Nine days in Custer, South Dakota…
Why we came…
To explore the Black Hills, hunt for morel mushrooms, and take care of a few responsibilities.
We arrived just before the storm hit!
The trailer’s first time in South Dakota, but we couldn’t add the sticker due to ice! / Finally adding the sticker
Custer’s Gulch RV Park is excellent! The sites are huge and spread across the open gulch. Mature ponderosa pines ring the campground and may block satellite in some sites. Verizon 4G was spotty throughout the campground, but was fairly reliable in our spot. Wi-fi was fast and reliable and the facilities were well maintained. A paved trail even passes the campground and routes to Custer three miles to the west and Stockade Lake a little more than a mile to the east. It was also cool to that think General Custer and his men camped in the same spot in 1874.
Custer’s Gulch in 1874
Our goose friends at Custer’s Gulch / “We left Canada to get away from the snow!”
See our goose friends? We got 8 inches of snow!
We made a six and a half foot tall snowman on 10 May. It was gone just three days later.
Custer, population 2,067 and elevation 5,315 feet, is a tourist town. There is a good selection of restaurants, gotcha shops, and places to stay. In fact, the area has a plethora of good RV parks that fill up during summer. There are a couple of small grocery stores. If you can’t find something in Custer, Rapid City is about an hour’s drive to the northeast. There is a lot to do. Mount Rushmore, Jewel Caves National Monument, Wind Cave National Park, and the Crazy Horse Memorial are all within 25 miles of Custer. There is also plenty of fishing, hiking, and geocaching…it’s an outdoors paradise!
Custer, South Dakota on 11 May 2015
Searching for our first South Dakota geocache on 10 May 2015 / Heading up to the second geocache
Geocache adventure in the snow on 10 May…
Due to bad roads we didn’t want to drive so we did a geocache adventure right from the campground. Both caches required a bit of a climb through rocky areas. We had to be very careful navigating the snow-covered granite boulders. The snow made it difficult to spot the caches but we found them with a little digging. The second geocache was placed on a rocky point where General Custer’s photographer took pictures of their camp in 1874.
Posing above Custer’s Gulch on 10 May 2015 / Same spot but different angle in 1874
A hike to the top of Big Rock Trail for a geocache on 11 May 2015 / Keep an eye on the icicle!
Geocache adventure and time with friends on 11 May…
I wanted a picture of the town of Custer covered in snow. I checked some maps and noticed a geocache near the top of the hill just south of town…perfect! The area is called “Big Rock Park” and there is a nice trail to the top.
The snow was shin deep in a few places, but it was very pretty and peaceful. A tempting disc golf course paralleled the trail, snaking its way beneath tall ponderosa pines and up the hill. We found the geocache at the base of the stairs that make the final climb to the top. The view was fantastic…Custer and the surrounding Black Hills were draped in snow (the picture is above).
We rushed down the hill and headed to Mount Rushmore to meet friends. Arleen worked with Mike in Alaska and became friends with his family, Lisa and Sam. A few years later all of us ended up in Germany. Now, eight years later, we got caught up on each other’s lives and shared stories while in the shadow of one of America’s greatest monuments and also during a nice lunch. Mike, Lisa, and Sam are great people. Hopefully our paths cross again somewhere down the road!
Mike, Sam, and Lisa on 11 May 2015 / The same spot before 1927
Hike route near Sylvan Lake and Little Devils Tower / Tough hike in deep slushy snow
On 12 May we hiked in Custer State Park…
Sylvan Lake, in Custer State Park, is rimmed by rugged Back Hills granite…it’s very pretty. A well-maintained trail circles the lake with multiple spur trails providing miles of adventure in otherworldly terrain. Rock formations jut hundreds of feet straight up and are popular with climbers. It was cool to watch two of the daredevils conquer a high spire.
Our next goal was Little Devils Tower, about two miles away. For awhile there was only a couple of foot prints in the shin, sometimes knee deep, slushy snow. The trail slowly climbed and the sloppy conditions resulted in slow going. About half way up, the previous tracks stopped and it was up to us to break trail.
I led and tried to make short steps to ease Arleen’s progress. I often post-holed, sometimes to mid-thigh…it was TOUGH. We crested the saddle where the trail splits and were treated to an outstanding view. We could see the vast plains to the southeast, the jagged Cathedral Spires to the northeast, the top of the Little Devils Tower to the north, and the wooded Black Hills in every other direction. We didn’t stick around long. We were soaked below the knees, whipped, and eagerly headed back.
Aerial view of Sylvan Lake / Look familiar? Check out the movie “National Treasure: Book of Secrets”
Being silly near Sylvan Lake
Two rock climbers / The fire tower on Harney Peak…South Dakota’s highest point at 7,242 feet
A vein of colorful quartz / The Cathedral Spires
Bison at Wind Cave National Park on 13 May 2015
Wind Cave National Park was established in 1930, the eighth national park…
“While Wind Cave is the major attraction with its unique boxwork and significant underground cave passageways, the surface resources, including both natural and cultural resources, are also worth a stop. The buildings around the visitor center date back to the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps. The wildlife such as bison, elk, mule deer, pronghorn, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets are also exciting to view.”
We drove south down highway 87, along the northwest border of the park. We were surprised at all of the wildlife. First we saw some deer, then a couple of pronghorns, a group of bull elk in full velvet, some turkeys, a few lady elk, hundreds of prairie dogs, and then hundreds of bison. Parts of Yellowstone National Park have been called “America’s Serengeti”. That would also be appropriate for Wind Cave National Park!
We were eager for a tour inside the historic cave. There is a maze of over 143 miles of underground tunnels and caverns. We signed up for the “Natural Entrance Tour” that lasted a little more than an hour to explore just 3/4 mile of the vast cave. At the cave’s natural entrance, we saw air flowing lightly into the cave. Pending the air pressure outside, air can rush into or out of the cave at over 30mph!
The cave is known for its boxwork. This interesting formation is rare except for in Wind Cave which has more than all other caves combined!
We enjoyed learning the history of the cave and the early exploration. You couldn’t pay us enough to crawl through tight unknown spaces while relying on candles! And those candles could be extinguished anytime by burps of air flowing through the tunnels…no thanks! Amazingly, a bunch of folks still jump at the opportunity to discover new passageways and add new routes to the map.
Ranger Taylor explaining the map of Wind Cave / The original gateway into the cave
Ranger Taylor and Arleen in the Wind Cave. The formation above them is called “Boxwork”.
Elk / Prairie dog
“Don’t you want to get with this?!?”
The Mammoth Site …
After exploring Wind Cave National Park, we drove another 15 miles south to the town of Hot Springs to see The Mammoth Site, “an active paleontological dig site, which boasts the largest concentration of mammoth remains in the world!”
To date, 61 mammoths have been identified: 58 North American Columbian mammoths and 3 woolly mammoths. It’s the first time both species have been found together. Fossils of other Ice Age animals have also been discovered: camel, llama, giant short-faced bear, wolf, coyote and prairie dog to name a few. Imprint fossils of bird feathers, complete fish skeletons, and thousands of mollusk shells have also been recovered from this now-dry 26,000 year old sinkhole.
The tour was great! Our guide, a paleontology intern, eagerly shared her extensive knowledge. Many of the bones and other remains have been left in place. We learned about the excavation process and how everything is preserved. There are also multiple programs for volunteers and classes for various ages. We really enjoyed the tour and exhibits. If in the Black Hills, put this on your must-see list!
The shallow end of the sink hole
The deep end of the sink hole
Stamping her National Parks Passport book at Jewel Cave National Monument / Cool formations in Jewel Cave
“With over 177 miles of mapped and surveyed passages, this underground wilderness appeals to human curiosity. Its splendor is revealed through fragile formations and glimpses of brilliant color. Its maze of passages lure explorers, and its scientific wealth remains a mystery.”
We signed up for the one hour and twenty minute long “Scenic Tour”. We slowly made our way along a half mile loop and enjoyed the cave formations and surprising array of colors. Ranger Dan shared interesting stories, information, and answered questions.
We liked Jewel Cave more than Wind Cave. Jewel Cave had more formations, more color, and bigger caverns. To be fair, we only saw a very small percentage of each cave. It’s likely that the caves are quite similar and may even meet someday.
An interesting side note: Even though over a hundred miles have been mapped for each cave, that’s all under just a few a square miles of the earth’s surface!
Various formations in Jewel Cave
Looking for morel mushrooms in a burn area in the Black Hills
Mushroom hunting and ticks …
Our research showed that morels can be found in the Black Hills in May. We were optimistic until 8-18 inches of snow blanketed the area. The moisture is good for the shrooms, but the cold isn’t. Morels wait for warmer soil to sprout so a blanket of snow keeps the soil cold and delays the crop.
We headed out anyway. We walked miles along creek beds and through burn areas and struck out. It was peaceful though. We were on back roads and all alone…we had the Black Hills to ourselves!
Early in the foray, I spotted a tick crawling on Arleen’s pants. That should have been a clue! Later that night, Arleen felt something on her scalp. Sure enough, it was a tick trying to burrow into her skull! I slowly pulled it out with tweezers and then dropped it. We looked carefully on the floor with flashlights and didn’t spot the diseased ridden parasite. I checked Arleen’s head and spotted the little bastard crawling around. It was dispatched immediately…we hate ticks!
The snow screwed up our mushroom hunting. In our minds morels are going to pop up everywhere right after we leave! Oh well. We got some good exercise and saw parts of the Black Hills that most people miss.
We hunted for morels along the edges of this large, pretty meadow
We are South Dakota residents and must return every five years for a new driver’s license. The last time we visited we were still in the military! It’s amazing how our lives have changed. Since then, we’ve had a ton of great adventures and look forward to many more!
Sep 2010 / May 2015
We will spend five days fishing the North Platte River south of Casper, Wyoming. And after that we will spend five days near Walden, in Colorado’s North Park.
Spring flowers poking through the snow / Driving through the Black Hills
I’m a pronghorn! / Like my mammoth molars?
Just a few of the interesting things we saw while mushroom hunting