We were in South Dakota for 8 days (including travel). It’s refreshing to stay a bit longer in one place, after fast trips this year to Austin, Baltimore, and Costa Rica. I’d say a week for one area is fine, any less than that and it’s tough to not feel cramped. Of course, if you have longer than a week to explore an interesting place, you should absolutely go for it!
We spent a decent chunk of our time in Custer. Whether we stopped for a quick breakfast on the way to the lake, or drove through Custer State Park looking for the bison herds, it’s a town you’ll want to put on your South Dakota list too.
Custer serves as the namesake and county seat for the surrounding area. It’s a great town to wander through, and has a growing main street area. Custer makes a great home base for some of the natural wonders in the area, including Jewel Cave, Custer State Park, and the Black Hills themselves. Both the state park and the cave are easy to get to, and worth exploring.
Custer State Park
The State Park encompasses much of the area of Custer County, and is home to plenty of animals and scenery. You’ll find never-ending prairie dog towns to match the size of the grasslands, and herds of bison grazing right next to your car.
Custer State Park is organized loosely, and you’re welcome to drive through much of it on your own. If you’d like the upgraded experience, you can book a guided tour, but I recommend doing it the old fashioned way: Stop by a visitor’s center and ask the guides where to go. They’ll point you in the right direction, and usually have a good handle on where the bison herds are. If the herds are near the roads, the guides are more than happy to share the location. Be safe, and don’t get too close or antagonize the animals. Bison are beautiful creatures, and embody much of the classic midwest, but they are dangerous when angry or stressed out.
Sylvan Lake, in the northwest corner of Custer State Park, offers a great view and beautiful swimming. They have paddleboards and kayaks for rent, or feel free to bring your own. We made an afternoon of paddleboarding and hiking, as there are plenty of nice trails in the area surrounding the lake. If you’re up for it, pack some decent hiking boots and head out on the Sunday Gulch Trail to really get a feel for the park. Don’t worry, the bison don’t typically come up this far!
Jewel Cave National Monument is located off of Route 16, affectionately known as Mt. Rushmore Road. The tour of the cave will bring you down 400 feet into the earth, so that you truly get to experience one of the longest cave systems in the world. The tour is about an hour and half, and can get a little claustrophobic at times, so be prepared for some spelunking. Your guide will bring the group down and through the cave system, stopping to explain the different rock formations and some of the history of the cave. The entire walk takes place on metal walkways and stairs, but the flights of stairs can be somewhat steep. If you want a bit more adventure, you can sign up for a lantern tour or the caving tour, offering a historic perspective of spelunking or an underground adventure!
Tickets to all of the tours are sold on a first-come, first-serve basis, and can sell out my midday in the summer. I’d recommend planning something else in the area for the day, but get to Jewel Cave first to buy tickets. Once you have tickets for your time slot, go explore Custer or the State Park, then come back in time for your tour.
Pictures are tricky in the low light. I do have a few, but I’ll upload them when I get home. Unfortunately, I forgot to add them prior to posting! Stay tuned for an update in the next day or two.
A nice surprise for us, Custer has a growing restaurant scene – and we took full advantage of being there! Before heading to Sylvan Lake we snagged some breakfast at Baker’s Bakery & Cafe. Everything is fresh and most of it’s from nearby farms and ranches, definitely worth a stop! Try the breakfast burrito with the green chili sauce. Good portions and good food.
When you’re done with breakfast, wander out and explore some of the shops. There are a few “rock shops” where you can find interesting crystals, geodes, and fossils. Much of South Dakota was submerged under a prehistoric ocean during the Cretaceous Period. Now referred to as the Western Interior Seaway, the ocean covered a huge amount of what is now the midwestern United States, and essentially connected the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. So while you might be sweating in the high noon sun walking through town, don’t be surprised by the amazing number of trilobite, ammonite, and fish fossils in the stores.
You’ll see plenty of wild west style stores throughout Custer too. These cater to the tourists, and are fun to look around. Plenty of animal skins, cowboy boots, and toy slingshots. It’s a bit stereotypical, sure, but you might find something interesting to bring home!
Even if you’re not going to Custer, this will make you change your mind. Check out Skogen. The food is absolutely amazing, and the owners are wicked nice. They’re closed on Sunday nights and Mondays, so plan accordingly. Trust me, it’s worth it. Skogen would be right at home in any major city, and offers some really interesting menu items, total creativity is handed over to the kitchen here, and they really shine.
We stopped by for dinner on our way home one evening, and we genuinely enjoyed the meal. Sampling the appetizers, the Soft Egg Ravioli really stood out, and I opted for the Free Range Chicken afterwards. The restaurant absolutely warrants a shout out, and I highly recommend it. A bit more pricey than some other joints in town – worth it.
Honorable Mention: Pringle, SD
Pringle is one of those cliché midwestern towns – 100 people, and everybody knows each other. Stop by to check out the Hitchrail for a meal and a drink. It’s got that classic cowboy feel and the staff is friendly. The food is good, just midwest comfort food served at a good price with a cold beer. Time your visit close to sundown, and you’re sure to see deer on your way out of town. Doesn’t matter where you’re driving, you’ll see something in the pastures if you keep your eyes peeled. If you’re lucky, you might even catch some antelope or elk, but they’re harder to spot. Look in the woods for the deer and elk, out on the prairie for the antelope.
We lucked out seeing wildlife this trip! Plenty of deer, antelope, bison, prairie dogs, and we even caught a herd of elk at one point. They’re much larger, and much quieter than you might think. Truly majestic animals and it’s one of those moments that convinces me I need a better camera.
We spent a lot of time in Custer, and none of it felt like too much. It’s a neat spot, and there’s plenty to do in the area! If you’re planning a Black Hills trip, you’ll definitely find yourself driving through. I hope you do plan a trip, and stop in at some of the places I’ve suggested!