Exploring Custer State ParkAugust 30, 2020 in the United States ⋅ ☀️ 79 °F
Last night we decided to skip exploring Custer State Park today and head north to check out a couple of towns ... maybe Hill City and Lead ... maybe loop back around via Deadwood and Sturgis. We left the Cruiser around 9:30a to do just that.
It was a warmish-day ... blue skies and sunshine ... quite calm wind-wise. Conditions would change later ... at least in regards to the winds and temperature. But we did not know that when we drove away from the campground.
To get up north from where we are camping, we have two possible routes. Either take some winding roads up to Keystone first. Or, drive US-16A through Custer State Park to the town of Custer to connect to US-16/US-385. We decided on the latter.
Once we entered the park, we jiggled our plans ... a bit. Instead of staying on the thru-road, why not take the Wildlife Loop Road. It was probably too late to see much in the way of wildlife, but we could reconnoiter the road. After all, our “special license”, as the admission pass is known, was now active. We were legit, so why not check out one of the park’s major attractions?
So, plans changed again to accommodate the Wildlife Loop Road and add the infamous Needles Highway to exit through the north entrance to check out the northern towns.
As expected, we saw little in the way of wildlife on the loop road ... some pronghorn antelope (which we see plenty of on the plains across the arroyo from our house) ... a lone bison way off in the distance.
The only herd we encountered on the Wildlife Loop were the friendly burros mingling with at least 30 people ... who had parked their cars all across the road to feed them. Any other time, we might have joined them to get some photo ops. But this is pandemic times. We don’t do crowds ... and we stay away from people who refuse to wear masks when social-distancing is not possible. So, we carefully negotiated our way through the mix of burros and people to continue on our way.
We were sorry the herds of bison seen in photos of Custer SP were nowhere to be seen. But truthfully, as it was almost 11:00a by this time, we weren’t expecting to see them. Hah! Little did we know that we’d see them a several-hundred strong at the junction of the Wildlife Loop Road and SD-87.
What a sight! I didn’t even mind the cars parked along the road, creating a maze for the bison to negotiate as they went from one side of the highway to the other. I had plenty of tatankas that were close to our car, grazing in the meadow ... I could photograph them with a natural setting as a backdrop.
We spent nearly ½-hour with the bison ... photographing and taking videos ... and just watching the interactions between the animals. Eventually, though, it was time to move on ... with another change in plans. As late as it now was, we figured, we’d best just enjoy Custer SP today instead of driving north to Hill City et al.
Continuing on SD-87 for a bit, we saw the sign for the Mount Coolidge Fire Tower, with an overlook promising some expansive scenery ... and the possibility of lunch with a view. The one-mile dirt road was easily negotiated. We arrived to only one other car in the parking lot. Excellent!
The tower, built of local stone, is one of the last projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps. We climbed up to the observation terrace, noting that there were indeed expansive views ... even very distant glimpses of the Crazy Horse Memorial and Mt Rushmore. Alas, the guy-wires securing the two massive antenna masts made it impossible to get any decent shots. We banked the memories in our grey-matter and returned to the car. By this time, several more cars had arrived and it was getting crowded. No shade area for a picnic, so time to move on.
Back on SD-87, which became the Needles Highway near Legion Lake, we continued our drive north. I had read quite a bit about this National Scenic Byway, which runs through Custer SP and is another one of the park’s major attractions.
At first, I couldn’t see what made it so special. It looked like any other road through pine and spruce trees ... lots of curves and slow speeds. But then we got into the “needles” and I could see the attraction of the road, which was completed in 1922. With the granite spires rising high into the sky, the scenery captured our imagination ... as it did the imagination of state historian Doane Robinson ... and eventually inspired the carving of the majestic monument at Mt Rushmore.
When we reached the Cathedral Spires Trailhead, we were tempted to do the hike. It was certainly cool enough to tackle a short but strenuous trail. But the tiny parking area right on a tight switchback was already filled. So we had to take a pass ... after finding a wide enough spot to park for a minute or two to take some photos. Then, we continued on, driving through the “Eye of the Needle” ... one of the two single-lane tunnels blasted out of the granite in order to make the highway a reality.
Next up, we continued on to Sylvan Lake for a picnic lunch and a walk around the lake to enjoy the scenery. Hah! We arrived to find it packed with visitors. That’s when our plans went awry.
It wasn’t that there was nowhere to park. We found a spot ... not once, but twice. It wasn’t the crowds so much ... though they were a slight deterrent since few were wearing masks, there was space to social-distance. It wasn’t that there wasn’t a picnic table to be had along the lake front ... we had our own portable table, after all. No, it was the wind and the temp that was dropping like a rock that was wreaking havoc with our plans. We’d been expecting the latter, but the strong winds — with some very stiff gusts that had the trees and the shoreline vegetation dancing — had not been forecasted.
We were just about to give up when we spotted a rickety picnic table on the slope behind the general store. It was hidden amongst the trees. There was just enough sunlight streaming through the canopy to keep us warm, and the bend in the hill deflected the wind. So, we snagged the table. We were at a steep enough angle that our water bottles would not stand upright, but we managed to eat our sandwiches without mishap.
It was after 2:30p when we left Sylvan Lake to return home. The wind was just too unpleasant ... and neither of us had a jacket to stay warm. We weren’t quite ready to call it a day, though. So, on our drive through Custer SP to get to the campground, we decided to detour by way of the Wildlife Loop again.
Yup, the herd was exactly where we had left it this morning. There was no one around for me to confirm, but I am guessing they are preparing for the annual round-up (this year on 25 September) by starting to corral the bison. Hence our lucky encounter finding the herd in the same place twice in one day. Regardless of the reason for them staying put, we stopped to enjoy the company of the tatankas for about an hour.
Once back on the Wildlife Loop, the only animals we encountered were the pronghorn and burros again. A few quick photos, and we were on our way back home, arriving around 6:00p. The day was not what we had planned, but it was a delightful one nonetheless. No complaints whatsoever.Read more