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Cussing at Custer (State Park)

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place.”
    Elliot Erwitt

Custer State Park, in Southwest South Dakota, is not an ordinary place. I'm sure it's a really neat place offering some really neat photo opportunities. If I ever get to see it, I'll let you know. It's big, at 71,000 acres (nearly 29,000 hectares). The terrain and geology are quite diverse, from rolling plains and open meadows, to lakes, to otherworldly sandstone spires. The park has nine public campgrounds, several resort lodges, scenic drives, hiking trails, abundant wildlife including American bison (buffalo) and an annual buffalo roundup. In some areas of the park one can look to the north up through the trees to see the faces carved into Mount Rushmore, which, while outside the park, may be a pretty amazing thing to see.

In mid-October, 2018, Pat and I drove about 900 miles (1450 km) to see all of that and perhaps make a few photos, but didn't, very much. We left home in northwest Montana in nice weather for a drive. Along Interstate 90 we detoured to take the Pintler Loop from west to east, making a tourist stop in Philipsburg, another stop to photograph a roadside barn, and again to have a nice lunch in Anaconda before rejoining I 90 and continuing eastward. We drove through Butte, down the other side of the Continental Divide into Montana's open plains, onward through the giant chemistry set of Billings, and then stopped for the night in Hardin. A long drive, but with pleasant weather and Pat's good company, enjoyable.

Hardin is less than four hours by car from Wyoming's Devils Tower National Monument, which we'd never seen. We decided to fix that, and I'm glad we did. As things turned out, this was the most fun, if somewhat unexpected, photography of the trip. I'll write more about that in an upcoming article. What started as a blue-sky morning around Devils Tower changed pretty quickly around lunch time. Some clouds, wispy at first, moved in as we wrapped up the morning photo session at the monument. When we left the area around 2:00 the clouds had thickened, blocking the sun. As we continued east the coming nasty weather would catch up and overrun us by the end of the day.

Arriving at our destination, Keystone, SD, we met Pat's sister and her husband, who had driven down from their home in west-central Michigan. Not that an excuse is needed, but celebrating a significant birthday seemed a good reason for the four of us to drive a lot of miles to spend a couple of days together.

Rain fell overnight, and we awoke to a light frosting of snow the next morning. Dense fog limited visibility. After a hearty breakfast we loaded our gear into the car and headed for the park. As a scouting day it seemed sensible to make a loop through the park, following the road down from Keystone, driving the park's perimeter loop, and exiting via the Needles Highway. We'd continue north for a quick look at Mount Rushmore, and complete the loop by returning to Keystone.

Best Laid Plans

The fog limited visibility; it did not improve. Rain fell all day, but to make up for that the temperature never exceeded 45°F (7C). Fortunately the wind remained calm. As we drove through the park we made a number of stops, and although we took a few photos, I mainly looked for things I'd come back to when the weather cleared (it didn't). Through the rain and fog we saw beautiful rock-rimmed lakes, glorious fall color (mainly, aspen trees and low-growing berry and other shrubs), bison in open meadows, and very few other visitors.

B&W panorama of Legion Lake in fog, SD, U.S.

Custer State Park's Legion Lake in dense fog on a cold October morning. While this is a black & white photo, the colorful aspen trees on the rock across the lake were barely visible.


When planning this trip back in early summer I did a bit of research and decided to concentrate my photography on the Needles area of the park, hoping for some good golden-hour light. I eagerly anticipated seeing this area of the park. But when we'd nearly completed the loop through the park we came to a locked gate. The Needles Highway was closed. This is normal in winter, but I didn't think we'd have a problem in mid-October. Unusual, or a gap in my research? I never found out, but that didn't make it any less frustrating.

The next day we went north from Keystone, and across to see the on-going work on the Crazy Horse monument. I'm not sure what's up with South Dakotans and their need to destroy mountains by carving giant heads into the rock, but I'll admit to being impressed by the scale of the work. We were able to enter the monument's museum, which is quite large (and warm and dry, a definite plus given the weather outside), but we could see nothing of the monument itself, a mile away and completely hidden by the fog. On our return back toward keystone we entered Custer State Park from the north. Again, we could not proceed through the Needles Highway, but we did get a glimpse of the kinds of rock formations we might have seen. The road winds up through some impressive stone spires. We stopped and walked a bit around Sylvan Lake, with it's massive rock “islands” and surrounding walls, still and again too foggy for worthwhile photo work. We planned to return the next morning, but the forecast wasn't promising.

Fretting in the Fog

Aspens in a bog, Custer State Park, South Dakota, U.S.

Few leaves remain on the aspens in a foggy, boggy area in Custer State Park.

Cold and wet, we returned to the inn, had a nice dinner, and the next morning Pat and I checked out (a day early) and started our drive toward home (in the rain). Sister- and brother-in-law stayed that night, and next morning I got the “You shoulda stayed” email I knew would come. Judging by the photos I saw from that day we shouldn'ta, I don't regret the day-early exit. The ugly weather stayed with us on our route west through South Dakota, but the rain stopped before we reached the Montana border. Heavy cloud persisted until early afternoon, when the sun appeared. After spending the night in Livingston we drove through snow showers over Bozeman and Homestake passes, and then had decent weather the rest of the trip home.

We enjoyed our time with the in-laws, had several great meals, and saw some hints of scenery I hope to see again someday in better weather. I'd also think twice about staying at the same inn. While the restaurant and meals were terrific, the room was just “OK” and the staff was, at best, cranky, and at worst, rude. There are too many choices to put up with that.

As Elliot Erwitt said, photography is an art of observation. But you have to be able to see things in the first place. Maybe next time. I really want to see Custer State Park in decent light!

October, 2018