Custer is a small and characterful town surrounded by the Black Hills National Forest, a rolling woodland alternating with rocky canyons and green grasslands. Just beyond the town’s bounds, bison and bighorn sheep roam broad plains, rock climbers scale granite peaks, anglers cast into mountain pools and streams, and visitors descend into the gleaming subterranean world of the Jewel Cave, the world’s third-largest documented cave. Alongside this vibrant natural world, Custer is also woven into the history of the American West, recorded from different perspectives at several museums as well as in the mountain-hewn Crazy Horse Memorial.
All this makes it a great stop-off on the tourist trail through South Dakota and the American West, conveniently located close to Mount Rushmore and the atmospheric Badlands. Custer is easily reached by car on Highway 385, which is usually the best travel option.
Rolling green plains and hillsides dotted with pine and aspen trees compose Custer State Park, an ideal terrain for hiking, biking and horse riding towards the broad horizon. At points, jagged granite peaks thrust suddenly out of these plains, frequently speckled with local rock climbers. Elsewhere, anglers wait patiently above clear mountain streams. This landscape is home to a herd of 1300 free-roaming bison as well as bighorn sheep, deer and antelopes, which can be viewed from one of the scenic roadways that pass through the outskirts of the park.
In 1948, Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear and sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began work on a memorial to Crazy Horse, the Native American leader who fought against U.S. settlers and federal theft, and achieved a famous victory at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Work continues on the monument today as, gradually, an image of Crazy Horse’s face and the horse on which he road are carved from the bare of rock of Thunderhead Mountain. Admission to the monument also includes admission to several other nearby sites, including a Visitor’s Center, the Indian Museum of North America, the Native American Educational & Cultural Center and Korczak’s Studio.
Just a few miles out of Custer lies one of America’s most famed attractions, Mount Rushmore. Completed in 1941, Mount Rushmore celebrates a very different aspect of American life than the Crazy Horse Memorial, choosing instead to celebrate American presidents. A family road trip tradition since the construction of the interstate system, no trip to Custer is complete without at least a cursory stop here.
Huge underground caverns connected by over 169 miles of subterranean passages make up the dark, cool world of the Jewel Cave, currently the third largest documented cave in the world. The walls are lined with myriad mineral formations, with gleaming, gem-like colors created by the layers of calcite crystals. You can join tours through certain sections of this jewel-encrusted underground labyrinth, and imagine the miles that are still to be discovered: airflow studies indicate that most of the cave hasn’t been found yet.
Located in an Old West-themed saloon-style diner, this is a superb gourmet burger joint dishing out freshly-ground beef and buffalo burgers. There are plenty of filling styles, with sauces from across the United States, and decent fries piled alongside the oozing burgers. As an added bonus, there’s an extensive menu of excellent, homemade desserts, too.
Set in oak and aspen forest beside a trout-filled creek on the edge of Custer State Park, the State Game Lodge is imbued with the spirit of the natural world while providing all the modern comforts you could want. It offers a range of lodging options, from cozy well-equipped cabins to private hotel rooms, and has a big dining room serving buffalo, pheasant, trout, and the odd vegetarian option. It’s also the starting point for jeep safari tours into the heart of the park.