Custer State Park, SD

custer-state-park1Tuesday morning I arose not-so-early to set out on my latest adventure – Custer State Park.

This day trip had been a week in the making. I’d originally intended to go the week before, but had a surprise seminar about good customer service set upon me. It’s not something I had signed up for myself, but my supervisors had signed me up for it, gee thanks guys.

custer-state-park3Making full use of my $35 a week meal plan I didn’t depart until after eating an early lunch at 11:00 ish. Custer State Park is around two and a half hours away from the Badlands, so I really only spent half a day there. That doesn’t bother me much though, because there is no rush to see it all, I’ll be here all summer.

You would think that for such a popular tourist destination gas wouldn’t be so difficult to find around here, but it often is. I arrived at Custer with just under a fourth of a tank remaining, and a quick look at my google maps iphone app showed that I would need to drive all the way to Custer across the park to fill up. Maybe I’m just spoiled by having grown up and lived east of the Mississippi where population densities are much higher and thus amenities like gas stations are too.


Custer State Park costs $15 to get into for a passenger vehicle, for everyone inside. The pass is good for seven days, and I could easily see spending more than one day here given the time.

As I drove to the other side of the park, my opinion of the place kept going up. The Black Hills area is gorgeous. Perhaps the lack of trees for over a month could be swaying my opinion, but think even coming here straight from Georgia or my home in Wisconsin I would have found it beautiful.

Several kinds of pine trees are easy to find here, as are what look like aspen, oak, and maple. The deciduous trees are still in the process of getting their leaves in and like near the Badlands everything is green and growing. Large boulders and rock formations rise up out of the forest on the northern end of the park, very different from the sloping clay faces of the Badlands. It amazes me how these two vastly different geological zones reside so close to each other. When I was coming into the park there was almost literally a line where the prairie ended and the hills started.


The novelty and natural beauty were somewhat hampered though by the slight but possible chance that I’d run out of gas before reaching Custer, and so I didn’t linger in my eastward push.

The town of Custer has a soundtrack. All along the main street speakers attached to the streetlights play country music to the tourists. It’s smaller than I was expecting. Then again, Wall is about the same size, and serves the same function – a place for travelers visiting the parks to fuel up their vehicles and themselves and find a place to sleep.

custer-state-park6At the pump, I’m confronted with a surprise. Regular gas is not only 20 cents more expensive than the plus, I’ve run into that out west a few times before, it’s also only got an octane rating of 85. I seem to recall that Bertha needs 87 so I look up in my manual and am proven correct. At this gas station, the Plus has a rating of 87, it’s a good thing I looked at those numbers before I started pumping. I also saved myself some money.

Right across the street from the gas station is a rickety old building, much older looking that the rest of the trendy little storefronts. I wander over for a peek and discover that it’s the oldest standing building in the black hills area, some military general’s cottage built before the conflict with the Native Americans had really started. It’s now been made into a tiny museum furnished with period household items. I snap a few pictures, and then it’s back into the park.

custer-state-park7Time is limited. I could head to the southern end to see the buffalo herds, but I’ve already seen them at the Badlands so it isn’t as pressing a need to me. I stop at the first little lake I find because all of them I passed during the rush for gas were so picturesque looking. With my limited time I decide to try to find and photograph the prettiest lake in the park.

Inside the map I was given on the way in is a picture of Sylvan Lake, located along the northern boarder. The rock formations along the shore are fantastic looking in the photo, and more elaborate than any of the lakes I’d passed on the way in. Seems like a good place to start.

I was expecting to do a bunch of driving through hills and forest to get to the lake, more of what I’d already seen. I definitely was not expecting the drive along what I learned was called Needles Highway.

Humps of rock quickly become rocky cliff faces, and then peaks that rise up above the forest, eroded by time and weather into natural columns and spires – hence the name Needles. The hills grow as I continue heading north, but it isn’t until I reach a break in the trees at an overlook that I realize just how far up I’ve gone in elevation. To me these aren’t hills, these are mountains! It’s also taking me a lot longer to drive it then I thought it would, I’m unlikely to make it to any of the other lakes in fact, but it hardly matters to me at this point.


My poor phone camera can’t catch a break. There’s a silly grin on my face that just won’t go away. I live for moments like this, when nature catches me off guard and my expectations are exceeded in every possible way. How could I not have heard of Needles Highway before, this drive is amazing. My family must have taken it when we went on that road trip all those years ago, but I don’t remember it. Bertha slides through narrow one lane tunnels carved into the rock on three different occasions, and every time I find a beautiful vista waiting for me on the other side.

Once I emerge from the last narrow passage, which has a width of 8′ 4″, I’m staring at the needle, a rock formation that truly looks like a sewing needle, eye hole and all. There are several hiking trails around and I’d love to spend hours hiking them, but sadly my time is limited.

By the time I make it to Sylvan Lake, the level of prettiness on display hardly matters. Like with most of life, the destination turns out to matter far less than the journey did. I snap a few photos of what is admittedly a very nice looking lake, and then it’s time to head back to the Badlands, for now.


See, the pass is good for seven days, and that seventh day happens to be tomorrow, my next day off. And there are hiking trails out there, begging to be walked.

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  1. Mike Goad on April 15, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    There is a great little trail that goes around Sylvan Lake, including on the other side of the rocks that help dam the lake.

    We were surprised a while back to recognize the lake in a movie, “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” starring Nicolas Cage.

    I’m envious of your time in Badlands. We’ve had two short visits to the Badlands, staying there one night in a small trailer on our way home from Yellowstone and the Tetons when our kids were teens.
    Mike Goad recently posted..Reminder of the BadlandsMy Profile

    • Becky on April 17, 2014 at 2:33 pm

      Hehe, I’ll keep that in mind next time I get out that way Mike. I hope you have a chance to visit the Badlands again, hopefully for longer than a night. It’s such a neat place.

  2. Smitty on June 17, 2013 at 10:44 pm

    We had a good time at Custer a few years ago, have to go back to see the Badlands. If you go back to Custer, be sure to take some apples, and take the loop road. There should be a big Buffalo herd in the meadows along the road. The apples are for the wild herd of Burro’s along side the road lined up for the tourists. Watch out though, they aren’t afraid to get in the car to get an apple! In the fall there is a Buffalo roundup that you can sign up to help with. They thin and vaccinate the herd for winter.

    • Becky on June 18, 2013 at 12:14 pm

      Heya Smitty,

      I’ll keep in mind what you said about apples! And yes the roundup is going to be in September, I already have plans to attend with coworkers. 🙂

  3. Ron on June 13, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    Hi Becky,

    I’m going to be in the Badlands on June 18 & 19 at the Rafter J campground. This is the 2nd and 3rd nights out from home on my 3 month tour of the northwest National Parks. Of course, I’m staying in my 2009 Casita 17′ SD.

    I assume I am very close to where you are working at the gift shop and want to drop in and say HI. Are you near Hill City?

    I’ve been following your blog since before you left home the first time. I think it was about the time you learned to use a rivet gun.

    Looking forward to meeting you.

    Ron Hutchison

    • Becky on June 14, 2013 at 9:22 pm

      Heya Ron,

      Nope Hill City is actually a ways away. It looks like Rafter J Ranch is near Rushmore/Crazy Horse/Custer, which is a good 2 hours West from the Badlands and where I’m at. If you stop by on your way out there, I’m off Tuesday and working the evening shift on Wednesday. Just let me know when you know a little better.

      Either way, I hope you have a great trip, it’s always nice seeing other Casitas on the road!

  4. Lee on June 13, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    We only got to drive through this state park as well. I was impressed too. We hiked around that little lake & after seeing your image, I wonder why I didn’t take one myself.

    Isn’t the whole “soundtrack to your life” phenomenon strange? Whether it’s at a gas station, a shopping mall or main street, it’s just weird and a little intrusive. And usually it’s a pretty crappy soundtrack. I’ll pick my own tunes, thanks.
    Lee recently posted..Dora the ExplorerMy Profile

    • Becky on June 14, 2013 at 9:16 pm

      Glad you got a chance to see it Lee, it really was something. 🙂

  5. Dennis Smith on June 12, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    SD not ND

  6. Dennis Smith on June 12, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Next time you’re at Sylvan Lake climb Harney Peak the highest in ND. The trail starts right there at the lake. Beautiful hike and you get to see the back side of Mt. Rushmore. And you will be the highest person in ND when your at the top.

    • Becky on June 12, 2013 at 1:58 pm

      Wasn’t time for that this time Dennis, but I’ll keep it in mind for next time. 🙂

  7. Marsha on June 10, 2013 at 9:57 pm

    You may want to check but I believe the mid-grade fuel contains ethanol, which is why it is cheaper.

    • Becky on June 11, 2013 at 3:26 pm

      Yeah the mid-grade had 10% ethanol which the regular did not, but in SC and GA the regular fuel had 10% ethanol too, why does every state have to do it a little different? Confuses us poor non-car people. 😛

  8. Pleinguy on June 10, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    Concerning octane rating; I believe as you rise in elevation less octane is needed, hence regular becomes 85, but function like 87 down lower. Nice that you were able to get the mid-grade for less though; can’t hurt to use it.

    Guess I can’t take my rig on the Needles. I’d have a tough time fitting my 8’3″ wide rig through that last tunnel.
    Pleinguy recently posted..The Last WeekMy Profile

    • Becky on June 11, 2013 at 3:25 pm

      Huh, I didn’t know that Plein. The way I saw it is the mid-grade had the same octane rating as the regular I usually use so I figured that was the way to go. And yeah, park the rig before taking the Needles drive for sure. 🙂

      • Wayne from PA on June 15, 2013 at 10:59 am

        Pleinguy was correct…you will find “out west” at higher elevations that the octane rating is a couple of points lower for each grade of gasoline because you need less octane at higher altitude. Also, your regular there was probably “pure gas” without ethane, while the Plus grade probably had 10% ethane. As far as why, it depends on state laws and subsidies. Small engines (like lawn mowers, chain saws, etc.) use regular but really don’t like ethane. So some states (and even some counties, where counties have that much power) require that regular gas be ethane free. Also, some states subsidize ethane production (since it is usually produced by local farmers through a co-op) as part of their farm program, making gasoline that contains ethane less expensive. You have to check the price and octane rating every time you get gas…it changes from one place to another.

        So, there’s probably more about the gasoline market than you ever wanted to know…lol

  9. Rob Bryant on June 10, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    stick with the plus gas. It runs cleaner and your cost per mile will be less. Track it some time $ spent divided by miles traveled . U will go many more miles plugs stay cleaner and oil stays cleaner not to forget cleaner fuel injection as well. Try adding a fuel injection cleaner to the tank every time u change the oil. And yes u are causing unnecessary wear on the engine when u hear the ping.
    Cheers rob

    • Becky on June 11, 2013 at 3:24 pm

      I can tell you’re a real car person Rob, much more up on stuff than I am. But my truck’s manual specifically says to stick with regular 87 octane fuel and using higher won’t improve performance, so that’s what I do. If I run into a problem, at least I can point to the manual and say I was doing what I was told.

  10. Lawrence on June 10, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    Live in Nebraska. Have been to the Black Hills many times. A beautiful area. Curious why you bought a 7 day pass rather than a yearly pass good for all the SD State Parks.. May be cheaper in the end. Enjoy your writings.

    • Becky on June 11, 2013 at 3:22 pm

      Such an option wasn’t offered to me when I went through the gate, they just said the pass was $15 and good for 7 days so that’s what I did. Oh well, doesn’t matter much now. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  11. Jim@HiTek on June 10, 2013 at 11:09 am

    Strange their Plus would be $0.20 less then the regular. But, strange things happen in small towns. Never hurts to save a little money.

    BTW, it would not hurt your engine at all to run regular. The manufacturer might suggest or recommend Plus fuel, but all you’d notice if you ran regular would be a slight pinging. Usually only on hills. Wouldn’t hurt the engine at all. Most people run 3-4 tanks of regular and then one tank of Plus. Sometimes people always run regular and use Plus only if they hear pinging.

    I just happen to be in Needles, California right now. But I don’t think they have a Needle Rock formation here. What they do have it HEAT. It was 97°F all night. My poor A/C is having a time trying to stay ahead of the heat.

    Great pictures and write up!
    Jim@HiTek recently posted..Visit to the museum…My Profile

    • Becky on June 11, 2013 at 3:21 pm

      Well my truck’s manual says stick with regular 87 octane fuel so that’s always what I’ve done. This is the first time I’ve gassed up at a place where the regular wasn’t 87 so it threw me for a loop. The plus was rated at 87, so that’s what I went with.

      Eeep, sorry to hear about the heat, it got up to a high of 90 here yesterday and 85 today, but it’s still being reasonable at night. 🙂 Sounds like it could really get hot here though in the heart of summer, over 110 happens.

      • Jim@HiTek on June 11, 2013 at 4:16 pm

        They were predicting 118F for yesterday so I got out of town quick. Down (or rather – across the desert due west from Needles) in Rosamond where its only 94 today.

        • Becky on June 12, 2013 at 1:57 pm

          Eeep, yeah good time to move.

  12. cozygirl on June 10, 2013 at 10:04 am

    Nice tour of the area…you write so richly! The rock formations set up the coolest backdrop! So happy for you!

    • Becky on June 11, 2013 at 3:18 pm

      Heya Carla!

      Thanks, and I hope someday soon you two get the chance to come out here and drive it, although I definitely recommend parking the Casita first!

  13. Jack on June 10, 2013 at 6:08 am

    Becky slow down you got from now on to see it all???you should do needles hwy on a motorcycle it’s great,done that in 2011 and will do it some more some other time.Glad to see someone injoying it all and wish you the best.

    • Becky on June 11, 2013 at 3:16 pm

      For me this is slow Jack, haha. I bet it would be fun on a motorcycle, although I’ve no desire to get one myself. Easier to fit through those tunnels for sure. 😛

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