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Published July 15, 2012, 12:00 AM

‘One of the most underrated places in the country’

SD’s Custer State Park offers mountains, plains, hiking, fishing, wildlife and more

By: By Chris Huber, Forum Communications Co.

Custer, S.D. - There are still natural places protected from the ravages of time and modernity.

One such place is Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

It’s a place where buffalo still roam over rolling hills and trout still swim in cool, clear mountain streams.

It’s a place where giant granite spires poke through forest landscapes like sewing needles through green fabric.

It’s a place where motorists are always surprised by what they might find around the next pigtail bridge or through the next mountain tunnel.

Located about a half-hour’s drive from Rapid City, Custer State Park offers camping, hiking, fishing, rock climbing, mountain biking, wildlife viewing and other activities that few other destinations can rival.

With 1.7 million visitors annually, the park is a popular travel destination, but with more than 71,000 acres of pristine land, visitors can still find isolation in its vast wilderness. Whether passing through or staying at one of the park’s historic lodges or campgrounds, Custer State Park offers amenities for every kind of traveler.

The park is often credited to the late South Dakota Gov. and U.S. Sen. Peter Norbeck, who in the early 1900s envisioned it as it is today. It was the first and is still the largest state park in South Dakota.

Most famous for a roaming buffalo herd of about 1,300, the park also offers a variety of other wildlife. Elk, deer, mountain lions, coyotes, bighorn sheep, mountain goats and wild burros along with buffalo can be seen along the park’s roads and trails.

“My favorite part about the park has to be the animals,” said Evan Meyer, of Mankato, Minn. Meyer has visited Custer State Park five times and remembers going there as a child.

“One of my favorite childhood memories is sitting on the side of the road watching a herd of buffalo coming over the bluffs at sunset. It’s great to be able to get so close to wildlife that’s actually in the wild.”

Buffalo roundup

Those wild animals create a wild sight when the park holds its buffalo roundup each September.

During the roundup, horses, trucks and four-wheelers are used to chase hundreds of buffalo across the plains as giant clouds of dust raise from their path.

“It’s kind of a uniquely American experience to see a herd of buffalo being driven across a prairie,” said Custer State Park Visitor’s Service Coordinator Craig Pugsley. “It conjures up an image of the American West.”

Pugsley said the buffalo are herded within a couple of hundred feet of the spectators, making for a full sensory experience. About 15,000 people made the journey last year to the roundup, which also includes an arts festival.

“They get to hear the ground rumble and see the dust rise and hear the buffalo bellow. It’s absolutely amazing.”

Though the roundup has become a spectacle for visitors, it is also used as a management tool for the herd.

The animals are sorted, branded and vaccinated in preparation for the annual buffalo sale, where between 200 and 500 live buffalo are sold each year.

This year’s roundup is scheduled for Sept. 24.

Hitting the trail

If getting some exercise is more to your liking, the park offers hiking, mountain bike and horseback riding on miles and miles of trails.

While hiking paths are clearly marked, the entire park is open to foot traffic, making for even more miles of adventures.

The diversity of landscapes in the park makes for a large variety of hiking trails.

“We really have something for every skill.” Pugsley said. “We have short hikes on the prairies or long hikes in the forests. It really depends on what you are up for that day.”

One of the most popular hiking trails is the Lover’s Loop.

Starting across the street from the Norbeck Visitor’s Center, this three-mile trail begins with an ascent through pine forests and follows the ridgeline of a rocky outcropping. Legend has it that two Native American lovers leaped from the peak to avoid being separated.

The hike provides spectacular views of the Cathedral Spires and Harney Peak – South Dakota’s highest point – in the distance before descending and crossing Galena Creek several times.

Winding roads

For the less physically adventurous, the park’s three main scenic drives allow visitors to view the park by car.

The Needles Highway offers great views of granite spire rock formations as the driver weaves through aspen, birch and pine forests.

Completed in 1922, each inch of the 14-mile highway was laid out by Norbeck with assistance from others on foot or horseback.

Travelers of the highway are treated to a view of Sylvan Lake and a rock formation known as the Needles’ Eye, where wind and rain eroded a hole in one of the granite spires.

The Wildlife Loop is an 18-mile road that offers visitors their best chance to see the park’s wild inhabitants. The two-lane road meanders its way through expansive prairies and into tree-covered hills. Drivers should take the 45-minute drive during the early morning or just before sunset to maximize their potential to see wildlife.

Finally, Iron Mountain Road offers travelers a chance to see the park’s famous “pigtail bridges” – a bridge followed by a tight, looping turn taking travelers below the bridge they just crossed.

Drivers will also pass through three tunnels built into the mountainside that neatly frame Mount Rushmore in the distance.

Casting a line

If crystal clear lakes and creeks are more your flavor, the park offers four lakes and a number or creeks for fishing.

Anglers will find rainbow, brook and brown trout along with bass, northern pike and pan fish in the park’s waters.

The French Creek Walk-in Fishing Area is a popular spot for fly fishermen to cast a line but was also the place Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s expedition first discovered gold in 1874.

Another fishing area is the Grace Coolidge Creek.

Nestled in a ponderosa pine forest, the creek features six small dams that allow for great trout fishing.

“If someone is looking for solitude, that is the place to go,” Pugsley said. “You can fish all day and hardly see another person.”

Found in the shadow of Harney Peak, Sylvan Lake is known as the “crown jewel” of Custer State Park.

The granite rock formations reflecting along the lake’s bank make for a picturesque fishing spot – so picturesque, in fact, that the lake was featured in the 2007 film “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.” Though the movie made it appear the lake was directly behind Mount Rushmore, in reality it is about five miles southwest of the monument.

History and heritage

Custer State Park has no shortage of offerings for history buffs, either.

The park was the “summer White House” for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927, and while there he announced he would not seek re-election.

While the president was in the park, a 6,023-foot mountain was renamed as Mount Coolidge in his honor. Today, visitors can drive to the top of the mountain and enjoy the stone lookout tower and breathtaking views.

The Badger Hole, also known as the Badger Clark Historical Site, is a log cabin where South Dakota’s first poet laureate, Charles Badger Clark, lived for 30 years.

The cabin remains as it was when the poet lived there more than 50 years ago.

The Gordon Stockade is a reconstruction of an 1870s log fortress built on the banks of French Creek to protect gold miners from possible Lakota attacks.

In the summer of 1874, gold was found in the Black Hills, but under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, the region belonged to the Plains Indians and white settlements were not allowed.

Today, the Gordon Stockade replica is situated just within the western entrance of the park and interpretive signs tell the story of this shortlived, illegal occupation in 1874 and 1875.

“Custer State Park is so naturally beautiful with so much history that has been preserved over the years,” Meyer said. “It’s good to get away from the city and power down the cell phone and computer for the weekend and just enjoy the outdoors.

“I think Custer State Park is one of the most underrated places in the country – a diamond in the rough, if you will.”

Huber is a photographer for the Mitchell (S.D.) Daily Republic