While in Custer, we also drove the wildlife loop in Custer State Park searching for critters, hiked an unusual trail in the park, biked 26 miles through the countryside where Eric left some skin on the trail, found a great little brewery to soothe his wounds, and enjoyed one of the prettiest campsites we’ve had. Oh, and we did a drive-by of Mount Rushmore.
Volksmarch To Crazy Horse
In general, we don’t enjoy hiking in a herd. But when we arrived in Custer, we discovered a Volksmarch was taking place the next day to Crazy Horse Memorial. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity, knowing that the bi-annual Volksmarch is one of the few opportunities for hiking to the monument (daily work involving dynamite and heavy equipment make it too dangerous the rest of the time).
A Volksmarch is a non-competitive 6.2 mile (10 km) walk, and we shared the trail with people of all ages and abilities. It made for a festive atmosphere. Starting at about 6,000 feet elevation, we climbed almost 800 feet up to the arm of the monument, where we walked to the edge and looked up at the 8-story tall visage of Crazy Horse, the legendary leader and warrior of the Oglala Lakota who fought fiercely to preserve the traditional way of life of his people.
It is an enormous, magnificent carving. Crazy Horse refused to ever have his photo taken, and it’s questionable whether or not he would be happy to have his face carved into a mountain in the sacred lands of the Black Hills. But a group of Lakota chiefs thought differently.
In the 1940s, Chief Henry Standing Bear of the Lakota asked Korczak Ziolkowski, a renowned sculptor who assisted on the Mount Rushmore project, to build a monument honoring Crazy Horse. “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too,” said the chief.
Inspired by the idea, Korczak moved to the Black Hills and dedicated the rest of his life to the project, chipping away at the mountain for 35 years. When he died in 1982, his wife and seven of his 10 children continued his work, and his grandchildren have now joined in. Funded only by admission fees and donations, the work moves steadily along, but at a snail’s pace. Suffice it to say none of us are going to see this thing completed. But it’s pretty spectacular as it is.
(Click on any photo to enlarge it, and to access a slideshow)
The Wildlife Loop Road In Custer State Park
Nestled on 71,000 acres in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park has a reputation for abundant wildlife. We embarked on the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road that travels through grasslands and pine-covered hills in search of bison, antelope, and the wild burros that the park is famous for. The devastating effects of the pine beetle infestation and wildfires have taken a toll on the landscape. Fortunately, the forest service says the pine beetle epidemic is over. Still, there are many dead trees scattered among the healthy green pines.
But the wildlife is wonderful. Most fun of all was seeing the wild burros, who are not lacking in attitude. Along with a goat, I’ve always wanted a burro. So far, Eric has not been on board with me getting either one. (He thinks I’m kidding; I’m not.)
Hiking Sunday Gulch
Out of several appealing trails in Custer State Park, we chose the Sunday Gulch Trail because it promised a unique adventure. Although the trail is only a 3-mile loop, it’s rated as difficult because of the steepness and the crazy boulder scrambling at the end (or beginning, depending on which direction you choose).
The trail starts off along the shore of beautiful Sylvan Lake, which adds an additional mile to the hike. When you come to the loop for Sunday Gulch, go clockwise! That way, you save the boulder section for last.
In spring and early summer, the boulder section of the trail is covered in ankle-deep cold rushing water. It’s a blast, but it would not be fun trying to navigate the slippery boulders on a steep downward trajectory. Bonus tip: Carry water sandals for wading through the water.
Biking The Mickelson Trail
The George S. Mickelson Trail, a repurposed railroad line, runs 109 miles through the heart of the Black Hills. We started at the Hill City Trailhead and rode 26 miles (round trip) through peaceful countryside.
On an easy stretch of trail, I heard brakes screeching and a big thump and turned around to find Eric on the ground beneath his bike. He wiped out taking a photo while he was riding. You know that sign on your rearview mirror that says, “Objects are closer than they appear?” Same holds true when you’re looking through the viewfinder of your camera.
When he looked up and realized he was about to run into me, he slammed on his brakes and swerved. It doesn’t seem fair to get mad at someone when they’re hurt, so after assessing that he was still alive, we picked the gravel out of his knee and elbow and kept riding. (He has promised no more photos while biking.)
“Let’s find a walk-in clinic.”
“No, I’m fine. I’d rather go to the brewery.”
So we bought the biggest bandages we could find and went to Miner Brewery, which was excellent.
The Needles Highway And Iron Mountain Road
In addition to the Wildlife Loop Road, Custer State Park encompasses two additional scenic drives—the Needles Highway, and Iron Mountain Road.
The Needles Highway is a slow 14-mile meander of hairpin turns and low tunnels that pass through a gorgeous landscape of granite spires and towering ponderosa pines and spruce. We were hoping to see mountain goats, and we got our wish. They sauntered down the mountain, blocked the Needles Eye Tunnel, and proceeded to take their time licking salt off the rocks.
Iron Mountain Road is another spectacular scenic drive—it offered us a view of Mount Rushmore and the faces of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Teddy Roosevelt. A drive-by felt like just enough.
About The Campground
We enjoyed our peaceful stay at The Roost Resort. The cute little campground has a dozen sites, and we scored one of the best with a fabulous view. Water and electric hookups, clean and cute bathhouse, friendly owners, dark night skies, good Verizon, and a great location for exploring all that Custer has to offer (Custer State Park also offers camping, but we were in the mood for water hookups, which the state park lacks).