Our Travels: Custer and the Black Hills of South Dakota

In mid-April 2018, we officially became full-time RVers. We spent our first week and part of our second in Denver practicing the logistics of RV life. It was all so new to us: hydraulics, sewer lines, water heaters, water tanks, slides, propane, fifth-wheel hitches, lug nut torque. Nothing was hard, it was simply different, and practicing gave us the confidence to set off on our life-changing adventure.

We waved goodbye to Denver on a weekday morning and arrived at Guernsey State Park in Wyoming amid wind and rain. Temperatures dropped that night and we weren’t surprised to discover the next morning that we were the only RV in the entire park. But we were living our adventure and the weather wasn’t going to slow us down. Later the next day, we were back on the road, and this time we were aimed toward Custer, South Dakota, for a lengthier stay.

Custer, South Dakota, is in the southern region of the Black Hills. It is near Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, and the Mount Rushmore National Memorial (though, admittedly, we never made it to Jewel Cave or Rushmore on this specific trip). The more than 8,000 square miles of the Black Hills region encompass southwestern South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. Mountains, rolling hills, lakes, forests, prairies, and abundant life blanket the region. People have called this area home for at least 14,000 years, and named the densely tree-covered mountains "dark" or "black" because of their shadowy appearance from a distance. The core of the mountains here are older than all the others in North America--at least 1.8 billion years old.

Though the Black Hills are packed with diverse flora and fauna, it’s hard to think of this part of the country without associating it with bison. Plains bison roamed the land for thousands of years but were killed off by white settlers and hunters during the nineteenth century. They were reintroduced into the area in 1914, and today they roam freely in Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. We spent many hours watching them in their strength and majesty.

Recommendations

Wind Cave National Park is as exciting above ground as it is deep in the cave. The prairies and rolling hills that make up the top of the park are dotted with bison, elk, and fantastic hiking trails (we recommend the Cold Brook Canyon Trail to start, it's easy to get to from the Visitor Center, and well marked). Obviously, the Wind Cave itself is incredible--one of the longest in the world with hilarious cavern names. The "boxwork" in the cave is also fascinating and we saw a couple bats on our tour--both the boxwork and bats are rare. (If you're small and agile and lucky enough to land them, the tickets to the Candlelight and/or Wild Cave tours are a must.) The history of the cave and its importance to the Lakota people and we recommend watching the "Lakota Emergence Story" video on the Wind Cave National Park website before your visit. Finally, WCNP is a Class I Airshed, meaning it has some of the cleanest air in the United States—definitely a perk to coming to this area. Breathe it in!

We hiked the Prairie Trail in Custer State Park expecting an open prairie and maybe some bison off in the distance. That is not what we encountered. At one point, we climbed a ~400 ft ridge and paused to catch our breaths. As we stood there, however, we realized we could hear deep breaths that were not ours. We took a wider look around and found ourselves dozens of yards from a large herd of bison. They were not expecting us, and startled bison are not good for anyone, so we very slowly and quietly backed away. About 500 yards later we were in a forest when we heard a violent commotion. For the next five minutes we stood as still as possible while we watched two adult wild turkeys battling it out for claims to the territory. Unfortunately, they eventually saw us and flew off, out of sight, to continue their attacks. Hikes like these are ones we'll never forget.

The best hike that didn't happen during our trip to the southern Black Hills was the Sunday Gulch Trail at Sylvan Lake. As you can see in our photos, it was covered in ice and we didn't have crampons or microspikes with us. We settled for a hike around Sylvan Lake, and a jaunt into the nearby general store. Chris has done the full hike before and wrote up this briefing for the Outdoor Recreation Information Center (ORIConline.org):

Sunday Gulch Trail — Outstanding! Especially the first quarter mile or so starting on the eastern side and heading counterclockwise. The descent into the gulch is gorgeous—the rock walls, water, and foliage. The trail is composed of numerous boulders and handrails which makes for a unique experience! The end of the trail loses its beauty as it edges the highway and winds under power lines; however, it does offer some open views of the surrounding area.

Additionally, we give a five-star recommendation to the Black Hills Burger and Bun Company in downtown Custer. Their Hot Granny burger is the best burger I’ve ever had. We ate there multiple times while in the area.

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