Black Hills, South Dakota

Custer State Park - Black Hills, SD

Sylvan Lake

Black Hills, SD is a must see! We spent the week in Custer State Park and did a combination of hikes off the beaten path, as well as popular tourist sites, like Mount Rushmore.

Blue Bell Campground in Custer State Park

Normally Custer State Park doesn't open until May, but they opened Blue Bell Campground a week early, so we lucked out. This campground has electric hook ups and there was potable water in the campground and a very well maintained restroom. Each site has a fire ring, which we used every night. S'mores taste incredible after a full day of working and hiking. The campground store opened the day before we left, just in time so we could purchase souvenirs.

Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park

On our first morning in Custer, we woke up early to drive along the scenic 18 mile Wildlife Loop Road. The road was blocked off and we quickly learned why – the horses used for trail riding in Blue Bell were being moved into the stables from another area. Seeing a stampede of horses was not a bad start to the wildlife loop. Further down the loop we were rewarded with a surprise – bison calves. The female bison had calved recently, so there were calves safely tucked next to their mother’s side all along the loop. We also saw bighorn sheep, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and pronghorns.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park

Sylvan Lake is one of the coolest places we have ever hiked. When we were there half of it was melted and the other half was covered in snow and ice. It is only 1.1 miles around, but it felt like we traveled through multiple different worlds on this short loop. We were treated to a dam, huge rocks you could climb, a partially frozen lake, and the remains of a snowman. You might recognize it from the movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets.

Giant gray rock in Sylvan LakeMelting snowman at Sylvan LakeWooden dock frozen in the ice at Sylvan Lake

Black Elk Peak in Custer State Park

This hike was as breathtaking as Sylvan Lake, but much longer and much more challenging. At over 7,200 ft in elevation, Black Elk Peak is the highest natural point in South Dakota and is the highest peak east of the Rockies. The trail is a 7.1 mile loop and has 1,469 feet of elevation gain. We only saw a few other people hiking on segments of the trail, but none anywhere near the summit. The parts of the trail in the shadows of the mountains were still covered in snow and ice and we needed our YakTrax to safely traverse those parts of the trail. Near the top of the trail we startled a deer who cautiously eyed us up and then went running into the safety of the trees. We were proud of ourselves for reaching the trail summit, which has an old stone fire lookout tower and offers 360 degree views.

Bryan and Shelly on top of Black Elk PeakSnowy rock on Black Elk PeakBlack Elk Peak panoramic

At the bottom of the trail we learned about the mountain pine beetle infestation. Many trees have been removed to stop the beetle life cycle and many trees have died. We later learned that Custer State Park is very strict about not bringing firewood into the park from other states in an effort to prevent any other invasive species entering the park.

Warning about the dangers of Pine Beetles

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Approach to Mt. Rushmore

We visited Mount Rushmore right as the sun was setting, so we could see it in the sunlight and lit up at night. The cell service is great, so we FaceTimed with my parents to share this experience with them. Maybe one day they will figure out the camera.

Papa Joe and Mama Waz figure out FaceTime

That's all fun and games, but are we actually working?

Yes! We've got to work to pay those bills and student debt! We use Campendium to help us find sites with good cell signal, since we use our phones as a hot spot. Blue Bell Campground had a good signal, but there were some sites in the park with an even better signal and an incredible view. Custer State Park also has sheep with cell boosters on their necks to help increase the signal all over the park...

Bryan hard at work in the woods
Big horn sheep with a tracking device around its' neck

JK! That is a tracking device, but you probably thought about that for a second.