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Custer State Park; Centennial Trail; “It’s a Sign”; 4th of July; Mickelson Bike Trail; A Trail Blocker; Harney Peak; Grace Coolidge Creek

If you haven’t been to Custer State Park in the Black Hills west of Rapid City, South Dakota, you’ve missed a beautiful part of the USA. Of course there is Mt. Rushmore, one of the most popular attractions in the area, and Sturgis, a famous motorcyclist destination, but the Black Hills themselves contain beautiful scenery and lots of wildlife. The name is a translation of the Lakota Paha sapa; when seen from a distance, the forested hills indeed appear black. 

Rudy, Gretchen and I would be staying here for a week while My Lovely Bride visited her mom back home and taught a Serving Spirit class. The weather was forecast to be excellent, and there were miles and miles of trails to explore. My first hike was on the 111 mile long Centennial Trail, established in 1989 in honor of South Dakota’s 100 years of statehood. Within the first mile, I discovered fresh sign of the largest mammal living in the area… somewhere nearby was a large specimen of Bison bison, the American buffalo. While I saw several deer on this hike, the bison remained elusive.

The trail climbed several moderately steep ridges and traversed several valleys with lush grass and Ponderosa pine. This was not a heavily traveled trail, and I didn’t see another hiker in the four hours I was out. 

The town of Custer, SD, was named for General George Armstrong Custer, US Army, one of the most famous generals in history. Custer’s career had some ups and downs. He attended West Point, and graduated last in his class in 1861. In spite of his low class standing, during the War of Northern Aggression (AKA the Civil War), he was a highly effective cavalry commander on the Union side, and achieved the rank of brevet (temporary) Major General by age 25. 

The low point of Custer’s career came in 1876 when he was leading the Seventh Cavalry against a coalition of Indian tribes, and decided to engage a superior force of 4,000 Indians with his 400 or so cavalrymen. (Yes, they were all men back then; the ACLU was yet unheard of. Would that they were still so… but I digress.) Rarely does a 10-1 disadvantage in forces result in a victory for the outnumbered, unless they hold a commanding technological advantage. Regrettably, Custer had turned down the offer of an additional force, the Second Cavalry, with their horse-drawn Gatling guns (early machine guns firing 350 rounds per minute), feeling that they would reduce his mobility. In fact, his troopers used single shot Springfield Trapdoor rifles, whereas many of his Sioux, Cheyenne and Apapaho adversaries were using Winchester or Henry lever-action repeaters. Outnumbered and out-gunned, the Seventh Cavalry didn’t stand a chance. This painting, Custer’s Last Stand, by Edgar Samuel Paxson, was based on his personal interviews of many of the Indian participants, and it traveled across the country in the 1880s. Prints were hung in saloons across the USA. It is now on display in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, in Cody, Wyoming. 

4th of July came during my stay in Custer, and I of course attended the parade and celebrations in this town of 1,800. Some sights were reminiscent of days gone by, such as this Uncle Sam on stilts, but all were true Americana. You cannot fail to feel patriotic on the 4th of July in a small Midwestern town.

Running just past my campground was a spur trail that connected with the George S. Mickelson Trail, a beautiful, 114 mile long bike trail that the former governor of South Dakota championed until his death in a plane crash in 1993. It runs through the Black Hills and connects Deadwood with Edgemont; much of the trail traverses National Forest land, and is very scenic. 

I did two rides on this trail, one south of Custer and one north to the Crazy Horse Memorial, the world’s largest mountain sculpture. Still being carved, if completed it will be the largest sculpture in the world. It depicts the Oglala Lakota warrior who fought against Custer at the Little Big Horn riding a horse and pointing into the distance. The image shows a model in the foreground and the mountain in the background. 

The memorial is dedicated to all American Indian tribes, and was commissioned in 1931 by Chief Standing Bear, an Oglala Lakota elder. He is shown with the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, who died in 1982. The work is now supervised by a foundation, but many Lakota argue that Crazy Horse would not have approved of destroying a mountain in the Black Hills to create a likeness of him, since he resisted being photographed, and even insisted that he be buried where no one could ever find his grave.

I didn’t run across any Lakota warriors on my hikes, but this huge bull (Bison bison) was blocking the trail one day, and I had to climb a hillside to go around him. Lest you think that this 2,000 lb. beast might be a sluggard, you should know that they are capable of speeds of 30 mph, and in the 1800s, even professional buffalo hunters considered them savage killers, even more dangerous than grizzly bears. I only approached to within 50 feet, but made sure that there were trees nearby that I could either climb or hide behind if he took umbrage at my passing. (Perhaps “passing” is not the best choice of words… it reminds me of when My Lovely Bride and I were riding a mountain bike trail in Utah when we came upon several of this guy’s distant cousins. She wanted to turn back and find an alternate route, whereas I chose a closest point of approach of about 20 feet at high speed, saying as I started riding toward one bull, “Okay, Sweetheart, I’ll see you on the other side…”). Suzanne was less than amused by my choice of words then as well… 

There are many beautiful, small lakes in the Black Hills. This is Sylvan Lake, near another trail I was hiking. The fishing is said to be good, but I only had so much time, so the fish were safe for another day. (No smart cracks, please, Bob…)

The next trail would take me to Harney Peak, at 7,242 ft. the tallest mountain east of the Rockies and west of the Pyrenees. It is in the Black Elk Wilderness, and can be seen in the background of this photo with a hardy, handsome, Harney hiker not yet sweaty and tired… (Sorry, Brenda, you know how I love alliterations!)

The topography here is striking. This section is mostly granite, very old Precambrian rock, popular among rock climbers because of its hardness. Softer rocks tend to flake and fall apart at the worst times…

This old fire lookout tower, built in 1939, is no longer in use, except as a hiker’s destination and shelter in storms, but it does make for a good place to view the rest of South Dakota and have a sandwich.

Okay, I have to throw in one more hiker picture to prove I made it all the way up…

A few days later, My Lovely Bride returned and we got to hike on one of her favorite types of trails, a waterside path along Grace Coolidge Creek, a lovely trout stream. 

There were at least 8 stream crossings; until recently, you had to wade, but newly-installed “bridges” made it much easier…

This would be our last day in South Dakota’s spectacular Black Hills. Come back for the next report on Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, and onwards to Montana, Big Sky country!


  • Anonymous
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 1:56 am

    Another great post and pictures Ty! I've been to SD twice, once for training in Custer and to help 'save' Deadwood from a wildfire. Unfortunately I have not spent much time exploring the Black Hills but it's on my bucket list. Glad to see you all enjoying life as usual! Brad

  • Ty and Suzanne Giesemann
    Posted August 7, 2016 at 4:57 am

    Brad, Didn't get to Deadwood, but am sure the locals appreciated your saving the town. Very nice folks here, like most places in "flyover country". Am waiting for NYC, DC, LA and SFO to fall off or get transported to another galaxy far, far away. I know, wishful thinking…


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