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

No Matter Where You Are, These Road Trips Are Sure To Inspire

There are many hidden gems within driving distance you might not know about

2020 was the year of the road trip. While 2021 will hopefully be different in many ways—a vaccine and turning the corner on the pandemic—traveling by RV isn’t going away. Local, short-haul trips that don’t require getting on an airplane are still popular. We’ve selected road trips that take you everywhere—from Nappanee, Indiana to a Texas Hill Country road trip, to a drive along South Dakota’s most famous highway. Sometimes it’s about the journey and the destination.

La Sal Mountain Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Salt Lake City to Bryce Canyon, Utah

There’s truly gorgeous scenery striking out in all directions from Salt Lake City. This is Utah, after all. Visitors can breathe in the high-perched city’s crisp air and take in the mountain views—so perfect they look like stage backdrops—before motoring south.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road passes peaks and hiking trails. Take the slower, scenic route through Manti-La Sal National Forest and stop to explore aspen groves, sandstone canyons, and mountain lakes. It’s a good way to build up for setting eyes on Bryce Canyon—this jagged sprawl of red and apricot hoodoos towering above stretches of alpine forest is jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, South Dakota

Some of the most incredible roads anywhere make up the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway. Mix in America’s most patriotic monument along the way and you have a never-to-be-forgotten road trip. This 68-mile byway winds its way around spiraling “pig-tail” shaped bridges, through six rock tunnels, among towering granite pinnacles, and over pine-clad mountains. Roughly a figure-eight route, the byway travels through portions of Custer State Park, the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, near Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and the Black Elk National Wilderness Area. Highways 16A, 244, 89, and 87 combine to create the route.

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A good starting point is the town of Keystone near the foot of Mount Rushmore. Winding southwest on Highway 16A, also known as Iron Mountain Road, the route leads you around impressive wooden “pigtail” bridges. Continuing west into Custer State Park, Highway 16 intersects with Highway 87, also known as the Needles Highway. Here the road climbs around fantastic granite pinnacles. Twisting and turning between the Needles and through a tight tunnel/crack in the rock, this portion of the byway leads to picturesque Sylvan Lake.

San Antonio Riverwalk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Austin to San Antonio, Texas

It’s easy to motor between these two Texas Hill Country cities in just over an hour. And, from Austin’s hip vibe, music scene, and beloved BBQ joints to the restaurants and art that flank San Antonio’s Riverwalk there’s plenty to keep visitors occupied. But adding in Fredericksburg really completes the triangle.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The German-settled town of Fredericksburg, surrounded by wineries, combines proud heritage with modern twists on its past, from food to art. Visitors can also take a detour to hike up the huge granite boulders of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area (reservations required for weekends and holidays) before looping down to San Antonio where disused brewery Pearl is the place to hang out. The micro-district just off the Riverwalk has boutiques, a food hall, restaurants, and a hotel in buildings once dedicated to brewing beer. And don’t forget to remember The Alamo!

Alabama Gulf Coast © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama’s Coastal Connection

The longest of the state’s National Scenic Byways is Alabama’s Coastal Connection at 130 miles. True to its name, it connects multiple communities and cities bordering Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. It also connects travelers to nature and history at nearby preserves, parks, and historic sites. From Dauphin Island to Orange Beach, Alabama’s 60 miles of Gulf Coast includes plenty of white-sand beaches. For a socially distant experience, explore the 7,100-acre Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on the Fort Morgan Peninsula.

Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the few scenic byways that include a ferry ride, the route features a ride on the Mobile Bay Ferry connecting Dauphin Island to the Fort Morgan Peninsula. The 40-minute ride across the mouth of Mobile Bay spans two historic forts where the Battle of Mobile Bay took place during the Civil War. Here Union Adm. David G. Farragut bellowed his now immortal command, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

Madison Square, Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savannah to Jekyll Island, Georgia

Savannah wears its Southern charm like its majestic oak trees wear soft Spanish moss—with pure, old-fashioned elegance. Georgian mansions line the streets, brewpubs and art galleries take up old cotton warehouses by the waterfront, and cemeteries are filled with sculptures, tall mausoleums, and yet more moss-dripping oaks.

Jekyll Island, an easy, scenic drive along a coastline laced with beaches, marshes, and barrier islands, packs up the same charm and elegance and takes it to the seaside. One of Georgia’s Golden Isles, it’s accessible by car but feels cut off from the rest of the world. Windswept oaks and tangles of driftwood form a backdrop to soft-sand beaches while trails wind into the woods.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Los Angeles to Grand Canyon, California and Arizona

Few road trips are as awe-inspiring as a drive from Southern California to the Grand Canyon if you know how to do it right. From the otherworldliness of Joshua Tree National Park to the mountain biking, hiking, and golfing hub of Prescott to historic Route 66 in Williams and the vastness of the Grand Canyon; a road trip through the deserts, mesas, and forests of California and Arizona is hard to beat.

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A haven for artists, rock climbers, and adventurers, Joshua Tree has long been a destination for those seeking enlightenment and adventure. Mile-high Prescott is home to more than 700 homes and businesses listed in the National Register of Historic Places as well as museums that tell their stories. Williams is located on the last stretch of Route 66 to be bypassed by Interstate 40. Historic highway memorabilia are featured in kitschy shops and cafes. Carved by the mighty Colorado, the multi-hued rock walls of the Grand Canyon reveal millions of years of geologic history. On your return to LA, stop and become overwhelmed by the vastness of Mojave National Preserve.

Quilt Gardens, Nappanee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amish Country Heritage Trail, Indiana

Discover stunning views, historical sites, and Amish heritage along the scenic back roads. Explore country lanes dotted with Amish-owned shops showcasing handcrafted and homemade.

Many of the towns along the Amish Country Heritage Trail date back 150 years or more. Among these are Middlebury, tiny Shipshewana is known for an enormous flea market where 1,000 vendors peddle their wares twice a week from May through September and Goshen. There’s also lovely Nappanee, a bustling community of woodworking shops.

Rise ‘n Roll Bakery, Middlebury © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Due to the Amish lifestyle you can almost believe you’ve stepped back in time a century or more. No utility wires lace farmhouses to poles, women in old-fashioned bonnets and long skirts bend to their task of hoeing gardens, men in 19th-century attire trudge behind horse-drawn plows across wide fields, and the clip-clop of horses’ hooves on country lanes fills the air with staccato rhythms.

Worth Pondering…

Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.

—Charles Kuralt

The 8 Best Scenic Road Trips in America

With over 4 million miles of roads weaving their way throughout the US, there is no end of opportunities to explore

Few things having to do with travel will be unchanged in the post-coronavirus world but of all the ways we travel the road trip might be least affected—at least from a regulatory standpoint. No one will tell you to wear a mask or take your temperature, or demand blood work before you hit the road this summer.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Utah’s red rock country to Louisiana’s peaceful national wildlife preserves, these road trips deserve a spot on your bucket list. Whether you’re looking to experience a stunning mountain view, charming local towns, or rich American history, plan your next getaway with one of these scenic road trips.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Utah Road Trip: Scenic Byway 12

The road trip: One of the most beautiful stretches of road in the US, Scenic Byway 12 spans 124 miles in Utah’s red-rock country. The history and culture of the area blend together, making Scenic Byway 12 a journey like no other.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pit stops: Scenic Byway 12 has two entry points. The southwestern gateway is from U.S. Highway 89, seven miles south of the city of Panguitch, not far from Bryce Canyon National Park. The northeastern gateway is from Highway 24 in the town of Torrey near Capitol Reef National Park.

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best South Dakota Road Trip: Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway

The road trip: Allow four hours to drive this 68-mile byway or one day to fully experience it. This byway will lead you on a delightful adventure as it winds its way around spiraling “pig-tail” shaped bridges, through six rock tunnels, among towering granite pinnacles and over pristine, pine-clad mountains.

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pit stops: Highlights include Mount Rushmore, Harney Peak, Sylvan Lake, the Needle’s Eye, and Cathedral Spires rock formations.

Colonial Parkway Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Virginia Road Trip: Colonial Parkway

The road trip: The Colonial Parkway not only illustrates the English colonial experience in America, but is also an outstanding example of American parkway design. Retaining its original scenic and historic integrity to a remarkable degree, the 23-mile roadway stretches from the York River at Yorktown to the James River at Jamestown.

Colonial Parkway Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pit stops: This All-American road connects Virginia’s historic triangle: Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown.

Red Rock Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Arizona Road Trip: Red Rock Scenic Byway

The road trip: The Red Rock Scenic Byway is your gateway to the world-famous Red Rock Country of Sedona. Take 20 minutes to drive this byway, but allow several days to include all activities along the byway.

Red Rock Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pit stops: Arguably the best way to experience the beauty of the Red Rock Country is to go into the wilderness and soak it in and that’s exactly what you’ll be doing by hiking any of over 80 trails interspersed throughout the area.

Smokian Resort on Soap Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Washington Road Trip: Coulee Corridor Scenic Byway

The road trip: Take a ride on the Coulee Corridor Scenic Byway, an amazing 150-mile road trip revealing the story of the Ice Age floods when vast reservoirs of water flooded and receded from this valley hundreds of times.

Smokian Resort on Soap Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pit stops: Between three state parks, a national wildlife refuge, visits to the Grand Coulee Dam and Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, or Othello’s Sand Hill Crane festival (23rd annual, March 20-22, 2020), you’ll find something for the whole family.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best North Dakota Road Trip: Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit

The road trip: This 36-mile scenic road trip offers about two hours of breathtaking overlooks and trailheads. As you weave through Theodore Roosevelt National Park, keep your eyes open for wildlife, such as bison, deer, antelopes, and prairie dogs.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pit stops: Walk through Ridgeline Nature Trail, go on a guided hike with a ranger, or spend the night at Cottonwood Campground.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Louisiana Road Trip: Creole Nature Trail

The road trip: The Creole Nature Trail, one of only 43 All-American Roads in the U.S., runs 180 miles through three National Wildlife Refuges.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pit stops: The main route is U-shaped with spur roads along the Gulf shoreline and angling into other reserves like Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge and the Peveto Woods Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary. This is the Louisiana Outback.

Best Texas Road Trip: Gateway to Big Bend

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road trip: On this 80-mile drive from Marathon to Big Bend National Park, get comfortable and take in the dry, desert landscape of Texas. You’ll enjoy views of the Chisos Mountains, various species of cacti, and maybe even catch a glimpse of a coyote.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pit stops: Big Bend National Park is the end destination, as well as the highlight of this scenic road trip with its mountains, canyons, wildlife, and more.

Worth Pondering…

There is adventure in any trip; it’s up to us to seek it out.

—Jamie Francis

A Byway Is Calling

America’s byways are gateways to adventures where no two experiences are the same

America’s byways provide unparalleled opportunities to experience the cultural, historical, ecological, recreational, or scenic qualities of the area.

There are several designations used to honor these routes. The most common type of designation is the National Scenic Byway, though there are also state scenic byways.

If a particular scenic byway is especially outstanding, it may also be recognized with the additional title of “All-American Road.”

Find the routes of your choice and get ready to hit the open road.

Arizona: Red Rock Scenic Byway

Red Rock Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

All-American Road

Length: 7.5 miles

Take 20 minutes to drive, but allow several hours to include all activities along the byway.

Red Rock Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

All-American Road Red Rock Scenic Byway winds through Sedona’s Red Rock Country, often called a “museum without walls.” Travelers are amazed by the high desert’s power, diversity, and sense of intimacy with nature. Inhabited for thousands of years, the stunning red rocks are alive with a timeless spirit that captivates and inspires.

Ohio: Amish Country Byway

Amish Country Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

National Scenic Byway

Length: 76.2 miles

Allow 1-2 days to enjoy the byway, or 3-4 hours to drive it.

Amish Country Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Discover the cultural and historic treasures of the Amish and northern Appalachian people as you wend through curves and over the hills of the pastoral countryside. Experience simple living and sustainability along charming country roads, taking you to a bygone era still present, manifest in the people and their lifestyle.

South Dakota: Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

National Scenic Byway

Length: 68 miles

Allow four hours to drive the byway or one day to experience the entire byway.

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

This byway will lead you on a delightful adventure as it winds its way around spiraling “pig-tail” shaped bridges, through six rock tunnels, among towering granite pinnacles and over pristine, pine-clad mountains. Highlights include Mount Rushmore, Harney Peak, Sylvan Lake, the Needle’s Eye, and Cathedral Spires rock formations.

Virginia: Colonial Parkway

Colonial Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

All-American Road

Length: 23 miles

One hour to drive the byway.

Colonial Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Colonial Parkway not only illustrates the English colonial experience in America, but is also an outstanding example of American parkway design. Retaining its original scenic and historic integrity to a remarkable degree, the 23-mile route connects the historic sites of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown.

South Carolina: Edisto Island National Scenic Byway

Edisto Island Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

National Scenic Byway

Length: 16 miles

Drive the Edisto Island Scenic Byway and enjoy the peaceful barrier Edisto Island provides from the hectic 21st Century world of today. The route traverses salt marsh, creeks, maritime forests, farm fields, and historic churches from the Intracoastal Waterway to the Atlantic Ocean. Stop at a roadside stand and buy a handmade sweetgrass basket, fill it with fresh local produce at a roadside market and fresh seafood dockside.

Edisto Island Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Go for a picnic on the beach, keeping an eye out for dolphin and horseshoe crabs. Go shelling. But most of all, take your time and breathe deep: this “Edis-slow ramble” is a visual delight, with much that will soothe the spirit and awaken the senses.

North Carolina and Virginia: Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

All-American Road

Length: 469 miles

Four days to enjoy the byway

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Parkway provides spectacular mountain and valley vistas, quiet pastoral scenes, sparkling waterfalls, and colorful flower and foliage displays as it extends through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina.

Worth Pondering…

There is adventure in any trip; it’s up to us to seek it out.

—Jamie Francis