If you are looking for a unique place to enjoy the outdoors and create lasting family memories, then look no further than Custer State Park! The park was originally established as a game preserve in 1913 and was officially designated as South Dakota’s first state park in 1919. Encompassing 71,000 acres, it is one of the largest state parks in the nation and is home to a wide variety of wildlife.
It’s no secret that we are huge fans of the national park service, but we also seek out our nation’s great state parks. Without a doubt, South Dakota is home to one of the best.
These are some of the reasons why we think you’ll fall for Custer State Park, too!
Ahead of your trip, download a copy of our Custer State Park itinerary! We cover the best hikes, what to do ahead of your visit, include useful maps, 1, 2 and 3 day itineraries and what to see and do in the area.
1) SPECTACULAR SCENIC DRIVES IN AND AROUND CUSTER STATE PARK
There are three scenic routes through Custer State Park (see map), and we suggest you take time to drive ALL of them--that is, if your vehicle will fit! Be aware of tunnel sizes and the dimensions of your vehicle (campers, trailers, large trucks) before traveling on these scenic roads.
After visiting nearby Mount Rushmore National Memorial, we entered the park via Iron Mountain Road (US 16A S). This winding 17-mile road is best known for its numerous switchbacks, spiral “pigtail” bridges and one-lane tunnels that frame Mount Rushmore. Only a portion of Iron Mountain Road lies within Custer State Park, but we recommend driving the entire length to enjoy all the amazing views and architectural wonders of this road! Expect travel time of 45-60 minutes.
The Needles Highway (SD HWY 87) is a 14-mile road in the northwest corner of the park. Its name was inspired by the needle-like granite outcroppings which pierce the sky along this road. When driving north from the Legion Lake area, the Needles Highway first winds through meadows and then pine and spruce forests before climbing to the rocky part of the park. The most dramatic part of the road passes through tunnels bored through solid granite and offers views of Harney Peak plus the famous Needle’s Eye and Cathedral Spires rock formations. Plan to stop and take pictures along the way before reaching Sylvan Lake. Expect travel time of 45 to 60 minutes.
The 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road, located in the southern section of the park, is home to over 1,400 bison and the famous wild burros, among other animals. Since we were staying at Blue Bell cabins, we drove west to east traversing the open grasslands and rolling pine covered hills. It is not uncommon to end up in a buffalo jam in this area of Custer, although thankfully they don’t seem to last quite as long as the ones in Yellowstone! Have your camera ready as you may find yourself in a line of traffic with bison walking down the middle of the road and weaving between cars! Expect travel time of about 45 minutes (excluding bison jams and stops along the way).
The 70-mile Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway (which includes portions of the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road) complements the three scenic drives within Custer State Park and displays the beauty of South Dakota’s Black Hills. It has been named one of the most outstanding byways in America! Expect travel time of two to three hours.
2) WILDLIFE VIEWING IN CUSTER STATE PARK
Custer State Park is one of the few places where you can see an abundance of wildlife in their natural habitat. In fact, it was named by Fox News as one of the World’s Top Ten Wildlife Destinations. Wildlife Loop Road is best known for the bison that roam Custer’s rangelands. North American bison, commonly known as buffalo, can weigh more than 2,000 pounds and are considered the largest native land mammal of North America. They appear slow and gentle but can easily outrun humans and can run as fast as 40 MPH! Its best to stay in your vehicle or stay at least 100 yards from bison and other large animals in the park.
Probably equally as popular are the friendly burros, descendants from the herd that was used to take visitors to the top of Harney Peak many years ago. This practice was discontinued, and the burros were released into the park. Although they may seek handouts, please don’t be tempted to indulge them. Yes, they are cute and quite good at begging, but feeding the park’s wildlife is prohibited.
Beyond bison and burros, pronghorn, elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, prairie dogs, and coyotes roam freely within the park’s borders. The diverse habitat of the park also makes for excellent birdwatching.
When driving through the park, we never went more than a few minutes without seeing some sort of animal. It was like being in a miniature Yellowstone National Park, and our kids enjoyed every minute!
3) HIKING TRAILS IN CUSTER STATE PARK
With all the beautiful drives in the Black Hills area, it would be easy to stay in the car, but you’d be missing out! Custer State Park has a variety of hiking trails ranging from easy to strenuous.
The Sylvan Lake area has several popular but strenuous hikes due to the length and terrain--Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak), Cathedral Spires, Little Devil’s Tower and Sunday Gulch Trail. We hiked the Sunday Gulch Trail with our three kids one evening after eating an early dinner.
If you are looking for something more laid back, take a stroll around the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail (an easy 1-mile loop) or try the Prairie Trail (moderate 3-mile loop) along Wildlife Loop Road. Either way, get out and enjoy the beauty of Custer on foot!
4) FIVE SCENIC LAKES IN CUSTER STATE PARK
Custer State Park has five pristine lakes and swimming and fishing are allowed in all of them. Boating is permitting in certain areas as well. If you didn’t bring your own, water sport rentals are available at both Legion Lake Lodge and Sylvan Lake Lodge. We visited both Sylvan and Legion Lakes.
This Custom, Vintage-Style Poster was made by Just Go Travel Studios from a photo taken at the park by a client. To learn about our process or see a gallery of other vintage-style posters, click on the links for more information.
Our kids especially enjoyed swimming at Legion Lake, located close to the center of the park. We can’t think of a better way to end the day than dinner lakeside followed by a swim or walk around the lake! Legion Lake also has a newly rebuilt restaurant right on the edge of the lake. Lake activities include paddleboard, canoe and kayak rentals in addition to swimming and fishing (NOTE: a valid South Dakota Fishing license is required).
Sylvan Lake is located in the northwest corner of the park and can be reached via the Needles Highway or 16A to 89N. If you haven’t already driven it, we highly recommend taking the longer Needles Highway. Sylvan Lake can be crowded in the summer since it is a popular area offering lodging, a restaurant, general store, gift shop and small marina. However, be sure to take the Lake Shore trail that circles the lake or try one of the more adventurous hikes in the area. On a warm afternoon, it’s the perfect place to jump in a lake after your hike! Interesting fact: Sylvan Lake was featured in the Disney movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets!
5) GREAT LODGING OPTIONS IN CUSTER STATE PARK
The park has a variety of accommodations ranging from primitive to luxury. Camping options include primitive sites in the French Creek Natural Area, modern campgrounds throughout the park, and rustic camping cabins. Custer State Park Resorts, which is privately operated within the park, offers five lodges, plus four specialty cabins (for large groups and reunions). All five lodges offer services such as casual dining and a convenience or general store. If you are looking for something for something more elegant, then the historic State Game Lodge might be the place for you. Just need a casual and comfortable place to stay with all the amenities? Try the cabins at ranch-like Blue Bell Lodge. The log Sleeping Cabin with a front porch was perfect for our family, and the kids enjoyed the fire pit outside!
6) PROXIMITY TO LOCAL ATTRACTIONS IN SOUTH DAKOTA
There are so many options in the Black Hills! We had no idea how extraordinary the Black Hills of South Dakota would be until we started planning our trip. We initially chose Custer State Park as our base since it was between Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks. However, we soon discovered that it was also close to Mount Rushmore, Spearfish Canyon and Jewel Cave National Monument. Although we didn’t visit them, other options include visiting Crazy Horse Memorial, Sturgis and Deadwood. We stayed in the park for three days, but our whole family agreed we could have easily spent a week!
MORE REASONS TO FALL IN LOVE WITH CUSTER STATE PARK
If you have more time, here are some other activities we suggest.
- Interpretive Programs led by park rangers
- Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour
- Chuck wagon cookout
- Horseback riding
- Rock climbing
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE YOU GO TO CUSTER STATE PARK
- Be sure to download our Custer State Park itinerary ahead of your visit!
- Custer is right near Mount Rushmore and is one of many activities in the area. Make sure you also review our blog, What to Do Nearby Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
- Custer State Park Fees: A temporary (1-7 days) license is $20 per vehicle and $10 per motorcycle. An annual pass is $30.
- Custer State Park Lodging fills quickly. We recommend booking a year ahead for cabins and lodge rooms.
- The park is large, so plan to spend at least a day if not several exploring the park.
- If traveling in large vehicle or camper or towing a trailer or boat, be sure to check the dimensions of your vehicle before planning your route into the park.
- Avoid driving through the park, or in the Black Hills, after dark. We drove back to our cabin just after sunset and there were loads of elk and deer grazing on the edge of HWY 89 and US 16A.
- The annual Buffalo Round-Up takes place at the end of September. This popular event attracts thousands of people each year. Be sure to plan ahead, if the round-up is on your bucket list.
OTHER USEFUL INFORMATION ON CUSTER STATE PARK AND THE BLACK HILLS AREA
- Custer State Park is right next to Wind Cave National Park and about 90 minutes away from Badlands National Park. These parks are covered in detail in our 20+ page itinerary for Wind Cave, Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks. Our itineraries cover great hikes, places to stay, what to pack and what to do while you are in the area. We also rank each hike based on hundreds of ratings to take away the guesswork of how to spend your time while you are in the park.
- Be sure to check out our blog on the Best Campgrounds in Custer State Park.
- We covered Badlands National Park in detail in our blog post covering what to see in Badlands National Park.
- Just to the north of Custer State Park is Wind Cave National Park, covered in our blog on Wind Cave National Park.
- If you are coming from Yellowstone National Park, we recommend including the Beartooth Pass along your route. Check out the blog post that we wrote by clicking here.
- If you are an avid hiker, check out some of the best hikes in the Black Hills on RootsRated.
- Traveling with your pet? Last year Go Pet Friendly named Custer State Park South Dakota’s top pet-friendly attraction.
- Need more reasons to visit Custer and the surrounding area? Amanda at A Dangerous Business Travel Blog provides 6 reasons you should visit South Dakota.
- Need help planning your trip? Getting Stamped provides a three-day South Dakota travel itinerary to get you started.