Custer State Park, South Dakota

Most people who travel to the Black Hills of South Dakota are intending to visit Mount Rushmore and perhaps even the Crazy Horse Monument, while on their way somewhere else (Yellowstone National Park for example).  However, visiting Custer State Park (CSP) with its open prairies, dense forests, and large buffalo herd, can be the perfect complement to the more acclaimed (and crowded) tourist draws in the Black Hills.

Custer State Park is located in the Black Hills of southeastern South Dakota, several hours drive from any big city (like Chicago, Denver, or Kansas City).  While Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse are must sees on any outing in the Black Hills, they are each easily visited in just a couple of hours. If you’re staying in the area for more than one day and want something a little bit off of the main tourist trail, then Custer State Park can be the perfect chance to explore deeper and to get to know the area. For starters, the park is immense, with over 71,000 acres of rolling prairie and forested hills with lots of space to spread out, it is nearly six times larger than Mount Rushmore National Park.  CSP is probably best known for its large herd of roughly 1,500 free roaming buffalo but there are also many other animals that can be seen in the park like antelope, deer, goats, and even a herd of burros.  There are also miles of hiking trails, lodges, campgrounds, and lakes to explore.

The trailhead to South Dakota’s tallest peak, Harney Peak (or Black Elk Peak as it is now known), is located just within the park and the summit can be reached via a moderately difficult seven mile hike. The peak tops out at an elevation of 6,200 feet at the summit, making it the tallest mountain in South Dakota and the tallest in the United States east of the Rockies.  At the top, there is stone fire lookout tower, making it a unique summit to rest and take in the great views of the plains below.  If you know where to look, you can even see the backside of Mount Rushmore from up there.  Elsewhere in the park, there are also many miles of less strenuous hikes if this seven mile hike isn’t for you.

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Fire Lookout Tower, Harney Peak
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The backside of Mt. Rushmore in the distance, sightseeing helicopters above
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One of many hiking trails within the park
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Cathedral Spires

The thrill of seeing wild, free roaming buffalo is the closest thing to what it must have been like in the old west that we can experience, and there are so many of them that they often kick up huge dust clouds as they graze. If you’re lucky enough to be around the large herd, you can have the animals that seem as big as your car, completely surround you.  Buffalo are a truly magnificent animal and you can really appreciate that when they’re in close proximity and you can experience that here, without the crowds.  The buffalo photo above was taken on a dirt road with not another person within miles of us and we could literally touch it out of our car windows it was so close (we didn’t touch it by the way).

So if you’re planning a trip to the Black Hills or if you’re just passing through on your way somewhere else, think about staying an extra day and exploring Custer State Park, it’ll probably be the best part of your trip.

 

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Off the Path in County Sligo, Ireland

Most people will tell you that their favorite part of Ireland was Dublin, maybe Galway, or maybe even the Ring of Kerry (my mom liked the Dingle peninsula).  All are wonderful in their own right but for me, Sligo by far and away had the best blend of ‘authentic’ Ireland. The areas of Ireland that all of the tourists go have, in fairness, become that way with good reason.  Some are popular with tourists because of the pubs, others for castles, or maybe even the scenery.  County Sligo has all of that, but it truly lacks the large groups of tourists like many other parts of Ireland have.  I have nothing against tourists and I call myself one, but when you can visit beautiful places without the crowds, it makes for a more authentic experience.

The area is known as Yeats country for the famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who made the area famous with poems like ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and ‘Under Ben Bulben’.  Admittedly, I am not much into poetry but rather the scenery that inspires it, and there is plenty of inspirational scenery in County Sligo.

The primary landmark around the area is the large rock formation of Benbulben.  It looks similar to what a mesa looks like in the southwestern United States, only larger and greener than what you would find there.  Sheep graze its flanks with their colorful markings to distinguish one owners sheep from another’s like cattle of the western United States are branded for the same reason. Below the flanks of Benbulben are Tolkien-like forests that wouldn’t be out of place in The Shire.  You can hike to the summit of Ben Bulben, but instead I chose to walk in the forests at its flank.  Here the land was flat and the views of the mountain were stunning.

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Benbulben (Gortarowey) Looped Walk

Another popular spot is known as Knocknarea, a hill that is topped with a very large rock cairn believed to be the Irish legend Queen Maeve’s grave.  I started my hike in good weather and I was able to see the views of the bays of Ballysadare and Sligo, with the Irish Sea in the distance, before the Irish weather moved in.  On the way up, more sheep with their colorful markings were seen on the slopes of the hill and even up on the rock cairn at the top.  When I reached the top, an Irishman asked me if I had seen any sign of the Queen, with a mischievous gleam in his eye.

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Sheep grazing on Knocknarea, Ballysadare Bay in the background
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Queen Maeve’s Grave shrouded in Irish weather
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Sheep just walk all over the grave!

A drive around the beautiful Lough Gill will give you a glimpse of what inspired Yeats to write ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’.  The lake is lined with beautiful hardwood trees, castles, homes and parklands.  The lake is large but the one hour drive around its shores is well worth it.

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The shores of Lough Gill
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Parke’s Castle on Lough Gill

Sligo is also well known for its beaches with Strandhill and Streedagh being among the most scenic you’ll see anywhere.  Sligo’s beaches are easily accessible and a walk in the cool sand and fresh air is a great way to take in some of the scenery.

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My Mom strolling on Rosses Point Beach with Benbulben in the background

Lastly, Sligo is both a county and a big small town that has all of the conveniences of any proper destination.  There are banks, grocery stores, cafes, spas, and even a professional football (soccer) team, the Sligo Rovers.  So if you’re looking to get a little off of the tourist route but still want an authentic Irish experience, then head to Yeats Country in County Sligo and you won’t be disappointed. If you’re looking for more information about the hikes/walks in the area, Sligo Walks is an outstanding resource (https://sligowalks.ie).

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Sligo Rovers FC