The largest lake in Custer State Park is Stockade Lake. Located on the far western side of the park, the lake offers plenty of activities and interesting sights. Boating, camping, picnicking, fishing, swimming and hiking are just some of the fun things to do there. It's also home to the Historic Gordon Stockade.
We approached the lake from the nearby town of Custer, South Dakota. The first thing we came to was the Gordon Stockade Historical Site. The history of the area is explained through detailed informational signs lining a paved walkway leading to the stockade.
This fortress was used as a stronghold by a small party of gold seekers. By building it and taking up residence inside, the group (known as The Gordon Party) had violated a law and treaty meant to keep settlers out of the sacred Black Hills.
In 1868 a treaty was drawn up promising ownership of the Black Hills and surrounding areas to the Sioux, guaranteeing that it remain "undisturbed". That all fell apart when George Armstrong Custer and his exploration party came through the Black Hills in 1874 and confirmed the presence of gold.
Many prospectors attempted to sneak into the Black Hills, in direct violation with the treaty. At the time, a cavalry was assigned to upholding the agreement with the Sioux and keeping settlers out of the area. The Gordon Party (named after their leader John Gordon) consisted of 28 people from Iowa who were dead set on entering the Black Hills in search of gold.
The Gordon Party eluded the cavalry, snuck into the Black Hills, and illegally built a fortress to live in while they searched the area for gold. After panning nearby French Creek for months and not finding the wealth of their dreams, six members eventually bailed on the project. Upon departing, they were captured by the military and forced to disclose the location of the Gordon Stockade. The remaining members were then removed from their fortress and escorted into Wyoming. Most of them would never be charged with an actual crime.
The stockade then became occupied by soldiers after it was abandoned by its original owners.
This incident was the beginning of the Black Hills Gold Rush, which would last for decades. The Gold Rush changed everything, bringing a flood of people to the area seeking a fortune that most would never find. Even after the boom went bust, the Black Hills were never returned to the custody of the Sioux.
The Gordon Stockade itself was impressive. It was a huge log structure that housed seven small cabins inside. Three of the cabins were fenced off and protected. These three were of historical significance, whereas the fortress and the other cabins were reconstructions.
The dogs enjoyed investigating the fortress. They seemed fascinated by this interesting place that was filled with smells both old and new.
We could venture into the reconstructed cabins. Each one had a stone fireplace inside. It was an intriguing place to poke around and explore. We all had fun checking out the tiny houses. It certainly felt like a trip back in time.
Just outside the huge door was the far western arm of Stockade Lake (named, of course, for the stockade).
After thoroughly exploring the historic stockade we made our way back to the car. We drove less than a mile to a right turn that led along the shore near the middle of the lake. This short road was lined with picnic tables and fishing spots.
The road ended at a turn-around where more picnic tables and restrooms could be found. We parked at a space in the back near a pair of tables and a small fishing pier.
We investigated the woods behind the picnic area. Fishing paths braided the hillside, weaving down to the water and then back up and away from it. The girls were having fun sniffing around the forest near the lake and searching the rocks for chipmunks.
We climbed the rocks and overlooked the lake. It was mostly covered with a thin, frozen surface. Birds swooped down over the water, discouraged and frustrated by the inability to catch fish through the ice.
We meandered over towards the fishing pier. The girls looked out over the frozen water, which seemed out of place on a sunny afternoon.
After venturing about the area, we settled in for a picnic lunch at one of the tables. It was a lovely place to eat. The birds continued to put on a show during our meal, diving towards the lake and then at each other. The girls laid in the grass, taking in the beautiful surroundings.
After lunch we loaded back in the car and made our way over to the eastern side of the lake. On this side we found the beach and playground. Unfortunately, dogs weren't allowed on the beach. However, across the street from that was the start of the 1.5 mile Stockade Lake Trail.
The trail makes a loop through the forest overlooking the lake. The hike was a lot of fun, and really rounded out our day. Afterwards we returned to the eastern shore of the lake.
Dogs weren't allowed on the beach, but they could explore everywhere else. The eastern shore area was filled with interesting things to smell. We also had lovely views out across the water as the sun went down. It was a delightful afternoon.
After the dogs had their fill of lake smells, we climbed back into the car. We continued along Stockade Lake Drive, which follows the shore. We drove around to the backside of the lake and crossed the historic Stockade Lake Bridge. The largest bridge built to date by the South Dakota National Guard, Stockade Lake Bridge stretches above the lake's dam and spillway.
Just below the bridge, across from a small parking area, was an unmarked path frequented by people looking for a hidden spot to fish. The trail follows French Creek as it drops down into the valley from Stockade Lake above. A man-made waterfall can be found behind the lake, via the unmarked trail.
We saw other people making their way down to the creek to fish in the waning evening light. We would have liked to keep the adventure going and explore the forest behind the lake, but the sun was going down fast. By the time we had driven the rest of the way around the lake, it was dark.
We had spent the entire day at Stockade Lake. We had visited historical sites, explored, picnicked, hiked, and explored some more. In the end, we had made it the whole way around the lake.
The dogs seemed to have a fantastic time here -there was so much to sniff and investigate. Even though the season for swimming was over they had still enjoyed a fulfilling day at the lake. This was a beautiful autumn day well spent.