Western Adventure: Black Hills Part I

Pronghorn (Antelope) in Custer State Park Wildlife Loop

This is my travelogue from my ‘Western Adventures’ from the rugged Black Hills of South Dakota onward to the Bighorns of Wyoming and wonders of Yellowstone National Park and beyond. This is a journal of my adventures…thanks for joining me virtually.

June 2nd, 2022:

As I last reported, I encountered a bit of ‘turbulence’ in my air travel from Raleigh NC to my destination of Rapid City. I ended up getting laid over in Dallas for over fourteen hours. These delays were frustrating and tiring, but at the end of the day when you travel flexibility and positivity is key. I said ‘God grant me the grace’ to not get irritated.

I finally arrived in Rapid City, SD just after 3 p.m. MT on June 2nd. Rapid City is an awesome gateway to the Black Hills. This city of 76,000 is home to countless restaurants, city parks and museums. You can learn more about all Rapid City has to offer here.

Given the trip delay I didn’t have much time to explore Rapid City this trip, but will make sure to do a feature on this charming metropolis that sits on the crossroads of Badlands and Black Hills Country.

When flying into Rapid City or driving through – take time to pause and explore the downtown or funky Dinosaur Park. You won’t be disappointed. Rapid City offers tons of hotels and is a good place to stay if you are focusing on the greater Black Hills area. It is only about thirty minutes from Mt. Rushmore and an hour from the Badlands National Park.

After picking up my rental car (a Chevy Malibu) I headed south on scenic Highway 16 towards historic Custer SD and Custer State Park. You can access a map of the Black Hills area here.

Highway 16 is one of the most scenic roads in the US, cutting through the depths of the Black Hills. The forty-five minute drive from Rapid City to Custer State Park, rambles over twisting mountain roads, revealing the spiraled wrinked mountains of the Black Hills.

In planning your trip – you can exit off towards the tourist town of Keystone to access Mt. Rushmore from 16, but given my itinerary I decided to visit Mt. Rushmore later in my trip.

Over awesome sites along 16 towards Custer is the western town of Hill City and the Native American monument Crazy Horse (we’ll visit it in a future post)

Hill City is a charming ‘old west’ town with great restaurants, a winery (Prairie Berry) and the historic 1880 Train, which steamrolls you in style through the Black Hills. Hill City embodies the spirit of the wild west with modern comfort – perfect for families to enjoy.

I pulled into the town of Custer around 4:30 p.m. With a population of 2300 souls, Custer was founded 125 years ago after gold was discovered in the area. It is the oldest town in the Black Hills and a popular spot for tourism, given it’s proximity to all the Black Hills has to offer. Today it is the gateway town for neighboring Custer State Park and nearby Jewel Cave National Monument. I’ll do a feature article on Custer and the city’s history and sights in the coming weeks. Custer has a fascinating history and was the epicenter of the battle of the American west and the Lakota. While wounds remain from the shadows of conflict over a century ago – Custer and neighboring Custer SP bring people together in the glory of this unbridled nature – the God given beauty that we can humbly surrender to.

We will be spending the next few days exploring one of my favorite spots in the world – Custer State Park.

Over 71,000 acres, Custer State Park is the second largest state park in the country (the largest is the Adirondacks in NY). It’s natural beauty, wildlife and park lodges rival even the best of America’s National Parks. Custer is often referred to as a mini-Yellowstone given it’s abundance of wildlife – from bison to antelope, prairie dogs and beyond.

I first encountered Custer after graduating from Belmont University in 2009. I ended up camping in the area for nearly three weeks with my mom – exploring every inch of the Black Hills and this special State Park.

The imprint of the land has stayed with me and I am grateful for the opportunity to return.

As I passed the Custer State Park admission gates…I breathed in the South Dakota air and felt as though I was reunited with an old friend. I still remembered the curves in the road.

Custer is comprised of a network of roads – including the Wildlife Loop that takes your through a high prairie and the torturous and beautiful Needles Highway that scales the spires of the Black Hills.

The park is home to several campgrounds and stunning western lodges full of history and charm. Custer has dozens of miles of hiking trails, recreational lakes perfect for a mountain swim or picnic by the shore.

Custer uniquely encompasses a variety of habitats and ecosystems – from dense forests, high prairies, mountain rides and riprarian creeks. You see the converenge of the American praire and badlands collide into the lush mountains of the Black Hills.

Continue to my next post as we drive the Wildlife Loop and check into relaxation in the rustic and luxurious State Game Lodge

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