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Custer State Park

By Mark Jags

So you want to ride to the Black Hills of South Dakota for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, but you’re not really interested in dealing with all the noise, congestion and expense of the rally’s namesake city. Do you want to stay in a location that offers a quiet respite after spending a long, hot day taking in the rally sights or logging a few hundred miles on the bike? Custer State Park could be that place. It’s quiet, beautiful and affordable. It’s also a good jumping-off point to many locations popular during the rally.

Custer State Park is a 71,000-acre park located about 43 miles southwest of Rapid City and about 72 miles from Sturgis. While this might seem like a long way from the heart of the rally, you’ll quickly learn that many of the locations of interest are some distance from each other. But the plus side of this is you get to ride on some really beautiful roads through the Black Hills. And that’s a big attraction for most of the riders coming to the area for the event.

Beware of the buffalo roadblocks in Custer State Park

Beware of the buffalo roadblocks in Custer State Park

Whether you’re a camper or strictly a hotel person, Custer State Park has accommodations to fit your style. I personally like to camp, and there are seven campgrounds spread throughout the park. The campsites range from $18 a night for nonelectric to $24 for electric sites. This year I decided to go for a more luxurious experience, so I rented a camping cabin for $47 a night. These cabins, which have electricity, heat, air conditioning and bunk beds, are located in only three of the seven campgrounds and their numbers are limited, so if you want one, you have to reserve early. Bathrooms and shower facilities at the campgrounds are clean and well maintained. If you prefer not to camp, hotel rooms are available at the State Game Lodge, Sylvan Lake Lodge and the Blue Bell Lodge. Rates start at about $115 a night.

Cabins in Custer State Park come with electricity, air conditioning and bunk beds, and will run you just $47 per night

Cabins in Custer State Park come with electricity, air conditioning and bunk beds, and will run you just $47 per night

Without a doubt, the biggest attraction at the park is its herd of North American bison. As many as 1,500 of these large beasts roam freely throughout the park and it’s always a thrill to see them when you’re cruising down the main park road (Route 16A) or the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. You’re likely to also see pronghorns, burros, prairie dogs and plenty of white-tailed deer. The park is also host to mountain goats, bighorn sheep, mountain lion and elk, though they are not seen as often.

From Custer State Park you can get onto the Iron Mountain Road, which takes you from the park to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial (about 20 miles). This ride is a must, as it winds through the magnificent Black Hills scenery with tunnels, hairpin turns and pigtail bridges. Also accessed from the park is the Needles Highway, a 14-mile road through pine and spruce forests, meadows and granite mountains. The highlight of this road is riding through the “Needle’s Eye,” an opening in a needle-like granite formation that’s barely wide enough to fit a car. It’s a popular spot where many tourists stop to take photos of the beautiful rock formations, as well as cars squeezing their way through the needle.

The city of Custer is just a short drive from the park and is the principal location to get your groceries, gas and supplies. Even though the population of Custer is only 1,860, there is a good selection of bars, restaurants and shops in town. From Custer you can join Route 385, which takes you north past the Crazy Horse Monument on your way to Hill City, Lead, Deadwood and, finally, Sturgis.

Locals in period costumes welcome visitors to the annual Custer Cruisin' event

Locals in period costumes welcome visitors to the annual Custer Cruisin’ event

As an added bonus during rally week, the city of Custer rolls out the red carpet for riders and hosts the Custer Cruisin’ event. For 10 days the city sets up special motorcycle parking down the middle of its main street, Mt. Rushmore Road, to accommodate the many two-wheeled visitors while vendors promote their offerings on adjacent side streets. Music is piped into the streets to give the event a festive feeling. New this year was the first annual Vintage Motorcycle Show for all makes 1980 and older. We got the chance to see some beautifully restored Japanese, Italian, British and German bikes. And of course there were a handful of Harleys and a few Indians thrown into the mix. The show wasn’t very big, being the first year, but the quality of the bikes entered was fantastic. A favorite of mine was a 1953 Harley-Davidson Model KHK brought in from Rochester, New York, by owner Dan Drexel who also brought his 1977 Sportster XLH. In addition to the bike show, the 14th annual Mayor’s Ride and the annual Veterans’ Appreciation Ride and ceremony also took place during the event.

Dan Drexel with his 153 H-D KHK at the Custer Cruisin' Vintage Bike Show

Dan Drexel with his 153 H-D KHK at the Custer Cruisin’ Vintage Bike Show

Back in the park it’s easy to find a good meal when the day’s hunger starts to set in. This year I decided to try the Buffalo Cookout at the Coolidge General Store. Each year during rally week the park hosts a daily cookout of buffalo burgers and brats in three locations. It’s a very popular place to stop for a quick bite to eat where you can get a burger, chips and a beer for about 10 bucks. But if you want someplace a little more formal, sit-down dining is available at any of the park’s four main lodges, all boasting charmingly rustic restaurants.

As those who have been there know, the Black Hills of South Dakota is a special place, whether you’re there during the rally or at any other time. I will keep returning to Custer State Park when the Hills call, and will again enjoy the scenic beauty and peaceful tranquility of this magical place. Like a trusty horse knows the way home, my Sportster will lead me there again to create more memories of the park and the Sturgis Rally.

 

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