September 2004: Custer State Park


Custer, South Dakota

General George Armstrong Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills in 1874, then considered one of the last unexplored regions of the United States. Custer and his men discovered gold and the region was a secret no more. Precious metals are just part of the cornucopia of riches found in the Black Hills. Custer State Park, the largest state park in the Continental United States, is able to support its 73,000 acres without government money. Entrance fees are supplemented by harvesting
timber, selling special hunting licenses for unique game like big horn sheep and buffalo, and renting park attractions to private concessionaires. The park's annual buffalo sale can yield $250,000 alone.

The bounty at Custer State Park extends to canine hikers as well. One of the best places to begin are the trails in the small arm of the park around Sylvan Lake, a calendar-worthy pool of water flanked by giant granite boulders that formed when Theodore Reder dammed Sunday Gulch in 1921. A pleasant one-mile loop circumnavigates the lake and offers plenty of dog-paddling along the way. Hardy canine hikers will want to make a detour to the demanding Sunday Gulch Trail that passes over massive boulders and along splendid light walls of granite.

Sylvan Lake is also a popular jumping off point to climb Harney Peak, at 7,242 feet the highest point in America east of the Rocky Mountains. The most traveled route to the summit is onTrail 9, a 6-mile round trip. There is some rock scrambling near the top but your dog can make it all the way and even go up the steps into the observation tower.

Back in the main body of Custer State Park, you will find the French Creek Natural Area in its center. There are no marked trails along this 2200-acre swath of protected land but paths meander along the creek. There are many stream crossings and the sheer canyon walls narrow practically to the width of a greyhound at one point. One of the biggest attractions in Custer State park is one of the world's largest free-ranging buffalo herds that grazes on over 18,000 acres of mixed prairie grasslands. The 3-mile hillside Prairie Trail off the Wildlife Loop Road is a rolling loop that explodes into a spectacular wildflower display in the summer. For a short woodlands walk, take your dog to Badger Hole, home to Badger Clark, South
Dakota's first poet-laureate. Clark planned part of this footpath behind his four-room cabin thatpicks its way along rocky hillsides through a mixed pine and hardwood forest.

In the summer of 1927 President Calvin Coolidge was looking to get out of Washington. The government was shut down for
the heat and the bugs and the White House was scheduled for a major renovation. He decided to travel to the Black Hills and make the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park his "summer White House," the first President to ride out the heat west of the Mississippi. South Dakota was thrilled to have him and went overboard in welcoming the Coolidges. They showered the First
Couple with gifts and overstocked the creek with so much trout thatthe President, a novice fisherman, could scarcely get his line in the water before getting a strike. The Grace Coolidge Creek that spills out of Center Lake is named for the former First Lady and features an easy three-mile walk on a dirt path along the creek and past seven lowhead dams. The Coolidge family loved their pets and historic photographs often feature their white collies, Rob Roy and Prudence Prim. Other dogs in their family included Blackberry and Tiny Tim - both Chows; Bessie, a Yellow Collie; Boston Beans, a Bulldog; Calamity Jane, a Shetland Sheepdog; Paul Pry, an Airedale; Peter Pan, a Terrier; Ruby Rough, a Brown Collie.

Wind Cave National Park (adjacent to Custer State Park southern border on Route 385 North)
America's seventh national park. Wind Cave was discovered in 1881 when Jesse Bingham heard a whistling sound in the ground and had his blown off by a small hole when he went to investigate. Subsequent explorations have uncovered more than 100 miles of underground passages making Wind Cave the sixth longest known cave system in the world. Above ground are more than 30 miles of trails but canine hiking can be had on only two short trails, each about one mile in length. Elk Mountain Trail is a sporty loop around the campground that traverses a beautiful prairie with expansive views. A second option for your dog is the Prairie Valley Trailsurrounding the Visitor Center.

Highway 87 runs through Custer State Park from north to south. From the town of Keystone or Custer, take Highway 16A.