The Black Hills of South Dakota – Custer, Hill City, and Spearfish

We spent the month of June in the Black Hills area of South Dakota: Two weeks at Beaver Lake Campground in Custer; one week at Game Lodge Campground in Custer State Park; and we split the fourth week between Rafter J Bar Ranch in Hill City and Elkhorn Ridge RV Resort in Spearfish.

This was our second time staying in the Black Hills area with the Airstream. To read about our past trip, as well as other places we’ve visited in South Dakota, check out these blog posts:

Campgrounds/RV Parks

Beaver Lake Campground

12005 W. Hwy 16, Custer, SD 57730

www.beaverlakecampground.net

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Cabins
  • Tent Sites
  • Store
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Propane Fill
  • Dump
  • Rec Hall with Live Music
  • Swimming Pool with Slides
  • Dog Run
  • Horse Shoes
  • Playground
  • Firewood
  • Picnic Table
  • Fire Pit

We were originally supposed to stay one week at Beaver Lake and two weeks at Game Lodge Campground, but after spending a few days at Beaver Lake, we decided to change it up. My parents were driving to Custer from Wisconsin during our second week in South Dakota, so we decided that staying in the city of Custer where they would be would be better than us being in Custer State Park, which was a little bit of a drive. Because of the last minute change, we stayed one week in one site at Beaver Lake and had to move to a different site during the second week. The staff was very flexible, giving us a couple of options for both our first and second sites. I think we ended up with the best site in the campground for our first week. Site 60 is a spacious back-in site with full hookups and a view of the small lake. The cell signal was a little wonky here for Travis at times, but fine for me, even though we’re on the same network. If he wasn’t within range of our WeBoost cell booster, his phone calls would cut out.

Our second site wasn’t quite as nice, but still decent. Most of the sites are fairly level side to side, but need some help from front to back. Our second site, site 10, was water and electric only, so we used the campground showers during the second week. The showers and restrooms are nice and are conveniently located near the sites that are sans sewer. The laundry room is nice as well, with a change machine, which we don’t see often. Also, beware of falling of pine cones! They fell from the tall trees with enough force to set off the truck alarm. Luckily, there were no dents to either the truck or the Airstream.

Beaver Lake is a great place to stay while exploring Custer and the surrounding areas and we would definitely stay here again!

Game Lodge Campground

Custer State Park

www.campsd.com

  • Electric Hookups
  • Tent Sites
  • Cabins
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Water Fill
  • Dump Station
  • Laundry
  • Picnic Table
  • Fire Pit
  • Playground
  • Small Fishing Pond with Swim Beach

After two weeks at Beaver Lake, we spent one week at Game Lodge Campground in Custer State Park. The campgrounds in Custer can be booked up to a year in advance, so if you want to stay for an extended period of time, you need to plan ahead. There are always cancellations, so check often. For instance, we had originally booked two weeks, but changed it to one, so that one week became available less than a week ahead of time. The sites have electric only, so we filled our fresh water tank and 6-gallon water can at Beaver Lake, and that was enough to get us through the week. We used the showers every day, which are nice, and filled and emptied our dish tub in the bathroom in order to wash dishes. The sites in the campground are spaced out nicely and there’s a little distance between you and your neighbors. Some sites are fairly shady while others are almost always in direct sun, so if this is a concern for you, I’d check out the satellite view on Google Maps to determine which site will work best for you. We were in site 48, which didn’t give us a lot of shade, but since it wasn’t very hot during our stay, shade wasn’t necessary. We were pretty close to the bathrooms, which was convenient for our daily showers. The one thing that was strange is that the fire pit for this site is located opposite of the door-side of the trailer, as seen in the second picture below. Within the campground and in the Game Lodge area, we had great cell signal.

The campground is a half mile up the road from the State Game Lodge, which has a restaurant, bar, and gift shop. There are numerous lodges with restaurants, gift shops, and convenience-store type items throughout the park, though the closest decent grocery store is in Custer, which is a 25-minute drive from the Game Lodge Campground, but much closer for the campgrounds on the west side of the park. If we would stay in Custer SP again, we’d try for the Sylvan Lake Campground, as it’s close to all of the good hiking trails and closer to the attractions of the area (Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Jewel Cave, and the cities of Custer and Hill City). Game Lodge is a good location in the park if you want to explore Rapid City, which is about 40 minutes away. In fact, we used one of our days in Custer SP to run errands in Rapid City, which included a doctor’s appointment, getting an oil change, and making stops at CVS, Petco, and Walmart as well as eating lunch.

Rafter J Bar Ranch

12325 Rafter J Road, Hill City, SD 57745

www.rafterj.com

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Tent Sites
  • Cabins
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Swimming Pool with Hot Tub
  • Basketball Court
  • Volleyball Court
  • Pancake Breakfast
  • Playground
  • Store
  • Picnic Table
  • Fire Ring

Rafter J Bar Ranch is probably the most centrally-located place to stay in order to visit all of the sites in the area — Crazy Horse Memorial is 12 minutes; Sylvan Lake Lodge in Custer SP is 16 minutes; Mount Rushmore is 17 minutes; Jewel Cave National Monument is 30 minutes; and Wind Cave National Park is 38 minutes. The breweries and wineries of Hill City are 10-15 minutes away; the city of Custer is 15 minutes; Rapid City is about 40 minutes; and Deadwood is about an hour. Day trips to Badlands National Park and Devils Tower National Monument are possible.

Rafter J is a very large, spread out property that is well maintained. They have shady sites, sunny sites, sites in the trees, and sites out in the open spread amongst the seven various ‘camps’: Ranch Camp, Lower Ranch Camp, The Island, Line Camp, Base Camp, Main Camp and Cabin Camp. You have to call in order to make reservations, and this is so that they can ask you a few questions and assign a site to you that fits your needs best. When I made our reservation, I requested a shady site, thinking it was going to be hot and sunny like it was last year when we visited the area. While it wasn’t very hot, we still appreciated our site in the wooded, shady area of Ranch Camp, which is the most remote section and furthest from the office and activities. Ranch Camp is a mixture of full hookups, electric/water hookups, and tent sites and has a bathhouse with restrooms, showers, and laundry. The back of our site, site 148, sat at the top of a hill with distant views of Black Elk Peak. We had good cell signal with AT&T on this part of the property, but noticed when we were near the office by Base Camp it wasn’t so great. If we were to stay at Rafter J again, we would request to stay in The Island, where there are fewer sites, no bathhouse, and more space between sites. Sites 231, 237, 247, and 248 are ideal.

The only amenities we used while here were the laundry, which was a little pricy, and the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast that is served Thursday through Monday (they weren’t very good). You’ll find restaurants, shops, and grocery stores in both Custer and Hill City, though Custer has a better grocery store and better dining options. There were two issues we experienced while at Rafter J: 1) For some reason, a lot of people cut through our site or walked between ours and our neighbor’s site. I’m not really sure why this was such an issue here, but this is one reason we would request to be in The Island if we returned to Rafter J. 2) The pollen from the trees was so, so bad. A yellow-green dust covered everything and made for some annoying allergy symptoms.

Elkhorn Ridge RV Resort & Campground

20189 US Highway 89, Spearfish, SD 57783

www.elkhornridgeresort.com

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Cabins
  • Tent Sites
  • Communal Fire Pits
  • Picnic Tables
  • Large, Fenced-In Dog Park
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Propane Fill
  • Pool with Hot Tubs
  • Store
  • Playground
  • Basketball Court
  • Volleyball Court
  • Tennis Court
  • Horse Shoes
  • Event Center
  • Wifi
  • Coffee Bar

Elkhorn Ridge is a large, very nice RV resort situated equidistant between Spearfish and Deadwood. It’s clean, well maintained, and offers a number of amenities, the only of which we used was the pool — and unfortunately, the hot tubs were out of order at the time. Our site (#341) was a spacious back in with full hookups. As you can see from the picture above, we had a view of the highway out our back window. There are a lot of back in sites along this side of the property, but most had a berm behind them that blocked the view of the highway. Seeing as they had a lot of sites open, we found it odd that they’d put us in this site instead of one of the other ones. Our site was fine, though, and the road noise didn’t bother us. The property really is beautiful, with nice views of the surrounding hills. There’s a full-size basketball court and tennis court, both of which are of very high quality. The fenced-in dog park is extremely large and even has separate areas for large dogs and small dogs. The location is fantastic for exploring both Deadwood and Spearfish, including Spearfish Canyon, which is a must!

Places to Eat & Drink

Custer

We were pleasantly surprised with the food options in the city of Custer. Here are our recommendations:

  • Skogen Kitchen – Small, family-run restaurant with a limited, yet delicious menu. This is the fanciest place you’ll find in Custer, with excellent service and it is by reservation only. They are open for brunch on the weekends and dinner most nights, but check their website for exact hours.

  • Black Hills Burger & Bun – Rated by some as the best burger in South Dakota, this place does not disappoint. The menu has more than just burgers, but honestly — just get the burger. The cheese curds were delicious too and they offer a decent selection of both bottled and draft beer. As with many places in Custer, they’re closed on Sunday.

  • Pizza Mill – This is some of the best pizza we’ve ever had! You can eat in, or do as we did, and have them deliver right to the campground. The other pizza options in town — Pizza Works and Pizza Hut — don’t come close to the quality of Pizza Mill.

  • Purple Pie Palace – Hopefully you’ve left room for dessert, because the pie from the Purple Pie Palace is delicious! Whether you get it by the slice, by the pie, or ala mode, you won’t be disappointed. They also have a dining room that serves pot pies, paninis, and such, but we just sampled the pie, so I can’t comment on the food.

Custer State Park

If you’re looking for culinary masterpieces, you won’t find them here. I’d describe the food at CSP as nothing to write home about, but good enough to fill your tummy when you don’t feel like cooking.

  • State Game Lodge – The State Game Lodge has a dining room that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and a lounge (in the bar) that serves food from noon to 11pm. We ate the lunch buffet twice, which is a good price at $13.75 per person, and had dinner once, which was a little underwhelming.
  • Legion Lake Lodge – We had lunch at Legion Lake once and it was fine — not good, not bad. They do, however, make delicious ice cream sundaes!

And that’s the extent of our dining in CSP. We cooked in the Airstream, mostly, and I’d recommend for those that are able to to do the same.

Hill City

Hill City is a tiny town of less than 1,000 people, but it’s the place to go if you’re looking for beer or wine in the Black Hills, as there are multiple breweries and wineries.

  • Prairie Berry Winery –  They have a great selection of berry wines and a nice little menu with soups, salads, cheese/charcuterie boards, sandwiches and pizza. The wine tasting is free and the food is delicious! They also sell jams, honeys, and compotes that are made in small batches at their winery.

  • Miner Brewing Company – This craft brewery is located right next door to Prairie Berry, as they are run by the same person. The atmosphere reminds me of the breweries you’d find in San Diego, with a small disc golf course and bocce ball court. There’s a lot of seating on the patio, which it makes it very dog friendly. The beer is good and the food menu may look familiar, as they offer a selection of Prairie Berry’s menu.

  • Firehouse Winery & Brewery: Smokejumper Station – If you’ve driven along I-90 in South Dakota, then you’re familiar with Firehouse Brewery — they advertise their Rapid City location for hundreds of miles. The Hill City location seems more winery than brewery, but that’s okay, because their wine is fantastic — we went home with four bottles! They also offer a food menu, but we didn’t partake when we visited; however, a friend said their cheese board is to die for.

Things to Do

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

What’s a trip to the Black Hills without a stop at Mount Rushmore?! Because it’s a memorial, entrance is free; however, parking is not. It costs $10 to park onsite, $5 if a senior citizen, and free for all military. Your pass is good for one year. Make sure to walk the Presidential Trail (.6 miles with 422 total stairs) to find multiple new vantage points from which to view the memorial.

Three Fun Facts:

  • 1) Originally, South Dakotan historian Doane Robinson, the man who came up with the idea of Mount Rushmore, originally wanted the carved statues to be of Wild West figures that would promote tourism to the area. People such as Lewis & Clark, Red Cloud, and Buffalo Bill Cody were possibilities. The carver of Mount Rushmore felt the presidents would offer a wider appeal.
  • 2) Originally, Jefferson was to be to Washington’s right, but because the rock was unsuitable, he was moved to the left.
  • 3) The statue below shows what the original plan for Mount Rushmore looked like. The four presidents were to be represented from the waist up, but due to budget constraints, just the faces were done.

If you want to skip the craziness of the crowds within the memorial as well as the $10 parking fee, there are two areas that I know of that you can view Mount Rushmore from outside the park. Just a bit up Hwy 244 west of the entrance to Mount Rushmore is a parking area with signage that says something like ‘profile view’. If you pull in here, you’ll get a nice profile shot of George Washington like you see below. The other place to see Mount Rushmore is through the Doane Robinson Tunnel when driving north on Iron Mountain Road, which starts just inside the east entrance of Custer State Park and ends east of Rapid City. It’s a windy road, just like Needles Highway, and also just like Needles Highway, has three vehicle-size-restrictive tunnels.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Sculptor Korcak Ziolkowski was invited to the Black Hills by Henry Standing Bear to carve the image of Crazy Horse into Thunderhead Mountain in order to honor the Lakota people. The project began in 1948 and the second and third generations of Korcak’s family continue it today. If completed as designed, it will become the world’s second largest statue. The third picture below shows the sculpture that is being used as the model, which is 1/34th the scale of the final product. Entrance is $12 per person or $30 per car if there are more than two people in the vehicle. You can pay an extra $4 to take a bus that gets you quite a bit closer. If you want to skip the entrance fee altogether, there’s a parking lot outside the entrance from which you can see Crazy Horse. When driving from Custer to Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial is along the route. It’s hard to say if visiting the memorial is ‘worth it’. I think it’s going to be amazingly beautiful when complete, which won’t be for at least another 50 years. The memorial receives no federal or state funding, so they count on visitors to help keep the project going.

Fun Fact: Twice a year, visitors are able to hike all the way to the top and stand eye to eye with Crazy Horse. It’s a 6-mile hike that takes place on the first weekend in June and on the same day as the Custer Buffalo Roundup in September.

Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave NM is the third longest cave in the world. We took the Scenic Tour, which lasts about an hour and twenty minutes and leads you on a half-mile loop with 723 stairs (some up, some down). At the deepest point, you’ll find yourself almost 40 stories below the surface. Pretty much everyone on the tour that has visited both Jewel Cave and Wind Cave agreed that Jewel Cave was more impressive. The Scenic Tour is the only tour at Jewel Cave that you can make advance reservations for and is $12. All other tours are first come, first served, and they do reserve some day of tickets for the Scenic Tour as well.

Needles Highway – CSP

The impossibly curvy Needles Highway, completed in 1922, is a 14-mile scenic byway that should be experienced at least once. Sharp turns, steep drop-offs, snug tunnels, granite spires, and topnotch views are what’s in store for those that make the trek. When you hop on the highway in the Legion Lake area and drive towards Sylvan Lake, the first two-thirds of the drive may not be that impressive. However, the final third consists of stomach-dropping views, including the Needles Eye.

Wild Life Loop Road – CSP

From afar, we saw bison, pronghorn, coyote, and prairie dogs. We saw the infamous begging burros up close and personal towards the end of the loop. We drove the Wild Life Loop last year and the wildlife was pretty scarce at that time also. If you want to see a lot of animals up close, I’d recommend driving along Sage Creek Rim Road in Badlands NP.

Spearfish Canyon

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway winds through the floor of the canyon, alongside Spearfish Creek and the towering canyon walls, with pine, spruce, aspen, and birch overhead. Bridal Veil Falls and Roughlock Falls are must-sees along the route, the latter found in the Roughlock Falls Nature Area, which is the perfect mix of natural beauty and man-made walkways that offer a variety of viewpoints of the Falls.

Mount Roosevelt Tower

Upon learning of Theodore Roosevelt’s death in January 1919, his friend, influential South Dakotan Seth Bullock, wanted a suitable memorial built to honor him. On July 4, 1919, the Roosevelt Tower, located just west of Deadwood, was dedicated. There’s a moderately difficult 0.6 mile loop trail that will take you to the tower. You’ll find parking, picnic tables, and pit toilets at the trailhead.

Mount Moriah Cemetery

I’m a sucker for old cemeteries and Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood is a beautiful one. Mount Moriah Cemetery accepted burials from 1878 until 1949. The cemetery has a number of distinct sections including a Civil War veterans section, a Jewish section, a children’s section (for those that succumbed to cholera, smallpox and typhus), a mass grave section, and previously a Chinese section, though only a few of those graves remain today. The most notable graves belong to Wild Bill Hickok, who was shot and killed while playing Poker in Deadwood in 1876; and Calamity Jane, who was buried next to Wild Bill in 1903. There’s a great view of Deadwood near the flagpole, where the flag flies 24 hours a day, due to approval by Congress during World War I, to honor all veterans who have served our country. There’s a $2/person entrance fee that is used to help with ongoing maintenance and beautification of the cemetery.

Deadwood

We weren’t really sure what to expect with Deadwood. It turned out to be a pretty nice little historic town, with cobblestone streets and gorgeous architecture. Of course, there’s a cheese factor in some parts, with actors recreating a Wild West shoot out in the streets, but there are nice casinos, museums, and spas that make Deadwood a Black Hills destination. Our favorite casino was Cadillac Jack’s Gaming Resort, with three hotel options, super clean casino, and decent food options. Also, we were happy to find that all casinos are smoke free. We wandered into the bar where Wild Bill was shot while playing poker; though, the actual location is behind closed doors and requires a fee to enter. Deadwood is definitely worthy of a visit if you’re in the Black Hills, and we wish we would’ve had more time to explore.

Belle Fourche – Geographic Center of the Nation

Our last stop in the Black Hills was by chance. We noticed as we drove north from Spearfish that the city of Belle Fourche has received the title of Geographic Center of the Nation. Even though we were towing the Airstream, it was an easy pitstop to make to view the 21-foot-diameter compass rose that commemorates the title. While the actual geographic center has been delineated by the U.S. National Geodetic Survey at a point approximately 20 miles away, the specific point will always be imprecise due to changing shorelines.

Hiking

Custer

  • Skywalk Trail to Big Rock Observation Deck – Even with a short length of approximately 1 mile roundtrip, this trail has pretty steady elevation gain (about 400′) and really gets the heart pumping. It’s a nice wide trail that is sometimes dirt, sometimes stairs, and culminates with a climb to the Big Rock Observation Deck that offers views of the city of Custer. It was a nice, close trail when we stayed at Beaver Lake Campground.

Custer State Park

  • Lovers Leap Trail – According to the trail map you get at the visitor center, Lovers Leap Trail is three miles. However, according to the sign at the trailhead, as well as my watch, it’s actually four. The trailhead is located in the Game Lodge area, so it was a very convenient hike during our stay in the campground there. The trail is a loop with a number of stream crossings, all of them over some type of makeshift bridge. There’s about 750′ of elevation gain, and you definitely feel it. Another person we ran into on the trail said she saw mountain goat at the peak, but we had no such luck.

  • Little Devil’s Tower Trail – The hike to Little Devil’s Tower is a fun one! It’s about 2.8 miles roundtrip with 700ish feet of elevation gain. It’s rated as strenuous by the park but moderate on AllTrails. I’d say it falls somewhere in between as the elevation gain isn’t too horrible but it does require a decent amount of scrambling. You have views of Black Elk Peak from the top, but beautiful views throughout the hike, as well.

After our month in the Black Hills this year and our trip last year, we conquered South Dakota’s Great 8: Mount Rushmore, Jewel Cave National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, Badlands National Park, Deadwood, the Missouri River, Custer State Park, and Wind Cave National Park — yet, there is still so much to explore. South Dakota is our adopted home state and we always look forward to visiting the land of Great Faces and Great Places!

 

 

Arrowwood Cedar Shore Campground – Oacoma, SD

We spent four nights at the campground at the Arrowwood Resort and Conference Center at Cedar Shores. The campground sits on the Missouri River in the small town of Oacoma, which is across the river from the larger city of Chamberlain. The 44 sites are all full hookup with cable, with a picnic table and fire ring at each. The best sites along the river were taken by what appeared to be seasonal campers, which is what most of the campground seemed to be. Those staying at the campground have access to the neighboring resort’s amenities, including the pool and fitness center, though six cardio machines don’t make for a ‘fitness center’ — but it was better than nothing. Our site (#36) was the most unlevel site we’ve ever had. Besides the 1.5″-2″ lip to get on the concrete pad, the site had a huge incline from front to back, and wasn’t close to being level from side to side either — definitely one of the more challenging sites to get in to.

Address: 1500 Shoreline Drive, Oacoma, SD 57365

Phone: (605) 734-5273

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Cable TV
  • Picnic Table and Fire Ring
  • Bathrooms
  • Laundry
  • Playground
  • Basketball Court
Our very unlevel site. We put as many levelers as would fit under the fully retracted jack and then we extended the jack as high as it would go and we were just barely level.

There really isn’t a lot to see and do in the area, but we made the best of the time we spent there even though it seemed to rain almost nonstop.

A definite must see is the Dignity of Earth and Sky Statue at the I-90 Lewis & Clark Info Center in Chamberlain. Besides being a rest stop, there’s also a little museum dedicated to the time Lewis & Clark spent in the area. The 50-foot statue was erected in 2016 and bares a plaque with words from the sculptor, Dale Claude Lamphere, that reads, “Standing at a crossroads, Dignity echoes the interaction of earth, sky, and people. She brings to light the beauty and promise of the indigenous peoples and cultures that still thrive on this land. My intent is to have the sculpture stand as an enduring symbol of our shared belief that all here are sacred, and in a sacred place.” It’s location along I-90 makes it a perfect pitstop if driving east to west or west to east across South Dakota.

We also visited the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center, which is a nice little (free) museum that is a tribute to the Lakota Sioux people. It’s small, but informative, and gives a good glimpse into the lifestyle, both past and present, of the Lakota people. The museum can be found in Chamberlain as well.

This display referenced the close bond between a warrior and his horse, which made the difference between success in the hunt or life and death in battle. The warrior shown here is modeled after “Wind in His Hair” from Dances with Wolves. The actor wore this outfit in the film.

The last sites to see in Chamberlain are the South Dakota Hall of Fame and the adjacent South Dakota’s Veterans Park. Over 700 of South Dakota’s best and brightest have been inducted in one of 15 different categories. Notable inductees include: Tom Brokaw, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and George McGovern. Both facilities are also located right off I-90, and though we didn’t stop, the Veterans Park looks like a fantastic memorial complete with a handful of military vehicles and planes as well as a picnic area.

Conclusion: The Chamberlain/Oacoma area is more of a drive by situation, but if you’re looking for a place to stop for a night, you’ll find a few things to do to occupy your time. You’ll also find gas stations, a small grocery store, a car wash, and other such services that a traveler might need.