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Spotlight: Custer

The Gold Rush spirit lives on in this corner of the west

Whispers of the Black Hills Gold Rush still echo through the tiny creek-side town of Custer in sun-soaked South Dakota. With a population of fewer than 2,000 residents and surrounded by more than a million acres of undeveloped wilderness, Custer isn’t too far removed from its days as an rough-and-tumble outpost on the edge of the Wild, Wild West.

Even today, Custer’s single long main street appears just as if it’s been ripped from the reels of any classic western cowboy film. Part of the reason for that may be that the town dates directly back to the Wild West itself, when in 1874 gold was discovered in French Creek, which winds through the center of town. The discovery set off an otherwise illegal gold rush, as the Black Hills area was at that point still closed to white settlement. But with the promise of striking it rich, the restriction made no difference at all. Excited miners rushed in, led by Thomas Hooper. They drew a one-square-mile plot of land near the creek and just like that the town of Custer was born. Within one year, the population had swelled to more than 10,000 residents—five times the population of the town today.

The gold rush boom times ended when gold was discovered in the hills and backcountry near the town of Deadwood. That discovery dragged the bulk of panners and prospectors away, but the Wild West spirit (and aesthetic) seems to have lived on in earnest.



In the Center of It All

Today, visitors here will find themselves at the heart of a particularly attraction-filled portion of South Dakota. Rapid City, Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park and Buffalo Gap National Grassland all lie within easy reach and make for excellent day trips. Closer to Custer itself is Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument and the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs. Set aside plenty of time to explore abroad, but if you’re camped out in Custer, be sure to pay special attention to its own nearby slate of parks, attractions and museums.

Start at Custer State Park, located just three miles east of town. A herd of more than 1,300 wild bison roam the park’s rolling lowlands and fields, as well as mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk and even a friendly family of burros. Make sure you drive along the Needles Highway, which runs through the park and is so named because of the fantastic rock spires that soar into the sky in defiance of gravity.

Exploring the park is easy. The 18-mile-long Wildlife Loop Road offers a great orientation to the park and its wild denizens, while a robust network of hiking trails is available for more in-depth exploration. Most of the trails are leftover pathways from early pioneers, ranchers and loggers, but which are now frequented by hikers, mountain bikers, horse riders and rock climbers slinking between rock walls.

To the west, Jewel Cave National Monument is another must-visit. This is officially designated as the world’s second longest cave, with active explorers discovering new passageways each year. Park Rangers lead guided tours year-round. In the summer months, themed tours are offered, including the Historic Lantern Tour.

In a similar vein, 18 miles south of Custer is Wind Cave National Park, home of the fourth-longest cave in the world. As with Jewel Cave, guided tours below the surface to the cave’s honeycomb-like features are led by Park Rangers year-round.

Further south still, about 39 miles from the center of town, the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs is one of the most riveting attractions in the region. To date, the remains of 61 different woolly mammoths have been discovered here, and the area is still an active paleontological dig site. Visitors to the region can enjoy a 30-minute guided tour, access to an Ice Age museum exhibit and a stroll around the dig area at their leisure.

Ancient history and geological history aren’t the only highlights in the area for history buffs, however. A slew of family-friendly attractions beckon.

Two buffalo at Custer State Park, South Dakota, USA

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Standing Tall

The Crazy Horse Memorial, located just five miles north of Custer, is also home to the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Cultural Center. Here, just a short distance from the Presidential faces etched into the side of Mount Rushmore, guests can view the world’s largest in-progress mountain carving, topping out at a height of 563 feet.

Finally, for those travelling with small children, two wildly different attractions lies just a few miles southwest of Custer. The first, Four Mile Old West Town, is an open-air Wild West town featuring live re-enactments of gunslinging and gold-prospecting life on the edge of the western frontier. The other, Flintstones Bedrock City, is a combination theme park and campground that features all of the colorful characters, locations and aesthetics of the popular television cartoon series.

From its history as a town built in the wild pursuit of gold to its location in the heart of the Black Hills and Badlands region of South Dakota, Custer is a unique western-style township that begs to be visited and explored.

For More Information

Visit Custer
South Dakota Department of Tourism