Custer State Park, The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway and Mount Rushmore


Miles Driven Today:  94.9 miles                  Total Miles Driven: 817 miles

Another brilliant day in South Dakota.  Honestly, it just gets better and better.  It started well.  We had a great night’s sleep and didn’t wake up till 730.  A massive improvement.  Maybe it was the Margaritas!   Had free breakfast at the Bavarian Inn.  I had yoghurt, muesli and fresh blueberries.  Bob used the nifty pancake machines to make pancakes.  Amazing!!!  He had them with fresh fruit but there was all manner of syrups and sugary delights.

We set off about 9am to drive the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway through and around Custer State Park.  It was a perfect day – blue skies, about 20C this morning, 28C by midday, nice breeze.  A byway is a collection of roads that when joined together form a route of exceptional interest or beauty.  Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway

doesn’t disappoint on any scale.  It has been named one of the most scenic byways in  the USA and with good reason.  We were stunned by the beauty throughout the 70 mile trip.  The road itself is an engineering marvel that many thought could never be built.  Parts of it cut right through the mountain using incredibly narrow and low, squarecut tunnels.  Not every vehicle can take the route as a result.  We liked it so much we will do some of it again tomorrow.  Just amazing.

Our first stop was at Sylvan Lake a superb setting within Custer State Park itself.  Let me say that the park was a revelation.  It’s so much bigger than we expected and so much better.  We paid $20 for a car fee that will last a week so that we can come in and out as we choose.  The scenery is pine clad mountains, deep valleys, large grassy plains with rolling hills, strange rocky outcrops and mountain peaks of granite – a climber’s paradise.  You can see why the Mount Rushmore sculpture was sited here – the massive rocky mountain tops and pillars are ideal.  In fact, a lot of the area reminded us strangely of parts of Disney World!!!!  The Disney Imagineers must have had this area in mind when they developed some of the theme park.

Anyway, back to our first stop at Sylvan Lake.  We took the hike around the lake shore.  A very pleasant mile that hugged the shore but also took you scrambling over huge boulders and through very narrow crevices.  Great fun.  The lake was picture perfect with some fishermen, canoeists… children swimming in a little cove.  A lovely spot.

On we went wending through the mountains on the Needles Highway.  You go along at maximum 25mph, often 15.  The roads are really quiet so it’s no problem to do that.  This portion of the Byway is really extraordinary.  Huge views over the pine clad mountainsides and down the valleys and then there are the enormous rock pillars and fingers, the well named needles.  At times there are two very narrow rock tunnels through the mountains which frame lovely views ahead.

Coming to the end of the Needles Highway, you join the Custer Wildlife loop road which takes you through largely grassy rolling hill plains.  This is where the 1500 strong buffalo herd hangs out along with other wildlife.  We came across some antelope sitting very near the road so we pulled off and ate our packed lunch watching them.  They were very unafraid and just stared back at us.  A bit further on we came to a group of wild donkeys beside the road.  They were obviously used to being fed (against the rules!) because they were actually IN the road and there were cars pulled up with kids feeding them.  It reminded us of the wild donkeys in the Karpas Peninsular in Cyprus.  On again and we started to come across buffalo.  Excitingly one part of the herd was right beside the road and we managed to perch there for a while and take some close up pictures.  They are HUGE.  There were some calves too.  Mindful of all the warnings we stayed in the car!

As the wildlife loop ended we continued on the byway, this time joining the Iron Mountain highway.  Much like the Needles, this was another feat of engineering, this time with 3 or 4 tunnels.  Not as narrow as the Needles tunnels but excitingly this time they are angled and positioned so that looking through them, the tunnel exit frames Mount Rushmore.  Amazing!!!!!  We really enjoyed this road, stopping in the forest at one point for a drink from our flask and to speak to our daughter on WhatsApp.  The 4g signal in the Black Hills has been superb.

We stopped at a couple of the tunnels to take pictures and then took the Byway on to Mount Rushmore itself.  I’ve wanted to come here ever since seeing the Cary Grant film “North by Northwest” as a child and then other films like “National Treasure 2”.  I was prepared for it to be totally hokey, but I was really impressed.  What an amazing feat of artistry and engineering!  The scale of the work just cannot fail to be pretty awe inspiring.  I have no idea how they achieved the sculptures really in such an exposed spot.  Unfortunately the visitor’s centre is undergoing huge maintenance work and much of it was closed so a lot of the interesting exhibits on the making of the sculptures were not available.  We had planned to go back for the evening ceremony when the heads are floodlit, but the auditorium and flag lined walkway were totally closed off, so we decided against it.

Got back to our hotel at about 430 and had a rest.  We absolutely love the Black Hills.  It’s a beautiful, beautiful region.  I’m sure we have even more exciting scenery and parks ahead but this area has exceeded our expectations.  If you come, try and stay in Custer which is far less touristy than say Hill City or Keystone (OMG!) or even better in one of the lodges in Custer State Park.  The countryside itself provides more than enough to do for a wonderful family or couples trip without the need for the hokey man made amusements.


Tonight we ate dinner in Custer, using the hotel’s funky shuttle car to get there and back.  We ate at the Custer Wolf.  Excellent gastro pub food.  Just sooooo much.  We shared a plate of onion rings with a garlic parmesan dip to start.  Then, I had a shredded buffalo sandwich on seed bread with shaved vegetables and a cranberry bbq sauce.  The bread was amazing but too much, so I just tasted it.  The buffalo (see the herd now eat the cast) was extremely tender and juicy… gorgeous…  Bob loved his fish and chips.  I had two enormous – and I don’t use that word lightly – glasses of cab sauv and Bob had 2 delicious local craft IPAs.  It all came to about £45.  We called the shuttle and waddled back…

A great day in the Black Hills of South Dakota!

One comment

  1. Taking me back to our stay in the Black Hills! I see you like wine… Look for the Prairie Berry Winery in the area It had some decent wines & we ate lunch on a patio outside. Also: good place for dinner is Powder House Lodge Restaurant.
    Enjoying your blog!