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Friday, January 3, 2014

Winter in Custer State Park

In search of a winter rendezvous that the entire family can enjoy?  Trek into the wilds of Custer State Park, where you'll encounter adventure, exploration and fun for an affordable price.

The southern Black Hills have a mild winter climate, compared to bitter blizzard conditions in other areas of the state.  Snowfall typically melts several days after flurries, creating ideal conditions for winter hiking.  The prairie floor is a hue of earthy tones, dusted in snow.  Even in the midst of the cold temperatures and frozen ground, life teems in Custer from the plains to the high granite needle peaks of the Black Hills. 

Winter is an excellent time for wildlife viewing.  Custer State Park's 71,000 acres is a land where 1400 bison roam, as an emblem of the spirit of the west.  Driving Custer's Wildlife Loop in the winter, you'll avoid the crowds, able to find solitude of nature at its apex. Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer, antelope and prairie dogs are a few of the wildlife you'll encounter in Custer.

There is limited snowmobiling on Stockade, Sylvan and Legion Lakes. Weather permitting snowshoeing is a fun way to get into the backcountry, surrounded by the splendor of snow dusted granite hills and towering Ponderosa pines.

Ice fishing is a must for any winter trip to Custer.  Most of the park's lakes are stocked with rainbow trout, as well as brook and brown trout.  Stockade Lake is a 'cold-spot' for fishing.  Area guides take first time 'ice-fishers' on angling excursions.

For a list of Winter Activities in CSP:

Mount Rushmore, Jewel and Wind Caves, Crazy Horse and Rapid City are great winter destinations, easily accessible from CSP. (Affordable and Kid-Friendly as well...and if you are going for a 'romantic' getaway, the lantern tours at area caves serve as the perfect date...)

Winter lodging at CSP is offered at the relaxing and modern Creekside Lodge in the Game Lodge area.  Rates for winter lodging run in the $99 per night, giving you the peace and luxury of Custer Resort lodging at a great price. 

Murder in Custer State Park - Playhouse Mystery Series is available now on Kindle and in Paperback.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Custer City - A Black Hills Original

In Murder in Custer State Park, Merritt spends a great deal of time in Custer City going to the grocery store, researching costumes at the 1881 Courthouse Museum and dining out with friends.

Located on the western edge of Custer State Park, the charming town of Custer City (known as 'Custer') is a gateway to the Black Hills.  Founded in 1875, Custer is the oldest settlement in the Black Hills. The population grew to 10,000 people in May of 1876, a thriving population based on mining.  However, the town lost all but fourteen of its residents when gold was discovered in the northern Black Hills near the town of Deadwood.  It has seen its share of ups and downs, but this Black Hills original stands resilient, with a population of 2,000 and a vibrant culture.  Custer City is a hub of tourism, the gateway town and supply center for Custer State Park and other area attractions. 

The 1881 Courthouse Museum was a tremendous help when Merritt was researching costumes for General George Armstrong Custer.  They have numerous exhibits on the Black Hills and colorful history of Custer City.

Custer has many museums, shops and restaurants.  I recommend a stop at the Museum of Woodcarving, Lunch at Cattleman's and a stroll downtown.

For groceries: Custer County Market, Dakota Mart

For more information about Custer, SD:

There's Gold in the Black Hills

Gold fever first came to the Black Hills, when in the summer of 1874, an expedition led by Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills.  Under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, mining was not allowed as this region belonged to the Plains Indians.  Gold fever became an infection, unfortunately that spread quickly and a group of gold seekers from Sioux City, Iowa moved into the Black Hills the following winter. 

The Gordon Party built a log fortress on the bank of  French Creek just inside the current boundaries of Custer State Park, near Stockade Lake.  The Gordon Party's endeavor was not very profitable, and in five months they were removed for violating the treaty by the US Cavalry.  The Gordon Party however signaled the first of what would be a rush of over 10,000 fortune seekers to the Black Hills.  These miners illegally inhabited Lakota's sacred land.  To the Lakota mining for gold in the Black Hills was obstructing the true treasure - the beauty of the land itself! Gold led to further conflict in the area, but also opened up new trade and defined the region's created the rough and tumble town of Deadwood, which I will blog about soon...

Today you can tour a recreation of the original Stockade Fort, then spend the afternoon relaxing at Stockade Lake, hiking the Stockade Lake Trail and picnicking on the banks of this idyllic patch of 'golden paradise' while reading 'Murder in Custer State Park.'

Crazy Horse - Monument of Spirit

"My lands are where my people lie buried." - Crazy Horse

So speaks to the spirit of the Lakota and the Native Tribes of the land.  To the Lakota the Black Hills are sacred.  Known as the Paha Sapa, they are a place of spiritual connectivity that should be revered and protected.  One of the true great Lakota heroes, that inspires generations of Americans today is Crazy Horse, a man of great spirit and determination.  He was a renowned war general who fought bravely for the victory at The Battle of Little Bighorn. 

Crazy Horse and the Lakota felt betrayed that their sacred land was unfairly stolen by the Federal Government through improper treaties.  This dark time serves as a reminder for future generations to respect and honor one another and the land. Perhaps it is that spirit that makes Crazy Horse a figure of inspiration for Native Americans and non-Native Americans, like myself.  He died after being stabbed in the back with a bayonet after being captured by U.S. forces (might have been on purpose or part of the heat of the moment...)  His body was buried by his parents in an undisclosed location.

With the advent of Mount Rushmore, members of the Lakota tribe commissioned sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to create a monument in stone to Crazy Horse, so that the public would know that the Lakota have heroes of value too.  For the reminder of his life, Korczak dedicated himself entirely to the cause of seeing the dream of 'Crazy Horse' realized.  It is a dream that is still in motion...

Korczak Ziolkowski was born in Boston of Polish descent.  Orphaned at age one, he grew up in foster homes.  He was completely self-taught and never took a formal lesson in art, sculpture, architecture or engineering. That is striking considering his talent in art and sculpture!

Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear learned of the sculptor when Korczak's Paderwski: Study of an Immortal won first prize, by popular vote at the 1939 NY World's Fair. "My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, also..." - Standing Bear wrote to Korczak asking him to the Black Hills to carve Crazy Horse.  It is unknown what Crazy Horse looked like (reports of a photograph of Crazy Horse are highly contested), so this is a monument to his Spirit and the spirit of the Lakota and Native American who are a foundational core of the fabric of American culture.

Korczak arrived in the Black Hills on May 3 1947 and started work on the mountain in 1948.  He was almost forty with only $174 to his name.  He worked until his death in 1982 carving, blasting with dynamite to create Crazy Horse.  Upon his death, his wife Ruth and family continued his legacy.  Each year working in concert with the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, work concludes, a new layer emerging in the sculpture.  When completed it will be the largest sculpture in the world!  It is already larger than Mount Rushmore.

Crazy Horse is more than the monument, it is a memorial to all Native Americans.  The Indian Museum of North America  features a history of the Lakota and other tribes, Native American art and a film 'Dynamite & Dreams' about the monument.  You can visit Korczak's studio and view many of his sculptures.  Eventually Crazy Horse Memorial hopes to have a hospital, college and other resources for Native Americans.  It is supported 100% by admission and donations.  They host the Volksmarch in the summer and have spectacular laser shows through the year under the Dakota night sky.  Stay tuned to their FB page and website for info about dynamite detonations - which you can witness - as they continue work on Crazy Horse.

I have visited Crazy Horse twice and each time I'm thrilled - it is a work in progress as dynamite and dreams continue - visit Crazy Horse - you won't be disappointed.

Crazy Horse Memorial Website -

Splelunk in the Caverns of the Black Hills

Spelunk: Explore Caves as a hobby.

Even if you don't want to delves deep into the unknown abyss of the underground network of the mystery of South Dakota's vast cave systems, wired with ropes and helmets, you can venture into Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park on a guided, safe and illuminating cave tour.

In Murder in Custer State Park, Merritt and Josh explore Jewel Cave on a Ranger Tour and hike above ground on the Hell's Canyon Trail.

Jewel Cave:
Jewel Cave was set aside as a National Monument in 1908.  Spelunkers originally believed the cave to be relatively small, until exploration teams in the 1950s discovered the vast mazes of passageways.  To date over 168 miles of mapped and surveyed passages, make Jewel Cave the second longest cave in America (behind Mammoth in KY) and the third longest cave in the world! 
The cave was named by Frank and Albert Michaud, two area prospectors, who discovered the cave in 1900.  They thought the calcite formations resembled 'jewels.'  Jewel Cave is an adventure both above and below the earth.  The National Park Service offers several cave tours, including the basic 'Discovery Tour,' popular 'Lantern Tour,' and even 'Spelunking Adventures.'  Reservations are recommended for the tours.  Scientists and spelunkers are constantly searching for new passageways and mapping new discoveries into their search of the cave's unknown spots.  Cave life is surprisingly complex, with an ecosystem based on limited sunlight, bats to small bugs...Even in the depths of darkness there is life...

"Jewel Cave was formed by the gradual dissolution of limestone by stagnant, acid-rich water. The water enlarged a network of cracks that had formed during the uplift of the Black Hills approximately 60 million years ago. The layer of calcite crystals that covers much of the cave walls was created by the re-deposition of calcite from water saturated with the mineral.
After the water that formed the cave drained, speleothems (cave formations) began to form. Jewel Cave contains all the common types of calcite formations, such as stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, and frostwork, although not in the same abundance as other well-known caves. The dry parts of the cave contain some formations created by the deposition of gypsum, such as gypsum needles, beards, flowers, and spiders. Finally, Jewel Cave contains a very rare formation called a hydromagnesite balloon. Those are created when gas of an unknown source inflates a pasty substance formed by the precipitation of the magnesium carbonate hydroxide mineral." - from park website.

I recommend doing The Lantern Tour and taking time to hike Hell's Canyon - bring plenty of water as the prairie heat can be scorching.

For more information about Jewel Cave:

Wind Cave National Park:
Just south of Custer State Park, is a sprawling undaunted prairie, where tall grasses wave in the rhythm of the wind and bison roam, and prairie dogs bark.  If this tapestry of wind and grassland wasn't enough to inspire, below, hidden in the vault of the earth is Wind Cave.  Wind Cave is one of the oldest caves in the world, forming 320 million years ago from erosion, sediment deposits, cracks and dissolution.  Wind Cave is a magical wonderland.  It is known for its exquisite intricate boxwork formations- thin, honeycomb shaped structures of calcite that protrude from the walls and ceilings.  Wind Cave has a few stalactites and stalagmites, what makes this cave unique is the diversity of features and complex geology of the cave.  It is amazing to note that in 100 years of modern cave's exploration (it was known as a sacred place to American Indians prior to rediscovery), has only reveals 5% of the caves network of passageways (determined by barometric wind studies).  Scientists and spelunkers continue to defy the dark and delve into the recesses of the cave charting bit by bit new discoveries of this ancient underworld of art.

While at Wind Cave take time to do a cave tour or two, each tour offers a slightly different look at various cave features.  Enjoy a prairie hike and work on spotting prairie dogs and bison.

For more information:
Wind Cave:

Frost work - Wind Cave

Mount Rushmore

In Murder in Custer State Park, The Custer Playhouse performs Dakota in the Rushmore amphitheater.  They use their free time at the Memorial to explore The President's Trail, Sculptors Studio and Museum...Plan your trip to Mount Rushmore - it is a must see attraction...

Mount Rushmore is a national treasure, it surpasses political divides and conflict, it is an emblem of our unity as a nation, and growing above our hardships and mistakes to the ideal of democracy.  It is an international symbol of America, that attracts millions of tourists from as far away as Russia and China to nearby Rapid City.  I asked my friend who is from Russia (she went to Belmont with me) why she made it a priority to visit Mount Rushmore on her vacation to the US - it is because Mt. Rushmore is a symbol of hope in human's overcoming the impossible odds to have a peaceful form of government - is it perfect, no, but it is a memorial to that hope and stirs the patriotism in Americans to fight to preserve the diverse fabric of our nation from the Native American cultures of the Lakota who consider these hills sacred, school children who are first learning of American history, to adults who have varying opinions to immigrants who see Mount Rushmore for the first time. It is an inspiring testament, the monument is artistry and a feat that took countless hours, hard work, blasting and sculpting...Mount Rushmore is a pipe dream that seemed impossible, yet now it stands as a testament to working together for a good goal.

In 1923 South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson suggested carving giant statues into the granite outcroppings of the Black Hills...Robinson wanted to memorialize historical figures of the state including Red Cloud, Lewis & Clark and Buffalo Bill, Custer....He initially proposed The Needle outcroppings, but it was decided 'God made the Needles' and they should not be tampered with. The idea behind the carvings was to increase tourism to The Black Hills. 

The memorial's backers called in master sculptor of Stone Mountain in Georgia, Gutzon Borglum.  In an era when many artists were disenchanted with American patriotism, Borglum made his name through celebration of things American.  Borglum was born in Idaho to Danish immigrants and studied art in Paris.  He studied in the shadow of his artist brother, Solon....Borglum was an up and coming sculptor of increasing fame when he was approached about the giant sculpting project that became Mount Rushmore.

Borglum scouted out a location far better than the fragile Needles: 5,725 foot Mount Rushmore (named after a New York lawyer in 1885).  Its broad wall of exposed granite, faced southeast to receive direct sunlight for most of the day.  Borglum's goal, to carve the mountain as a last memorial to American ideals: "in commemoration of the foundation, preservation, and continental expansion of the United States."

Borglum selected four U.S. presidents that defined the history of America:
George Washington: commander of the Revolutionary army and first U.S. President - he set the standard of how a leader should act, gracious and hard-working, noble and honest, working for democracy in action, a public servant for the people in a government by the people.

Thomas Jefferson: As author of the Declaration of Independence and our third President, Jefferson was instrumental in forming America and promoting democracy.  During his presidency he was the mastermind of the Louisiana Purchase, which nearly tripled the size of the nation and helped open up South Dakota area as US territory.  He sponsored the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery, which plays a critical part in South Dakota and American history...

To the far right on the monument:
Abraham Lincoln, whose leadership restored the Union out of the bloody Civil War and ended slavery on U.S. soil

Theodore Roosevelt was chosen for his role in conservation and progressive initiatives.  At the time of commissioning Mt. Rushmore, many did not want Roosevelt added, but now he is considered one of our finest presidents and patron of our parks system.

During his Summer White House stay in Custer State Park, President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the memorial in 1927, commencing fourteen years of work; only six years were spent on actual carving.  Money became an obstacle, particularly with the Great Depression.  Borglum didn't give up, lobbying officials, representatives, senators and presidents. "The work is purely a national memorial," he insisted at a congressional hearing in 1938.  Pride in country in uncertain times bonds the country together - diversity yet unity under the American flag of freedom.  The project also created good jobs, and good will.

The Washington head was finished first in 1930. It is interested to know that Washington had to be first and farthest left because of the carving of his nose and profile, Borglum was meticulous in siting and planning the exact placement of each head based on erosion factors, sunlight, etc...

President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated Jefferson in 1936, Lincoln in 1937 and Roosevelt in 1939.  Borglum died in 1941, but his son Lincoln, a brilliant sculptor in his own right finished work.  Work stopped in October 1941, on the eve of U.S. entry into World War II, a testament of American spirit that so many brave men and women have fought to preserve and protect.

Things to Do:
- See the Monument: One of the best angles of view, outside of the main viewing platform, is on the President's Trail.  The .5 mile Presidential Trail begins at the Grand View Terrace and provides access to the viewing sites near the talus slop of the facing.  The trail also winds to Borglum's Sculptor's Studio: displays models and tools used in the carving process-giving an insight on the planning and artistry of the monument.
-Go to the Lincoln Borglum Museum, watch the 13-minute history film and tour the exhibit halls.  I recommend doing this first.
-Grab some ice-cream in the dining hall...peruse the gift shop
-At night a lighting ceremony is held in the amphitheater
-Ranger talks occur throughout the day

For more information about Mount Rushmore, including interesting facts and history, visit the official webpage:

Fun Facts about Mount Rushmore:

View from President's Trail

Sculptor's Studio

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Iron Mountain Road Adventure

In Murder in Custer State Park, Merritt and the Playhouse cast and crew wind up the Iron Mountain Road for a performance at Mt. Rushmore...

The Iron Mountain Road is a journey that defies gravity, twisting and turning through stunning extremes of awe-inspiring mountain vistas, rock hewn bends and breaks, dizzying spins...The seventeen mile road at its core is an engineering marvel traversing through God's architecture, nature's unbridled beauty.  Prepare for to be inspired on the journey of The Iron Mountain Road.

The Iron Mountain Road, known as 16A, is a seventeen mile stretch of the northern area of Custer State Park that connects to Mount Rushmore. This road was sited by Peter Norbeck and Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum.  It was designed to offer top views and perfectly visualized angles of the landscape, framing Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills.  This is a road meant to be driven at a slow pace, so you can enjoy each and every breathtaking moment of drama.  You cannot speed without imperiling your life.  In its seventeen miles, the Iron Mountain Road has 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 pigtail bridges, 3 tunnels, wildlife, and 2 splits, all leading to four presidents carved into stone as a testament of Dakota's ancient hills and the foundation of our nation.

Camp or book a hotel in Custer, then carve out a day to take the Iron Mountain Road to Mount Rushmore, tour the Memorial and check out Keystone.  It will be a day you won't forget.

For more about The Iron Mountain Road: