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 ever stayed in. 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.
The Magnificence Of Crazy Horse, Up-Close
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 for a larger image
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.
Nonetheless, 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?” The 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).
We were in the Black Hills a few years ago. Loved seeing all the wildlife. Thought Sylvan Lake was just a perfect little mountain lake! We camped in the state park and had to watch out for bison pattys. Your post is making us want to go back!
Joan, we were surprised at the beauty of Custer and the surrounding area. Sylvan Lake is one of the prettiest little mountain lakes we’ve seen! We’d like to try camping in the state park next time we’re in Custer. We’ll watch our step, LOL!
We haven’t been through that area since 1974!!!! Time to return. I loved your photos of the Crazy Horse Monument and of those porky little burros!
Your description of the mountain goats (cute and pesky) is at least partly correct in my book…….
Sue, so glad you liked the photos—we want to return to Custer, and we were just there! I laughed at your description of the “porky” little burros—not sure if that was a typo and supposed to be “perky” but at least one was kind of porky!
What great timing you guys had for hiking to the monument! I generally wouldn’t want to hike in a big group either, but that must have been such a cool experience! It really is too bad that it’s taken so long to get the statue completed. If and when it ever gets done, it will be magnificent (even if it might be slightly/completely inaccurate). Sorry to hear about Eric’s spill, but given that you were so nice and supportive when he needed you, I think it’s fair to now expect he will give in on the goat thing. Let me know how that discussion goes.
Laura, you make a very good point—I was SO nice and supportive when Eric wiped out on his bike. I was too scared to be mad! I’m telling him you said he owes me a baby goat. And a burro!
Hiking to Crazy Horse was very cool, and it is magnificent, although at the rate they’re going there’s probably about 500 years of work ahead.
Gorgeous photos! We were probably there at the same time…we had to renew our driver’s licenses & were there for the 2nd week of June. We fell in love with Custer State Park. It looks like a gem of a campground you found;-) Happy Travels!
Oh no, I can’t believe we were there at the same time and didn’t get to meet up!! We’ve been wanting to connect with you guys for years! I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos, Bettina. It’s great to hear from you.
I can’t believe you “happened” on the hike to Crazy Horse. I’ve wanted to do that ever since we started on the road and haven’t been able to make it happen. I can tell you from experience that you would not want goats but having had two burros, I LOVED them. The ones at Custer though have been taught to be beggars so you don’t get to appreciate their individual personalities. We had Fred and Ginger and they were a riot! Love the collage of your hike and the tags that come up when I mouse over. Your blog is SO professional. So sorry for Eric. Taking pictures while riding is very tricky. I gave it up when even using the LCD they were always blurry. I agree a drive by of Rushmore is quite enough. I’ll have the mountain goats instead. Really nice site and gorgeous picture of the puffy mountain bluebird. He’s stunning and looks like he knows it.
Sherry, I wish you and David had been there to hike to Crazy Horse with us. We totally lucked out being there for the Volksmarch.
I’m glad you like the collage of photos. The only problem is that I’m not sure people understand that they can click on a photo to enlarge it and can then access a slideshow of the photo grouping. I’m trying to simplify things but might be making them more complicated!
So you think I would prefer a burro to a goat, huh? Your Fred and Ginger sound like a lot of fun.
Beer vs urgent care? Wise choice!
Nancy, I kinda thought we should go to urgent care. But we did check with the local pharmacist and he thought Eric would be okay with about $30 worth of giant band-aids and antibiotic cream. :-)
What a great experience….we don’t like hiking in large groups, but that looked fun! Looking forward to going there! Thanks for the info
It was a very cool experience, Debbie. We loved the whole area!
Oh, so sorry to hear about Eric’s fall, but at least you’re not writing about him slamming into you! Brewery would always be my choice over a clinic! I have to say, I was not at all impressed with Crazy Horse. I know some people love it, and I know there is a great history there. But the whole thing just felt kind of cheesy and scammy to me. Which is to say, commercial. I much preferred Mount Rushmore, which is also commercial… I get there is little difference, but for some reason I can’t explain, Crazy Horse just isn’t my jam.
Linda, we weren’t sure we wanted to go to the Crazy Horse Memorial, but when we found out about the Volksmarch, we thought, “What the heck?” We’re really glad we went, and we both found the memorial and the story behind it fascinating.
It may be that there’s a different vibe on the day of a Volksmarch—it felt inclusive and celebratory and we didn’t pick up on an overly commercial aspect. It’s also pretty cool that they open the memorial to the public for free (including the museum) for both the spring and the fall Volksmarch each year.
Love learning about the road from you, thanks again! Didn’t know about the Volksmarch and I would love to get up close to the monument. There is something mesmerizing about that sculpture.
You’re welcome, Leah—I’m happy if our blog is helpful! There are spring and fall Volksmarches to Crazy Horse every year. If you get the chance, it’s worth the trip!
So neat that you arrived in time to do the Volksmarch up on to the arm. It is so cool to get up so close to the face. Our friends were workamping at Crazy Horse and took us up on to the arm. What an experience! We really enjoyed Custer SP and the whole area. So pretty and full of wildlife. Love your mountain goat photos:)
Pam, we were delighted that we happened to be at Crazy Horse when we could walk up to the memorial—lucky you that you had friends who took you up! It’s not an experience most people get to have (well, except for the 10,000 Volksmarch friends that accompanied us on our hike). Surprisingly, it didn’t feel crowded.
Those mountain goats were so cute, and are also troublemakers!
We loved that area! Too bad about Eric’s fall, I hope it was all superficial and healed up quickly. A beer usually helps!
Lisa, we loved Custer, too. I think I first saw the Sunday Gulch hike on your blog and thought, “I want to do that!”
Eric healed up pretty quickly, but he had some ugly scabs for a while!
How fortunate to be there for the volksmarch. I usually ride, ski or hike behind Mike. I guess it could be trust issues. Glad he got the gravel out.
I like your strategy, Deb—as long as Mike looks back every so often to make sure you’re still there! :-))
Wow, what fortunate timing! After paying the admission fee, I was too cheap to pay the additional $4 for the bus ride to get just a little closer…figured for that, I could zoom. ;-) But I would have loved to do that walk! And good to see Eric has embraced the holistic healing properties of beer!
We were so happy we happened to be there for the Volksmarch, Suzanne. If we hadn’t done the hike, we wouldn’t have bothered with the bus ride up to the top. As you said, that’s what the zoom is for. :-)
Eric is convinced that beer has healing properties, LOL!
The Black Hills of SD is our most favorite area we’ve ever visited. And we’ve been to 49 states in the coach over the last 11 years! Wish we had known you were there while we also were there, we would have loved finally meeting you guys! Maybe next year?
JC, we really liked the Black Hills and intend to spend more time there. I’m impressed that it’s your favorite place, knowing how much you’ve traveled.
I wish we had known you were there! We’re looking forward to finally meeting up with you two, too! We need to figure out a plan. :-)
Mostly I love all the wildlife you encountered on this trip! I also want a goat and a burro! I have seriously considered a goat before, until I was told that they literally eat everything i sight and any garden one might have gets dramatically cleared out. Love how fluffy these mountain goats are! And oh that gorgeous bluebird.
Impressive that crazy horse sculpture. Interesting how it has become a family “legacy”….
Love the photos… and the whole trip sounds so great. Hope Eric is okay after the fall, I know how falling off a bike even if minor can really shake you up!
So funny that you also want a goat and a burro, Peta. It’s probably a good thing we never got a goat because we’re pretty attached to our gardens. :-)
The Crazy Horse Memorial truly is impressive, and as you said, it has become a family legacy. Who knows how many generations it will take before it’s completed! There’s a long way to go.
Oh my goodness, we too love that area. We spent a week and you have taken some of the trails we took as well! I would not mind revisiting the Black Hills !
Those goats are really pesky!
Men, they rather have their beer than see a doctor. I happen to also live with someone who is stubborn.
MonaLiza, we spent five days in Custer and it wasn’t nearly enough! It’s such a beautiful area, and there are many more trails that we’d like to hike in the Black Hills. I’ll be referring to your blog for ideas.
Haha, we need to compare notes on “stubborn”…
You got some great photos of Crazy Horse! We were there in 2013 (pre-rving days) and took the bus ride for a closer view, but still didn’t get as close as you did. I’ll have to remember the Volksmarch for future trips since we want to go back and spend some time camping in the area. It was fun re-living our trip through your photos. I kept saying to myself, “Yep, we did that. And that.” (Needles Hwy., Sylvan Lake, Wildlife Loop and the burros). We did more than a drive-by of Mt. Rushmore, but once is enough for that monument. I want to spend more time on some trails, so we’ll bike some of the Mickelson next time we’re there. Love, love, love that stunning shot of the bluebird. They are such sweet birds. We didn’t see any mountain goats, but we saw lots of buffalo. Even saw one get fairly close up to a guy on a motorcycle, who looked pretty nervous about the encounter.
Thanks, Les! Glad you enjoyed reliving your trip through our photos. Loved your photos of the guy on the motorcycle encountering the bison. He did look a bit nervous, for good reason!
It’s such a beautiful area, as you know. The Volksmarch is worth planning a trip around!
What a cool hike. We never did that hike. We missed a good one for sure. I love the photos from the top. We did a Volksmarch in Houston with our daughter, Carrie. It was so much fun.
My goodness, you sure tackled a difficult trail, Gulch Trail. When you see side rails, you know you are in for an adventure. What beauty!
Marsha, now that we’ve done a Volksmarch, we would for sure do another! It was a fun way to experience Crazy Horse.
The Sunday Gulch Trail was one of the most unique trails we’ve hiked, and one of the most fun. The photos don’t really show how steep the boulders were—we needed those handrails to haul ourselves over some of the boulders!
What a treat to get up on the monument! We love Crazy Horse and agree that a drive by of Rushmore is enough. Great sculpture but no historic significance. Your wildlife pics are wonderful. The park looks like a perfect spot to stay in that beautiful area. We want to get back and see more of the area.
Jodee, you said it well—Mount Rushmore is such a random monument, with no historical significance. We were satisfied with a drive-by. The little RV park is beautiful. I think you guys would like it.
What a spoil sport Eric is! I would love a baby goat or a burro, or better yet, both. When we spent a summer in OH with Terry’s folks, I would go to one of the locals for pastured eggs. Her beautiful chickens were allowed to run free during the day, then near dusk the burro would go out and round them up, keeping them safe from any wandering coyotes. He was adorable and had such attitude!That portion of South Dakota is beautiful. I hope that the Crazy Horse Monument is completed one day. We really enjoyed the Sunday Gulch Trail. Glad to hear that Eric was not injured too seriously during his fall. I wonder how long before he is taking photos again while on the bike. ;)
Haha, I’m going to get you to help me talk Eric into a goat and burro, Lu! That is such a great story about the burro rounding up the chickens. I didn’t know they would be so helpful!
I suspect you’re right about Eric and his photo taking. He is dangerous!
Great timing for the Volksmarch. After visiting Mt. Rushmore (which was better than expected) we thought a ride-by of Crazy Horse on our bikes was enough. Unlike Eric, though, we stopped and got off our bikes for photos ;-) Sometimes beer is the best medicine!
Gayle, had it not been at the end of a long day of hiking the Sunday Gulch Trail, we probably would have ended up going to check out Mount Rushmore. I have a hard time resisting just about anything that looks interesting! But we were thrilled that we had the opportunity to hike to Crazy Horse. It was really fun.