Custer State Park

Today’s post is 1150 words, 13 photos, a 5 1/2 minute read. Enjoy!

Hi everyone,

Welcome back! This post is the third in a four-part series on our December travels to North and South Dakota. If you missed the first two installments, click here and here.

This week I’ll take you to Custer State Park located in the southern part of the Black Hills. Custer is the largest state park in South Dakota with over 71,000 acres. Most of these acres are native, in other words, a truly wild place. It has rolling hills, prairies, pine trees, creeks, lakes, and granite outcroppings.

Custer State Park is named after George Armstrong Custer, an Army calvary officer during the Civil War and the Indian Wars. He was killed while leading the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory. The battle is also known as Custer’s Last Stand.

During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built many of the roads, buildings, campgrounds, and dams for recreation. Their work can still be seen in today’s park.

There is a lot to see and do in this state park that receives over 2 million visitors each year. We were there the last week of December, no crowds and no problem finding parking. On the downside some of the sites and buildings were closed for the winter.

The Bison

One of the main attractions in Custer State Park is the 1500-head bison herd. On the first of our two visits to Custer, we saw nary a bison as we drove the on the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. We did see Pronghorn and a few feral burros.

Pronghorns are commonly called Pronghorn Antelope, although they are not antelope. They look similar to the antelope that were common in Europe and Asia. The Pronghorn are distinct with white rumps, underbellies, and breasts. They have large eyes with a wide field of vision. The males have a black patch just below the jaw and grow horns protruding from the top of the skull. Pronghorns are the fastest mammal in the Western Hemisphere with a top speed up to 55 miles per hour. They can run at full speed for a half mile or more. They are beautiful animals but very shy and wary of predators.

The burros (donkeys) were hiding out in a draw near the Wildlife Loop Road. They were released to the wild after rides to Black Elk Peak were discontinued years ago. The burros paid no attention to us. In the summer, they are often found standing on the road begging for food. They’ll apparently eat anything that is offered. The main hazard in the busy summer season is they block the road causing a traffic jam that can extend for miles. 

Our encounter with the bison happened the next day after we completed our visit to Wind Cave National Park. We drove down one of the gravel roads that branched off the Wildlife Loop Road. There they were, about fifty bulls, cows, yearlings, and calves. At what I considered a safe distance, I asked the driver to pull over so I could step out and take a few photos. As the car door opened, the bison were on the move. Towards us! Then a couple of bulls started running, again towards the car. I quickly jumped back in the car well before several surrounded the car. They were threatening, coming so close that if the windows were open, we could touch them. A honk of the horn make them step back. I’ve been near bison herds in Theodore Roosevelt National Park many times and never experienced this kind of aggressive action. I’m guessing they have lots of exposure to tourists during the summer season. There are instances every year of park visitors injured trying to touch, pet, or take close-up selfies with a bison. No selfies for us, we were just glad to escape with the car and our bodies intact. 

Here they come! The last photo before getting back in the car. If you are intrigued by bison, consider attending the annual park buffalo roundup. There are two viewing areas for spectators but spots fill up fast. An estimated 10,000 people attended the 2022 roundup held the end of September. Check out the park website for more details.

Sylvan Lake

We were disappointed when we found out that the scenic Needles Highway in Custer State Park was closed for the winter. We had to be satisfied with seeing frozen Sylvan Lake.

I’ve been Sylvan Lake at least twice before, in 1964 when my sister and I camped with our Aunt and two cousins in the Black Hills. The other time was in 1991 when we took a family trip through the Hills on our way to North Dakota. I have fond memories of both these visits. In the summer, Sylvan Lake is buzzing with activity. There are small boats galore, kids swimming, and adults lounging on the beach. The granite outcroppings are stunning against the blue sky and reflected in the still water. We walked the one-mile Sylvan Lakeshore Trail around the lake. It is a postcard picture perfect scene etched in my memory.

Sylvan Lake is man-made. In the 1890s, a dam was built across Sunday Gulch Creek, creating the 17 acre lake. It has an average depth of 13 feet so it’s quite shallow as lakes go.

On our visit in December, we walked part of the trail and climbed on a couple of the rocks for a good look at the frozen lake. We couldn’t help but admire the massive outcroppings that surround most of the lake.

These granite outcroppings were created over 2 billion years ago deep below the earth’s surface. The magma that came to the surface slowly cooled and solidified. This your brief geology lesson for today.

To be honest with you, it looks better in the summer when the sun is shining. But Sylvan Lake still had that calm, relaxed feeling that I experienced so many years ago.

Mountain Pine Beetle

As we drove around the Black Hills, we noticed a lot of downed ponderosa pine trees. It looked like a severe storm swept through the area and knocked down these trees. The explanation was much simpler. The mountain pine beetle, a native insect, can cause significant mortality of pines reaching epidemic levels by overwintering under the bark then moving to another tree the next year carrying with it a blue staining fungus. Between these two organisms, they have a devastating effect. It appears to go in several year cycles with an increasing infestation then gradually decrease back to a normal level. The current cycle ended in 2016 but the impact is still visible. In some areas, up to 90% of the pine trees have died back making the landscape nearly bare. There were new trees arising from the devastation. We are cheering for you!

That does it for this week. Stay tuned next for the last episode in this series. You won’t want to miss the cute and quirky!

Until then, happy travels!



2 thoughts on “Custer State Park

  1. I have enjoyed Custer State Park, especially the hike around Sylvan Lake, in the past at least a couple of times. So it was good to revisit though your post.
    I don’t think I’d want to visit in the wintertime, though!

    1. Thanks for checking in. I have fond memories of Sylvan Lake, in the summer! But I’m glad to also see it in the winter, a whole different experience. TM

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