitors between Sylvan Lake Lodge and Black Elk Peak (the highest peak east of the Rockies). When their services were no longer needed these animals were released into the wild to roam freely in the park.

Begging burros along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The begging burros are extremely friendly and easily approachable. They’ve even been known to poke their heads into the windows of passing cars that stop long enough on the side of the road. Although park officials don’t recommend it, visitors enjoy feeding the burros that are eager to accept almost any handout that is offered.

Pronghorns along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The big wildlife draw in Custer is their herd of over 1,500 wild bison. The herd roams freely in the grasslands in the southern part of the park and has thrived in this area. Visitors on the Wildlife Loop Road are almost guaranteed to see bison during their drive. And it’s not uncommon to be caught in a “buffalo jam.”

Bison along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This unique experience occurs when the bison herd stops on the roadway or crosses the roadway in the park. Don’t be surprised to find a car or truck surrounded by bison almost like a metal island in a sea of brown hides and horns. While not tame, the bison are also not easily intimidated by people or automobiles. This is truly a unique experience that would be hard to duplicate anywhere in the world outside of Custer State Park.

Related Article: Explore the Black Hills

How to explore Custer State Park

Scenic drives

Almost every road in Custer can be considered a scenic drive! But, there are three that stand out above the others.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway 

The Needles Highway (also known as Highway 87) is a beautiful drive that runs from Highway 16A in the park up to the northwest corner of Custer where Sylvan Lake is located. This 14-mile road is part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway and was once thought to be impossible to build by many engineers. However, through hard work and dedication, it was completed in 1922. This spectacular drive twists and turns its way through forests of pine and spruce, across sunny meadows, and up rugged mountains.

Needles Eye Tunnel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The highway’s name is derived from the rugged granite spires (tall granite towers) that rise majestically into the air. The road terminates at Sylvan Lake after passing through Needles Eye Tunnel, a one-lane tunnel carved into a mountain of granite that measures only 8 feet 4 inches wide by 11 feet 3 inches tall. With the many twists, turns, and narrow tunnels, this highway is definitely not RV-friendly so leave the rig at the campsite while enjoying this drive. Expect a 45-minute drive one-way from end to end.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iron Mountain Road

Iron Mountain Road is the portion of Highway 16A that travels north after one enters the park from the east on Highway 36. This 17-mile stretch of highway is yet another example of determination and ingenuity. The road was specifically designed with 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, and three one-lane tunnels to force visitors to go slow in the hopes that they would enjoy and take in the scenery during their drive.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The southern portion of the road begins in Custer then leaves the park after a few miles and ends at Mount Rushmore National Monument. Along the way, visitors are treated to the scenic beauty of the Black Hills including many overlooks and beautiful pine forests. On your journey toward Mount Rushmore, you will cross over wooden “pigtail” bridges (bridges that loop over their road as they climb). As you near the end, be on the lookout for Doane Robinson Tunnel. This tunnel carved through the mountain is 13 feet 2 inches wide and 12 feet 2 inches tall and was designed to perfectly frame Mount Rushmore while you’re heading north. It is quite an impressive sight. This beautiful drive is not an RV-friendly stretch of highway so once again you’ll want to leave your rig parked while exploring this road. Expect a 60-minute drive one way along this route.

Along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife Loop Road

As mentioned before, this 18-mile scenic loop travels through the south end of the park and winds through open grassy meadows and hills dotted with pine and crosses clear flowing streams. Depending on the day, you can see pronghorn antelope, deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, and the begging burros on your drive. But, perhaps the most well-known feature of the drive is Custer’s bison herd. At over 1,500 animals strong, this herd roams the grasslands in the park’s southern end and can almost always be seen from the road. We have seen and experienced cars completely surrounded by bison and it makes for an extremely unique experience. Depending on “buffalo jams,” and whether you stop to feed the burros, we recommend planning around 1 hour to 1½ hours for this drive.

Related Article: The Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

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

Hiking

The park offers many hiking opportunities that allow visitors to get off the beaten path and explore the park in an up close and personal way. In addition to the designed and marked trails, off-trail hiking also is encouraged in Custer and visitors are allowed to hike wherever they would like. Depending on the area of the park in which you hike, the trails differ greatly in their topography and geography.

Camping in Custer State Park

Camping in Custer

Custer features 10 campgrounds, each with a unique feel, throughout the park:

  • Blue Bell Campground
  • Center Lake Campground
  • French Creek Horse Camp
  • French Creek Natural Area
  • Game Lodge Campground
  • Grace Coolidge Campground
  • Legion Lake Campground
  • Stockade North Campground
  • Stockade South Campground
  • Sylvan Lake Campground

Most campgrounds offer electric sites with water available at various locations throughout the campground. The lone dump station in the park is located at Game Lodge Campground. 

Other activities

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake is a beautiful body of water located in the northwest corner of Custer State Park. It can be accessed via the Needles Highway if you’re in the Park or by Highway 87 from the north. The Sylvan Lake area offers many activities to visitors; you can rent canoes or kayaks or try your hand at fishing for the trout, panfish, and bass found in its waters.

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The loop trail that goes around the lake is 1.1 miles in length, mostly flat and comprised of packed gravel making it a relatively easy hike for most individuals. The views from the trail can be stunning as it traverses the shoreline and there are several large boulders along the way that kids and adults alike will enjoy scrambling to the top of in order to enjoy the breathtaking views from that vantage point. There is even a small swimming beach at the lake for those that are interested in cooling off on a hot summer day.

Related Article: Needles Highway: National Scenic Byway in the Black Hills

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The nearby Sylvan Lake Lodge offers visitors a chance to grab lunch in the restaurant or stock up on drinks, snacks, and souvenirs while they are there. Due to the many activities and its scenic beauty, Sylvan Lake is quite popular and parking can be somewhat limited. So, we suggest arriving at the lake early in the day when crowds are somewhat minimized.

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

Custer State Park is home to a number of other activities as well. The streams in Custer are teaming with trout waiting to be caught. The trails and roads in Custer are perfect for biking and walking. Eagles and other birds fill the skies and are waiting to be seen by all those who are interested. And the lakes in the park are waiting for you to take a cool refreshing dip.

Truly Custer is a magnificent destination unlike any other we have experienced!

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they roundup and drive the herd of approximately 1,500 buffalo. Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, it is also a critical management tool in maintaining a strong and healthy herd.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Buffalo Roundup begins at 9:30 a.m. with the parking lots opening at 6:15 a.m. Guests must stay in the viewing areas until the herd is safely in the corrals, generally around noon. Breakfast is available at 6:15 a.m. in both viewing areas. Lunch is served at the corrals once the buffalo are rounded up. There is a fee for both meals. 

Related Article: South Dakota: Fly Over State? Not a Chance!

Testing, branding, and sorting of the buffalo begins at 1 p.m. and lasts until approximately 3 p.m.

At the Annual Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival, up to 150 vendors offer their fine arts and crafts for sale including many South Dakota made products.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start your morning with a pancake feed and enjoy on-going Western and Native American entertainment under the big top. All events and vendors will be located on the festival grounds across from the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center.

The annual roundup, held the last Friday in September, is open to the public. In 2022, the 57th annual Roundup is scheduled for Friday, September 30.

Details

Park Size: 71,000 acres

Camping at Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping: 10 campgrounds with 341 campsites and 50 camping cabins, horse camp

Park entrance fees: $20 per vehicle (valid for 7 days); $36 for annual pass; vehicles traveling non-stop through the park on US Highway 16A do not need an entrance license

Operating hours: Open year-round (between October 1 and April 30, showers, flush toilets, and other water systems may be closed; vault toilets usually remain open)

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearest towns: Custer, Rapid City, Hill City, Keystone

Note: GPS can be unreliable in the area

Read Next: Doorway to Forever: Badlands National Park

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)

Custer State Park: A Black Hills Gem

Custer State Park offers forest, meadows, mountains, and wildlife including a herd of 1,300 bison

Custer State Park in the beautiful Black Hills of western South Dakota is famous for its bison herds, other wildlife, scenic drives, historic sites, visitor centers, fishing lakes, resorts, campgrounds, and interpretive programs. In fact, it was named as one of the World’s Top Ten Wildlife Destinations for the array of wildlife within the park’s borders and for the unbelievable access visitors have to them.

Bison herd in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of America’s largest state parks, Custer has been home to diverse cultural heritages for thousands of years and has provided an array of scenic beauty and outdoor recreation for visitors since the early 1900s. Custer State Park is full of lush forests, quiet and serene meadows, and majestic mountains. Few truly wild places remain in this country. Custer State Park is one of them.

Thirty to sixty million bison once roamed the great plains of North America. By the close of the 19th century, it’s estimated that less than 1,000 bison survived. Historically, the animal played an essential role in the lives of the Lakota (Sioux), who relied on the “Tatanka” for food, clothing, and shelter.

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

Today, nearly 1,300 bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres of mountains, hills, and prairie which they share with a wealth of wildlife including pronghorn antelope, elk, white-tailed and mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, coyotes, wild turkeys, a band of burros, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs.

Bison herd in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bison herd roams freely throughout the park and is often found along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road in the southern part of the park. Bison seem docile but can run very fast and turn on a dime. Weighing as much as 2,000 pounds, these animals are forces to be reckoned with. Visitors should stay inside their vehicles when viewing the bison and not get too close. Most wildlife can easily be seen from your car. Bear in mind, they are wild. Keep your distance.

Visit the last Friday in September and feel the thunder and join the herd at the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup (September 24, in 2021). Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they round up and drive the herd of approximately 1,300 buffalo. Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, but it is also a critical management tool in maintaining a strong and healthy herd.

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

The Buffalo Roundup begins at 9:30 a.m. with the parking lots opening at 6:15 a.m. Arrive early to pick your spot. Guests must stay in the viewing areas until the herd is safely in the corrals, generally around noon. Breakfast is available at 6:15 a.m. in both viewing areas. Lunch is served at the corrals once the buffalo are rounded up. There is a fee for both meals. Testing, branding, and sorting of the buffalo begins at 1 p.m. and lasts until approximately 3 p.m. Crews will work the remainder of the herd in October.

In addition to wildlife, the park features several historic sites, including the State Game Lodge, the Badger Hole, the Gordon Stockade, the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center, and the Mount Coolidge Fire Tower. The Black Hills Playhouse, which hosts performances each summer, is also located within the park, as are four resorts, each offering lodging, dining, and activities.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park also has four mountain lakes. These lakes, along with several streams, offer many water recreation and fishing opportunities.

In March 1919, Custer State Park was named the first official state park. In 2019, South Dakota’s oldest state park celebrated 100 years of outdoor tradition. Each year, more than 1.5 million visitors enjoy the numerous and varied activities, attractions, and events found year-round within Custer State Park.

Needles Highway in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is a driver’s delight. There are three scenic drives—Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, and Wildlife Loop Road—which are part of the extensive network of backcountry lanes on the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway for 70 miles, the route threads its way around pigtail bridges, through one-lane rock-walled tunnels, and ascends to the uppermost heights of the Needles.

The Needles in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The needle-like granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon in Custer State Park, known as the Needles, are truly see-it-to-believe-it phenomena. Drive Needles Highway to see for yourself just how majestic these outcroppings are in person. The Needles Highway is much more than a 14-mile road—it’s a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The adventurous should carve out time to hike Cathedral Spires Trail. This moderate 1.5-mile trail offers spectacular views of these unique rock formations. You’ll likely pass rock climbers hauling gear in or out of the trail, as the spires are home to some of the most sought-after climbing routes in the Black Hills.

Wild burros seeking handouts in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other top trails include Sunday Gulch Trail, Little Devils Tower Trail, Lover’s Leap Trail, and Sylvan Lake Shore Trail. You can begin your trek to Black Elk Peak at one of two trailheads within the park.

The roadway was carefully planned by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, who marked the entire course on foot and by horseback. Construction was completed in 1922.

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

Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing, and thawing.

The 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road takes visitors through open grasslands and pine-speckled hills that much of the park’s wildlife call home.

Mount Rushmore from the Iron Mountain Road in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 18-mile Iron Mountain Road winds between Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the junction of U.S. 16A and SR 36. Constructed in 1933, only a portion of this road lies within the park, but it is a must-see.

The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway complements the park’s three scenic drives and includes some of the most dramatic natural and historic features in the Black Hills.

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

Following an action-packed day, sleep under the stars in Custer State Park. There are nine campgrounds tucked away in ponderosa pine forests, alongside fresh flowing streams, or near a mountain lake. The choice is yours! Campsites accommodate RVs and tents. Each campsite offers gravel or paved camping pad, a fire grate, and a picnic table. Electric hookups are available in most campgrounds. Or, you can relax in a one-room, log-style camping cabin or historic lodge located throughout the park.

The clear mountain waters are inviting and the open ranges are waiting to be discovered. Bring your family to Custer State Park and let yourself run wild.

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

Your Next Adventure Is Set In Stone

There is more than gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Above dense forests and pristine streams, Mount Rushmore National Memorial represents a national treasure. Symbolizing the ideals of freedom and democracy, it is a tribute to four presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln and their invaluable contributions to the United States.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore National Memorial represents not only the past, but also a promise for the future. It is a place surrounded by American history where the names of Gutzon Borglum and Crazy Horse are still heard, buffalo once again run free in Custer State Park, and the vision of the Keystone miners still cast a shadow on long deserted claims.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Freedom, justice, hope—South Dakota‘s beloved national memorial, Mount Rushmore, is a testament to these deeply cherished American values. The quartet of presidential busts carved into a granite peak in the Black Hills is one of the most iconic symbols of the United States.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In fact, the colossal, 60-foot profiles of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt are so instantly recognizable, they’ve been spoofed in commercials, used as film backdrops, and reproduced in all sizes and forms including a 3 million-piece construction at Legoland. But for all of Mount Rushmore’s widespread fame (and 3 million annual visitors), it’s also a place with a deep history and plenty of little-known facts.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, 30 minutes from Rapid City, this colossal monument was the brainchild of state historian Doane Robinson, who conceived of the mountain carving in 1924 as a way to draw people from all over America to his state.

Whether a lifelong destination or a stop on a road trip, your visit to Mount Rushmore will be one you will tuck in your memory book forever.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is located in Keystone, South Dakota. It is surrounded by the lands of the Black Hills National Forest. It offers a unique experience year-round for outdoor adventures, sightseeing, and opportunities to soak up the history that surrounds the area.

Get there early for the best lighting conditions, or exercise your low-light skills with photos of the nightly lighting ceremony. Regardless of your timing, make sure to explore the many photo opportunities from different vantage points along the half-mile-long Presidential Trail.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chad Coppess, staff photographer for Travel South Dakota, recommends a spot right off the trail, which takes you down a little spur between two giant boulders. Look through a big crack between them to frame the Presidential faces from a vantage point often overlooked by most visitors.

Enjoy the works of genius by touring the various exhibits at the Sculptor’s Studio or Lincoln Borglum Museum. Both self- and ranger-guided tours are available.

Stroll the Avenue of Flags with flags representing 56 states and territories lining the walkway. View the memorial against the evening sky each night at the amphitheater (May through September) during the Evening Sculpture Lighting Ceremony. A sense of awe will come over you as the Memorial lights up the sky.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A short stroll along the Presidential Trail will provide close access to the sculpture. More intimate views of the artwork are available along the way as either a self- guided or ranger-guided walk.

Two other trails lead to Borglum View Terrace and the Sculptor’s Studio: One is a nature trail that starts from the main entryway; the other is a steep trail with uneven steps that starts from Grandview Terrace.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here’s the thing, visit South Dakota once and the place SELLS ITSELF. Much more than just the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, and the Badlands, SoDak is the most scenic places you knew nothing about. Until now.

You don’t carve the faces of presidents into a mountain unless you’re doing something right.

If you’re using Google Maps to locate this national landmark, be very, very specific. Apparently, general searches for Mount Rushmore often send travelers astray. If you find yourself at a Methodist campground called Storm Mountain Center, you’re about 12 miles away from the memorial.

Worth Pondering…

Great Faces, Great Places. Find your great place.

Needles Highway: National Scenic Byway in the Black Hills

Driving the Needles Highway isn’t about getting to the next destination—it’s about taking in the scenery

Highway 87 in South Dakota might not be that long, but it’s 14 miles of really awesome road that twists and turns its way through some of South Dakota’s most stunning natural scenery. This curvaceous stretch of narrow pavement, known as Needles Highway, travels through unique rock formations in the southeastern portion of Black Hills National Forest.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We traveled southbound from Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota south into South Dakota for about four hours. Eventually, the oil derricks and rigs dotting the North Dakotan landscape gave way to vast and open tracks of South Dakota.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s a desolate place with a hauntingly beautiful feel. It consists of mostly flat and wild grassland. Colorful buttes and mesas pop up here and there. But then the Black Hills start.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is nothing quite like the Black Hills of South Dakota. Around Black Hills National Forest, one finds numerous well-known sites including Mount Rushmore, the work-in-progress Crazy Horse memorial, the town of Sturgis—famous for the Motorcycle Rally attracting 50,000 motorcyclists each year for ten days of wild partying, and Deadwood (famous for its gold mining and heavy-handed gambling past, also the resting place of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane). Of course, all of these sites are interesting and merit a visit of their own, but, when it comes to natural beauty, few can match the Needles Highway.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First arriving in the Black Hills, the thought “Black Hills Shmack Hills, what’s the big deal?” might be a fleeting thought. Trust me, just be patient and give it a little time because the 1.2 million acres of Ponderosa Pine forests and mountains will charm and win you over. You need to pay for a park pass upon entering—$10.00 per vehicle—and the pass is good for all South Dakota parks for seven days from the date of purchase.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Something that makes the Black Hills unique is that the landscape is distinctly different from the high-altitude flat grasslands surrounding it. In fact, it is dubbed “an island in the plains”. The area is geologically old and stable but pockets of upheaval and volcanic activity have given rise to the hills. While they’re not super high in elevation, the centrally located Black Elk Peak does get up to and impressive 7,242 feet. And there are hiking trails and activities galore.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Highway is a National Scenic Byway completed in 1922 that was considered to be an impossible road to construct due to the series of sharp turns and tunnels that needed to be cut through solid rock while maintaining the integrity of the area. The road’s name comes from the needlelike granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to slow down to take it all in. Winding drives throughout the park are most enjoyable at a slower pace. Allow ample time to travel at a safe speed—generally 25 miles per hour or slower. Expect travel time of about 45 to 60 minutes to enjoy the Needles Highway.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Highway remains open from April through October. Due to the narrowness of the road, the byway is closed during winter months.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Highway is only 14 miles long but there are several great places to stay nearby. Custer State Park is packed with adventure but it’s also a great place to rest and recuperate. There are nine individual campgrounds for tent camping, RV camping, even camping for horses, so you’ll easily find a match for your camping needs. Several of Custer’s camping options come with electric and water hookups to meet all camping needs.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

—John Muir

Visual Marvels: America’s Seven Natural Wonders

The Seven Natural Wonders of America are a list of the most astonishing natural attractions

Ever since the list of the Seven Wonders of the World was first inked by either Antipater of Sidon (second half of the 2nd century BC), Philo of Byzantium (c. 280–220 BC, Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC), or Callimachus of Cyrene (c. 305–240 BC)—depending upon which ancient historian you believe—all manner of “Seven Wonders” lists pop up from time to time including the New Seven Wonders of the World, of the Natural World, of the Modern World, of the Architectural World. Well, this could go on for a while.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But it is that original collection of wonders, now referred to as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—the Great Pyramids of Giza (the only one that still exists), the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus, the Temple of Artemis (at Ephesus near the modern town of Selçuk in present-day Turkey), the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (in present-day Turkey), the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandra—that sparks the imagination, stirs the soul, and stokes the curiosity. These are the finest creations of the ancient world and at the very least inspire wonder in their sheer archaeological greatness.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That much can be said of any wonder, whether natural or manmade, and then add into the mix the almost obsessive need for the world to categorize and break down everything into parts. That’s how these types of lists came to be in the first place. Often for reasons to promote tourism, numerous countries have tallied their own wonders as have almost all the United States.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon

One of the world’s great natural wonders, the Grand Canyon is a true marvel of nature. John Wesley Powell said it best, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.” A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A deep gorge carved by the Colorado River about seventeen million years ago, the Grand Canyon stretches for more than 250 miles and is up to 18 miles in width and more than a mile deep in some areas. Just about everywhere you look the views are amazing and the sheer size of it can be overwhelming. One look over the edge and it’s easy to see why it’s considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.

Great Smoky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.

Great Smoky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This exceptionally beautiful park is home to more than 3,500 plant species, including almost as many trees (130 natural species) as in all of Europe. The park is of exceptional natural beauty with scenic vistas of characteristic mist-shrouded (“smoky”) mountains, vast stretches of virgin timber, and clear running streams.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

The horseshoe-shaped, russet rock hoodoo formations of Bryce Canyon National Park are a true sight to behold. This is one of the world’s highest concentrations of hoodoos and their colors alternate between shades of purple, red, orange, and white.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sunset, Sunrise, Inspiration and Bryce viewpoints are the spots to hit for the best views in the shortest amount of time. There are several easy trails located near the rim of Bryce Canyon to hike as well as ranger programs that take you on guided hikes through the park.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee Swamp

The Okefenokee, whose name means “Land of the Trembling Earth” in the Creek language, is now part national wildlife refuge, part privately-owned park (Okefenokee Swamp Park) that is widely known for harboring an incredible cache of biological and ecological wonders. The swamp’s dark, coffee-colored tannic water is the base for a living jumble of pine, cypress, swamp, palmetto, peat bog, marsh, island, and sand ridge.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A hodgepodge of animal and bird life, among the hundreds of species are black bear, alligators galore, snakes galore, deer, anhinga, osprey, and sandhill crane call the swamp home.

Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches

Arches contains the world’s largest concentration of, yes, sandstone arches. There are more than 2,000, all of which took millions of years to form via erosion. And the arches are just one of an infinite number of absolutely jaw-dropping formations within the 120-square-mile park—Devil’s Garden, Balanced Rock, Fiery Furnace, Landscape Rock, The Windows, it goes on.

Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches is one of the most distinctive, alien-looking landscapes in America, and you should take advantage of the hiking trails like Devil’s Garden to really get the full experience.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black Hills

Driving through the Black Hills takes you through some of the most rugged, distinctive, and beautiful land in America. It’s hard to stick to the main road in this rugged land of canyons, cliffs, and caves.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills are home to some of the most majestic scenery you can imagine from the winding Spearfish Canyon to the mountain lakes that surround Mount Rushmore—rivers, mountains, caves, and more make it ideal for hikers and climbers and everybody in between.

Carlsbad Caverns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns

The Chihuahuan Desert, studded with spiky plants and lizards, offers little hint that what Will Rogers called the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it” waits underground. Yet, at this desert’s northern reaches lies one of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns ever found.

Carlsbad Caverns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 limestone caves that are outstanding in the profusion, diversity, and beauty of their formations. Most of the formations—or speleothems—found inside Carlsbad Cavern today were active and growing during the last ice age when instead of a desert above the cave, there were pine forests.

Worth Pondering…

We carry within us the wonders we seek without us.

—Thomas Browne

Black Hills: Step Back in Time to the Wild West

The Wild West comes alive in the Black Hills

Due to changing advisories, please check local travel guidelines before visiting.

An isolated mountain range located in the western edge of South Dakota, the Black Hills is full of scenery, rich history, and tons of family fun. Nestled among the prairies of the upper-Midwest, you’ll find majestic granite spires, pine covered peaks, and unique rock outcroppings.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While discovering off-the-beaten-path treasures, the inherent thread of Wild West history and American Indian culture piques one’s curiosity, fueling the desire to explore even more.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors will find fascinating places to learn about American Indian culture, the Old West, pioneer history, and wildlife. The Crazy Horse Memorial, a mountain sculpture in progress as a tribute to all Native Americans, draws crowds, as does Custer State Park, where visitors often spot bison, pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, wild burros, coyotes, wild turkeys, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs.

The Needles in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills area is claimed as sacred ancestral land by nearly two-dozen Native American tribes. A variety of museums and historical sites provide insight into local Native American history and heritage.

The region’s name—the “Black” comes from the dark ponderosa-pine-covered slopes—was conferred by the Lakota (Sioux) who named it Paha Sapa, which means “hills that are black”.

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

Lewis and Clark heard tales about the Black Hills from other traders and trappers, but it wasn’t until 1823 that Jedediah Smith and a group of about 15 traders actually traveled through them. While other adventuresome trappers also explored the Hills, most avoided the area because it was considered sacred by the Lakota.

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

They never welcomed the white man to their hunting grounds and as immigration increased there was a marked decline in American Indian-white relations. The Army established outposts nearby, but they seldom entered the Black Hills. Trouble escalated when bands of Lakota began to raid nearby settlements, then retreating to the Hills. In the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, they were assured that the Hills would be theirs for eternity, but the discovery of gold changed that only six years later. 

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

The discovery of gold in the Black Hills brought the first white settlers and miners to the Dakota Territory in 1874. The hunt for riches gave birth to many of the modern day towns located in the area, including the Wild West towns of Deadwood and Keystone.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When miners moved into the area in 1876, they came across a gulch full of dead trees and a creek full of gold—and Deadwood was born. Practically overnight, the tiny gold camp boomed into a town that played by its own rules that attracted outlaws, gamblers, and gunslingers along with the gold seekers. 

The Needles in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The famous and the infamous have called Deadwood and the Black Hills home over the last several centuries. Lewis and Clark, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, George Armstrong Custer, Poker Alice, the Sundance Kid, Calamity Jane, and many others have all passed through here in search of fortune and adventure.

Hiking in the Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Deadwood survived three major fires and numerous economic hardships, pushing it to the verge of becoming another Old West ghost town. But in 1989 limited-wage gambling was legalized and Deadwood was reborn.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An Old West town just a few miles from Mount Rushmore, Keystone is a Black Hills experience like no other. Keystone is one of the few places where you can actually visit an underground gold mine.  Originally named Gold Hill Lode when the mine was first tunneled in 1882, the Big Thunder Gold Mine is a very popular Keystone attraction. The mine offers tours and allows visitors to try their own hand at panning for gold.

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Learn more about the history of this Gold Rush town with a free self-guided walking tour around Keystone. Or, climb on board the 1880s Train for a ride through the Black Hills; the rails take you on a two-hour tour through to Hill City and back.

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Keystone Historical Museum to learn more about the past as well as about one of the town’s famous residents. Carrie Ingalls, sister of Laura Ingalls Wilder and featured in the Little House on the Prairie books, lived and died here.

Worth Pondering…

My first years were spent living just as my forefathers had lived—roaming the green, rolling hills of what are now the states of South Dakota and Nebraska.

—Standing Bear

Into the Hills: Can’t Miss Spots for Your Black Hills Tour

With tourism being South Dakota’s second-largest industry, you can bet there is a lot of sightseeing to do here. The Black Hills, especially, is packed with picturesque, travel hot spots.

We remain optimistic about this year’s RV travel season despite its rough start due to the COVID-19 outbreak. We’re cautiously hoping that as this starts to pass, there’ll be enough cabin-fever to make people want to pack up the RV and head out on a road trip.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the travel season starts up once again which places in the Black Hills are worth a visit or even a revisit?

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No sightseeing tour of the Black Hills is complete without Mount Rushmore. The monument is recommended by nearly everyone, and for good reason. Completed in 1941, Mount Rushmore is a cornerstone in South Dakota tourism. Towering at 5,725 feet with each head being the size of a six-story building, this goliath of a monument is truly a sight to behold.

Mount Rushmore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to visit this memorial before noon. Mount Rushmore was carved with the intent of viewing it in the morning. Facing the eastern sun the light hits the mountain perfectly in the morning hours.

Mount Rushmore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Viewing the Shrine of Democracy is only one of the many things you can do while visiting Mount Rushmore. Take your time and hike multiple trails available on the property and visit the sculptor’s studio and museum where you can learn all about the monument.

Iron Mountain Road

Iron Mountain Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While you are going to Mount Rushmore, be sure to take the scenic Iron Mountain Road on the way there. This winding road is full of magnificent Black Hills scenery, pigtail bridges, and gorgeous tunnels that perfectly frame Mount Rushmore as you approach the monument. Constructed in 1933 and designed to do the scenery justice, it’s suggested that you take this road at no more than 20 mph to really take in everything the Black Hills has to offer.

Custer State Park

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A can’t miss destination on your list should be Custer State Park. The 71,000 acres of the Black Hills offers a home to lots of including a chance to see the famous South Dakotan bison, just be sure to remain in your vehicle or stay back at least 100 yards from them!

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park has a little bit of adventure for everyone, from camping and hiking to fishing and swimming, there isn’t a more picturesque place to visit for a good time.

Needles Highway

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Completed in 1922, this National Scenic Byway was deemed impossible to construct. The roadway was planned out by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck who marked the entire course on foot and horseback. This extreme highway offers 14 miles of sharp turns, narrow tunnels, and granite spires that are sure to leave you in awe.

Crazy Horse Memorial

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Often clumped together with Mount Rushmore, this memorial deserves a place all its own. Sculpted to resemble Tasunke Witco (Crazy Horse) of the Oglala Lakota, this monument is the largest in-progress mountain carving in the world. Much more than just a colossal mountain carving, the Crazy Horse Memorial is home to several museums dedicated to not only the development of the monument but also the diverse histories and cultures of the American Indian people. Additionally, the monument is host to multiple programs and fellowships meant to honor artists, performers, and culture bearers as well as University programs for the next generation of young native people.

Pronghorns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here’s the thing, visit South Dakota once and the place SELLS ITSELF. Much more than just the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, and the Badlands, SoDak is the most scenic places you knew nothing about. Until now!

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You don’t carve the faces of presidents into a mountain unless you’re doing something right.

Worth Pondering…

Great Faces, Great Places. Find your great place.

Round ‘Em Up: The Ground Rumbles & The Dust Flies

Feel the thunder and join the herd at the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

Feel the earth tremble as the hooves of more than 1,300 American buffalo pound through the valley in Custer State Park. At the annual Buffalo Roundup in the Black Hills of South Dakota, herdsmen on horseback spur them over the ridge, down the hill and into corrals for sorting.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each fall, the ground rumbles and the dust flies as cowboys, cowgirls, and park crews drive the thundering herd of approximately 1,300 buffalo (number of animals vary depending on rangeland conditions). Up to 20 volunteer cowboys and cowgirls are selected each year through an application process.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clouds of dust and flying turf envelopes the 1-ton animals as they come running by, a mass of horns, hooves, and muscle on the move. You would think such large, lumbering animals would be slow, but they can stop on a dime and easily jump a 5- or 6-foot fence. Your jaw will drop at their speed and agility.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Riding herd on the stampede takes both organization and an understanding of bison intellect. The herd moves easily from prairie grasses to asphalt and into the holding pen. Over the years, there had been numerous runaways trying to turn back.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The big bull bison are not included in the Roundup because they are more aggressive and are simply hard to round up. Because of this, visitors may see them scattered throughout the park during the Roundup weekend.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, it is also part of the park’s management plan to maintain a healthy balance between the number of bison and the available rangeland forage. The park can only sustain a certain number of bison, based on the condition of the grassland and how much food is available.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Buffalo Roundup also allows for some of the animals to be sorted out of the herd. The excess animals are then auctioned off to buyers in November wanting to supplement their herds or start new ones elsewhere in the country.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The annual roundup, held the last Friday in September, is open to the public. In 2019, the 54th  annual Roundup is scheduled for Friday, September 27.

Wild burros also via for attention © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no admission fee for the event and a park entrance fee is not required the day of the Buffalo Roundup. Parking lots open at 6:15 a.m. (but be prepared to wait in line). Visitors who are in the park by 7:00 a.m. will have plenty of time to get to the viewing areas. The Roundup does not start until 9:30 a.m.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pancakes, sausages, and beverages are available at 6:15 a.m., in both viewing areas. Lunch is served, until 2:00 p.m., at the corrals once the buffalo are rounded up. There is a fee for both meals.

Pronghorn antelope share the range with the buffal0 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Both viewing areas have unique vantage points and visitors get great views from either location. Visitors may not move between viewing areas.

Wild burros also via for attention © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Roundup is generally over by 11:30 a.m., but visitors need to be prepared to stay in the viewing areas until the bison are safely in the corrals. Shuttles are available after the Roundup for visitors wishing to visit the corral area.

Fun activities continue the entire weekend following the Roundup. The Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival, with up to 150 vendors, is held Thursday, Friday, and Saturday near the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center. Saturday features the annual Cabela’s Challenge Dutch Oven Cook-off.

Pronghorn antelope share the range with the buffal0 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re not in the mood to browse or buy and you want to escape the crowds, there’s plenty of daytime wildlife viewing along Wildlife Loop Road and other scenic byways. September is the rut season for the elk and the pronghorn antelope. With the elks’ mating calls and sparring, along with the antelope racing after each other, wildlife watching is quite entertaining.

The spectacle of these animals moving across the plains is a thrill rarely seen elsewhere. So is the silence that shrouded the hills once the beasts are corralled.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once placed in the corrals, park staff sorts out approximately 200 animals to be sold, vaccinates the new members of the herd, brands the new calves, and checks the cows for pregnancy. It takes about four days to work the entire herd.

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)

Explore the Black Hills

If you’re into camping, hiking, wildlife, or big adventure, the Black Hills is the place for you

The Black Hills of western South Dakota have long been a favorite of RVers. We came to this area to explore the natural side of the Black Hills—the plants and animals, geology, and natural history that existed before the trappers, miners, and homesteaders came—and we weren’t disappointed.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving an RV in the Black Hills is challenging. Most roads are curvy two laners with plenty of up-and-down elevation changes. Those driving larger rigs should plan routes carefully or better yet, locate yourself in a nearby campground or RV park and drive your toad. Also be aware of restrictions caused by tunnels on several roads.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving through the Black Hills takes you through some of the most rugged, distinctive, and beautiful land in America. It’s hard to stick to the main road in South Dakota’s rugged land of canyons, cliffs, and caves.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills are home to some of the most majestic scenery you can imagine, from the winding Spearfish Canyon to the mountain lakes that surround Rushmore—rivers, mountains, caves, and more make it ideal for hikers and climbers and everybody in between.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those in-betweeners include the bikers who throng the otherwise placid Sturgis every year, and gamblers who flock to Deadwood, a living museum of gold mining days. Small towns like Spearfish and Belle Fourche give you a chance for a little culture.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills is basically a gigantic, serene cluster of small towns amid enough crazy geographical features to populate an entire planet, all scattered within an hour or two of one another. Not bad for a place most often associated with having a gigantic wall of presidential heads looking over it.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills are home to the giant stone faces of Mount Rushmore National Monument and the Crazy Horse Memorial. This is the land of Deadwood and the final resting place of Wild Bill Hickok and hundreds of American Indians killed at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. It’s also steeped in a rich gold-mining history.

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting in the northwest, State Route 14A takes you through gorgeous Spearfish Canyon, a deep, narrow gorge carved by Spearfish Creek. The canyon has its own ecosystem of lush waterfalls, giant limestone cliffs, dozens of caves and, in the fall, a beautiful palette of colors.

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several scenic drives wind through the area, thanks to the efforts of Peter Norbeck, a conservationist who was South Dakota’s governor and a U.S. senator many decades ago. He helped establish Custer State Park and oversaw a tremendous undertaking in road construction. Norbeck explored the park on foot and on horseback, savoring the beauty of the Black Hills. His first road was completed in 1922 and named Needles Highway, for the spiky granite formations that stud the horizon.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway boasts more than 600 rock-climbing routes up granite spires that rise up out of the limestone. Harney Peak, the highest point east of the Rockies at 7,242 feet above sea level, stands in the distance. A leisurely hike to the top takes about two hours one way and is well worth the time.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iron Mountain Road was Norbeck’s next road project, connecting the park with Mount Rushmore to the north. The drive takes visitors along a series of pigtail bridges, so named for a corkscrew configuration that allows for sudden changes in elevation without disturbing the natural landscape. The road is designed to make you slow down and enjoy the scenery.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the world’s largest known caves, Wind Cave National Parks has many unusual formations and a variety of minerals are found in the cave. The cave is best known for its outstanding display of boxwork, an unusual cave formation composed of thin calcite fins resembling honeycombs.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Northwest of Wind Cave, the even larger Jewel Cave National Monument ranks as the second longest cave in the U. S. and the third longest in the world, with 173 miles of explored passageways. Jewel Cave is distinctive for its sparkling crystals, and particularly for a long ribbon of crystal called cave bacon that hangs from the ceiling.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

This mountain, the arched back of the earth risen before us, it made me feel humble, like a beggar, just lucky to be here at all, even briefly.

—Bridget Asher

South Dakota: Fly Over State? Not a Chance!

South Dakota gets a bad rap as a flyover state

An often overlooked travel destination, South Dakota is a land of breathtaking scenic beauty.

Here’s the thing, visit South Dakota once and the place SELLS ITSELF. Much more than just the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and the Badlands, SoDak is the most scenic places you knew nothing about. Until now!

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lewis and Clark passed through, Crazy Horse fought for freedom, and an 1876 gold rush in the Lakota-owned Black Hills created a miner’s camp known as Deadwood that lured frontiers’ woman Calamity Jane and gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After a rather long, prairie-flat preamble in the east, western South Dakota abruptly changes into two beautiful but distinct landscapes, the striated, fossil-rich sedimentary buttes of the Badlands and the nearby mountains so thick in evergreens that the native Lakota called them paha sapa—hills that are black.

Ironically, the defining feature of Western South Dakota’s breathtaking nature is that it is indefinable. Exceptionally varied, yet incredibly geographically close, you’ll witness the diversity of the natural world while also experiencing how the landscape can change over time.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start in Badlands National Park which is truly a natural anomaly. This rather off-putting nickname was first coined by the Lakota people, who called it “mako sica” (“land bad’), due to its extremity of temperatures, mixed prairie, and the exposed rugged and eroded sedimentary rock.

Badlands Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Badlands Scenic Byway drops immediately beside the parks serrated sandstone spires, which are banded in layers of purple, red, and orange rock that indicate their age. It is these very characteristics, however, that make it an ideal location for captivating vistas and off-beat serene beauty.  

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A must-see road trip destination, Mount Rushmore is visited by 3 million people a year.

The construction in its entirety took over 400 workers more than 14 years to sculpt, and will forever remain a testament to American patriotism. There is something rather overwhelming about it, as if it is a giant projection of a proud past on the rugged landscape of the indelible natural land.

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another powerful and impressive monument in the works, yet open to visitation is the Crazy Horse Memorial, a depiction of the fascinating Oglala Lakota warrior. The privately-funded project began construction in 1948, yet is still quite far from completion. Once completed, however, the statue, carved out of Thunderhead Mountain, will be the world’s largest sculpture at 641 feet wide and 563 feet tall. Witness history in the making by adding this stop to your itinerary!

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Dakota is also about those quirky roadside attractions. A necessary pit stop is Wall Drug in the town of Wall (the gateway to The Badlands), an establishment that embraces its quirkiness and welcomes 15,000 to 20,000 tourists a day. A stop at Wall Drug may include a cup of five cent coffee, a buffalo sandwich in a restaurant that can seat 520 tourists at a time, homemade pumpkin praline fudge, and a traveler’s chapel.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here corniness is key and despite your best efforts, you will more than likely leave with a Wall Drug tee shirt. Don’t say, I didn’t warn you.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And to the east along I-90, the famous Corn Palace in Mitchell which as the name might imply is AN ENTIRE ARENA MADE OF CORN!

The corny Willie Nelson at the Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Life really is the journey and these words cannot reach higher truth than referring to South Dakota. Driving through Custer State Park, you will see nearly 1,300 buffalo roaming alongside burros, prairie dog, and pronghorn antelopes.

Needles Highway, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, if you ever want to feel confounded by Mother Nature’s capabilities, Needles Highway is the drive for you with fourteen miles of steep turns, stunning vistas, and granite spires.

Buffalo Roundup, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic highways make the journey just as spectacular as the destination. Fly over state? Not a chance!

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)