If you love wildlife, the Game Lodge Campground in Custer State Park is a great place to be. The Wildlife Loop Road around Custer State Park provides up-close opportunities to see deer, elk, bison, pronghorn (antelope), wild burros, prairie dogs and more—evening and morning are best for wildlife sightings. We also rode bikes to the Grace Coolidge Campground and back, spotting deer along the way.
Day Trips in the Area:
Mt. Rushmore National Memorial was fun to see, but I’m so glad we didn’t stay in Keystone, which is overrun with hotels and tourist traps. We drove the windy Iron Mountain Road to get to Mt. Rushmore—beautiful scenery—though tough to drive in the dark back to Custer. We thought the Evening Illumination Ceremony was a bit cheesy and hokey, but we learned a little history, so that wasn’t all bad.
Wind Cave National Park—Just getting here was a beautiful drive from Custer, taking us on another portion of the Wildlife Loop Road. You can only view the cave via guided tours, but they’re really well done. This cave has most of the world’s boxwork, which makes it worth touring for its uniqueness.
I also loved the frostwork.
We did the Candlelight Tour, where they try to replicate the conditions of early cave exploration (you each carry a “candle” in a small bucket and that is your only light source for the tour). This was a small group of 10 with a very knowledgeable guide. We got back and did the Fairgrounds Tour with a much bigger group (around 38), but another very informative guide. The lights allow you to take better pictures on this second tour, but I’m glad we did both. Neither one was very strenuous, and they each lasted about 90 minutes. On the way back to Custer, we took the back roads through Wind Cave NP (101, 5 and 6), some of which were dirt, but so worth it. Beautiful landscapes, plus lots of bison and pronghorn.
Jewel Cave National Monument—Another great cave experience, very different from Wind Cave. As with Wind Cave, you can only do a guided tour, and the groups were pretty big, but they handle the crowd well. This cave is known for jewel-like formations and is the third-longest cave in the world. The Scenic Tour was another 90 minutes, and did involve a lot of steps, so it’s considered moderately strenuous. We also did a short hike above ground, but there’s not much there. On the way back, we stopped at Comanche National Forest Campground for a lovely picnic lunch setting.
Crazy Horse Memorial – Some people hate this place and feel like it’s really commercialized. We found it interesting, though a bit pricey. I highly recommend watching the movie, because it really does give good background on how the memorial came to be and why it’s taking so long to complete. From the parking lot, we used the spotting scope to get a close-up view of the carving, and that worked really well. We also liked the Wall of Windows inside where they have a miniature sculpture of the completed project, and you can visually line it up with the actual sculpture outside.