RAPID CITY, S.D. — When Jim and Colleen Frank moved to Custer in 2000, they enjoyed hiking the undeveloped forested trails in Big Rock City Park and always wondered why so few other people were doing the same.
“We live right next to the park. I hike it a lot. Colleen and I would go up into the park and sit under Big Rock and enjoy nature and wonder why other people weren’t there,” Jim Frank said. “Well, because it’s never been developed. We had to build the trails first. It wasn’t user friendly. If you were a tourist who came into town, or even a lot of locals, you wouldn’t know it was there.”
A recent $80,000 grant from the Recreation Trails Program of the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department will change that when it completes the final phase of the Skywalk Trail and Big Rock Lookout. Residents and tourists alike will now have easy access to the 50-acre park and its panoramic views of the surrounding Black Hills, thanks to Frank’s desire to share his enjoyment of the park with others.
“It’s the culmination of four grants written over the last eight years, and this last one allows us to build the stairway right on the Big Rock,” said Frank, who wrote the grants and is president of the Custer Park and Recreation Board.
The final phase, hopefully completed by the beginning of the 2013 tourism season, will add another 20-30 steps to the top of Big Rock, as well as an observation platform at the very top with enough square footage to sit down and take in the views, Frank said.
“To me it seemed like an extremely valuable economic resource for the community that wasn’t being utilized,” he said. “It’s so beautiful up there. The views are just fantastic. Now that Custer has emerged from a mining and timber town to a tourist town ... it only made sense from an economic standpoint to develop Big Rock Park.”
Eight years ago, there were no developed trails to the 5,600-elevation summit, which holds the lighted Custer sign, and was designated a city park back in the 1930s. Today, the trail contains two routes, complete with wooden stairways and developed trails.
A 1-mile circular route will take hikers from the chamber parking lot and back, past Pageant Hill. Turning right at the summit will take hikers past Big Rock and back down again. Both trails are considered to be “moderate to challenging” in difficulty, Frank said.
The first GF&P grant built the trail from the parking lot of the Custer Chamber of Commerce to the top of Pageant Hill. The second grant added trails to Big Rock, including a wooden staircase to its base. The third grant was spent on the design of a stairway on the rock face itself, and the first phase of steps and a landing area.
The fourth and final $100,000 installment cost, which is an 80-20 matching grant between GF&P and the city of Custer, will complete the project to the summit of Big Rock. The city of Custer expects to let bids for the final phase soon.
“It’s a very unique situation. Just getting it designed cost thousands of dollars,” Frank said.
Frank, who is recovering from open-heart surgery, recently hiked the trails again for the first time since his surgery five weeks ago to see the first section of the rock’s stairway.
“It’s a dream come true for us. It was kind of thrilling to see that,” he said. “People are extremely excited by the fact that this unused resource is being used.”