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Exploring The Black Hills (And Life) With Dogs

Last week we took a road trip to the Black Hills and Custer State Park in South Dakota. It was Ruby’s first trip west and she enjoyed it much more than her trip to Cape Cod a few summers ago. She’s definitely more of a woodsy dog than a water dog.

If you haven’t visited Custer State Park, I highly recommend a trip. Custer is a state park and wildlife reserve in the Black Hills in southwestern South Dakota. The park covers an area of 71,000 acres of hilly terrain, sweeping prairies, majestic rock formations and is home to a famous herd of 1,500 free-roaming bison. In addition to bison, the park hosts elk, mule deer, mountain goats, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, coyotes, mountain lions, and feral burros (not really so feral). We were lucky to see all of these critters except bighorn sheep, coyotes (we see them in Chicago so not a big deal), and mountain lions, which are only spotted occasionally in the park.

Custer is also famous for its scenic Needles highway and wildlife loop as well as its close proximity to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Badlands National Park, and Wind Cave National Park. However, there’s enough to do in the park itself that you might not even make it to the other places. We found the Black Hills and Custer State Park pretty dog friendly – though obviously dogs should be leashed and extra caution should be taken around wildlife.

Dog Friendly Custer State Park and the Black Hills

Dog Friendly Custer State Park and the Black Hills

Ruby, our urban rescue dog, was able to climb rocks, growl at antelope and bison (from the safety of my lap in our car), spend quality time with her doggie cousin Wrigley, hike up hills that left the rest of us winded, and smell things she probably never even imagined existed.

We adopted Ruby when she was about seven. The first part of her life (what we know about it at least) was spent in a hoarding situation where she had multiple litters of puppies and probably not much time outside breathing fresh air. I can’t even imagine what the vastness and wild wonder of the Black Hills were like for her.

Traveling is one of my most favorite things (though I don’t do it as much as I would like because of life, money, time constraints, etc). Quite simply, I love the feeling of being some place else. And only when I am some place else, do I really feel alive and in the moment. I imagine this is how dogs feel all the time.

Exploring dog friendly Custer State Park and the Black Hills

Although I moved around as a kid, I have pretty much stayed in the Chicago area as an adult (aside from a few years on the east coast in my twenties). I am a wanderer by nature; I never planned on staying – it just kind of happened.

The Midwest has many wonderful attributes, but the flatness drains me in the way some are affected by the seasons and the grayness of winter. I just feel better other places. I am happier, healthier and breathe easier when I am on one of the coasts or in the mountains, the desert or any other beautiful, rugged extreme. But my husband’s job, which sustains us, is in Chicago so there’s little chance of us moving any time soon. So for now, I need to accept where we are in life – which brings me back to dogs (an awkward transition, but whatever).

Visiting dog friendly Custer State Park and the Black Hills

Dogs live in the now. Whether they are watching a herd of buffalo or napping on the couch – for dogs the current moment is all there is and they remain totally present, focused and themselves regardless. They don’t wish they were some place or lug around a big trunk of regrets. Dogs live in the moment, even the difficult moments, and when the moment is over, they move on to the next moment and don’t look back.

I want to be more like dogs – and travel more, too.

Hiking in dog friendly Custer State Park and the Black Hills

Tune in Wednesday for our wildlife photos from Custer State Park. Here’s a sneak peak!




  1. Jeanne Pursell
    August 28, 2017 / 5:36 am

    I would LOVE to be back on the road again! We love traveling in our RV but as you said there never seems to be enough time… We visited Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills about five years ago and loved every single minute of it! The only thing I did not like was the rattlesnakes! Did you get to see Devil's Tower in Wyoming? Your pictures are beautiful and I bet the dogs loved it!

  2. Mark Muller
    August 28, 2017 / 6:33 am

    I never saw a bison or a burro… and oh how I wish I could see this wonderful place… maybe once when someone invents an airline for dogs I will discover your beautiful land…. from alaska to hawaii oh yes!

  3. Bouncing Bertie
    August 28, 2017 / 8:13 am

    Oh what a great trip for both you and Ruby. Bertie just loves new places to explore and we are sure Ruby does to. How wonderful that you gave Ruby the opportunity for this new experience – she looks like she is lapping it up. Bertie might have been just a little frustrated if he was not allowed to chase bison – he have no sense of proportion when it comes to his hunting instinct. I too love mountains and the sea, and feel very lucky to have been able for the past 18 years to live in a place where both are close at hand (and, importantly, where I have a decently paid and interesting job!) Of course there is always a downside, and one has in Aberdeen to be able to cope with the cool summers, rare sunshine, constant wind and too dark winters.Cheers! Gail.

  4. Yamini MacLean
    August 28, 2017 / 10:19 am

    Hari OMOh I hear ya Kristen! I have been a perpetual traveller… but that counts within me as well as without and I think it has helped me to feel that wherever I happen to be (with or without hat…), that's my home. Ruby is clearly enjoying being a trekker dog – a few more adventures like that would be great for you both!!! YAM xx

  5. Sandra
    August 28, 2017 / 10:22 am

    Ruby and Wrigley together made me smile. and so did that little burro. I would love to see this park.. I prefer woods over city any time, that and beaches if they are uncrowded beaches. I would love to see those bison.

  6. Madi and Mom
    August 28, 2017 / 10:44 am

    OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH my cats Ruby you and Wrigley and all the two leggers must have had a wonderful vacation in the Black Hills!!!! What a treat to get your feets in the woods and for your nose to smell new things.Hugs madi your bfff

  7. Emma
    August 28, 2017 / 11:25 am

    My mom is traveled out having traveled pretty much her entire life and living abroad for ten years. She is happy to stay home and she watches all her friend's homes when they travel. That said, we are enjoying little road trips just some of us dogs and Mom going to nose work trials. No flying, always by car, just a couple days. One day we may travel out west for a trial and check out SD. Enjoy!

  8. Molly the AireGirl
    August 28, 2017 / 11:52 am

    What a superfun trip for you, Ruby! Mom says that she would LOVE to visit South Dakota!

  9. Beth Patterson
    August 28, 2017 / 2:14 pm

    One of my best friends in college had a summer job in the Black Hills. He said it was amazing and it has always been on my to go to list. I'm glad that Ruby had such a great trip. I really prefer the coast (an empty beach though) or the mountains to the area I live in, but like you, but my husband's job is in Central New York.

  10. ♥♥ The OP Pack ♥♥
    August 28, 2017 / 4:35 pm

    That sure sounds like it was a wonderful and uplifting trip. Mom likes it in the Midwest well enough, but having spent about half of her life in New England, she does miss the bigger season changes, especially time at the shore, the gorgeous autumn colors, and a little bit, the big snowstorms.We would love to meet up with those burros:)Woos – Lightning and Misty

  11. Brian
    August 28, 2017 / 7:00 pm

    That looks like a most amazing trip, thanks for taking us along!

  12. Idaho PugRanch
    August 28, 2017 / 9:01 pm

    Mom & Dad traveled through the black hills when they traveled to get Greta.beautifulhugsHazel & Mabel

  13. Bella Roxy & Macdui
    August 28, 2017 / 9:27 pm

    That's one of the good things in life…is travelling. SHE loves it! We'd love to see all that wildlife.

  14. Millie and Walter
    August 28, 2017 / 9:54 pm

    We saw some of your trip on Facebook and are so glad to hear Ruby enjoyed her time too.

  15. Momma Kat and Her Bear Cat
    August 29, 2017 / 8:09 pm

    Ruby looks so incredibly happy! That must get you right in the feels :)It's funny how we end up where we do. I NEVER planned on staying in St Louis. For me, the Great Lakes are where it's at (I'd be there already if I could stand the cold). The best laid plans and all 😉

  16. Cathy Armato
    August 30, 2017 / 12:06 pm

    What a fabulous trip! These photos are gorgeous, I can't wait to see more! I am always itching for another road trip with the dogs, another place to see. I'm so happy for Ruby that she gets to experience so many wide open spaces with you, she so deserves it after her stifling beginning. Pinning this to my pet travel board!Love & Biscuits,Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

  17. The Island Cats
    August 30, 2017 / 1:06 pm

    What a fun trip! The mom has been wanting to visit the Black Hills and in particular, Mount Rushmore. We're glad Ruby enjoyed it.

  18. TheGirlWhoFacedTheWorld
    August 30, 2017 / 1:51 pm

    Gorgeous!!! I want to go to all of these dog friendly hiking places. Maybe one day. Haha – Shelby

  19. Lola The Rescued Cat
    August 30, 2017 / 4:30 pm

    What a wonderful vacation I love exploring new areas and seeing new things. It renews my mind and soul. Ruby looks like she had a blast.

  20. Michelle & The Paw Pack
    August 30, 2017 / 4:36 pm

    It looks beautiful there! I used to be quite the wanderer myself but not so much the last couple of years. I thought it would be relaxing to settle down in one place but I miss the adventure of traveling. I've been trying to get out hiking more with my dogs lately and we've all been loving it. Great post!

  21. Baymonkey
    August 30, 2017 / 5:22 pm

    I have been to Custer state park while in grad school in Minnesota and loved it! So glad Ruby enjoyed her visit and yes, dogs do live in the moment. How I wish I were like them!

  22. Denise Gruzensky
    August 30, 2017 / 5:44 pm

    It sounds like you all had a wonderful trip! Ruby looks like she really took to the mountains and traveling. She is bound to be a travel dog yet!

  23. Christa Velbel
    August 30, 2017 / 6:35 pm

    Really fantastic reading about Ruby and her adventures with her family and the smells of wildlife!.But for smaller doses, you need to bring Ruby for some beach walks with us! (Editorial note: Kristin and her family live about 5 miles from me…) Lots of delicious aquatic aromas close to home, plus the reflection of the sunlight on the Lake Michigan waves and the breezes and the call of a lot of birds. I know, it's not bison, but hope to see you soon. Meanwhile, thanks for sharing Ruby's delight.

  24. Stephanie Seger
    August 30, 2017 / 7:15 pm

    I have been here and it is amazing! Your photos are fantastic and it looks like the dogs had so much fun. One of the things you said really resonated with me and I think is such a good reminder. Dog's live in the moment they are in and don't dwell on the past. I am like you, I wish I could be more like a dog in this way. Oh, and travel more too! 🙂

  25. FidoseofReality
    August 31, 2017 / 12:30 am

    Awww that looks like so much fun. I love to travel with my wife and dog and we could definitely get into a place like this. TY for the heads up. Great pics, too.

  26. Patty Woodland
    August 31, 2017 / 2:07 am

    That is beautiful country. The hubby and I spent some time there when we were living in our fifthwheel. It looks like your pups had a grand time

  27. Talent Hounds
    August 31, 2017 / 10:48 am

    What a fun adventure for the whole family- amazing wildlife and scenery. Ruby looks happy and I LOVE your photos. We feel the same way about flat TO. It is a great place to work and live but we love mountains and oceans, especially oceans. Lakes can be pretty nice too.

  28. Dolly theDoxie
    August 31, 2017 / 12:56 pm

    It's great that the dogs got to enjoy the area too as so many parks are so restrictive of dogs. This is a part of the country I hope to enjoy some day. It's funny, but I make so many trips to Nebraska but never SD because my family is too far. A few years before my mom died my sister took her to SD because she wanted to see it before she died. She didn't make it to Mount Rushmore though but it was the last time she saw her sisters. I'm looking forward to getting together with you to learn more about what you have going on. Sandra and Dolly

  29. Amy Hempe
    August 31, 2017 / 3:51 pm

    That looks really beautiful. State parks occasionally offer off-leash areas – any chance that these did too? I love traveling and need to do more with my dogs. They are hard to travel with but as the world becomes more dog friendly I think it'll get easier.

  30. Sweet Purrfections
    August 31, 2017 / 5:33 pm

    I would love to travel more, but like you, finances have gotten in the way. I also with I'd worked with the girls to help them be more comfortable with traveling. We have some beautiful state parks in SC. I need to visit them.

  31. Three Chatty Cats
    September 5, 2017 / 7:33 pm

    Custer State Park sounds wonderful! And such beautiful pictures. That burro – too cute! Ruby looks like one happy dog. 🙂

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