Geowoodstock to TBEX: South Dakota’s Gem – Custer State Park (Part One)

As you know, I’m a huge fan of public lands here in the United States. And in the course of camping our way all over the country we’ve been to a lot. While I’ve never discovered one that I felt unworthy of preservation, there are certainly ones that simply stand out above others for me. My newest love is Custer State Park in South Dakota.

During our five days at Custer, we had fun exploring the icons the area had to offer but the bulk of our time was devoted to the park. We chose Custer over nearby national parks partly due to location and partly for amenities. When you’re on the road for five weeks, you simply need a campground with a shower which national parks rarely offer.

This glorious bison ran alongside Blubaru as we explored. Breathtaking experience.

Epic park…

We had some pretty memorable adventures at Custer but let’s start with the park itself. In a nutshell, you’ve got a whopping 71,000 acres of forest, grasslands, and rock outcrops to discover. It’s flat-out enormous, especially for a state park as opposed to a national park.

In terms of activities, it offers everything from miles-and-miles of hiking trails, to many more miles of scenic drive, to fishing, boating, horseback riding, biking, jeep rides, ranger talks and tours, historic buildings, and wildlife viewing. Seriously, this park has it all.

Your headquarters for Custer fun, the Norbeck Visitor Center. The rangers were friendly, helpful, and all sorts of wonderful.

Plus it’s got multiple lodges, campgrounds, and cabins. And it’s the perfect headquarters for exploring the area attractions ranging from monuments like Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse to Wind Cave and Jewel Cave. There are many other attractions as well that weren’t really our style, or dog-accommodating for that matter, but you can check out all the opportunities at the Rapid City Tourism Website.

So there’s really no shortage of offerings here whether in the park or neighboring it. You could spend weeks trying to dive into all the activities. Given the magnitude of the park alone, you’ll definitely want to pick up a park brochure at the visitor center that details all of this. Trust me, it’s a substantial guide. It kind of has to be right?

Camp Granola at Custer..

Clearly we didn’t partake of all the park’s goodies with only five days but we did jump into the geocaching challenge since that’s our favorite way to explore a new place. It did not disappoint in terms of the locations it took us in the park. With so much to choose from, it was nice to hit the high points through the challenge in order to get the lay of the land.

We particularly enjoyed getting off the main roads and exploring the less-traveled gravel goodness to be had. Wonderful, peaceful lunch spots abound off the beaten path. Just a little free advice courtesy of Camp Granola. 😉

Bison abound at Custer.
We were treated to a feat of climbing as we explored the Needles Highway.
Our geocaching adventure took us to the Gordon Stockade just outside of our campground. Very interesting history here!
In spite of the hazy day, George wanted to see all he could see from the Mt. Coolidge Fire Tower. This is probably the best place to experience how wildfries have impacted the area.
Our geocaching expedition took us in search of this historic grave site. Always a great time to ponder your good fortune when you encounter a memorial like this.
The Badger Hole… a remarkable cabin built by South Dakota’s first poet laureate, Badger Clark.
Badger’s stove in the cabin he built himself. It took him ten years just to build the foundation.
These burros were clearly used to being fed by humans. They walked right up to me looking for a handout. Trust me folks, it may be fun to feed the animals but it is illegal for a reason. For the safety of all of us, please don’t feed the animals!
Choosing one of the many off-the-beaten-path lunch spots was actually hard. So many!
A surprise education along the gravel roads of Custer.
Custer’s burros after a rain.
His Beagleness on this throne at the Game Lodge, patiently waiting through my Twitter chat.

Oh hail no…

Ok, so South Dakota is quite a different beast weather-wise for we Georgians. Scanning the park brochure’s list of average highs and lows for the area, it’s a good ten to twenty degrees cooler here year round. That and it’s obviously not nearly as humid as our sultry southeast. Of course, we were prepared with a variety of gear and clothing for our long journey. We knew we’d be traveling through widely varying climate and landscapes. What did catch a little off-guard was the tornado warnings that left us scrambling for shelter.

We’d taken a little break on the porch of the Game Lodge to allow me some work time and were loading up to head back to camp when a thoughtful visitor tapped on Blubaru’s window to tell us about the tornado warnings. We were severely out of touch at this point and had no idea other than recognizing the surly black clouds overhead. We’re used to camping through dramatic weather so we didn’t think much of heading back to camp in it.

Tornadoes are another story though of course! Big Agnes isn’t going to shelter us from those so we high-tailed it back into the resort and begged to sit in the lobby for the duration. Obviously we three humans weren’t a problem, but we did have the beagle with us and dogs aren’t permitted in the buildings.

Fred biding his time at the Game Lodge through the threat of tornadoes.

Fortunately the resort staff made an exception given the circumstances. Not sure what we would have done otherwise. We kept Dobby on a short leash to be as considerate and out of the way as possible but his beagle magnetism attracted a lot of would-be dog-petters. He didn’t mind the attention of course.

After a good hour-and-a-half of storm watch we were able to resume our journey back to camp. As we neared the Stockade campground, we began noticing what looked like foam all along the sides of the roads. Further on still, the hillsides were coated too and that’s when it finally hit me that it was mounds of hail piled up. We’d seen none at the lodge, in fact, other than strong rain, the storm was not what it was feared to be.

But sure enough, upon our arrival at the site, it was practically a winter wonderland…in June! Welcome to South Dakota right? We were treated to a chilly walk around the campground, crunching on the hail, and marveling at a landscape so foreign us to southeasterners. Having to bundle up in June is a strange, strange concept to us.

It was not all fun and games unfortunately. The position of our campsite put us downslope from everything around us and thus, the recipient of mounds of hail against the tent. The hail had worked itself in between the footprint and tent… a huge wet, soggy mess in the making as it began to melt. A little damage control was in order so we wouldn’t be sleeping in a puddle the rest of our stay.

At least our tent was still standing. Several campers returned to find their tents collapsed. Most of them simply packed up and left. Big props to Big Agnes for holding her ground!

George had no trouble passing the time at the Game Lodge by playing with his state magnets.
Our chilly greeting back at camp. This little scene rocked Dobby’s world. Fred and George were delighted but Dobby was quite disapproving…as usual.

And because this park is too big and too fabulous to be contained in one post, our Custer adventures are to be continued…

And now for your moment of green…

Full of geologic, historic, wildlife, and landscape wonders, Custer State Park is my new love and ranks amongst my favorite parks.