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!

 

 

The Badlands and the Black Hills

I usually do a separate post for each destination we’ve traveled to, but I felt that Badlands National Park area, Custer State Park area, and Devils Tower area could all be combined into one post about the places to stay and things to see in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming.

First up…

The Badlands

We spent two nights at the Badlands Interior Campground, which is 1 mile south of the Badlands Interior Entrance. There are a handful of RV parks outside the various entrances of the park and they all looked to be about the same quality. Our campground was nothing amazing, but it was a pull through site with full hookups. I popped my head in the restroom at one point to see what it was like and it was old but seemed clean; otherwise, we didn’t use any of the amenities. The one thing we really did not like about this place was that it flooded easily. I know they can’t control the weather, and the weather in June in this part of South Dakota can be pretty crazy, but they seemed to have a real drainage issue. When we moved on to our next city two days later, even though there was still a lot of rain, there was no where near the same amount of standing water. It was so bad that one motorhome needed to be towed while trying to park in their site. There are also two campgrounds within the national park — both first come, first served, though one is undeveloped. I usually take pictures of everywhere we stay, but forgot to here. I’d say this campground, and any of them in the area, really, are decent for a 1-2 night stay.

Address: 900 SD Hwy 377, Interior, SD 57750

Phone: (605) 433-5335

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Tent Sites
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Swimming Pool
  • Hotel on Site
  • Picnic Table and Fire Ring
  • Dump Station

The very first thing we did after getting set up at the campground was drive to Wall, SD so we could get something to eat. We ate at Wall Drug, because there’s not a lot to choose from, but we also wanted to check out the place we had been seeing signs for for the last 300 miles. (Seriously, they advertise from one end of South Dakota to the other). We grabbed some burgers that were surprisingly decent and meandered through building after building of souvenirs. Satisfied that we’d seen enough, we headed over to the grocery store to pick up a few things, as the only place to get food in Interior looks like a meth lab fronting as a grocery store.

On our way back to the campground, we stopped at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center. The park consists of three sites along I-90 between Badlands and Wall: the Visitor Center, the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility, and the Delta-09 Missile Silo. The launch facility and missile silo are deactivated remnants of the cold war that are representative of the nuclear arms race. Tours are available of the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility, but they book days in advance and we hadn’t planned accordingly. The Delta-09 Missile Silo is open from  8am-3pm. It consists of a Minutemann II (unarmed) missile positioned in the underground silo with a glass window covering it, allowing you to view inside.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center
Delta 09 Missile Silo – We showed up at 3:30, not realizing it closed at 3, so this is as close as we got.

The major draw of the area is, of course, Badlands National Park. Whenever we visit a national park, we like to visit the visitor center and take a drive through the park with our dog Max. We’ll stop at overlooks and take some pics, but the main reasons for doing this are so Max gets some fresh air and we’re able to see what we want to focus on in the park. This isn’t always possible due to size and time constraints, but the size of Badlands allows for it. The best overlooks along the Badlands Loop Road are probably Conata Basin Overlook and Yellow Mounds Overlook. Also during our first day of exploring, we drove the Sage Creek Rim Road, which is an often overlooked road due to it being gravel and long — it took about 45 minutes to drive it and then another 45 minutes to get back to our campground. However, if you want to see wildlife, this is the place to do it! We were lucky enough to see oodles of bison, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, turkeys, and a snapping turtle.

Most national parks aren’t very pet friendly, and Badlands is no different. However, we always like to include Max as much as we can, so we’ll bring him along for a ride through the park.

Yellow Mounds Overlook

Bison along the Sage Creek Rim Road
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep along the Sage Creek Rim Road

During our second day, we hiked the 1.5-mile Notch Trail, which the trail guide rated as moderate to strenuous. We’d personally rate it somewhere between easy and moderate, with the log ladder being the most difficult part. It was a nice trail with some great views. After the Notch Trail, we did the Cliff Shelf Trail, rated moderate, which I would agree with due to the number of stairs you need to climb to get to the viewing platform. It’s a nice little half-mile, paved loop trail through junipers in which we saw a beautiful white-tailed doe kicked back and relaxing, chomping on some leaves.

Notch Trail – The ladder was the only difficult part of the trail and it’s more difficult going down than it is going up.
Notch Trail

 

The Cliff Shelf Trail involves a lot of stairs.
White-tailed doe along the Cliff Shelf Trail

It’s important to note that June is the rainiest month in the Badlands. And we’re not just talking rain, but thunder, lightning, and hail as well. Always keep an eye on the weather as there was a flash flood warning the entire time we were there.

Custer State Park

We originally had planned to be in the Badlands for five nights instead of the two we ended up spending. About a week prior, we decided to change our plans and spend the other three nights in the Custer State Park area — and we’re so glad we did! While we weren’t able to get a spot at a campground within Custer, we found a nice place right outside. Southern Hills RV Park & Campground in Hermosa is a good home base to explore the area. It’s a very well kept park and our site was a nice, level pull through with full hookups. Bonus: When it poured rain, it seemed to drain well and dry up fairly quickly. If we had our choice of campgrounds within the park (which can be reserved up to a year in advance), we would choose Game Lodge Campground due to its great location and layout. I guess we’ll have to plan ahead next time!

Address: 24549 Highway 79, Hermosa, SD 57744

Phone: (605) 939-7609

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Level Sites
  • Bathrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Picnic Table
Site 2 at Southern Hills was very spacious and level!
These three giant presidential busts sit at the entrance to Southern Hills. I don’t know why they’re there, but I do know they make finding the driveway to the RV park easier.

After we got settled in to Southern Hills, we drove into Custer SP to Legion Lake Lodge for a late lunch. While the service was a bit slow, the food was good and the view from the outdoor seating is phenomenal. After lunch, we walked the trail around Legion Lake, which has a swimming beach and canoes and kayaks for rent. After the walk, we had to get back to the Airstream to do some work, but returned to the park after dinner with Max in tow to drive the Wildlife Loop Road. Custer SP is home to all sorts of wildlife, including elk, coyotes, burros, mountain goats, and even a few mountain lions, as well as the animals we saw on our drive which were bison, white-tailed deer, prairie dogs, and pronghorns (antelope).

Legion Lake
A white-tailed deer and her babe along the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park
A bison (with a tiny hitchhiker on its back) along the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park
A male pronghorn along the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park
Even without the wildlife, the views along Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park are pretty nice

On our second day near Custer State Park, as it was a rainy morning, we chose to visit Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave lies at the southern border of Custer SP in Hot Springs. It is the third longest cave system in the United States behind Mammoth Cave and nearby Jewel Cave. There are various cave tours available, but they are all first come, first served, so arrive early to beat the crowds. We took the Natural Entrance Cave Tour, which lasted about 1.25 hours. I’m not sure if any of the other tours are more exciting, as this one was just okay. As I mentioned, it was raining, so we didn’t explore anything above ground in the park. Instead, we headed into Hot Springs to get some lunch (nothing to write home about) and then headed over to The Mammoth Site, which is also in Hot Springs. The Mammoth Site is an active paleontological excavation site with the greatest concentration of mammoth remains in the world. We waited in a line that was out the door and seemed to be making no progress until we decided to opt out and return home. Some days you’re feelin’ it, and some days you’re not — and we just weren’t feeling it that day. One thing to note about The Mammoth Site is that dogs are allowed inside as long as they are being held or in carriers. We returned to Custer SP before dinner so that Travis could get a run in on one of the trails. I explored the Visitor Center and the State Game Lodge and then meandered along one of the trails until meeting up with Travis to return home for the evening.

A Map of the Wind Cave Cave System
The ranger is standing next to the cave’s only known natural opening. In order to equalize the atmospheric pressure inside the cave, sometimes air blows out of this opening and sometimes it’s sucked in. Either way, it can reach speeds of up to 70mph, which is how the cave got its name.
Interior of the Cave
It’s very difficult to get good pictures inside a cave, but this photo is of the boxwork formations that are found throughout Wind Cave. Wind Cave is home to about 95% of the world’s discovered boxwork formations.
The Visitor Center is beautiful and informative, though no gift shop. Gift shops can be found in each of the lodges.
The State Game Lodge was the ‘Summer White House’ of President Calvin Cooldige
Grace Coolidge Creek

On our third and last full day in the area, we once more headed into Custer SP to the Sylvan Lake area in order to do the hike up to Black Elk Peak, which is South Dakota’s highest point at 7242 feet. We hiked trail #9, which is a 6.6-mile roundtrip trail that’s rated moderate to strenuous. We both felt it was the hardest trail we had ever hiked and thought it leaned more towards the strenuous end of the spectrum. There’s a gain of 1470 feet and you can definitely feel it. Black Elk Peak is actually located in the Black Hills National Forest, and there’s a sign on the trail that indicates when you cross into the forest. A stone fire tower at the peak provides excellent views of the surrounding landscape. When reading reviews of the trail, some people noted it took up to six hours to complete the roundtrip hike, but we needed to get back to work as soon as possible, so we booked it to the top and back in just under three. Before leaving the park, we stopped at Sylvan Lake Lodge for lunch. We ended up getting our food to go, as we really needed to get back to the trailer for work. I had an excellent burger and Travis had an equally excellent chicken sandwich. Once back at the trailer, Travis got to work while I drove into Box Elder to Americas Mailbox (our mail forwarding service) where I picked up our mail and packages that had been collecting for a few weeks. On my back to Southern Hills, I gassed up the truck and drove it through a car wash in preparation for our morning departure to Devils Tower.

If the 6.6-mile roundtrip hike isn’t your thing, there are views like this along Trail 9 that aren’t too far from the trailhead in Sylvan Lake.
There’s a good mix of sun and shade along the hike, but be prepared with sunscreen and water as the most difficult part of the hike (towards the peak) is out of the woods and in direct sun.
Black Elk Peak is actually in the Black Hills National Forest, not Custer State Park, and there’s a sign marking where you cross into the Forest. You also must register, so they know who’s out there and where you went.
Views!
More views!
There’s the fire tower signifying we made it to the top!
But you have to climb a lot of uneven stone stairs to get there — my calves were definitely burning!
Handkerchiefs from Previous Hikers

There are more sites to see that we didn’t get around to this trip. We didn’t drive the infamous Needles Highway in Custer SP, which I’m bummed about, but we just never found the time. If we had known what Wind Cave NP was going to be like, we probably would have used that time to do the drive instead. Of course, there’s also Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial. We visited Mount Rushmore last September when we were in Rapid City/Box Elder getting our drivers licenses and things set up with Americas Mailbox. Crazy Horse, along with Jewel Cave National Monument, will have to wait until our next trip. And we never made it into Rapid City (except to get groceries at Safeway), which was another small disappointment as we had really enjoyed downtown Rapid City on our previous visit. We will definitely return to Custer State Park!

Devils Tower

Devils Tower was declared the first National Monument in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt. It’s 867 feet tall from summit to base. If you want to stay at Devils Tower for a night or two, there are basically two options. The Belle Fourche Campground is a first come, first served campground within the boundaries of the park. There are no hookups, but water is available as well as bathrooms. The second option is the Devils Tower KOA, which sits right outside the entrance to the monument. We chose the latter, because everywhere we’ve been so far this summer has been super hot and we didn’t want to have to worry about generator restrictions in order to use our A/C — we wanted hookups! As far as KOAs go, this one is pretty nice. We didn’t use their restrooms or laundry, but did take a dip in the pool (it was freezing) and got some ice cream from the onsite store. There’s also another store across the street that sells similar items, and both stores have prepared food available for purchase. The Devils Tower post office is basically right in the KOA’s parking lot and every night at 8pm, the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind is played at the campground.

Address: 60 Highway 110, Devils Tower, WY 82714

Phone: (307) 467-5395

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Cabins
  • Tent Sites
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Swimming Pool
  • Playground
  • Community Fire Ring
  • Propane Fill
  • Cafe/Gift Shop/Store
While most sites at the Devils Tower KOA have tower views, our site (51) didn’t because of a tree — a tree that we were very thankful for later as it was extremely hot and the shade if provided was helpful.

The Visitor Center is open from 8am-7pm, but Devils Tower itself is accessible 24 hours a day. Being right at the entrance afforded me the opportunity to get up to the monument at 7:45am before crowds started rolling in. I walked the 1.3-mile paved Tower Trail and only saw three other parties. This trail, which circles the base of the tower, is the most popular trail and gets quite busy for most of the day. Travis ran it at about 5:45pm and it was still pretty populated. Climbing the tower is allowed; though climbers must register with a ranger before and after their climb.

Dog aren’t allow anywhere except the parking lot and one gravel road, which is where we took this picture.

Besides Devils Tower, there is nothing else in this area. Most visitors seem to make it a day trip, but if you want to or need to spend the night, one night is plenty. There is a gas station about a 10-minute drive up the road in Hulett.

All in all, we really enjoyed our time in the Badlands and Black Hills. We will definitely return Custer State Park, but one visit to Badlands National Park and Devils Tower National Monument is enough.