For the past week we had been playing campground pinball across South Dakota, spending the last 4 nights in 3 different campgrounds. We had braved sickness, heat and lots of miles and today was the big day…the 2017 Solar Eclipse!!! As we were approaching Custer, the eclipse started and as we rushed to try to find a place to park to see the big show we were relieved to have found a place along a beautiful lake just as the moon stood in front of the sun. While we weren’t in the totality area, we still got to experience all the really cool shadows of a 95% covered sun.
Leslie was the only one of the 5 of us who had ever been to Custer State Park, and that had been 20 years ago. Even as a teenager she had amazing memories of this special place so we were all excited to get here and see what all the hype was about. As you talk to people around the country, Custer State Park is spoken of almost in a reverent way, eliciting oohs and ahhs and bucket list proclamations. We had trekked 1800 miles to get here and unfortunately we were only going to be able to spend 2 nights in this little paradise.
Blue Bell Campground is considered by many as one of the best campgrounds in America. Perhaps this is due in large part to its locale, as it’s central to all that Custer and Wind Cave N. P. have to offer. As campgrounds go, in my opinion, it was overrated. That’s not to say it’s not a nice campground, there are just way nicer ones out there.
South Dakota runs it’s own reservation system and it can be tricky to find on their website. It’s not nearly as easy as reserveamerica.com or recreation.gov, but it does the job. You can reserve specific sites which is always how I prefer to reserve. I like to know which site I’m getting, where it’s located, what’s around it, where the bathrooms are, etc. In the case of Blue Bell, when I was doing my research (campendium, rvparkreviews.com, Google Earth, youtube, etc.) there were very few sites that appealed to me. We were blessed to get the best site in the campground as far as I’m concerned.
We had a back in site (24E) that was VERY uneven (4 blocks under each wheel on one side and blocks for the tongue jack!), but it backed up to some beautiful views. There was a ton of space behind and around the campsite for the kids to explore and roam about in. Blue Bell has electric but no water (fill up at the water spigot at the bathhouse on your way in…it’s the only one we saw!). We didn’t mind not having water hook-ups since the bathhouse had showers (that were free). While the elevation in Custer is a bit higher, and thus cooler, we still found that it got a little warm so having the electricity allowed us to run the A/C to knock the edge off.
There is no dump station here!
One thing that we experienced, as I touched on above, was how challenging some of the campsites were. My Father-in-law had such an unlevel (left-to-right and front-to-back) site that he nearly couldn’t unhook his 5th wheel and he was stuck for about 30 minutes! The guy next to us (site 22) spent 15 minutes trying to back his 30′ TT into the site, ultimately having to turn his truck into a ditch and another campsite just to squeeze it in. His site also was incredibly unlevel.
There were riding stables as you pull into the campground. We didn’t have time to take advantage of this, but it would be a great place to see on horseback. There is also a small store and gas station as you pull in. But don’t plan on getting gas here unless you have to. It was about 40 cents more a gallon than outside the park. The only things we bought at the store we some stickers. They did have a nice spot to do laundry around back of the store, that was priced nicely and the driers actually got everything dry!
There were lots of cute cabins next to the campground. These would be a great option for someone not able to camp.
Things to Do
After setting up camp and exploring for a few minutes we decided to run over to Wind Cave National Park and try to get a tour before the end of the day. The border of Wind Cave N.P. is close by, maybe 15 minutes, but to get to the visitor’s center was another 30 minutes or so, so plan accordingly. It was a very beautiful drive with lots of wildlife! We squeezed into one of the last tours of the day. Noah’s “every kid in a park” 4th grade pass got us free tour tickets! We had about an hour to kill and we were all tired and bordering on grumpy (there’s really nothing to do at the visitor’s center after you watch the little movie and the vending machine food is horrendous). But all that washed away as soon as we got down in the cave. We’ve done a few caves before but this one is definitely a new favorite. It’s unique tunnels and features were exciting to all of us.
Our only full day at Custer we started out driving the “wildlife loop”. We were glad we saw lots of buffalo in Custer because later in Yellowstone we saw disappointingly few. We hit a couple “buffalo-jams” that we all loved. Next we headed to Sylvan Lake via the Needles Highway. This highway was a highlight for the entire trip and we highly recommend it.
Ben brought his little grill to the lake and we made lunch then hit the water. We had hauled our canoe and inflatable kayak all the way across the country and now we finally had a chance to try them out! We couldn’t have asked for a prettier spot to get in the water. The sun was shining and the water was not crowded. FYI, parking can be a beast here. We lucked out and got to park near the water but others weren’t so lucky. After we put the boats away we did some climbing on the gorgeous rock features and hiked behind the lake. We topped our afternoon off with ice cream at the store.
We would’ve loved to have stayed here a few more nights as there’s just so much to do and see. One of the things we really wanted to try to do was hike Black Elk Peak (Harney Peak). We had heard, and rightly so, that people prefer this state park over Yellowstone. After seeing both on this trip I think I’d have to agree. We saw tons more wildlife here than Yellowstone and the rock formations and the surrounding Black Hills were enchanting. In some ways it’s good that we didn’t get everything done that we wanted to since that means we just have to go back some time! On our way out we hit up Mt. Rushmore. While this is something you kinda have to do if you’re in the area, we thought it was overrated and we won’t be back.