Custer South Dakota Highlights on an RV Trip

July 2017 – We loved our stay in South Dakota’s Black Hills, and this plaque we found hanging on a wall in a restaurant says it perfectly:

RV Vacation in the Black Hills with an RV or travel trailer

Yes, definitely do!

The cute town of Custer is in the heart of the Black Hills, and one of the things that charmed us is that it is decorated with a slew of brightly painted life-size sculptures of buffalo. We found these fun creatures roaming all over town!

Buffalo statue Custer South Dakota

Life-size buffalo sculptures stand in front of businesses and homes all over town.

We had fun finding these guys and posing with them!

Buffalo statue Custer South Dakota

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Of course, the real ones are close by in Custer State Park too.

Buffalo with bird on his back Custer South Dakota

A bird catches a ride on the real thing!

We visited the town of Custer quite a few times, and each time we stopped at Calamity Jane’s for a fancy fluffy latte. This is a great little espresso shop and wine tasting bar that does a brisk business.

For decades the owners, Jim and Deb, ran a camera shop in this location, but with the advent of the cell phone camera age and tourists who love espresso and wine, they’ve switched gears and created a very friendly place to hang out a while!

Calamity Jane Wine Bar and Coffee Shop South Dakota

Mark jokes around with Jim, the owner of the Calamity Jane Wine & Espresso shop.

Calamity Jane Coffee Shop Custer South Dakota

Coffee is up front. The wine is in the back!

A little sign on the floor of Calamity Jane’s says “Go ride a bike!” and we followed that advice and headed out on the Mickelson Trail one day. This is a wonderful rails-to-trails crushed gravel path that goes on for 109 miles. The town of Custer situated near the middle of the trail.

Go Ride a Bike Custer South Dakota

Good advice!

Mickelson Trail Custer South Dakota

The 109 mile long Mickelson Trail is a wonderful rails-to-trails path through the Black Hills.

We did out-and-back bike rides in each direction from town and thoroughly enjoyed the scenery. The Black Hills are filled with fabulous pinnacle rock formations, and we passed a few beauties while riding the Mickelson Trail.

Scenery on the Mickelson Trail Custer South Dakota

One of the signatures of Black Hills landscapes is pinnacle rock formations jutting up out of the earth.

Rock formations Custer South Dakota

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The Black Hills region was one of the last areas to be explored in the 19th century, and in 1874 Lieutenant Colonel George Custer arrived with his expedition to check out the area. This expedition has given us much pause for thought.

In our travels, Mark and I roam around the country in our cozy little fully self-contained luxury fifth wheel trailer. We travel easily at 65 mph, enjoy hot and cold running water, refrigerated meats and fish from every corner of the continent and veggies from all over the world.

Our barbecue, stove, oven and microwave stand ready to cook a meal at a moment’s notice, and our rolling home’s climate control gives us ample heat and air conditioning in all conditions. Most astonishing of all, we have 24/7 instantaneous access to much of the world’s populace via the internet.

Traveling effortlessly in this kind of style makes it very hard for us to fathom such a primitive expedition as Custer’s was, even though it took place less than 150 years ago, not even twice our parents’ age.

Custer undertook this expedition into the Black Hills 70 years after Lewis and Clarke did their cross-country trek to the west coast. Not only were there were well over 1,000 men in Custer’s group, they brought along 2,100 horses, 110 wagons, a herd of cattle for food (most of which returned home with them because the group found plenty of game along the way), plus surveyors, engineers, geologists, a photographer and a media crew of five newspaper reporters.

The whole caravan stretched out for over two miles when they were traveling!

Welcome to Custer South Dakota

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The expedition went from the current location of Bismarck, North Dakota, to the Black Hills and back, and lasted from July 2nd to August 30th, 1874. Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills as well as bountiful wildflowers and animals aplenty.

In 2000, a local photographer went around and took photos that matched the locations of where Custer’s photographer, William Illingworth, took his. There is a comparison photo on a plaque on the Mickelson Trail that brings the expedition to life. The scenery hasn’t changed much, but it was remarkable to stand in the spot where Custer’s photographer stood 143 years ago when the Black Hills were known only to the Indians who called them home.

It didn’t take long for prospectors to head to the Black Hills once they heard about the gold discovery. Just two months after Custer’s expedition was completed, a group set up camp near the modern day town of Custer.

However, it was illegal for them to be there, because the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie gave the region to the Plains Indians and prohibited white settlement. So, they built a stockade for protection but were evicted five months later by the US Cavalry.

The Stockade Custer South Dakota

The Gordon Stockade protected a small band of gold prospectors…but they were there illegally!

This was the wild west, of course, and on another day while we were mountain biking on a trail in the woods, we came across a sign that told of the fate of one murderous Billy Fowler. Yikes!

Frontier Justice sign Custer South Dakota

In the old days folks took matters into their own hands.

Pretty Stockade Lake is right next to the Gordon Stockade, and we wandered along the road that lines the shore taking photos near sunset one day.

Stockade Lake Custer South Dakota

Beautiful Stockade Lake is between the town of Custer and Custer State Park.

It was the new moon, and Mark returned to the lake in the darkest hours of the night to catch the Milky Way reflecting in the water. His photos were sensational and were well worth the near all-nighter that it took for him to get them.

Milky Way at Stockade Lake Custer South Dakota

The Milky Way is mirrored in Stockade Lake.


Milky Way at Stockade Lake Custer South Dakota

It was worth getting up in the dark to capture these images!

I was happily snoozing away under the blankets back at the trailer while Mark was out having fun in the dark that night. As he drove down the main drag in Custer he found it was utterly deserted. So, he set up his tripod right in the middle of the street and got a neat shot of the city lights.

Custer South Dakota at night

The town of Custer is so quiet at night you can do a long exposure on a tripod in the middle of the main drag.

Custer has many charms, and one of the big highlights for us was a stop at the Purple Pie Place. The pies here are out of this world, and we joined the throng of happy customers who were savoring scrumptious slices of blueberry(yum!), strawberry rhubarb (double yum!) and apple pies (all American yum!).

Purple Pie Place Custer South Dakota

The Purple Pie Place makes AWESOME pies!

As we wandered the streets of Custer, I looked down to see an odd collection of painted rocks right by the sidewalk. I looked a little closer and saw a small sign next to them that said, “The Kindness Rock Project.” I picked up a rock and looked it over. Just then a woman came over and said, “Keep it!”

Kindness Rock Project Custer South Dakota

A school counselor’s ingenious idea — a Kindness Rock Project.
Pick up a rock that speaks to you and share it with a friend. Leave one if the spirit moves you.

She went on to explain that she was a school counselor and that this project had been her idea. The kids painted the rocks, and the idea was to spread a little bit of joy with the townsfolk and with the many tourists who came to visit the town.

How cool is that?!

It reminded me of the fantastic walls lined with hand tiles that the students in Maysville, Kentucky, had created in the tunnel through their flood wall. Creative teachers and counselors who dream up these projects give a priceless gift to their communities.

Custer has a wonderful vibe, and we thoroughly enjoyed our 4th of July there. Down at the VFW Hall we got a huge kick out of the American flag mural that decorates the entire front of the building.

Americn flag VFW Hall Custer South Dakota

The entire front wall of the VFW Hall is a vivid American flag!

Inside, we found another clever idea. A small crate filled with little plastic toy soldiers was on a shelf, and a small sign on the crate said, “Please take a soldier home and place it somewhere that will remind you to pray for those who serve our country.”

Love it!

We took one and now have it on one of our window sills.

Toy soldiers to take home VFW Hall Custer South Dakota

Inside the VFW hall we found another clever idea: take a toy soldier home and put it in a place where you’ll be reminded to give thanks for the real ones serving in the war torn parts of the world.

There is a ton to see and do in the Black Hills, and one day we set out to drive the Needles Highway which twists and turns through some of the most dramatic scenery in the area. We had driven this beautiful road on our previous visit to the area ten years prior, and had been able to sneak through all of the very narrow tunnels in our old truck.

We knew our new truck would theoretically make it through the tunnels with an inch or two to spare on either side. After all, tour buses take groups through these tunnels all day every day. But it looked awfully skinny, so we turned around and saved the drive for another time.

Iron Creek Tunnel Custer State Park South Dakota

Threading the needle with a dually at Iron Creek Tunnel on the Needles Highway…or not!

There are many ways to enjoy the Black Hills. We saw kayaks ready to go on a lake and we came across lots of people on horseback too.

Kayaks at a lake in South Dakota

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Horse riders Custer South Dakota

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Zipping around in a Corvette Stingray is an awesome way to enjoy the many scenic drives around Custer, and bringing a side-by-side in a toy hauler is another great way to go.

Corvette Stingray and RV Toyhauler Custer South Dakota

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We saw a ton of RVs cruising through town, and there are both private and state park campgrounds to choose from too.

Travel trailer drives by Custer Historical Museum Custer South Dakota RV trip_

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There are loads of things to do in the Black Hills, and as is so often the case, we didn’t manage to “do it all” before our time in Custer came to a close. Oh well. Now we have a great excuse to go back!

RV trip to Custer South Dakota

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4 thoughts on “Custer South Dakota Highlights on an RV Trip

  1. What a fantastic blog entry! You have captured the Black Hills and Custer thru the camera and it is such an amazing place! We are spending our entire summer here workamping at a private campground right in Custer and we love it here. We ride our motorcycle on our days off or we explore all the back roads in our truck on our days off, never a moment when we can’t find something to do in this area. Not to mention the fabulous weather! 4th of July was special with the bomber flying over downtown to kick off the celebration. It shows how a small relatively sleeping town can be very patriotic and set out the red carpet to all those traveling. We just love Custer and the Black Hills and our full time RV lifestyle, thanks for sharing this with all of us!

    • You are so welcome, Susan. What a wonderful summer you must be having! All the campgrounds and RV parks around Custer are really appealing, and any one of them would be a great place for workamping. I’m sure you are really enjoying your job and especially your days off. If you have a piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie at the Purple Pie Place, think of me, and if you stop in at Calamity Jane’s, please say “hi” to Jim. We spent quite a few happy hours chatting with him while I sipped his delicious Hazlenut lattes!! There is a spirit in Custer that is very special, and you are fortunate to be staying all summer to enjoy it!!

    • Probably so! Actually, Bob, you got me curious, so I looked in up:

      Fly Speck Billy got his name because of his freckles. After hitching a ride to Custer on a friend’s freight train, he got drunk, borrowed the same friend’s revolver, and then, when the friend refused to stop playing cards to drink with him, he shot him in the back…and killed him.

      When Billy tried to run away out the saloon door, a man by the door bonked him on the head and he collapsed into the arms of the sheriff who was walking in the door at that very moment. Later that night vigilantes stole him away from the sheriff’s custody and hung him up on Pageant Hill where the 4th of July fireworks take place nowadays!

      Frontier Justice indeed! (story here).

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