Images by D.Louie for hART Sense Design
Distinguishing between history and legend can often be tough when examining lives of people tied to "winning of the West." Hero or failure, outlaw or a kindly character, incompetent or brilliant... it all depends who you are talking to. Still, most have landmarks named after them regardless of their reputation.
General George Armstrong Custer is no exception. As Louise Barnett aptly puts it in her book, Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer, "When writing about Custer, neutral ground is elusive... There will always be a variety of opinions based upon what Custer knew, what he did not know, and what he could not have known..." Opinions aside, the jaunty General has a town, a county, and even a state park named after him in South Dakota alone.
Custer State Park is South Dakota's first and largest state park. Its history dates back to 1897, when just eight years after South Dakota joined the union, Congress granted to the state sections 16 and 36 in every township as school lands. South Dakota had difficulties administering the scattered blocks of state school lands, so in 1910, the state relinquished all rights to them in exchange for nearly 50,000 acres of forest in Custer County and about 12,000 acres in Harding County. Together, these two parcels were designated Custer State Forest in 1912. After action by the State Legislature, Custer State Forest became Custer State Park. The popularity of the park grew in 1927, when President Calvin Coolidge made it his "summer White House."
Today, the hilly terrain of the park is a natural playground for all manner of wildlife and for visitors alike, both big and small. Apart from being home to the famed free-roaming herd of 1,500 head of buffalo, Custer State Park offers opportunities to encounter pronghorn antelope, mule deer and whitetail deer, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, beavers, marmots, prairie dogs, and - of course - the feral burros. In fact, "begging burros" have become the main attraction on the Wildlife Loop, a section of road winding through the park areas optimal for wildlife spotting. If you are driving with your widows open, they will stick their heads into the car looking for something tasty to eat. You'd best be prepared with bags of carrots or apples to share.
If you are an outdoorsy type, you'll find plenty of things to do in Custer State Park, from wildlife watching to fishing, camping, boating, hiking, rock climbing, and mountain biking in the spring, summer and fall, to snowshoeing in winter. The park also offers interpretive tours, summertime theater productions at the Black Hills Playhouse, and various other events, such as the famous annual buffalo roundup, which attracts people from all over the country and even from overseas. The park also boasts two of the famed Black Hills scenic drives: Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road. However, be warned that they are not for the faint of heart. With their narrow tunnels, pigtail bridges, dramatic drop-offs, and unusual rock formations, these two roads will take your breath away, both figuratively and literally. Last but not least, Sylvan Lake, Stockade Lake, Center Lake, Bismark Lake, Beaver Lake, and Legion Lake make perfect relaxation spots for a hot summer day.
Custer State Park is definitely one of the must see places in the Black Hills, so make sure to visit if you are anywhere in the vicinity regardless of what your opinion of General Custer happens to be. Guaranteed, you won't be disappointed.
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the mind and hands behind hART Sense Design. I am a designer and hand-maker of one-of-a-kind and limited edition jewelry and accessories for artistic, chic cowgirls, boho babes, and lovers of all things western.
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