My husband is more of a hard core hiker and did a bit more hiking at Custer State Park when we were there earlier this summer. But for me Cathedral Spires was an easy and enjoyable hike that I think most people will like. The key is start early in the morning to avoid the scorching sun and the frequent afternoon thunderstorms. If you’re looking for some challenging hikes, consider Little Devil’s Spur and/or Black Elk Peak. My husband did that one on his own. It’s the highest spot in South Dakota (7242 feet).
Cathedral Spires is roughly 1.6 miles out and back. It takes you to the base of the spires and if you’re lucky you might spot some climbers like we did. It’s a moderate uphill climb and there were quite a few mosquitoes in the first half mile or so as we crossed some marshy meadows filled with wildflowers
Back over a decade ago when we first moved to Colorado, we took an epic road trip up to the Wyoming national parks (Grand Teton and Yellowstone) and then finished out our trip by driving over to South Dakota and visiting Mt. Rushmore and the Badlands (which, contrary to their name, are pretty awesome). On our way home we passed through the Black Hills National Forest. At the time we were road weary and ready to get home, but we made a mental note to return as it was so green and beautiful. It took us a while but my husband and I finally made it back this summer. And we weren’t disappointed by our stay at Bismarck Lake Campground.
From Denver it’s a good 5-6 hour drive, especially on a busy holiday weekend. However, that’s nothing for many folks. We talked to a couple who drove from Michigan and it was a 20-hour journey for them. If you prefer to fly, the nearest major city is Rapid City, just about an hour away. Since the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore, as well as some other major attractions such Crazy Horse Monument and Wind Cave National Park, are nearby, it’s very easy to spend a week here visiting all the sites.
Info for campers
There are cabins and hotels in and around the town of Custer, but we decided to tent camp. We don’t have an RV and every year I regret it a bit more as I get older as it just is not comfortable. Another reason is that in Colorado and throughout the Mountain West (and I stretch to include South Dakota within that region) summer thunderstorms are a frequent occurrence. All three days we were there we had them. Now, fortunately none were as torrential as we experienced in Colorado, but I think we just got lucky. Only one happened during the night and that passed by us just to the north. However, it woke up me (I was thinking it was another fireworks celebration as it was on the 4th of July) and I was unable to get back to sleep for over an hour as I was concerned it would come our direction as it appeared to be doing on the radar.
Now when it comes to picking a campground I always feel a bit torn. Usually I prefer a state park when staying 3 nights or longer, as they have shower facilities, but I didn’t really like the look of the campgrounds within Custer State Park. The most central ones had a generic feel to them and were better suited it seems to RVs. So we decided to just stay right outside the boundary of the state park at a Black Hills National Forest Camp, Bismarck Lake Campground, a small 21-site campground next to a scenic lake. Like forest camps everywhere, it only had vault toilets but it did have water. But it was high enough up that we felt it wouldn’t be too mosquito infested.
The campground itself was great. The location of our site (#3) was also very nice with lots of trees and plenty of space between us and our neighbors. However, it was indicated as a tent site and I just don’t agree with that. We ended up pitched our large-ish tent at the end of the long gravel driveway. At least it was flat but the ground was very hard, difficult to drive the spikes into.
However, #3 was on the quieter end of the campground with better spacing than the small loop and we felt the mosquitoes were minimal. Close to the toilet but not too close and a short walk to the lake. The lake is smaller than the very popular Sylvan Lake and nearby Stockade Lake but very pretty, with a boat launch (for canoes, kayaks, small fishing boats, paddle boards as this is a no-wake lake).
Because of its proximity to Custer, we actually drove into town for breakfast 2 mornings and donuts on our final day. (I especially recommend Baker’s Bakery and Cafe – great breakfast and killer Apple fritters) We ate our dinner once, as well. For me, it was a nice balance as I’m not a hardcore camper
Overall, I’d give this a 4 out of 5 for its beautiful location and quiet surroundings.