Custer STATE PARK, S.D. - It didn't take long before we realized this was a special place - kind of "Home on the Range" in real life where buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play.
(Except we were in the Black Hills, not on the range, and the animals were actually bison, deer and pronghorn.)
Still, my 14-year-old son, Ben, and I didn't utter a discouraging word as we drove into the 71,000-acre park for a week of camping. We were too busy counting all the wildlife and taking photos.
First, we encountered a herd of massive, lumbering bison rubbing their shaggy winter coats off on a park sign.
Next, we saw whitetail deer flitting about the trees.
Then we spotted a group of pronghorn trotting skittishly about huge swaths of prairie grass.
In only a few minutes, we'd scored the Home on the Range trifecta.
Over the next few days of exploring the park in the southwest corner of South Dakota, we enjoyed a bonanza of wildlife viewing to go with fun and relaxing hikes, fishing, canoeing, swimming, mountain biking, rock climbing and sightseeing amid rock formations that reminded us of Garden of the Gods ... on steroids.
For me, the trip was a chance to relive a childhood vacation with my family. I was a boy when we camped here and I only have vague memories. But I distinctly recall it being a special place and wanted to share it with Ben.
In retrospect, I don't know why I waited so long to return. It's just a day's drive from Colorado Springs and Custer State Park has so many things to enjoy.
For campers, there were beautiful creekside tent sites, camping cabins with heat, air conditioning and bunkbeds, and improved sites for trailer campers and recreational vehicles.
The park also offers improved cabins with kitchens and baths as well as modern hotel rooms at its four main lodges: Blue Bell, Legion Lake, State Game and Sylvan Lake.
We had made reservations for a camping cabin at Blue Bell where a historic log lodge and dining room built in the 1920s sit along French Creek.
Blue Bell is the most rustic of the lodge areas and included a stable offering guided horseback trail rides and chuckwagon dinners with hayrack rides.
Each camping cabin was knotty pine with four bunks, a table and benches. Outside, each featured a porch, fire pit and picnic table. (We were glad we chose the cabin, rather than using our tent, when nighttime temperatures dropped into the mid-30s and we were not shivering on the ground as we were last year in South Dakota.)
Our cabin faced the woods and we enjoyed watching the trail riders pass by each morning and evening.
We especially liked seeing wild turkey wander past our porch and through the campground as if they owned the place.
Showers and toilets were standard issue, for the most part.
We liked our setting, isolated from the busier east-west corridor of the park where the main Peter Norbeck Visitor Center is located. Our spot gave us quick access to several easy hikes to fire tower lookouts with great views and the outstanding 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road, which we drove morning, noon and evening and encountered a variety of winged, hoofed and slithering wild animals and enjoyed spectacular sunsets.
Custer's famous for its bison herd, re-established by Norbeck, the "Father of Custer State Park," after the animals nearly were massacred to extinction. He bought 36 in 1914 and the herd grew, peaking at 2,500 in the 1940s. Today, park officials adjusts its numbers to prevent overgrazing, keeping it around 1,300.
In fact, Custer's Buffalo Roundup is a major attraction. This year, the 48th annual event is slated for Sept. 27. The roundup attracts upwards of 14,000 to watch staff on horseback corral the herd along Wildlife Loop where the 2,000-pound animals are vaccinated, branded, tested and either released or held for later auction.
We were content to watch them from a safe distance, knowing they can be unpredictable and dangerous. And we saw them daily, eventually driving right past them as we do mule deer in Colorado Springs!
The visitor center was impressive as were the daily activities offered to visitors. There were daily gold-panning demonstrations, which brings to life the region's history.
In 1874, an expedition led by Lt. Col. George Custer discovered gold in French Creek, triggering a gold rush into the Lakota Sioux nation, which Custer and his men were supposed to be protecting.
The gold rush escalated tensions and conflicts with the tribe that climaxed in the Massacre at Wounded Knee. At least 150 men, women and children were slaughtered and buried in a mass grave by U.S. Cavalry troops on the Pine Ridge Reservation, not far from the park. It was the last great battle of the American Indian Wars and it remains a flashpoint among Native Americans.
The park doesn't hide its history and the visitor center is a good place to start. It's also the place to find many programs and information on daily guided nature hikes, patio talks at the various campgrounds and even movie nights.
Ben and I particularly enjoyed the Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday fishing and canoeing programs. Twice during our visit, we were handed life jackets, paddles and canoes and turned loose on beautiful reservoirs for two-hour sessions.
On Center Lake, we paddled alongside two adult geese and seven goslings. On Stockade Lake, we spotted a Mallard duck swimming in reeds near shore. We drifted up to find 10 ducklings swimming along in a line, chirping and quacking. She kept an eye on us as she led them through the cattails. It was like being in a Disney movie.
Best of all, the canoeing was free! We didn't even have to load them.
We also fished quite a bit. I bought a license and Ben was free, allowing us to test the various lakes. We each caught a couple of small fish, but we saw more accomplished anglers filling their limit with crappie and trout. The lakes offer plenty of shoreline and a few docks for fishing. And there are hike-in acres along creeks in the park where fishing is said to be especially good.
If all that outdoor stuff doesn't interest you, Custer has amazing things to see from the comfort of your car.
The 14-mile trip up Needles Highway Scenic Drive to Sylvan Lake is worth every minute. It's a winding and rolling road, built in 1922, that takes you through thick forests, meadows and past soaring granite spires, or needles.
The freeze-thaw cycle has produced spectacular views of formations such as Little Devil's Tower, Cathedral Spires and Needles Eye. We timed our trip to coincide with sunset so the rocks glowed dramatically. Beware, the road is narrow and the two tunnels are one-lane traffic only.
We came back a quicker drive via the town of Custer, where we grabbed some ice cream and explored the historic mining and frontier town.
Another great drive took us up the Iron Mountain Road to Keystone and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The road was built in 1933 and is not to be missed. It is not fast, but you won't want to hurry through the three tunnels, which were bored specifically to frame Mount Rushmore for motorists. Again, these are one-lane tunnels so be patient with oncoming traffic.
We timed our visit to Mount Rushmore so we could explore the park during daylight, leave for dinner in nearby Keystone, a mining town that reminded me of Cripple Creek, and return to the memorial for its evening lighting ceremony.
At 9 p.m. each summer night, the park's amphitheater hosts a 20-minute ceremony with a video explaining the background of the four presidents whose faces are sculpted on the mountain. It gets your patriotic juices flowing with appropriate music and images until the faces above begin to glow dramatically.
The park uses the program as an opportunity to honor military veterans in attendance. It was quite inspiring and I recommend it.
For those with more time, Ben and I suggest stopping in Hot Springs south of Custer and the Wind Cave National Park. We visited the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, walked under a waterfall along the Fall River and waded in its warm waters.
The mammoth site was impressive. You can stand at the edge of a 25,000-year-old sinkhole and easily see the skeletons of 60 or so Ice Age beasts that fell in it and died trying to climb out.
In previous years, we've made the trip to nearby Badlands National Park. It's certainly worth a day to see the hoodoos, spires and buttes carved from 65 million years of volcanic ash and sediment.
For railroad buffs, the 1880 Train is a vintage steam train that runs from Hill City to Keystone.
Miles of bike trails run along former railroad right-of-way in the region. And besides Wind Cave, there's Jewel Cave National Monument west of Custer for explorers.
Ben and I were content to spend most of our time in Custer. He especially liked the Wildlife Loop and we made several visits.
We had lunch along the loop one day, watching bison dust themselves in a dried pond. We saw a large coyote trot across the road in front of us and into the timber. We saw a rattlesnake slithering in the road. And we saw many hawks, golden eagles and even a prairie falcon.
And we went out in the evening to spot animals at dusk with a handheld light. That night, we enjoyed a glimmering sunset behind the Black Hills, which reflected off a pond. We watched a turtle cross the road to reach a creek. And we stopped to listen and watch a huge owl perched atop an old snag of a tree.
The highlight of the trip for Ben was on our last day when we spent about an hour tracking a small group of pronghorn. We videotaped as several young pronghorn sparred, pushing each other back and forth with their horns locked.
And as we were about to leave the loop and go home, we came upon the famous Custer State Park burros in a meadow just off the road.
Ben had hoped to see them and until this last moment they had eluded us. Like the donkeys of Cripple Creek, these are descendants of animals brought into the Black Hills to work the mines, pulling ore carts. They were set free when the gold played out and the miners moved on.
A crowd quickly gathered as the burros mooched for food. Unlike the rest of the wildlife, the burros were very gentle and patient as tourists crowded them and children ran about excitedly.
A park ranger had told us many of the burros were pregnant and that it was OK to feed them healthy snacks, so we pulled out a banana. Not only did our shaggy, oddly spotted friend eat the banana, he grabbed the peel and ate it too!
"Seeing the burros made my trip complete," Ben said as we drove away.
I had to agree. And I wondered.
I had first visited Custer State Park when I was about Ben's age. My family camped and hiked and fished and sat around the campfire, just as I did with Ben. Would our trip leave as lasting an impression on him as it did on me?
I'm betting that someday, years from now, he'll return to this amazing place and introduce his own kids to Custer State Park.