Great State Park Stays: South Dakota's Custer State Park
Sylvan Lake Lodge Contemporary canvases of horses and cowboys splash the dark wood walls inside the park's most traditional lodging. Plush leather seating warms the posh lobby. Spacious hotel rooms reveal a hint of woodsy decor but otherwise recall a midlevel chain; the cabins feel more upscale. The big draw to this part of Custer? Out back, the park's crown jewel, Sylvan Lake, shimmers below towering rock formations. Families picnic along the shore, and dogs hang out next to owners casting lines for rainbow trout. For a bird's-eye view of the lake, dine alfresco at the white-tablecloth dining room known for beautifully plated entrees.
Legion Lake Lodge A 7-year-old from Chicago squeals as a bass glides past his legs in the shallows of Legion Lake. His mom looks around a little nervously, hoping he's not bothering anyone here in the middle of 71,000-acre Custer State Park, just southwest of Rapid City. No one seems to notice. A family with teens pedals a boat past; a middle-aged couple in a rowboat glides by soaring rocks on the opposite shore. Kids clamber on the beachside playground. On a hill overlooking it all, beach towels snap like flags on lines outside rustic but recently remodeled sleeping cabins. Families who stay here are used to squeals now and then-along with the slam of the screen doors.
Blue Bell Lodge It doesn't matter if you've never ridden a horse. Even the saddle stools sidling up to the bar say sit a spell. Navajo-style blankets top comfortable beds made in the Western-theme lodge's rough-hewn log design, and cowboy cookin' best describes the dining room chow. After iced tea served in Mason jars and grilled bison burgers, families roast s'mores outside log cabins surrounded by spruce trees. Most visitors sign up for guided trail rides and Blue Bell's famous Chuck Wagon Cookout. Everyone gets a cowboy hat and bandana; even if that's a first for you, chances are you'll probably know some of the words to "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" when the sing-along starts.
State Game Lodge A sense of history infuses the tall stone-and-timber facade of what once was Calvin Coolidge's summer White House. Wooden chairs dot the wide front porch. A leather couch sits alongside the lobby's stone fireplace, presided over by a portrait of Coolidge. Rooms are smallish by today's standards but feel like just enough in a place where people go to drift away from the present, stare at bison wandering by, eat elk and pheasant in a remodeled dining room, and admire wildlife.
While you're there …
1 It's almost guaranteed that you'll see bison, but to get within snorting distance, sign up for a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour.
2 Driving 25 mph feels plenty fast on the 14-mile Needles Highway, a cliff-hugging journey past gorgeous soaring rock formations.
3 Mount Rushmore National Memorial never fails to impress; for a moving experience, go at night for the flag-lowering ceremony.
4 Construction continues on the massive Crazy Horse Memorial; its devotion to the region's Native American heritage shines in its construction story, its daily activities and with the artists in residence.