Not only did my childhood family of five visit this area umpteen years ago in dad’s new Motorhome, but four years ago my daughter and I visited during a gals road trip.
Ashton was in college at the time and enjoying a break before heading off to Sydney, Australia, for a semester abroad. She and I hopped in my little red Toyota Tacoma and made the five-hour drive from Fort Collins, Colorado to Custer, South Dakota.
Ashton and I had such a fabulous time during that visit that I couldn’t wait to return to the Black Hills someday. And return I did in early September……… with hubby in tow this time.
The three-day Labor Day weekend was nearing and since we were traveling via Plan B, without reservations, we had concerns about a place to stay. After an exhaustive search, we ended up finding a place to park at the Elks Lodge in Rapid City. The lodge offers ten RV sites on a first come, first serve basis and had an open spot for us. It wasn’t the picturesque setting I usually crave, but the lodge was really nice and even located on a golf course.
With the RV parked, Al and I ventured off exploring Custer State Park. Shortly after entering the state park, we needed to stop for
pedestrians bison in the cross walk…. smart guys, huh!
A managed herd of about 1,300 bison roam freely throughout Custer State Park. The herd is one of the largest publically owned herds in the world. Bison are huge and can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms). During the third week of September the park holds a Buffalo Roundup. This is an event I’d love to attend someday.
During this recent visit, we spent a great deal of time in the truck taking in the sights by driving the scenic byways. The first was the 18 mile Wildlife Loop Road that twists and turns through rolling prairie and ponderosa pines.
As the name implies, we saw plenty of wildlife on this scenic loop during this visit as well as previous visits. From buffalo…..to Pronghorn, and prairie dogs, to free-loading burros. You know how you’re never suppose to approach wildlife or feed them? Well such is not the case with these entertaining burros.
It’s ok to bring them goodies. Keep it healthy though. I forgot to bring the bag of carrots that I purchased especially for these guys. Once this burro realized I had no treats to offer, he was on to the next car.
Unlike other wildlife, the burros hang around one particular area in Custer State Park and a ranger at the visitor center is more than happy to brief you on that location and the do’s and don’ts.
After our successful wildlife viewing, we stopped at Stockade Lake for a picnic lunch. It’s a beautiful lake that allows boating and has a wooded campground. As pristine as Stockade Lake was I couldn’t wait to show hubby Sylvan Lake.
As a fourteen year old gal from Illinois, I thought Sylvan Lake was the most beautiful place that I had ever seen. My brother and I hiked and explored all around this little mountain lake. We were intrigued with the granite rock and boulders and the clean, clear, cool water.
We even rented one of those paddle boats. While my brother and I exercised our legs, my dad sat on the back with a fishing line in the water. Yep, dad brought his fishing gear. Nothing like trolling via sustainable energy; as long as brother’s legs and my legs held up that is. Dad was great in giving directions on where he wanted us to paddle and gave no thought to our weakening leg muscles.
After giving hubby the tour of Sylvan Lake and sharing some of my childhood memories with him, I had one more memorable item on my list that I had to show him for Al to fully comprehend.
We ventured over to scenic Needles Highway; named after the needle-like granite formation located just past Sylvan Lake. There are two one-lane tunnels along this stretch of road. Tunnel #5 is 8 feet 4 inches wide and 12 feet high. My dad drove his brand new motorhome through this tunnel back in the early 1970’s. I remember my mom begging dad not to go through the tunnel and covering her eyes in fear. As children, we thought dad could do no wrong and found humor in mom’s dramatic behavior.
As Al and I waited for on coming traffic to clear the tunnel, we pulled in the side mirrors on the F-250. When it was our turn, I slowly drove through the tunnel all the while I kept repeating, “I can’t believe my dad drove the motorhome through this tunnel”. I now understand why mom freaked out. I asked myself, was dad a skilled driver? Did his sense of adventure push him? Or was he just plain crazy?
In dad’s defense I must add, dad did do his homework before driving through this tunnel. He spoke with a ranger. He jotted down all the dimensions on both tunnels and verified the Motorhome’s size. He also discovered a tour bus once a week would travel this route. I guess with that tidbit of information, that sealed the deal for dad and through we went with inches to spare.
As Al and I exited the tunnel, we were greeted with stunning views. Needles Highway traverses through rugged granite mountains, a diverse forest, and mountain prairie. This is a beautiful drive not to be missed, but a lot less stressful and much more fun in a small vehicle!
The next day hubby and I explored Iron Mountain Road. This scenic drive connects Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. “Experience the road that engineers once said couldn’t be built.” This road was built in the 1930’s and considered an engineering marvel at the time.
Iron Mountain Road is another very fun and scenic drive not to be missed. For anyone interested in engineering, construction, or design, this is a captivating road. I loved all the log bridges, the tunnels, and the views.
Next up, more Black Hills adventures! Custer State Park Map