Back to the Black Hills

May 14, Sunday

I leave my overnight camp at Riverside Park in Douglas, WY around 10. There’s less rush this morning to get on the road because my drive is only about 180 miles and I can’t check into my campsite until noon at the earliest.

I retrace my route on I25 east to Orin, then get on 18 headed toward Lusk. The sage gives way to the rolling grassland of the plains. 18 takes some turns, headed north for a while and then east again into South Dakota past Edgemont. The Black Hills are obvious even at a distance. The pine trees growing on them make them look much darker than the surrounding countryside.

Instead of continuing on 18 to Hot Springs, I point Bertha’s nose north onto 89 towards the town of Custer. There’s some elevation gain along here, Custer is at about 5,300 feet and the clouds look much closer in the sky.

At Custer I turn east on 16A and pass into Custer State Park. The entrance fee has gone up to $20 per carload for 7 days, as opposed to $15 last time I visited four years ago. Because it’s a state park and not a national park, the Interagency and Golden Age passes do not apply.

My home for the next three night is less than a mile from the entrance, at Stockade Lake North Campground. By the time I park I’m so excited I can hardly focus to unhitch. Trees! I’m camping in trees! More clouds are blowing in and the Ponderosa Pine sway and make shushing noises – the sound of wind through pine needles is pretty grand after a winter in the desert.

Custer State Park receives a lot of visitors, and despite it being early in the season, the few campgrounds that are open are already quite full (the rest of the campgrounds open the third weekend in May – next weekend). My site is 2E, also called SN2E for Stockade North. It’s right near the intersection at the start of the campground, a less desirable site on paper and one of only two spots available in this campground for three nights when I reserved on Friday.

In reality though, it’s quite a nice site, better than some of the others farther in. Like most state and national parks, there is plenty of spacing between spots and care has been taken to keep the natural beauty of the area intact. This is hilly ground and I’m quite a ways above the intersection which helps with privacy, and the site has been graded so that it’s easy to get level.

All but two of the sites in this campground have a lot of shade (26 and 27 are more open) and most have electric (there are a couple designated tent only that do not). The campground has 40 spots but only 35 were listed on the reservation website, some of them are blocked off with piles of pine needles. Perhaps they’re being renovated or need extra care after the winter. There’s a playground in the middle of the bigger loop, an outdoor amphitheater, a couple outhouses, and one shower house with flush toilets.

After eating I promptly pull out my hammock and string it between two trees in camp. This will be my only chance to do so, because the weather is about to take a turn for the worse – rain while I’m here and snow later. Ahh, feels great!

May 15, Monday

It’s cold and drizzly in the morning, so I turn on my little ceramic heater (oooo, 120v power!) and work on the computer. Later in the afternoon the sun breaks through the clouds and I grab my hiking shoes and jump into Bertha before the weather changes its mind. I take Stockade Lake Drive out to Stockade Lake Trail – a small loop about a mile and a half long.

The trail doesn’t follow the lakeshore, but cuts into the pine forest and meadows surrounding it. The grass is coming up under the trees and yellow flowers add to the color. It feels good to get out after several days of driving.

The trail climbs onto a ridge, where the lake can be seen through the trees. There’s no one else on the trail, it pays to visit popular places in the shoulder seasons.

The other direction, the more mountainous terrain in the northern end of the park is visible, as is 16A winding through the valley below.

Coming back down the hill, a shape stands silhouetted against the new grass. It’s a deer, trying to make itself invisible by standing still. I snap a picture, and as soon as I move it flees along with two others that I didn’t see deeper in the trees. There are both White Tail and Mule deer in the park.

Farther along the lake drive, a spillway marks the end of the lake and the start of a creek. The sound of the water going over is quite soothing, and is the only sound around as this place is also empty of people.

The road ends back on 16A outside the park, where sits the stockade the lake is named for.

Gordon Stockade was erected in December 1874 by a group of 28 people who came to the Black Hills illegally, looking for gold. The stockade was built as protection against the Native Americans, who owned the land according to the Laramie Treaty. They found little in nearby frozen French Creek and six left the next spring, disheartened. They were captured by the cavalry and made to give up the location of the stockade. The rest of the members were found and escorted to Fort Laramie, but many of them were not charged with any crime and later came back to the Black Hills to try again.

May 16, Tuesday

It’s a wet drive into Rapid City today to renew my driver’s license. This is the main reason why I stopped in South Dakota on my way to Wisconsin and why I paid for camping this time around, as I needed proof that I’ve spent at least one night in the state in the past year to renew my license.

Like my last visit to the SD DMV in Sioux Falls over four years ago, it was a quick and painless process and I’m in and out in five minutes having prepared the necessary paperwork ahead of time. (Note: the SD Residency blog post has been updated with license renewal information).

I take the long way back to camp, heading first to Keystone. This is all national forest land in here, but more built up that most national forests farther west. There is a lot of touristy stuff to do in the area, Keystone and Custer especially. Not being the sort to enjoy those kinds of activities, I blow through Keystone.

Past there is one of my favorite drives in the area, Iron Mountain Road (16A), which connects Keystone in the north to Custer State Park in the south. This is a very twisty narrow road with three single-lane tunnels and multiple pigtail switchbacks (there’s also a fair bit of up and down).

This is not a road for RVs. While the Casita would fit through the tunnels and make the sharp curves, there are few places for rigs to pull over and let other traffic pass and you’d be so busy trying not to fly off the road (many curves have a 15 mph speed limit) that you wouldn’t get to enjoy much. Leave the RV at a campground and enjoy with just your daily driver.

Going both directions, there is one tunnel that perfectly frames Mt Rushmore in the distance. But it’s not something that captures easily with a phone camera because of the high contrast between the dark tunnel and bright sky outside. Just trust me that it’s worth seeing!

If you want a photo of Mt Rushmore, there’s also an informational pullout high on Iron Mountain where you can walk to a viewing platform to see it. Having no zoom capabilities it doesn’t look like much with a phone, but is recognizable.

On the way back to camp I pass Grace Coolidge campground, the other one that I could have stayed at here in Custer. A creek runs behind it which is kind of nice and the spots are paved, but they’re closer together and there isn’t a lick of Verizon signal here. I chose well for my needs.

Tomorrow I leave the Black Hills in search of lower elevations, as there is snow in the forecast here for Thursday and Friday, brrr!

Related Links:

Custer State Park has a lot more to see and do, much of which I’ve wrote about in past blog posts from the summer I worked in Badlands National Park.

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  1. Dan on May 26, 2017 at 7:48 pm

    Hello Becky, I love reading your blogs and I have actually visited many of the places years ago, that you talk about.
    One quick question always comes to mind and you may have covered it in other articles. If so please point me to the entry!
    Anyway, I was curious of your actual trip planning process.
    You say that you don’t like to drive more than x number of miles a day. So you need to find overnite rest stops or camp for a night or two while enroute to a final destination.
    So my question, how do you plan for the stops, find the campsites, etc?
    i know there are many resources available but sometimes it is better to get an idea from an individual that has actually planned the trip, stops, things to see and do along the way.
    Since you have been at this for a while, I value your opinion and would like to get your insight into planning the journey!
    As always, thanks for sharing!

  2. Kenny Ellis on May 24, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    Becky: The pictures are beautiful and bring back a lot of good memories as my wife and two daughters and I camped in the black hills in 1977. I hope to visit there this year and set up my resident in S.D. also. I like to follow your travels and read of your experiences. Good Luck and God Bless you.

    • Becky on May 25, 2017 at 1:37 pm

      Thanks Kenny and I’m glad this brought back good memories. Have a good trip to SD, if you visit the Black Hills hopefully the weather cooperates better for you than it did for me.

  3. Ralph Meyer on May 24, 2017 at 7:27 pm

    My first post but I have been following you for the last year. You do a great job posting and your resource page has been very helpful. Leaving tomorrow to go look at and purchase an RV. Got my SD address from MyDakota today. Thanks for that also. Great people and very helpful. Hoping to get to South Dakota soon to get our drivers license and complete the residence transition. Keep up the good work.

    • Becky on May 25, 2017 at 1:35 pm

      I’m glad you decided to comment Ralph. You’re welcome for the SD residency info and I hope MyDakotaAddress continues to treat you as well as they’ve treated me.

      Best of luck with the RV inspection! I bet you’re very excited, I was the day I went to look at Cas. πŸ™‚ Safe travels and happy trails.

  4. Jodee Gravel on May 24, 2017 at 5:57 pm

    Looks like a wonderful spot! It was actually the gold miners who came to the Black Hills in violation of the treaty that led to the Last Stand and Little Bighorn battles. The government attempted to keep them out, and to honor the treaty giving that land to the tribe, but the huge influx of miners who refused to heed the law overran the area. Ultimately the government backed the white miners. Sad history, but absolutely stunning area.
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..50 Shades of GreenMy Profile

    • Becky on May 25, 2017 at 1:34 pm

      Yes Jodee. I just recently finished reading Stone Song, a novel of the life and times of Crazy Horse. Interesting read and putting it together with the informational signs at places like Gordon Stockade gave a good picture into the history of the area.

  5. Deborah Hawkins on May 23, 2017 at 9:22 am

    I’m brand new to your site, and LOVE the Black Hills. We lived in Rapid city when I was about 3-10 years old. My mother’s God Parents lived in the hill of Deadwood and we visited them all the time. This is old Deadwood, before casino’s and tourism.

    My favorite spot in the USA, simply put.

    • Becky on May 23, 2017 at 6:09 pm

      Welcome to IO Deborah!

      I bet it must have been neat growing up in this area! And I bet it’s changed a lot over the years. I’m not as much of a tourist person and prefer the natural beauty of the places I visit to the man-made attractions.

      Safe travels and happy trails.

  6. Ed@Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets on May 22, 2017 at 6:48 pm

    You sure do get around. We were kind of in the same places, almost at the same time until you headed east. We’re camp hosting at Flaming Gorge in northeastern Utah for the summer, but will be heading to Mt. Rushmore, Custer SP, etc. after Labor Day. Any tips and/or camping suggestions? Ours is a 37 foot motorhome.
    Ed@Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets recently posted..Settling InMy Profile

    • Becky on May 23, 2017 at 6:07 pm

      I haven’t toured many campgrounds in the area Ed, just the one I stayed at and the drive by of Grace Coolidge. Stockade Lake N would take a 37 footer. I find all my camp spots on or, you can find user reviews there to help you pick the best site for you. There are a lot of private RV parks outside of the park if you prefer a resort experience. Have fun in Flaming Gorge!

  7. Rene Kipp on May 22, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    Trees! I agree, the sound the wind makes while rustling the needles in unmatched πŸ™‚ We were in the Mount Rushmore area 20+ years ago. It is an impressive work of art! I’d love to go back and visit more of the area.
    Rene Kipp recently posted..Final Thoughts On JapanMy Profile

    • Becky on May 23, 2017 at 6:01 pm

      There’s a lot to see Rene, it’s worth spending some time at for sure!

  8. Alan Belisle on May 22, 2017 at 10:24 am

    After crossing the desert SW, it was a thrill to see the greenery of California. After crossing the boring tabletop that is much of South Dakota, it was nice to see the Black Hills and the deep dark forests.
    We are also South Dakota “residents”. Our home address is in Sioux Falls. Nice town.
    Alan Belisle recently posted..Rochester, MinnesotaΒ  5/12 – 5/19My Profile

    • Becky on May 23, 2017 at 5:58 pm

      Even the plains of South Dakota are looking good after the desert. πŸ™‚ I use My Dakota Address, so I “live” in Madison, SD.

  9. Scott Baldassari on May 22, 2017 at 9:00 am


  10. Jeff on May 22, 2017 at 8:33 am

    Thanks for the post and the links to your previous blogs. We’re about 2 weeks behind you, hence it’s nice to have your personal experience. Unfortunately our RV as small as it is will not handle the tunnels πŸ™ Looks like a interesting and scenic way to enjoy the area.

    • Becky on May 22, 2017 at 10:01 am

      Enjoy the hills Jeff, this is a very pretty area and you won’t get bored.

  11. Janet Bickham on May 22, 2017 at 7:25 am

    I’ve been following your blog for about a year now, and want you to know how much I enjoy it. You have given helpful information and great pictures on so many places! We are finally on our way out west( in Ohio now) and will be going to Mt. Rushmore, so this blog in particular has been helpful, thanks again! Janet

    • Becky on May 22, 2017 at 10:00 am

      I’m glad you decided to comment Janet! I bet you’re excited to be getting out west, there’s so much to see out here. Have fun and enjoy Mt. Rushmore! You’re very welcome for the pictures and info.

  12. Farmer's Daughter on May 21, 2017 at 8:11 pm

    Long time reader, first time replying. I can’t believe it. I was at Custer State Park the same time you were! We were staying in a cabin at Legion Lake. The weather wasn’t the best but we did manage to get one campfire in and the chance to see the baby buffalo in the park was great. My absolute favorite place to visit in the country. When I think about my dream of full-timing, I always have the Black Hills National Forest in mind.

    • Becky on May 22, 2017 at 9:58 am

      Glad you enjoyed the park despite the weather! Better a cabin than the poor people I saw in tents out there. I wish you all the best and hope you get to go back and visit as a full-timer in the future. πŸ™‚

  13. Gerri & Mike on May 21, 2017 at 8:09 pm

    Love the Black Hills!! Your site looks nice and what a lovely drive through beautiful country!!
    Gerri & Mike recently posted..Remember that Glitch???My Profile

    • Becky on May 22, 2017 at 9:56 am

      Glad you enjoyed this Gerri and Mike. πŸ™‚

  14. Harrison Phillips on May 21, 2017 at 7:56 pm

    We agree that Iron Mountain Road is a beautiful drive. The first time we were in that area some time ago, we accidentally took that road not realizing until too late that we didn’t want to be there. We ended up enjoying that drive even though we pushed the limits with our 39 feet of van and towed casita. There was no place to turn around.

    • Becky on May 22, 2017 at 9:55 am

      Ooops! Yeah I think the only place a rig could is at the top of Iron Mountain, and by that point you’re halfway through so might as well keep going, haha. Glad you made it in one piece Harrison.

  15. Cathy myers on May 21, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    Worked last summer in Hill City, at PRairie Berry Winery. Love this area so much. It’s pretty much undiscovered by the crowds, but so much to see. Thanks for the color.

    • Becky on May 22, 2017 at 9:53 am

      Yeah there are a lot of work-camping opportunities in the Black Hills, it would be a great place to spend the summer. You’re welcome Cathy, take care.

  16. RGupnorth on May 21, 2017 at 6:40 pm

    Custer has to be one of the neatest parks to drive through. Great camp site tips.

    • Becky on May 22, 2017 at 9:52 am

      Part of the appeal is how it’s surrounded by prairie, just rising up out of nowhere.

  17. Judy Blinkenberg on May 21, 2017 at 5:57 pm

    Awesome views!! $20 is a great rate for 7 days. Love your pictures. We are on 395 in California. Where to go next after leaving Bishop. CA? Take care Becky!!

    • Becky on May 22, 2017 at 9:51 am

      Hope you’re having fun Judy! 395 is pretty all the way up to Lake Tahoe. Safe travels and happy trails.

      • Joyce Sutton on May 23, 2017 at 8:16 am

        $20 is just park entry camping is extra. I followed you in on fri and it did snow

        • Becky on May 23, 2017 at 5:47 pm

          Correct Joyce, that’s the admittance fee. I hope the snow wasn’t too bad!

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