On July 2, 1874, a United States Army expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer set out for the uncharted Black Hills of South Dakota. Among their many missions was to investigate the possibility of gold mining. On July 31, the wagon train arrived at Black Elk Peak (highest point in South Dakota) where a camp was set up at the mountain’s base. This camp was named ‘Custer Park’. On August 15, Custer wrote a letter to the Assistant Adjutant General of the Department of Dakota and stated the following “…examinations at numerous points confirm and strengthen the fact of the existence of gold in the Black Hills.” A scout carried that message to Fort Laramie and from there, it was telegraphed to the press eastwards and the news spread like a social media tweet storm.
It should be noted at the time of the expedition, the Black Hills was exempted from all white settlement forever according to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Justifiably, the Lakota people living in the Black Hills were alarmed to Custer’s expedition. The short of it is, Custer’s letter piqued the U.S. government’s interest in owning the Black Hills. But there was this nagging issue of a treaty. To earn ownership of them their hills, the U.S. government would have to buy or steal them from The Lakota Sioux. At first, Congress took the high road and offered The Lakota $25,000 for the land and to relocate them to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). When the chiefs refused the offer, a US commission was sent to the Black Hills to pressure the Lakota leaders to sign the new treaty. They failed.
President Grant and members of his cabinet met with military leaders in Washington D.C. to discuss the issue. Indian Inspector Erwin C Watkins responded to their discussion with this: “The true policy in my judgement is to send troops against them in the winter, the sooner the better, and whip them into subjection.”
Thus began the Great Sioux War of 1876-77. After a series of campaigns, including the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn where Custer met his defeat, the Agreement of 1877 officially took away Sioux land and permanently established Indian reservations. Meanwhile, the Black Hills Gold Rush had already commenced.
Fast forward to 1919, 40 years beyond the peak of the Black Hills Gold Rush. South Dakota was now a state, and under the leadership of Governor Peter Norbeck fast becoming a popular tourist destination in place of its gold. Norbeck would leave a tremendous legacy to South Dakota during his two terms of governorship and later as State Senator. In 1919 the “prairie statesman”, urged the state to acquire a 72,000 parcel of land designated as Custer State Forest and turn it into Custer State Park, South Dakota’s first and largest state park.
Driven by his vision for South Dakota, Norbeck personally oversaw the development of South Dakota’s Custer State Park including the infamous Needles Highway. He initiated the creation of Needles Highway by marking the entire course through steep slopes of pine and spruce forests and rugged granite mountains by horseback and on foot. In 1922, the Needles Highway was completed, including two tunnels blasted through granite rock.
On July 7, 2020, an RV expedition led by Vivian and Connie set out for the popular Black Hills of South Dakota. Among their many missions was to explore Custer State Park’s many scenic highways including a drive through the infamous Eye of the Needle, and to discover its many lakes, hiking trails and wildlife. The RV in tow arrived at Heartland RV Park located along Highway 79, a short distance from the small town of Hermosa where it would be set up for two weeks. The camp was named ‘#630’.
With a laundry list of things to do and places to see including lakes to fish, lands to photograph, historic towns to visit and trails to hike, it was almost overwhelming to figure out how to fit them into a two-week period. So, on the first day, it was decided to initiate our Custer State Park expedition with the most anticipated (and perhaps feared) activity on our list, and that was to drive the truck through the Eye of the Needle.
The name ‘Needles’ refers to the granite spires that comprise a region of the Black Hills. Basically, these are tall vertical rock formations with sharp looking tips. Besides the view, which the driver cannot fully appreciate having to keep her eyes on the road, the best part of the highway or at least the most anticipated are the tunnels; and there are two of them.
Winding through the mountains we eventually came to the infamous 8’9” wide and 9’8” high Eye of the Needle. We got our truck through it in one piece and could sigh relief as we knocked that “must do” off our expedition list. Custer may have shot and killed a grizzly during his expedition to the Black Hills, but we passed through the Needles and lived to tell the story!
One last thing about them Black Hills – gold may have been discovered from Custer’s expedition, but our expedition to the Black Hills felt very much like striking gold. Take away Custer State Park and the area is left with two national memorials, two national monuments (one of which is in Wyoming), a national park and several historical mining towns. Not to mention 1.2 million acres of beautiful wilderness full of wildlife. Now that is gold.
Stayed tuned for more of the Black Hills expedition. Meanwhile, enjoy this slideshow from some of our hikes in Custer State Park.