Serenades and scenery in the Black Hills

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Keith Burden, our designated singing cowboy, recognized my request for an obscure Western anthem I listened to as a kid, I knew we were on the right wagon. No matter that I remembered it as Jingle Jangle and he knew it as Ringle Rangle. Keith strummed his guitar as we sang of a contented cowhand who had "a dollar's worth of beans, a new pair of jeans, and a woman to cook and clean ... and 'things.' "

Pretty saucy stuff for what was billed as a "family-approved" attraction, but no one seemed to notice.

My husband, two sons and I were aboard one in a train of four hay wagons pulled by vehicles over Custer State Park's back-country gravel roads. As we rambled deep into South Dakota's Black Hills toward a canyon meadow where a chuck-wagon dinner awaited, we passed white-tailed deer and bighorn sheep. (Our requisite bison encounter would come the next day.) Two other families with young children and a rowdy bunch of Boy Scouts and their leaders, all wearing complimentary bandannas and cowboy hats, were also along for the ride.

In a delightfully corny and memorable evening, Burden brought us together, as had the charms of Custer State Park, where we stayed for two nights during a July vacation that also took us to Badlands and Wind Cave national parks, Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument-in-progress.

In its range of accommodations and activities, Custer State Park, encompassing 73,000 acres, is an unusual hybrid. Located in the southern Black Hills, it contains an abundance of natural beauty: deep, dark pine forests, unusual rock outcroppings and wildlife galore, forming the quintessential landscape for films such as The Last Hunt (1956) and How the West Was Won (1962).

But how many state parks boast comfortable lodges, an artist-in-residence program, a theater and an independent resort company that runs hayrides, as well as buffalo safaris, guided horseback trail rides and a fly-fishing school?

Largely because of the efforts of Peter Norbeck, a revered South Dakota governor and conservationist (1870-1936), the park was created as a state forest and game preserve in 1913. Here, managers rebuilt the area's wildlife population after it was ravaged "by a throng of fortune seekers" searching for gold. Timber production supported the park early on, and today, camping and entrance fees, buffalo sales, concessions as well as timber sales keep it afloat.

We drove to the park by way of Mount Rushmore, where, trapped in a huge parking garage, I temporarily forgot that we weren't at the mall.

The Iron Mountain Road, completed 70 years ago, took us south and far away from Rushmore's carny climate to a more mythically appropriate viewpoint.

Under Norbeck's direction, the corkscrewing road and its tunnels were built to face the famous landmark. As we passed through one tunnel, the four presidents obligingly appeared in the rear window, making sure we didn't litter.

On the way to the park, we crossed three "pigtail bridges" spiraling elegantly across the steep drops that confronted the road's ingenious engineers. The original bridges were fashioned from local pine logs, and have been reconstructed with concrete and steel as well as pine.

The Iron Mountain Road "was designed to handle heavy traffic between the park and the Rushmore heads, which were still being sculpted in 1933," writes Paul Higbee in the latest issue of South Dakota magazine. "Some may find the road itself a monument to glorious impracticability."

Inside the park, we passed a herd of the area's infamous wild burros, who have a reputation for halting traffic and begging. The creatures are descended from the burros that once hauled tourists to the top of the park's 7,242-foot Harney Peak.

Lodge headquarters

We were staying at the State Game Lodge, one of four park resorts that are consistently booked June through August. (The annual Sturgis, S.D., motorcycle rally in August packs hotels, motels and campgrounds for miles around.) The original game lodge, built in 1921 as a home for the state gamekeeper, burned and was rebuilt by prison laborers. In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge made the lodge his summer home.

Our room was in a comfortable, motel-like addition to the lodge. In the 100-degree heat, we appreciated the air conditioning, not found in five out of seven rooms in the main lodge.

After our daily expeditions, we would return to the lodge's expansive porch to drink beer and sodas purchased from the bar, play checkers and listen to other guests compare travel notes. Kids played in the dark on the lodge's sprawling grounds -- often visited by bison and deer -- which lead down to meandering Grace Coolidge Creek.

Dinner offerings in the lodge's Pheasant Dining Room, including buffalo New York strip steak ($24.99) and rainbow trout ($14.99), were tempting but a little too haute for our kid-friendly needs. One morning we did enjoy a late pancake breakfast there, and our waiter, from India, gave us extra slices of apple-smoked bacon from the buffet.

Our hay ride, booked about a month in advance through the Custer State Park Resort Co., left from the park's Blue Bell Lodge early one evening. After an efficiently managed scramble to claim tickets, bandannas and hats, about 100 guests climbed aboard four chuck wagons. The group included an exuberant contingent of Rapid City women belonging to the Red Hat Society, a national group for older women who love to have fun -- while wearing their red hats.

One-time logger Burden, with his long white hair and beard, could have passed for an early prospector in the Black Hills gold rush. He took musical requests, from Great Balls of Fire to the Sponge Bob Square Pants theme, and sang several of his own compositions in praise of the Black Hills and its heroes, including Scotty Philip, who helped save the bison from extinction.

As we pulled into the canyon meadow, park staff lined up to greet us with a friendly wave. While steaks sizzled on the grill, Burden pulled out his fiddle, and he, two other cowboys and one cowgirl crooned Don't Fence Me In, Me and Bobbie McGee and other assorted crowd pleasers. Tasty vittles such as beans, coleslaw, watermelon and cookies completed the feast.

After dinner, we formed an enormous circle, did the hokeypokey, the chicken dance and shouted a big "yahoo!" at a mountain ridge, which returned our cry with an awesome echo.

As the sun set, Burden serenaded us on the return to the lodge, then sold cassettes of his music to new groupies, including an adoring trio of siblings from St. Paul, Minn.

Hitting the trails

The next morning, we went for a hike early enough to beat the day's worst heat. The four-mile Lovers Leap Trail began a few minutes' walk from the lodge. After a steep climb through ponderosa pine forest, the trail followed a ridge to a cliff where two lovesick Indians are said to have jumped to their deaths. On the ridge, hikers can see north toward Harney Peak as well as to the Needles and Cathedral Spires rock formations.

My favorite part of the trail flirted playfully with Galena Creek, bordered by drifts of violet-hued horsemint and blue verbena. Constantly crossing the creek, we tripped lightly over stepping stones and a plank, where my younger son, attempting a Chuck Berry duck walk, toppled into the shallow water.

That afternoon, we had booked a trail ride on horseback at Blue Bell Stables, but scrapped it for an adventure outside the park. Other park activities would also have to wait for a return visit, including a stop at the Peter Norbeck Visitors Center's museum, panning for gold, living history presentations and a visit to the cabin of Charles "Badger" Clark. South Dakota's first poet laureate, Clark lived in the park for 30 years until his death in 1957.

With the Black Hills Playhouse on park premises (it was staging The Music Man while we were there) and an artist-in-residence program installed at the State Game Lodge gallery, Custer is worth an entire vacation in itself.

We drove south through numerous prairie-dog towns where, to our amusement, the critters popped up and down into their holes in whack-a-mole fashion.

Then, we came upon a buffalo herd where belligerent bulls, placid cows and frisky little calves grazed on the grasslands in an ancient American tableau. Some folks left their cars to snap photos of the impressive creatures, which number 1,500 in the park. So far this year, two tourists have survived gorings from angry bison. We kept our distance.

Restorative waters

It was a steamy plains day, and we had promised the boys a trip to Evans Plunge in Hot Springs, about an hour's drive south from our lodge. We stopped first for lunch at Karen's Kitchen, a sweet little cafe where only a counter separated us from said kitchen. Several smoothies and sandwiches later, we headed to Evans Plunge, considered "the world's largest natural warm- water indoor swimming pool."

We spent a restorative afternoon in the geothermal waters, where, long ago, Indians and settlers took the cure. They might have appreciated the more recent additions: water slides, a basketball hoop and Tarzan rings.

Later, we caught one of the last tours of the day at Wind Cave National Park, which borders the state park. For about an hour, a park ranger led a large group through one of the world's oldest and largest caves, where we beheld an amazing display of boxwork, the "thin, honeycomb-shaped structures of calcite" that cover the cave's walls and ceilings. While it may not be as impressive as stalagmites and stalactites found in other caves, the boxwork was mesmerizing and slightly creepy in its relentless sense of natural order.

From Wind Cave, we returned to neighboring Custer State Park, where a massive buffalo bull sauntering down the road gave us the evil eye as we passed on the right. He would do well to stay low during the park's 38th annual buffalo roundup Sept. 29, when some of his ilk will be auctioned off. The event, which attracts thousands, includes entertainment, a buffalo barbecue and a three-day arts festival.

The next day, we would leave the park; this time by way of the Needles Highway, also built by Norbeck with tourists in mind. The highway winds through fantastical granite outcroppings that jut into the air and speak of major geological upheaval. Minor traffic jams at scenic viewpoints deterred us from stopping until we reached the park's Sylvan Lake resort, where we had a cold drink and admired the tastefully rustic souvenirs.

We left the park and continued to the Crazy Horse Memorial, a gargantuan tribute to the man who defeated Custer at the Little Bighorn in 1876. Begun in 1948, the statue, carved from a mountain, will likely not be completed for decades. Already it makes Mount Rushmore seem puny in comparison. The entire presidential quartet could fit on Crazy Horse's face alone. Acknowledging his unavoidable presence on land wrested from Native Americans during the 19th-century gold rush, it became clear that our visit to Custer State Park and surrounding points was as much a privilege as a right.

When you go

Getting there: Custer State Park is located in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota, about an hour's drive from the Rapid City Regional Airport. Northwest Airlines offers flights from BWI to Rapid City. From Baltimore, it takes about 28 hours to make the 1,700-mile drive to the park.

Attractions:

Custer State Park, HC 83, Box 70, Custer, SD 57730

605-255-4515

www.custerstatepark.info

* The park offers hiking, camping, horseback riding, history and wildlife. Open year round. Seven-day admission from May 1 to Oct. 31: $5 per person or $12 per vehicle.

Custer State Park Resort Co.

800-658-3530

www.custerresorts.com

* The company offers hay rides and chuck-wagon cookouts (May through September), fly-fishing lessons, trail rides, as well as boat, water sport and mountain bike rentals. The company also books lodging at the park's four resorts. Our room at the State Game Lodge had two double beds and cost $99 per night. The lodge can be reached at 605-255-4541.

For more information about visiting South Dakota's monuments and attractions, as well as information about lodging and dining, contact the South Dakota Department of Tourism and State Development: 800-732-5682; www.travelsd.com.

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