May 14, Sunday
I leave my overnight camp at Riverside Park in Douglas, WY around 10. There’s less rush this morning to get on the road because my drive is only about 180 miles and I can’t check into my campsite until noon at the earliest.
I retrace my route on I25 east to Orin, then get on 18 headed toward Lusk. The sage gives way to the rolling grassland of the plains. 18 takes some turns, headed north for a while and then east again into South Dakota past Edgemont. The Black Hills are obvious even at a distance. The pine trees growing on them make them look much darker than the surrounding countryside.
Instead of continuing on 18 to Hot Springs, I point Bertha’s nose north onto 89 towards the town of Custer. There’s some elevation gain along here, Custer is at about 5,300 feet and the clouds look much closer in the sky.
At Custer I turn east on 16A and pass into Custer State Park. The entrance fee has gone up to $20 per carload for 7 days, as opposed to $15 last time I visited four years ago. Because it’s a state park and not a national park, the Interagency and Golden Age passes do not apply.
My home for the next three night is less than a mile from the entrance, at Stockade Lake North Campground. By the time I park I’m so excited I can hardly focus to unhitch. Trees! I’m camping in trees! More clouds are blowing in and the Ponderosa Pine sway and make shushing noises – the sound of wind through pine needles is pretty grand after a winter in the desert.
Custer State Park receives a lot of visitors, and despite it being early in the season, the few campgrounds that are open are already quite full (the rest of the campgrounds open the third weekend in May – next weekend). My site is 2E, also called SN2E for Stockade North. It’s right near the intersection at the start of the campground, a less desirable site on paper and one of only two spots available in this campground for three nights when I reserved on Friday.
In reality though, it’s quite a nice site, better than some of the others farther in. Like most state and national parks, there is plenty of spacing between spots and care has been taken to keep the natural beauty of the area intact. This is hilly ground and I’m quite a ways above the intersection which helps with privacy, and the site has been graded so that it’s easy to get level.
All but two of the sites in this campground have a lot of shade (26 and 27 are more open) and most have electric (there are a couple designated tent only that do not). The campground has 40 spots but only 35 were listed on the reservation website, some of them are blocked off with piles of pine needles. Perhaps they’re being renovated or need extra care after the winter. There’s a playground in the middle of the bigger loop, an outdoor amphitheater, a couple outhouses, and one shower house with flush toilets.
After eating I promptly pull out my hammock and string it between two trees in camp. This will be my only chance to do so, because the weather is about to take a turn for the worse – rain while I’m here and snow later. Ahh, feels great!
May 15, Monday
It’s cold and drizzly in the morning, so I turn on my little ceramic heater (oooo, 120v power!) and work on the computer. Later in the afternoon the sun breaks through the clouds and I grab my hiking shoes and jump into Bertha before the weather changes its mind. I take Stockade Lake Drive out to Stockade Lake Trail – a small loop about a mile and a half long.
The trail doesn’t follow the lakeshore, but cuts into the pine forest and meadows surrounding it. The grass is coming up under the trees and yellow flowers add to the color. It feels good to get out after several days of driving.
The trail climbs onto a ridge, where the lake can be seen through the trees. There’s no one else on the trail, it pays to visit popular places in the shoulder seasons.
The other direction, the more mountainous terrain in the northern end of the park is visible, as is 16A winding through the valley below.
Coming back down the hill, a shape stands silhouetted against the new grass. It’s a deer, trying to make itself invisible by standing still. I snap a picture, and as soon as I move it flees along with two others that I didn’t see deeper in the trees. There are both White Tail and Mule deer in the park.
Farther along the lake drive, a spillway marks the end of the lake and the start of a creek. The sound of the water going over is quite soothing, and is the only sound around as this place is also empty of people.
The road ends back on 16A outside the park, where sits the stockade the lake is named for.
Gordon Stockade was erected in December 1874 by a group of 28 people who came to the Black Hills illegally, looking for gold. The stockade was built as protection against the Native Americans, who owned the land according to the Laramie Treaty. They found little in nearby frozen French Creek and six left the next spring, disheartened. They were captured by the cavalry and made to give up the location of the stockade. The rest of the members were found and escorted to Fort Laramie, but many of them were not charged with any crime and later came back to the Black Hills to try again.
May 16, Tuesday
It’s a wet drive into Rapid City today to renew my driver’s license. This is the main reason why I stopped in South Dakota on my way to Wisconsin and why I paid for camping this time around, as I needed proof that I’ve spent at least one night in the state in the past year to renew my license.
Like my last visit to the SD DMV in Sioux Falls over four years ago, it was a quick and painless process and I’m in and out in five minutes having prepared the necessary paperwork ahead of time. (Note: the SD Residency blog post has been updated with license renewal information).
I take the long way back to camp, heading first to Keystone. This is all national forest land in here, but more built up that most national forests farther west. There is a lot of touristy stuff to do in the area, Keystone and Custer especially. Not being the sort to enjoy those kinds of activities, I blow through Keystone.
Past there is one of my favorite drives in the area, Iron Mountain Road (16A), which connects Keystone in the north to Custer State Park in the south. This is a very twisty narrow road with three single-lane tunnels and multiple pigtail switchbacks (there’s also a fair bit of up and down).
This is not a road for RVs. While the Casita would fit through the tunnels and make the sharp curves, there are few places for rigs to pull over and let other traffic pass and you’d be so busy trying not to fly off the road (many curves have a 15 mph speed limit) that you wouldn’t get to enjoy much. Leave the RV at a campground and enjoy with just your daily driver.
Going both directions, there is one tunnel that perfectly frames Mt Rushmore in the distance. But it’s not something that captures easily with a phone camera because of the high contrast between the dark tunnel and bright sky outside. Just trust me that it’s worth seeing!
If you want a photo of Mt Rushmore, there’s also an informational pullout high on Iron Mountain where you can walk to a viewing platform to see it. Having no zoom capabilities it doesn’t look like much with a phone, but is recognizable.
On the way back to camp I pass Grace Coolidge campground, the other one that I could have stayed at here in Custer. A creek runs behind it which is kind of nice and the spots are paved, but they’re closer together and there isn’t a lick of Verizon signal here. I chose well for my needs.
Custer State Park has a lot more to see and do, much of which I’ve wrote about in past blog posts from the summer I worked in Badlands National Park.