Custer is a cute little Western town with a few restaurants, a couple bars, and even a coffeeshop with wifi. It’s the closest town to Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore. We were sort of expecting Mount Rushmore to be a check-the-box kind of visit, but it was really interesting and impressive, and the surrounding Black Hills are rugged and beautiful.
We stayed in the Legion Lake campground in Custer State Park, with a tiny view of Legion Lake across the street, and water and electric hookups only. The campground itself is nothing special, but the park is wonderful: huge, and full of wildlife and scenery. Our drive to downtown Custer was about 10 minutes.
Eating and Drinking
Custer isn’t really a food and drink destination, but downtown has a few good options:
- Coffee and snack (and wifi) at Bank Coffee House. We shared a delicious egg salad sandwich while we caught up on internetting.
- Beer (and a little more wifi) at Buglin’ Bull sports bar, where we were cornered by a well-meaning RVing couple who wanted to tell us everything they knew. So we only had one beer there.
- Dinner and regional beer at local food-focused Sage Creek Grill
- Local beer at Bitter Esters Brewhouse. Where is J’s brewery write-up, you ask? Well, Bitter Esters didn’t have any beer on tap that appealed to J, so he didn’t want to go. I insisted (it’s a brewery! it’s right here!) and he agreed–but told me I’d have to write about it. Of course I’ll write about it! Except… I didn’t take any notes and have no specific recollections about the place or the beer. Amateur.
Mount Rushmore doesn’t really fit into a Hiking category, since you’re just hiking from your car to the viewpoint. (There’s a little walkway you can follow that takes you up closer to the faces, but we didn’t do it.) There’s a slight Disneyworld feel to the site: lots of flags, a couple cafes and gift shops, and hordes of people. Go early so you can hang out at the viewpoint and browse the history exhibits in the visitor center in relative peace. Being a National Park Service-managed monument, Mount Rushmore is not dog-friendly. Many people (including us, initially) may be turned off by the fact that humans “ruined” a mountain by carving it up into giant faces, but surely everyone can admit that the engineering and art of the thing is pretty amazing.
Custer State Park has three scenic drives that are worth the gas money. Iron Mountain Road leads from the park to Mount Rushmore, around some twirly loops and through a few tiny, rocky tunnels (don’t take your Airstream), one of which frames Mount Rushmore neatly. If you have better camera skills than I do (which would not take much), you can get a cool picture there; compare my picture above (in which you cannot see Mount Rushmore) with one from the same viewpoint taken by someone who knows what they are doing.
We took the second scenic drive, Needles Highway, back to our campground after hiking in the Black Hills. It’s another narrow, winding road, decorated with towering granite “needles,” with a couple tiny tunnels blown through the rock.
The third scenic drive, which we really enjoyed, was the Wildlife Loop Road. We got up early on our last morning in Custer, brewed some coffee and tea, and went for our own little driving safari. We saw buffalo, birds, buffalo, prairie dogs, and buffalo.
Our intro to the craggy, tree-covered Black Hills region was a hike in the Black Hills National Forest from Lake Sylvan to Harney Peak, the highest point in the US east of the Rockies–and the highest point between the Rockies and the Pyrenees. Although Texas is disputing that claim. We took Trail 9 up and Trail 4 back from the peak for a beautiful, if a bit crowded, 7-mile hike. Apparently one can hike to the peak from the Lost Cabin or Willow Creek trails for more solitude. The devastation from the mountain pine beetle epidemic and the resulting tree removal that’s part of the forest management plan for eliminating the beetle is pretty shocking.
The second hike we did in the Black Hills was from Mount Rushmore to Horse Thief Lake. The hike as we did it was much longer than advertised, and with trees down everywhere, it was hard to stay on the trail. The out leg of the out-and-back was so unpleasant (but, the forest was lovely, and the other trails we followed after the terrible first one, Blackberry, were in good shape) that we didn’t want to return on the same trail, so I ran a couple miles back on the road to get the car from the Mount Rushmore lot, and lucked into a stellar profile view of George. Horse Thief Lake is a pretty little park with a campground and fishing, and was a pleasant spot for our post-hike breakfast and a swim for Bugsy.