If someone asked me where the Midwest ends and the west begins, I would say Rapid City, South Dakota. For me, the “west” starts in the Black Hills. With so many of our trips and vacations cancelled this year, we decided to take a week-long stay in the mountains that are only a day’s drive from our home. There were campsites available in early June at Custer State Park and we were ready for the rugged beauty of this most-visited South Dakota state park.
As we arrived near the west entrance to the park through the town of Custer, we stopped to get gas and fire wood. South Dakota requires all firewood to come from within the state due to ash borer. We happily obliged when the wood was only $4 per bundle at the gas station. We loaded up on wood and headed into the park. We camped at Stockade South located on the opposite side of Stockade Lake from HWY 16. The drive to the campground meanders through evergreens and over the dam. This campground is electric only, but also contains a few camper cabins. As one of the older, probably original campgrounds at the lake, some sites have the original fire pits built out of stone with “chimneys”. Ours did not, but site 13E was absolutely perfect for us. It had a large front “yard” and was fairly well spaced from other campers, the closest being staggered behind us. The site was complete with towering pines, an old stone wall, a fire pit, and shaded picnic table.
The only odd thing about this particular campsite is that you must travel the opposite direction in the loop to properly back in. The site is somewhat level (requiring a minimal number of leveling bricks). This location was quiet and contained respectful campers. The hosts met us upon arrival to make sure we knew how to access the site. There are water spigots at the campground that we utilized, as well as a bathroom with showers and flush toilets.
The location of the campground is perfect for those interested in hiking around Stockade Lake (we took a short hike to the lake the day we arrived). It is also excellent if you want to fish or boat on the lake. We purchased South Dakota fishing licenses for the trip and had to try fishing in the various locations we stayed.
I had planned some hiking, picnicking, and knew where I wanted to see based on the quick website research I had completed for this trip. But the first night we were there, a park volunteer came through the campground asking if we had any questions and I had to ask what hikes he would recommend. He immediately recommended a hike I had crossed off my list early on- it was a hike to “the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains”. He assured us we would definitely be up for the “simple, couple hour” hike because we were from the mountains and it would be “easy for us”. We looked at the map and decided to try it the next morning.
The Harney Peak Trail #9 trailhead is near Sylvan Lake. The weather forecast showed no rain until late in the evening, so we were excited. We started after breakfast on the hike, which was good because the parking lot still had spots when we arrived around 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday. We saw very few people on the trail. I think a lot of people who were parked in this lot were also visiting the picturesque Sylvan Lake. This lake has a level trail that meanders around the entire lake. It’s serene views are perfect for canoeing and kayaking. People were fishing and enjoying the lake. And we began our hike.
This hike slowly gains elevation. Overlooks of rocky spires and knotty pines give way to dense forests and a meandering creek. And then we saw it for the first time, Harney Peak. A fire look-out tower made of concrete that matches the rocky spires sits on top of the tallest rock, a relic of the 1930s Conservation Corps. The volunteer had told us we would make it there and see all the way to Nebraska and Wyoming on a clear day. The gray tower was just a speck from the lower section of the trail. It was breathtaking, and I didn’t think we would actually get there. We crossed a creek, went through a dense forest, and then through open, rocky switchbacks. As we neared the top, it was much more busy. There are a couple options for getting to the top of this mountain, but all converge near the rocky top of the mountain.
The views were just as described. They were unstoppable. We could see across the prairies one direction, through the valley in another, and finally across the jagged mountains in the west. This was definitely worth every step. We picnicked at the top with the breeze beginning to pick up as some clouds formed.
Hiking back seemed to go quickly (it was all down hill). When we got back to the parking lot, it was completely packed with cars. Picnic tables are abundant in this park, so I strongly recommend taking advantage of them.
We decided to travel along the Needles Highway on the way back to our campground. This paved loop travels through the Cathedral Spires, a rock formation that can be viewed from various parts of the park. The breathtaking part is not found in the beauty of these rocks (though they are lovely), but in the Needle’s Eye, a one-lane, 8 foot wide tunnel. No stop lights, stop signs, or other marker alerts drivers from either direction. Hold your breath and drive!
The opposite side was a windy section of road that deposited the car on a descending drive through the forest near a river and through yet another narrow tunnel. People were pulled off the road everywhere. They were taking pictures with their children clinging to rocks dangerously close to the busiest road I saw in the entire park.
A summer thunderstorm came through the campground, so we waited until after dinner to get in the car and try fishing at Legion Lake.
This small lake sits next to HWY 16 and has a lodge with restaurant on its edge. A campground is also across the street from the lake. Legion Lake Campground sites are full hook-up and lined up closer to each other than I generally prefer, though the location near this picturesque lake can’t be beat. We tried fishing and caught only the best sunset pictures of the trip. It was well worth the evening spent here.
We wanted to try fishing and kayaking the following day, so we headed to Center Lake. We arrived in the morning, concerned that the lake might be crowded. Center Lake has a swim beach, two picnic areas, and also boasts a large campground with various styles of sites. We went for the day, packing another picnic, our fishing supplies, and our kayak. We arrived to find only a small group of local kayakers. We selected a spot with a picnic table some yards away from the swim beach. The bumblebees were numerous, but seemed harmless and were interested only in flowers and our lunch.
We kayaked and fished with the fish biting only after lunch. The trout were small, but fun to catch and release. The beach attracted several visitors who enjoyed the day swimming, picnicking and having fun. Bathrooms were abundant on all sides of this lake. The non-motorized Center Lake campground will be my next camping spot when I visit this park again.
After leaving Center Lake in the early afternoon, we drove the Game Trail Loop, a scenic road through the opposite end of the park that showcases the large buffalo heard. I love seeing these large animals grazing. Other animals can also be seen on this loop and are known to stop traffic. Even if you don’t see any animals, the drive shows the open expanses and rolling hills that give way to the flatter land in the Midwest.
After dinner, we decided to hike a short trail near our campsite to reveal beautiful views of Stockade Lake, the Crazy Horse monument in the distance, and the Harney Peak lookout we had hiked to the day before. It was a quick up-hill/down-hill to see the sun start setting on the largest lake in the park.