Towering granite formations, rivers so rich they once started a Gold Rush, and pine forests so thick the hillsides look black from a distance, you won’t want to be without a camera in South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest. The wildlife is plentiful, too—thousands of free-roaming buffalo, spry pronghorns, shaggy bighorn sheep, and even shy prairie dogs. To experience it all, head to the second largest state park in the country— Custer State Park.
Although several routes lead to Custer, two are especially scenic and almost as rewarding as the park itself. Iron Mountain Road (US 16A) enters the northeastern part of the park and provides grand vistas of the Black Hills’ rough-hewn peaks and profuse pine forests. The road is also 17 paved miles of hairpin curves, “pigtails” (unusual bridges that double back on themselves in a curlicue shape), and square rock tunnels that perfectly frame the landscape. An alternative is to use the Needles Highway (State Route 87) instead. The less narrow 14-mile road enters the northwestern portion of the park through thick aspen, birch, and spruce trees back-dropped by pointy rocky spires (hence the name Needles Highway). Both corridors top any traveler’s list of scenic American drives!
While less famous than neighboring Mount Rushmore National Memorial 20 miles to the north, Custer State Park has its own claim to fame—the infamous “begging burros.” More than likely you’ll encounter them holding up traffic in hopes of a handout. These unofficial long-eared park ambassadors are actually feral descendants of a herd of burros that were used by the park in the 1920s to give trail rides up to 7,242-foot Harney Peak, the highest point in the Black Hills. Much more tame than wild, the friendly burros often block the road, but are harmless and a toot of the horn will move them out of the way. If you have time, do stop and share an apple or two. They won’t bite the hand that feeds them and you’re sure to get some fun photos!
If you like your wildlife more on the wild side, you won’t be disappointed when you drive the park’s paved 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road, which is covered in part 2. So don’t throw on the motorhome cover just yet, there are plenty of fun fall destinations ahead!
Custer State Park 13329 US Hwy 16A Custer, SD 57730
Park Headquarters (605) 255-4515
Park entrance fees are good for 7 days: $6 per person or $15 per vehicle
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In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith is also a treasure hunter and loves a good latté. She and her husband own an online gold prospecting and metal detecting equipment store found at GoldRushTradingPost.com