Here’s the place trail-riding dreams are made of: miles of meandering trails, roaming bison, and endless horizons bordered by mountains splashed with evergreens and deciduous trees. All of this can be yours to enjoy while riding in South Dakota’s Custer State Park.
Custer State Park is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was named after George A. Custer, who, in 1874, led a scientific army expedition into the Black Hills. Two years later, he and his men were defeated in the battle at Little Big Horn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand.
French Creek Horse Camp is situated just three miles off highway 87 and centrally located in the 73,000-acre park. This is the only horse camp in Custer State Park and is one of the prettiest horse camps you can find.
The camp is snuggled in a grassy valley and freckled with stately pines. The soft green campground is hemmed by forested ridges and split by a bubbling brook on the east side. Evening entertainment often includes visits from elk and bison.
We made French Creek our base camp for several days while exploring the wonders of Custer State Park. There are 26 reserved sites along with two first-come, first-serve sites. Most sites are shaded. Rest-rooms are clean, and have flush toilets and showers. Each site has a corresponding corral. Our Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, Buddy and Scout, enjoyed eating, rolling, and relaxing in their temporary digs.
One enticement of Custer State Park is that you can ride almost everywhere: cross-country or on trails. Only a few areas don’t allow riding, and these are clearly marked.
Four trails emerge from French Creek Horse Camp, marked with posts and diamonds. (Color-coded horse-trail maps and detailed topographic maps are available at the Peter Norbeck and Wildlife Station Visitor Centers.)
The Centennial Trail, marked red on the horse-trails map, passes through the camp and connects to other trails. This trail was dedicated in 1989, the 100th anniversary of South Dakota statehood. It’s 111 miles long; 22 of these miles pass through Custer State Park.
We used the Centennial Trail to access other trails and form loops. By going north, you run into French Creek Gorge. If you ride south, you’ll connect with Big Tree, Robber’s Roost, Parker Canyon, Racetrack Butte, and other trails.
Our first ride out took us through the French Creek Natural Area. This area was established to protect abundant natural resources while providing visitors the opportunity to experience the untouched beauty of French Creek Gorge.
Custer made French Creek famous during the summer of 1874. It was in this creek that the Custer Expedition discovered gold, creating an avalanche of gold seekers into the Black Hills.
At the entrance to the natural area, a sign is posted to warn visitors of rugged terrain, lack of trail markings, numerous creek crossings, rattlesnakes, and poison ivy.
My horse, Buddy, noted with trepidation the numerous stream crossings. Charlene, who’s extremely allergic to poison ivy, shuddered. However, we dutifully rode on.
Trees, moss, and plants clung precariously to colorful canyon walls. Butterflies danced from one wildflower to the next. Hawks sailed on air currents and an occasional trout surfaced for an unsuspecting mayfly.
Without a doubt, you’ll experience stream crossings! We (including Buddy) counted 39 crossings. Poison ivy? The tallest, oiliest, healthiest, most abundant poison ivy we’ve ever seen thrives in this canyon. Some plants reached the bottom of Charlene’s stirrups. At times, she held her feet up, but made it through just fine.
In the gorge, a historical site of interest is an old 1930s-era cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corps boys. In reality, it’s a “his and her” outhouse. Check it out – pretty fancy for those days!
Not wishing to return through the bumper-crop of poison ivy, we did a loop, riding through a switchback draw to the Centennial Trail and back to camp.
Several trails go south from camp with opportunities for cross-country riding. Here, there’s a fairly good chance you’ll ride through buffalo herds. Be wary around buffalo. Although they seem lethargic, they can become an enraged, one-ton mass of charging horns.
Another scenic trail is the Centennial Trail south/Parker Canyon loop. Look for the red-and-brown marked trails on the Custer State Park horse-trails map.
You can also explore on your own by riding up Parker Canyon and Raven’s Canyon. Parker Canyon was named after a family that homesteaded there in the late 1880s.
One day, we rode south on the Centennial Trail and took off to do our own loop ride. Although the loop seemed like a good idea, we changed our minds when our route became blocked by a lone, but very large, bull buffalo snoozing in the middle of a narrow canyon trail.
I thought we might be able to sneak around the bull. However, Buddy, Scout, and Charlene put a definite damper on that idea. We backtracked and worked our way through a different picturesque area.
Big Tree and Robber’s Roost Draw are also loop rides. This trail is marked blue on the horse trails map and takes about four hours to complete. It’s mostly trail and part road with ample possibilities for side explorations.
A fascinating feature on this ride is the Big Tree, the second largest ponderosa pine in the United States.
Safaris & Cookouts
Custer State Park offers wondrous things to see and many activities to experience. For wildlife viewing, do your own road trip. There are approximately 1,500 buffalo in the park. Many of these can be seen by following the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. This road passes through grasslands and rolling hills, giving you an excellent opportunity to watch for buffalo, elk, antelope, and birds.
The Buffalo Safari provides off-road jeep tours into the backcountry in search of bison. The safari originates from the Game Lodge, a historic place worth visiting. It was built in 1920 and is on the National Register of Historic places. At one time, it was known as the Summer White House. Calvin Coolidge made it his summer home in 1927, and Dwight D. Eisenhower also visited here.
The park has two visitor centers: the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center on Highway 16A and the Wildlife Station Visitor Center on the Wildlife Loop Road. Stop here to see exhibits and gather information.
Just three miles from French Creek Horse Camp is the Blue Bell Lodge. This is a hub of activity! The food is delicious and reasonably priced. Folks may sign up for chuckwagon cookouts, horseback rides (for those without their own horses), breakfast rides, and even riding lessons.
Kristen Ahrendt, stable manager, told us the stables have 71 horses and a 250-pound weight limit for riders. She’s an enthusiastic dynamo.
We participated in the chuckwagon cookout, which consisted of either a hamburger dinner or sirloin steak. Each guest also receives a cowboy hat and bandanna. Three wagons, each with 30 people, left Blue Bell Lodge for Parker Canyon. We rode alongside on Buddy and Scout.
On the return trip, Scout wanted to race the traveling wagons. He galloped alongside, then left them behind.
Bed & Barn
If you want to finish your trip to Custer State Park with a little pampering, head out the west entrance of the park on Highway 16A to the French Creek Ranch Bed & Breakfast.
Here, ranch owner Diane Trithart will treat you like royalty. Those who choose to stay in the lodge can enjoy more than 2,000 square feet of total privacy amid Western and Native American artwork and décor. We can attest to the fact that her breakfasts are beyond spectacular!
There’s also a recreational-vehicle park for self-contained trailers or RVs. Horse accommodations include box stalls, outdoor runs, and fenced corrals. There are numerous rides you can do right out of the ranch.
As we drove away from the Black Hills, our thoughts lingered on Custer State Park. It truly is a place where one can make riding dreams come true.
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type “Kent and Charlene Krone” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at [email protected]