Custer, South Dakota
Our shiny little Cessna 140 flew easterly on a steady course toward the northern border of the South Dakota Black Hills when suddenly a brilliant reflection caught our eyes. Ahead, a massive granite monolith rose like an alien skyscraper out of the flat Wyoming prairie. Then, our hearts pounding, we watched as an enormous silver, discus-shaped object descended slowly, then hovered, like a gigantic cap, over this terrestrial oddity.
Custer, South Dakota
By Laurel Hilde Lippert. Aerial photos by George A. Kounis. Photos by Tom Lippert.
OK, perhaps that last part only happened in the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” But that was the picture in our minds as we flew closer to our first real-life encounter with Devil’s Tower, one of nature’s most marvelous wonders. The country’s first national monument appeared like a sign, a marker beacon, guiding us to the wonders that lay ahead.
Just beyond Devil’s Tower National Monument, we passed Spearfish, at the edge of the Black Hills National Forest, and turned south toward Custer, our destination airport. Flying over rolling hills so densely covered with pine and spruce they appeared black, we followed a road winding through a canyon. Our first landmark was the historic 1880s gold rush town of Deadwood, then Lead (pronounced “Leed”), home of the country’s largest gold mine. The Homestake Gold Mine operated from 1876 until 2002 and left an 8,000-foot-deep pit that contrasts with the small Victorian homes hugging steep hills surrounding it. To our right, Terry Peak, one of two ski areas in the Black Hills, stretched 7,052 feet into the summer sky.
A few more miles south, the Black Hills revealed lush green open meadows where sparkling rivers twist and turn. A narrow unpaved road followed a blue ribbon of water, dipped into the forest, and then reappeared at the edge of a small mountain lake. Farther south, as the hills began to sprout interesting granite formations, we turned our little bird east for a quick detour and glimpse of another one of the world’s most famous rocks.
Our anticipation of this moment did not prepare us for the first sight of George Washington’s 21-foot nose as it emerged from the west side of the mountain. We banked left, leveled off and found ourselves face-to-face with four presidents, their 60-foot-tall faces returning our stare. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is breathtaking. Soon after, it was clear that this aerial view was the first of many places in the Black Hills that illustrate the awesome artistry of nature and mankind.
Located in the southwest corner of South Dakota bordering Nebraska and Wyoming, the Black Hills Region is served by Custer County Airport. Whatever your approach to the airport, you will clear all obstacles in the area if you maintain 8,000 feet msl. The highest surrounding peaks to the north of the airport are 7,240 feet msl, and the highest point in the Black Hills National Forest is 7,579 feet msl, a 600-foot-tall tower (Spearfish RCO) at Terry Peak Ski Area. The airport lies at 5,602 feet msl, so density altitude may be a factor in your aircraft’s performance during warmer days. Prevailing winds favor Runway 26; however, crosswinds and shear are possible on final as winds funnel through a canyon on the north side of the runway. You can often avoid its effects if you touch down on Runway 26 beyond the taxiway to the apron. Remember that if you fly near Devil’s Tower or Mount Rushmore, you should stay 2,000 feet from any point within the areas outlined on Cheyenne Sectional. Fuel is self-serve 24 hours per day. The airport is attended weekdays from April to September and is on-call the rest of the year, although there are no maintenance services. Hangar space is usually available, 605/673-3874.
Since the 1700s, the Lakota Sioux tribe dominated the Black Hills region, naming the area paha sapa, or “hills of black,” for its heavy forests of pine and spruce that look black from a distance. Skilled hunters, the native Sioux lived off the buffalo that grazed the area, and traded furs, pelts, and gold nuggets with trappers and mountain men. Word of the gold spread and, in 1874, Lt. Col. George A. Custer led an expedition to French Creek, near the present-day town of Custer, to survey the area and confirm the presence of gold. He was well aware that he was within the boundaries of Sioux country, as defined by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.
It wasn’t long before thousands of people arrived with the hope of finding gold at French Creek. In the spring of 1875, while the military herded illegal gold-seekers out of the area to Fort Laramie, Wyo., others poured in. They came with wagon trains, built shacks, and widened the streets in this place they called Golden Valley.
Angered by this invasion of Sioux land, Chief Sitting Bull called together his tribes, as well as the Arapaho and Cheyenne, to a camp in the valley of the Little Bighorn River in Montana. On June 25, 1876, Custer returned to the region with approximately 200 troops from the U.S. 7th Cavalry to fight the “hostile” warriors. Twenty times outnumbered, not a single soldier who rode down the Medicine Trail coulee with Custer, nor Custer himself, survived the bloody two-day battle at Little Bighorn.
Although victorious, the Sioux were soon forced to cede their sacred Black Hills to the federal government, which opened the area for more settlement. Custer City, near French Creek, soon bustled with nearly 10,000 eager prospectors. A richer quarry of gold in nearby Deadwood depleted Custer’s population severely, but those who stayed built homes, a school, a bank, churches, and a courthouse. Women and children arrived, immigrating pioneers passed through, and the town prospered.
Gutzon Borglum started work on the sculpture of Mount Rushmore in 1927. He died in March 1941, just seven months before his son Lincoln completed the project. After World War II, tourists flocked to see Borglum’s masterpiece, the largest work of art in the world, with six-story-high busts of four U.S. presidents carved into solid granite.
What to do
Custer lies in the heart of the Black Hills National Forest. This 125-by-65-mile area abounds with natural beauty and is easily accessible from Custer.
Start with a beautiful drive on the 70-mile-long Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway that begins three miles east of Custer on Highway 16A. Take the north route from Custer State Park on Needles Highway, and you’ll come to the Needles and Cathedral Spires, exquisite granite features created by erosion. Three tunnels lead to Sylvan Lake, an ideal stop for a swim, boat ride, or three-mile hike to 7,242-foot Harney Peak Lookout where you can see four states and stand on the highest point in the United States east of the Rockies.
Another equally dramatic drive in the park is Iron Mountain Road, which leads you on a thrilling ride over “pigtail” bridges and through carefully planned tunnels. Designed by Cecil Clyde “C. C.” Gideon, an architect and craftsman, along with Peter Norbeck, the tunnels were aligned to give hikers, bicyclists, and drivers a spectacularly framed first view of Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Arrive at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the morning to see the south-facing sculpture at its best. If you haven’t been there in awhile, you’ll enjoy the new public viewing areas including the half-mile Presidential Trail that begins at the Grand View Terrace and leads you along the base of the mountain for unusual close-up views of the presidents. You’ll also want to spend some time in the Borglum Museum to learn more about the carving of Mount Rushmore. Open daily, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. (May 8 to Aug. 13), 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. (Aug. 14 to Sept. 30), 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Oct. 1–May 7). Don’t miss the patriotic evening lighting ceremony, held in the park’s amphitheater each summer night from 8 to 9 p.m. There is no fee to visit the memorial, but an $11 parking fee allows unlimited entry throughout the calendar year, 605/574-2523.
Just beyond Mount Rushmore National Memorial, you’ll pass through the small historic town of Keystone. The town is the terminal for the Black Hills Central Railroad 1880 Train, a vintage steam train that chugs up steep grades on a scenic route through mining country to Hill City. There are one to four departures per day from Keystone and Hill City starting in mid-May. Tickets for the two-hour round trip are $24 for adults, $12 for kids 4 to 14, free for kids under 3, Highway 16A, 605/574-2222.
Hill City, at the center of the Black Hills, was established in 1875 as a gold mining camp until it was deserted when Deadwood boomed. However, the town was revived on several occasions: when tin mining and lithium mining prospered, during construction of the Pactola Dam, and while the lumber mills were profitable. It is now a tourist center with interesting art galleries and shops, including a fascinating natural history museum called Everything Prehistoric.
For 25 years the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research has been the center of study for paleontologists from around the world. Yet, only recently did well-known scientists Neal and Peter Larson and Bob Farrar open their impressive collection of dinosaur and fossil relics to the public at Everything Prehistoric. These are the people who discovered and excavated “T-Rex Sue,” the largest and most complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the world. On display now is “Stan,” another complete T-Rex; his five-foot long skull holds 50 very large and still sharp teeth. The museum has dinosaur bones, ancient fossils, ammonites, minerals, and gemstones for you to view or buy. Open Mon. through Fri. 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., 117 Main St., Hill City, 605/574-4289.
On your return to Custer on U.S. 385, you’ll pass the Crazy Horse Memorial, another enormous mountain carving, still in progress, which attracts almost as many visitors as Mount Rushmore. A tribute to Crazy Horse and other Native Americans, the sculpture was begun in 1948. The original sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, died in 1982, but his family is continuing the nonprofit project through donations. Visitors are invited to the free twenty-sixth annual Volksmarch, a 10K round-trip hike to the outstretched arm of the sculpture for a close-up view, held on the first weekend in June. Fees are $10 for adults, free for children under 6. Open year-round from 8 a.m. till dark, 605/673-4681.
If you like history, you’ll want to explore Custer’s downtown area where most of the original buildings are clustered in a walkable three-square-block area. Many now house shops and galleries. For example, the 1881 First National Bank of Dakota Territory is now the Bank Coffee House (see Where to Eat); the shop maintains the bank’s original high tin ceiling, tile floor, and oakwood trim. For more information about Custer’s history and free guidebooks, maps, and brochures, visit the Custer Chamber of Commerce at the Custer Trailhead and Transportation Museum. Open Mon. through Fri. in spring and daily in summer months, 615 Washington St., 800/992-9818, 605/673-2244.
Custer is also at the center of the George S. Mickelson Trail, a 110-mile trail that follows the historic Deadwood-to-Edgemont Burlington Northern Railroad Line that was abandoned in 1983. South Dakota’s first rail-to-trails project, completed in 1998, is open only to cyclists, hikers, and horseback riders. The wide trail traverses the most scenic parts of the Black Hills, over gentle slopes and bridges, through meadows, and away from traffic. Thirteen trailheads along the route offer easy access. For overnight trips, there are a variety of lodging and campground choices.
Local entrepreneur Deb Wallenberg will rent you bikes and other equipment, provide you with maps and passes to the Mickelson Trail, and even take sepia-tinted photos of you and your family in period costume. If this last part seems incongruous, it’s actually the bike equipment that stands out. The Sioux Falls native and proprietor of Frontier Photo began renting bicycles about five years ago, after the local outfitters went out of business. When the local chamber of commerce asked if she would be willing to take up the mantle, Deb agreed. “It’s definitely more of an add-on,” she says, “but it was important to give visitors the opportunity to ride the trails without having to bring their bikes on vacation.” Rentals range from $18 for two hours to $32 for a full day, call for summer hours, 512 Mt. Rushmore Rd., 605/673-2269.
You’ll find more bike trails, including a portion of the 111-mile Centennial Trail, as well as hiking trails from easy to moderate difficulty, in Custer State Park. Pick up a trail guide at the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center, 15 miles east of Custer on Highway 16A. Open 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in spring, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in summer, 605/255-4464.
The 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park will take you over rolling hills and through open prairies to the large bison herd (1,500 in the park) and, if you’re lucky, a glimpse of pronghorn antelope, elk, or mountain goats. Along the way, you may encounter the wild “begging” burros whose toll is a piece of bread. (Don’t forget to buy a loaf!) A worthwhile stop on the loop is the Mt. Coolidge Lookout fire tower for a panoramic view as far away as the Badlands, 60 miles east.
The South Dakota Black Hills has the second longest cave system in the world, and 68 of the 72 known calcite crystal caves. Most of the fascinating features in these caves were created by mineral-laden water seeping through the cave channels for millions of years. Eight caves within the park are open to the public, including Jewel Cave, 13 miles west of Custer. Established as a national monument in 1908, Jewel Cave is the world’s third longest known cave, with 122 explored miles twisting and turning past glittering jewel-like calcite crystals, translucent draperies, soda straw stalactites, and sparkling scintillites. A half-mile scenic tour is conducted daily, adults $8, kids 6 to 16 $4, and kids 5 and under free, on Highway 16, 605/673-2288.
Where to stay
The family-owned Bavarian Inn, three-fourths-mile north of Custer, is a European-style inn with pools, hot tubs, and a tennis court. The 65 rooms range in price from $49 off-season to $119 in summer; suites go for $189, and the three-bedroom condo rents for $349. The in-house restaurant serves American and German food for dinner year-round, as well as breakfast in the summer, on Highway 16/385, 800/657-4312.
The history of the Custer Mansion Bed & Breakfast Inn dates back to 1890 and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Six guest rooms are decorated with antiques; two are adjoining if you need a family suite. Owners Bob and Pat Meakim serve a hearty home-cooked breakfast. The inn is near the airport and the Mickelson Bike Trail. Prices range from $65 to $115 off-season to $80 to $135 in summer, 35 Centennial Dr., 877/519-4948.
There are four resorts within Custer State Park with motel or lodge rooms and cabins. The State Game Lodge & Resort, built in 1920, was known as President Calvin Coolidge’s “Summer White House” and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Prices for a night range from $115 for a lodge room with two twin beds, to a five-bedroom house with kitchen, fireplace, and two baths for $580. The historic State Game Lodge Dining Room in the lodge has a long-standing reputation for superb food (See Where to Eat). For accommodations at the State Game Lodge or the other resorts in the park, call 888/875-0001.
For more lodging choices, contact the Custer Chamber of Commerce, 800/992-9818.
Where to eat
The 7th Cavalry Cafe is a welcoming spot for a hearty meal just three miles east of Custer in the Wheels West RV Park at French Camp, site of Custer’s 1874 expedition and the area’s first gold strike. Try a hefty “Cavalry Special” with eggs, bacon, hash browns, and toast for $8.75, or owner Kathi Jenson’s suggestion, “The Stockade,” a buffalo burger with lettuce, tomato, onions, mustard, and mayo, $8.50, that goes well with a “bottomless” glass of lemonade. Dinner prices are $9 to $15, open daily 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. (March through Sept.), Highway 16A, 605/673-2570.
The Sage Creek Grille in downtown Custer is known for its fresh made-to-order dishes using seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as locally-grown game, Black Hills trout, and fresh seafood. All are tantalizing, like the pear-glazed pork loin, oven-roasted and served with sweet potato butternut squash au gratin. The restaurant is also famous for its homemade desserts. The hues of cornmeal and sage painted on the walls and handmade pine furnishings create a relaxing atmosphere. Owner Nancy Gellerman carries a wide variety of premier wines and beers to complement your meal. Dinner entrées are $17 to $25. Open for lunch and dinner, Mon. through Sat. during summer (reduced hours off-season), 611 Mt. Rushmore Rd., 605/673-2424.
For morning and afternoon coffee, or a light lunch, drop by the historic Bank Coffee House for an espresso drink, homemade pastry, quiche of the day, soup, or sandwich. Owner Linda Ventling also likes to whip up “surprises” from time to time. Open mornings “6ish” to 6 p.m. in spring, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. in summer. The success of the coffee house prompted the owners to open The Steak ’n Ribs Place in the same building. Not surprisingly, the restaurant specializes in steaks and ribs, but fish and vegetarian entrées are also served, 548 Mt. Rushmore Rd., 605/673-5698.
The Ruby House Restaurant and Red Garter Saloon in the heart of Keystone opened for the first time in 1890 by Ruby Tucker. The restaurant has kept the showy décor and Wild West flavor, with a period dining room and a lunch and dinner menu that features steak, buffalo, and fish (local walleye, salmon, and trout) for $11 to $24. The comedy Western gunfights in the saloon are popular entertainment in the summer, 124 Winter St. (Hwy 16) in Keystone, 605/666-4404.
The historic dining room at the State Game Lodge has been a staple of local dining for decades. Recently remodeled, the well-regarded restaurant is a great place for a casual breakfast or lunch, or a formal dinner. The menu specializes in wild game, with entrées like smoked pheasant, buffalo, and elk, as well as local fish. A recently popular dish was the wapiti (elk) tenderloin saltimbocca, elk tenderloin wrapped with prosciutto and sautéed with garlic, sage, and lemon butter sauce, served with fingerling potatoes, $11 to $32, open March through Nov., 605/255-4541.
One of Hill City’s most popular restaurants for dinner is Chute Roosters. It’s in an Old West museum filled with antiques and Western memorabilia. Batter-dipped appetizers and prime rib are their specialties. Try their delicious 12-oz. rib eye or their pork chop with house glaze; both come with choice of vegetable and potato, and a side salad. Their full bar offers a great place to drink and socialize. Entrées run $12 to $19, open Mon. through Sat. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (bar open until 2 a.m.), Sun. 8 to 10 p.m. (bar open until midnight), 850 Chute Rooster Dr., Hill City, 605/574-2122.
There are few public transportation options in Custer; given that many of the attractions involve driving to the various parks and monuments, a rental car is a good idea. Black Hills RV bills itself as “Your Black Hills adventure headquarters,” and has a small fleet of rental cars—five standard size cars, two SUVs and a 15-passenger van—to fit your needs. Daily rental cars come with passes to Mt. Rushmore and Custer State Park, along with unlimited Black Hills-area mileage (out of area rentals get 100 miles per day, then 33¢ per mile). Call Ray to book your rental in advance, and to arrange an airport pickup, $59 to $89, 605/673-6600. Another transportation option is Golden Circle Tours; they can shuttle you just about anywhere you need to go, call for customized tours and shuttle rates, 605/673-4349.
To get a real sense of the Black Hills of South Dakota, you will gaze into the faces of stone giants, walk underground in a cavern’s maze, and wait patiently to spot a pronghorn, mountain goat, or distant elk. Your close encounter with this mysterious and magical place, from the air and from the ground, will be rich with experiences and memories.
From the archives of Pilot Getaways magazine. Details such as frequencies and prices have been recently updated to reflect current information.