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Recreational travelers in South Dakota's Black Hills, Badlands and Lakes Region will find the vacationland of their dreams among the five lakes dotted around Custer State Park. All of the lakes - Bismarck Lake, Legion Lake, Stockade Lake, Center Lake and Sylvan Lake - are small, with Stockade Lake the largest at 120 acres. Bismarck Lake, just below the Stockade Lake Dam, is technically not within the state park but in the Black Hills National Forest. Most are 'no wake' lakes, and several restrict boats to electric motors only. Trout are the catch of the day and cool shade, grassy campsites and numerous walking trails are bound to keep the entire family occupied when they aren't off visiting Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Crazy Horse Monument, Wind Cave National Park, driving the Wildlife Loop Road or Scenic Needles Highway. And no one can resist viewing some of the 1,300 bison that inhabit the park.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed buildings, bridges, campgrounds, and dams throughout Custer State Park during the Great Depression, including the dams for Stockade, Center and Legion Lakes. The dam creating Sylvan Lake dates back to 1881. Many of these buildings are still in use today, such as the visitor center, education center, and fire tower. The 71,000-acre Custer State Park holds several scenic drives, a wealth of walking trails and plenty of accessible paths for mountain biking and horseback riding. The Custer State Park office, Visitor Centers and entrance stations all have maps of trails available for each activity. All of the lakes hold a small campground, several with no utilities at the sites. The small pristine lakes are the perfect place for a leisurely paddle in early morning to catch a glimpse of the profusion of wildlife in the area. And no visitor to the area can resist a drive along the famous 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road, where the park's resident bison, elk, pronghorn, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and wild burros roam freely beside the road.
Legion Lake holds historic Legion Lake Lodge, a water's-edge lodge remaining from 1913 when the area was a game preserve in the Custer State Forest and the site leased by the American Legion. A restaurant/dining room serves visitors who rent the family-size cabins nestled in the surrounding woods. A swim area, row boat, kayak, canoe, hydro-bike and paddleboat rentals allow everyone to enjoy the water. The 10-acre lake is open for fishing with proper license, which can be purchased at the Lodge grocery store. The campground can access drinking water, flush toilets and showers, and the playground and fishing dock are favorites among the young. Or, visitors can rent a mountain bike to cycle the nearby trails. The Badger Clark Historic Trail and the Centennial Trail are only moments away from the lodge.
Sylvan Lake Lodge is considered the crown jewel of Custer State Park. The newly-renovated lodge was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and sits among tall evergreens overlooking the 18-acre lake. The lodge holds 35 guest rooms, with another 32 cabins on the grounds. The Sylvan Lake Lodge Auditorium is popular for family reunions, wedding receptions and corporate events. A restaurant, grocery store and swimming beach make the lodge a popular stay for those wishing the ease of modern accommodations such as air conditioning. The usual self-propelled watercraft are rented here, and fishing for brown trout and rainbow trout is always on the agenda. Other lodges within the State Park are also operated by the Park Service but are not on the lakes. Sylvan Lake Campground has about 40 campsites and offers flush and vault toilets, drinking water and showers.
Twenty-seven-acre Center Lake has a large, non-electric campground overlooking the water. A fishing dock and swimming beach make this the perfect hide-away in the shade of towering pines. Drinking water, showers and vault toilets are located in the campground. Most sites are suitable only for tents or smaller RVs. A youth group camping area is available near the Day Use portion of the shoreline. Center Lake is a no-wake lake and has no actual boat ramp. Small rowboats, canoes and kayaks are easily launched from shore. Again, brown trout and rainbow trout are the usual target of anglers, but the lake also holds sunfish, smallmouth bass, northern pike and catfish.
With 120 acres, Stockade Lake is large enough to sport two separate camping areas. Stockade North has drinking water, flush toilets, showers and a playground. Stockade Lake South also has 13 camping cabins available by reservation. Although not as luxurious as those located at Legion Lake Lodge, the cabins have electricity, heating and air conditioning. Two other picnic areas are located along the southern shore of the lake. Fishing is good at Stockade Lake, and a boat ramp is located along the east shore opposite Stockade Day Use Area. Gasoline motors are allowed on Stockade Lake. This lake has the widest variety of catch-able fish and is open for ice fishing in winter.
Nearby, the replica Gordon Stockade recreates the rough stockade fort built by the first gold seekers to illegally enter what was then clearly Native American land. Within a few months, the group was evicted by the US Calvary, but the rush was on and the Black Hills were overrun by illegal gold seekers. The reconstructed site is open daily, and interpretive signage tells the story of these first illegal settlers. Reservations are accepted for sites in these campgrounds.
Just outside the State Park boundaries, Bismarck Lake covers 27 acres and offers a beautiful little campground that is sometimes overlooked by the many visitors who arrive each summer. The lake is within the Black Hills National Forest at the foot of the Stockade Lake Dam. This campground was also developed by the CCC and offers shaded sites located away from the lake. No boat ramp is available, but small craft are easily launched from shore. The lake holds the same variety of fish as Stockade Lake. Operated by the Forest Service, the small campground has flush toilets and drinking water. Often when campgrounds within Custer State Park are full, space can be found here at this out-of-the-way lake.
Park roads are usually open in winter, but most camping areas are closed. Custer State Park and its lakes are a favored vacation area for those who enjoy the history and legends of the American West. Located only a few miles east of the city of Custer, the park is in close proximity to many of South Dakota's most iconic locations. Both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Monument are located nearby, as are Wounded Knee and Badlands National Park. Cavers will love visiting Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Monument. The City of Custer has a variety of choices for lodgings including hotels, bed & breakfasts, guest cabins and campgrounds. Unique shops join unusual activities such as wagon train rides and helicopter tours. Everything here will remind you that you've found the remnants of the wild, wild West. So come visit the lakes of Custer State Park. Bring the fly rod -and watch out for the bison!
* Statistics listed are for Stockade Lake only.
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