on March 31, 2008
Custer State Park is South Dakota's first and largest State Park. It all began in 1897 when Congress granted sections 16 and 36 in every township as school lands. Administering the scattered blocks of state school lands throughout the timbered Black Hills proved to be difficult, so in 1906, negotiations arose to exchange the scattered lands for a solid block. In 1910, South Dakota exchanged 60,000 acres of land in the Black Hills forest for roughly 50,000 acres of forest in Custer County, and 12,000 acres in Harding County. These two parcels were designated as Custer State Forest in 1912. Then, in 1919 South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck urged the State Legislature to change the name to Custer State Park and the resolution passed.The park enjoyed significant growth in the 1920s, acquiring more Black Hills forest lands. The depression saw the enactment of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who made extensive park improvements in the 1930s, establishing campgrounds and picnic areas, the erection of a park museum and the creation of roads replete with bridges. Perhaps the most important of these improvements was the construction of three reservoirs known today as Legion, Center and Stockade lakes providing water-based recreation to park visitors.It is relevant to point out how influential Peter Norbeck was in eliciting the most the Black Hills had to offer. He was instrumental in the creation of Scenic Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, Custer State Park, Badlands National Park, Sylvan Lake and Wind Cave National Park. Serving as South Dakota Governor for several years, he later became a widely respected State Senator.Norbeck's influence in Washington D.C. was enough to convince Calvin Coolidge to vacation for 3 weeks in summer of 1927. The State Game Lodge in Custer State Park was remodeled to serve as the Summer Whitehouse, and the creek which runs in front of the lodge was renamed from Squaw Creek to Grace Coolidge Creek and stocked with lunker trout. Aside from the fact that the fresh South Dakota air did wonders for his bronchitis, Coolidge was so impressed with the rugged beauty of the Black Hills that he extended his stay to three months, long enough for Senator Norbeck to persuade Norbeck to dedicate the undertaking known as Mount Rushmore.People were amazed when "Silent Cal" came out in favor of the project - and promised federal support as well.You don't have to be President of the United States for Custer State Park to have a profound effect on your sensibilities. Presently the Park encompasses roughly 71,000 acres of pristine scenery. Hikers marvel at the view awarded by Harney Peak, the highest point East of the Rocky Mountains. Fishing, swimming, mountain biking, camping and horseback riding are some more of the many activities the park offers.There are two significant scenic byways. The first, the Needles Highway gives a spectacular look at the varying terrain that comprises the Black Hills, culminating in awe-inspiring granite spires known as the Needles. Various wildlife can be seen on both loops, but it is the forte of the second, aptly named "The Wildlife Loop."This 13 mile loop gives visitors the chance to spot white-tailed and mule deer, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, bison, coyotes, bobcats, the elusive mountain lion and a park favorite; the begging burros. The "begging burros" are a herd of wild-roaming donkeys who are fond of begging for food from visitors. Park visitors are encouraged to bring lots of sliced apples if they wish to be especially popular with the four-legged freeloaders.While chances are fairly slim at seeing elusive creatures like mountain lions or bobcats, the park is home to a free roaming herd of 1,500 bison, also referred to as buffalo. Every year, during the Custer Buffalo Roundup, visitors are invited to watch cowboys and cowgirls round up the entire herd to be examined for health, then have excess bison auctioned off to reflect the Park's carrying capacity. The ground rumbles even from a safe distance as 1,500 of the animals, (some of them weighing over a ton) come running into the corrals. The park also concurrently hosts an arts/crafts fair and buffalo chili feed during this event.A $10 pass will get you into the park for a week, and if you spring for the annual pass (I'm not sure on the price) it will not only get you into Custer State Park for the entire year, but other South Dakota State Parks as well. Anyone, including myself, who has seen what Custer State Park has to offer will let you know that either way, you'll be getting a bargain for your money.
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