Think the Wild West has been tamed? Think again. Custer, South Dakota, has preserved the unbridled frontier in all of its glory. Here you’ll find buffalo roaming the prairie, caves snaking into the mountains for miles and endless trails, reservoirs and attractions that will satisfy the adventure cravings of cowpokes young and old. Custer also is just a few minutes away from the Crazy Horse Memorial, the 563-foot statue-in-progress that honors the famed Oglala Lakota leader.
Planning a visit? Find Good Sam Parks in Custer.
The rugged beauty of America’s Badlands is on full display in Custer, South Dakota. Founded as a gold rush settlement in the 1870s, the small town today remembers its history with a summertime tribute to gold mining and also lays claim to having the widest Main Street in the United States.
The natural beauty of South Dakota is as prime attraction, and a visit to Custer State Park can’t be missed. Bison, elk, antelope and other wildlife roam freely throughout the park, which is home to one of the largest publicly owned bison herds in the world. The Buffalo Roundup in September is a must for fall visitors who find themselves in the Black Hills. Cowboys and cowgirls herd and drive more than 1,000 bison through the park, which stops traffic in a memorable way.
Take in the views on a smooth scenic drive over the state park’s Wildlife Loop Road. This 18-mile semicircle road runs through grasslands and pine-dotted hills. Late evening and early morning are prime wildlife viewing times, but the sights from this paved road are enjoyable any time of day.
On foot, take the one-way Cathedral Spires Hiking Trail for a mile and a half, and you’ll find along the way the Cathedral Spires, a range of weather-worn rock that looks out over the Black Hills. The Badger Clark Historic Trail winds around Badger Hole, the historic cabin home of South Dakota poet laureate David Allan Evans.
Hit the Saddle
What men and wheels can’t access, horses often can—horseback riding through the park brings visitors even closer to the wild beauty of the Black Hills. Horseback rides can be as short as one hour, or they can be made into daylong excursions.
Just a short drive from Custer State Park lies Jewel Cave National Monument, discovered in 1900 by explorers who marveled at the cave’s sparkling calcite on the walls. More than 144 miles of cave have been mapped since the 1950s, and today still there are new additions being discovered at a rate of no less than three miles a year. Lantern tours and spelunking expeditions are offered in the summer, while scenic and educational tours can be had year round.
Black Hills National Forest is home to more natural wonders and historic spots worth seeing. Mount Roosevelt Picnic Area boasts a friendship tower as its centerpiece. The tower was built by legendary Deadwood sheriff Seth Bullock as a dedication to his longtime friend, President Theodore Roosevelt. From the picnic area, visitors enjoy views of the open spaces that make up Black Hills National Forest.
Recreation opportunities are abundant at Black Hills, including watersports like boating, scuba diving, swimming and windsurfing. The forest has 11 reservoirs suited to various activities as well as marinas at Pactola Reservoir and Sheridan Lake that offer slip and boat rentals.
The Spirit of Custer
The town of Custer may be small, but its spirit is larger than life. History lives on at the 1881 Courthouse Museum, which delves into the history of settlements in the Black Hills, beginning with General George Custer’s 1874 expedition. Exhibits show what it was like to live and work in South Dakota just after the close of the Civil War.
Learn more about the Old West way of life at the Four Mile Old West Town in Custer. From mid-May to early October, scuffle down dusty streets between wooden buildings and mosey into a saloon to see a poker game in action. Or visit a woodworking shop or the town jail. The town is made up of 50 furnished buildings that illustrate how early residents lived and worked.
The arts have an equally important place in Custer, and Black Hills Playhouse brings classic favorites and hidden gems to the stage every May through August. Illusion and mystery come to life at the Grand Magic Show in Custer. Audiences delight at demonstrations of magic and tricks that seem too good to be true, providing the feel of a Vegas production in a classic theater setting.
Where trees are abundant, artists will find inspiration for their creativity. The National Museum of Woodcarving showcases the work of creative carvers who brought simple pieces of pine to life. The museum’s centerpiece may well be the life and work of one of Disneyland’s original character animators. Resident and guest artists also come to the museum to use the carving studio, and put their finished pieces on display for guests to enjoy.