Julie United States 12 Comments

Tucked away in the Black Hills of South Dakota is an unexpectedly amazing state park. Custer State Park, with its scenic drives, short but thrilling hiking trails, lakes and rivers, and plentiful wildlife, offers something for everyone. In this post, learn about the best things to do in Custer State Park, with ideas on how to plan your time.

On our recent visit to South Dakota, we spent three days exploring Custer State Park. Yes, there really is a lot to do here. We loved the hiking trails, trails that rival those in some of the US national parks. Throw in some bison and elk, several very scenic drives, and unforgettable views of nearby Mount Rushmore, and you have yourself an amazing getaway in South Dakota.

 

While in Custer State Park, please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.

Overview of Custer State Park

Custer State Park is the largest and the first state park in South Dakota. Its 71,000 acres of grasslands, forests, and mountains forms a refuge for its diverse wildlife populations.

Roughly 1,400 bison call Custer State Park home, as well as elk, coyotes, bighorn sheep, white-tailed deer, mule deer, mountain goats, pronghorn, prairie dogs, and even mountain lions. Many of these animals can be spotted on Wildlife Loop Road, which is one of the best things to do in Custer State Park.

Custer State Park is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, which is about a 30 minute drive southwest of Rapid City. There are many other notable places to visit nearby, including Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Wind Cave National Park, Mammoth Site, and Jewel Cave National Monument. In just one hour, you can be in the spectacular Badlands National Park.

Below is a map of Custer State Park. Highway 16A and Wildlife Loop Road form the core of the park. This is where you will find most of the wildlife, visitor centers, and lodging in the park. To the north, two scenic drives head out of the park. Iron Mountain Road connects Custer State Park with Mount Rushmore and driving this road is an absolute must. The Needles Highway connects the heart of Custer State Park to Sylvan Lake, and it is in this area of the park where you will find some of the best hiking trails.

Map Custer State Park

Map courtesy of CusterStatePark.com

How to Get to Custer State Park

Custer State Park is located roughly 25 miles southwest of Rapid City, South Dakota. The closest airport is Rapid City Regional Airport. From Rapid City and the airport, it is a 30 minute drive to get to Custer State Park.

Best Things to do in Custer State Park

Wildlife Loop Road

Distance: 18 miles | Travel Time: about 45 minutes without stops

Note: Road construction is planned on Wildlife Loop Road from July through late-September 2021. There will be periods of delays and road closures. Learn more here.

Travel through the grasslands and rugged hills of the park and keep an eye out for bison, pronghorn, mule deer, elk, coyote, and prairie dogs.

Wildlife Loop Road loops around the southern part of Custer State Park. There are numerous turn-outs to stop and enjoy the views, not only of the animals but the rolling hills and grasslands.

Bison Custer State Park

Bison Wildlife Loop Road

Lone bison on Wildlife Loop Road

The best time to drive Wildlife Loop Road is during the morning and the evening, when the wildlife is most active.

Do not get out of your car to photograph the wildlife. Bison may look slow but they can move surprisingly fast. Also, don’t feed the animals. Feeding the animals can be dangerous to you and the animal.

Iron Mountain Road

Distance: 17 miles | Travel Time: 45 to 60 minutes

This road connects the heart of Custer State Park with Mount Rushmore. Only a small portion of this drive is located within the park, but the entire drive is a must-do.

On this drive, you get to experience 14 switchbacks, 3 tight tunnels, 3 pigtails, 314 curves, and unforgettable views of Mount Rushmore (drive the road from south to north to view Mount Rushmore). Bison, deer, and bighorn sheep may also make appearances.

A pigtail is a spiraling road bridge that loops back over itself, allowing the road to climb rapidly in a short distance. They also make great photo-ops.

Iron Mountain Road Pigtail

The pigtails and the three tunnels are located at the northern end of the road, not far from Mount Rushmore. These tunnels are 11 feet wide and 11 feet high, so if you are driving an RV, it is important to be aware of these tunnel sizes.

Both the Scovel Johnson Tunnel and the Doane Robinson Tunnel offer views of Mount Rushmore. Due to its location, the view through the Doane Robinson Tunnel is slightly better.

Scovel Johnson Tunnel

Scovel Johnson Tunnel

 

Doane Robinson Tunnel

Doane Robinson Tunnel

From the Peter Norbeck Overlook, you also get a nice view of Mount Rushmore.

Peter Norbeck Overlook

Peter Norbeck Overlook

INTERESTING FACT: This road, with its switchbacks and pigtails, was designed to limit speeds to 35 miles per hour. The journey is more important than the destination when driving this road.

Needles Highway

Distance: 14 miles | Travel Time: 45 to 60 minutes

Needles Highway gets its name from the needle-like spires that are found in this part of Custer State Park. This road connects Sylvan Lake, in the northwest, with the heart of Custer State Park.

This is a gorgeous drive with stunning overlooks of the park.

Needles Highway things to do in Custer State Park

One of the highlights of this scenic drive is the Needles Eye Tunnel. This is the narrowest tunnel in the park, only 8 feet wide and 9 feet 9 inches high. Traffic jams are very common here, as visitors get out out of their cars to walk through the tunnel, photograph it, and photograph the nearby spire called the Needle’s Eye. There is also a scenic view of the park right from this point, making it a very popular, busy spot.

We visited midday and crowds were crazy. On a different day, early in the morning, we had it all to ourselves.

Needles Eye Custer State Park

Needle’s Eye

 

Needles Eye Tunnel Custer

Needles Eye Tunnel

 Needles Eye Tunnel

View from Tunnel things to do in Custer State Park

View of the granite spires from the overlook next to The Needle’s Eye

PRO TRAVEL TIP: Needles Highway is closed in the winter. It is typically open from early April through mid-October, although these dates can change depending upon snowfall.

Iron Creek Tunnel Custer State Park

Iron Creek Tunnel on Needles Highway

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway

The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway is a 70-mile byway that includes the above scenic drives: Wildlife Loop Road, Iron Mountain Road, and Needles Highway. It also includes Highway 385 and Highway 244, two roads near Custer State Park, that form one big driving loop. This road has been named one of the 10 Most Outstanding Byways in America.

Since most of this drive lies outside of Custer State Park, you won’t be able to do this entire drive and explore the park in one day. But if you also have plans to visit Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, or the Crazy Horse Memorial, there is a very good chance you will be driving more of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway.

Learn more here. 

Go Hiking

One of the best things to do in Custer State Park is to hike the trails. Ranging from short, easy lakeside strolls to challenging mountain summits with a bit of rock scrambling thrown in, there is something here for everyone.

Here is a list of some of the best hikes in Custer State Park.

Sylvan Lake Shore Trail. 1 mile loop, easy, 30 minutes. This short, sweet hike makes a loop around Sylvan Lake (another must-see in Custer State Park). This hike is great for all ages.

Little Devils Tower Trail. 3 miles round trip, strenuous, 2 hours. This short but strenuous hike is lots of fun, especially at the end. The trail ends with a rock scrambling section that ends on top of a granite dome. From here, you have spectacular views of Custer State Park.

Little Devils Tower View

View of Black Elk Peak from Little Devils Tower

Cathedral Spires Trail. 1.6 miles round trip, 650 feet of total ascent, moderate to strenuous, 1 to 2 hours from the Cathedral Spires Trailhead. This popular hike takes you to canyon that is encircled by needles of granite rock, aka, the Cathedral Spires.

Cathedral Spires Custer State Park

Cathedral Spires

Black Elk Peak Trail. 7 miles round trip, strenuous, 4 to 6 hours. This is the longest hiking trail in Custer State Park but it has a big pay-off at the end. The trail ends at Black Elk Peak, the highest peak in the USA east of the Rockies. This is also the location of the Harney Fire Peak Lookout, a fire lookout that was built in the 1930’s by the CCC. You can enter the building for even better aerial views.

Cathedral Spires + Little Devils Tower + Black Elk Peak Hike. 8 miles round trip, 3.5 to 6 hours, strenuous. Combine three of the best hikes in the park into one epic hike. If you like hiking, this is one of the best things to do in Custer State Park. Read our post to get the full details on how to do this hike.

Black Elk Peak

Black Elk Peak

 

Black Elk Peak View things to do in Custer State Park

View from Black Elk Peak

About Black Elk Peak

Until recently, this peak went by the name “Harney Peak,” but there is a lot of important history behind this name.
 
This mountain peak is sacred to the Lakota Sioux. They called the peak Hinhan Kaga, or “owl maker” and Hehaka Sapa, or “elk black.”
 
In 1855, the name was changed to Harney Peak, in honor of US General William S. Harney, who led a military expedition that massacred Lakota Sioux warriors, women, and children in the Battle of Blue Water Creek in Nebraska. For decades, the Sioux tried to get the name changed, since Harney massacred their people.
 
In 2016, the name was changed to “Black Elk Peak” in honor of Black Elk, a noted medicine man.

Go Swimming or Boating in Custer State Park’s Lakes

Swimming and fishing is permitted in all five lakes: Sylvan Lake, Center Lake, Legion Lake, Stockade Lake, and Game Lodge Pond. Just note that there are no lifeguards on duty and pets are prohibited. If you plan to go fishing, you must have a valid South Dakota fishing license.

Boating is permitted on Sylvan Lake, Legion Lake, Stockade Lake, and Center Lake. Paddle boards, kayaks, and canoes can be rented at Legion Lake and Sylvan Lake.

Sylvan Lake is by far the most popular lake in Custer State Park. This lake, with its backdrop of granite rocks, is one of the most photographed spots in the park. Numerous hiking trails start here and this is a great place to hang out on a hot summer’s day. Nearby is the Sylvan Lake Lodge and a General Store.

Sylvan Lake things to do in Custer State Park

Sylvan Lake

If you are looking for a quieter lake with fewer crowds, we recommend Center Lake. There were only a handful of people here during our visit. It doesn’t have the amenities and hiking trails like Sylvan Lake, but you’ll have a lot more peace and quiet.

Center Lake things to do in Custer State Park

Center Lake

The Begging Burros

The big draw to Custer State Park may be its herds of bison and scenic drives, but another popular thing to do is to see the quirky begging burros. And if you are traveling with kids, this just might be the highlight of your visit.

Burros were originally used as pack animals to transport visitors from Sylvan Lake Lodge to the summit of Black Elk Peak. Once these trips ended, the burros were released to the wild.

This small herd of burros can now be found on Wildlife Loop Road. Just join the line of cars waiting to say hello to the burros. They are not shy about approaching people, walking up to cars, and putting their heads through the window. This may look like a friendly hello but really, they are just begging for food.

Feeding the wildlife in Custer State Park is prohibited, but since these burros are the recent descendants of pack animals, they can only loosely be described as wildlife. Feeding the burros is not exactly encouraged but it does happen so frequently that it is permitted by park rangers. Crackers, apples, and carrots are popular snack foods for the burros, if you choose to feed them on your visit.

Begging Burros Custer State Park

Begging Burros things to do in Custer State Park

Where to See the Begging Burros: The Begging Burros are usually found on the southern end of Wildlife Loop Road, near the junction for Red Valley Road.

Watch the Annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

This is the highlight event on the park’s calendar. At the end of September, 60 riders herd the bison into corrals, where they are tested, vaccinated, and sorted. This event is a big deal, drawing roughly 20,000 visitors every year.

Why are the bison corralled? The grasslands in the park can only support 1,400 bison and there are no natural predators. Once all of the bison are rounded up, they are checked for disease and vaccinated. The surplus of bison are auctioned off and the remainder are released back into the park.

Custer State Park Bison

Bison in the Buffalo Corrals in Custer State Park

Attending the Custer State Park Buffalo Round Up is free to the public. The event lasts three days, in conjunction with a three-day arts festival.

Future Dates of the Custer State Park Buffalo Round Up:

  • 2021: Friday, September 24
  • 2022: Friday, September 30

Best Things to do in Custer State Park: On a Map

How to Use This Map: Click the tab in the top left hand corner of the map to view the layers. You can click the check marks to hide or show layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each point of interest.
 
If you click the star next to the title of the map, this map will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.

How Many Days Do You Need in Custer State Park?

For the best experience, plan to spend one full day in Custer State Park. This gives you enough time to do the best things in Custer State Park, which include Wildlife Loop Road, the Cathedral Spires Trail, Sylvan Lake, Needles Highway, and Iron Mountain Road.

On the quickest of visits, you can visit Custer State Park in four to five hours. Drive Needles Highway, making a quick stop to see Sylvan Lake, and consider walking part or all of the Lake Shore Trail. Drive Wildlife Loop Road and exit the park on Iron Mountain Road.

Custer State Park Itinerary

Here are suggestions on how to spend your time if you have one to two days in Custer State Park. 

One Day in Custer State Park

If you have one day in Custer State Park, here are two suggestions on how to spend your time, depending on your interests.

#1 Best of Custer State Park
  • Morning: Starting at the Visitor Center, drive Wildlife Loop Drive in a clockwise direction. Along this drive you will see the Begging Burros.
  • Late Morning: Drive Needles Highway to Sylvan Lake. If you like the idea of doing a short hike in the park, I recommend the Cathedral Spires hike. You will pass the parking lot for Cathedral Spires Trailhead on the way to Sylvan Lake.
  • Midday: Spend some time at Sylvan Lake. Consider the easy stroll on the Lake Shore Trail or renting kayaks or paddle boards here (great in the summer months). Have a picnic lunch, dine at Sylvan Lake Lodge, or grab something quick to eat at the General Store.
  • Afternoon: Backtrack down the Needles Highway. If you are doing good on time, and are looking for some solitude, visit Center Lake.
  • Late Afternoon: Drive Highway 16A towards the Game State Lodge. If you are visiting with kids, consider visiting the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center, just note that it closes at 5 pm. Then exit the park on Iron Mountain Road. If it is getting dark, stop by Mount Rushmore if you have not yet seen it at night.
#2 For Hikers

If you plan to hike one or more trails in Custer State Park, it is best to do this first thing in the morning, to avoid the crowds and the midday heat if you will be here during the summer.

  • Morning: Hike to Black Elk Peak, Cathedral Spires, and/or Little Devils Tower. This can be done from Sylvan Lake or the Cathedral Spires trailhead parking lot. 
  • Midday: Visit Sylvan Lake and have lunch at Sylvan Lake Lodge
  • Afternoon: Drive Needles Highway and then drive Wildlife Loop Road counter-clockwise. Along this drive you will also see the Begging Burros. This drive ends near the Visitor Center and the Game State Lodge, so if you need food, drinks, or to use the restrooms, you can do this here.
  • Late Afternoon: Exit the park by driving Iron Mountain Road. Consider stopping to see Mount Rushmore at night, if the sun will be setting soon.
Two or More Days

With two or more days, you have plenty of time to hike many of the trails we list and to explore Custer State Park at a leisurely pace. The park is least crowded in the morning, so this is the best time to do the more popular activities, such as driving Needles Highway, hiking around Sylvan Lake and the Cathedral Spires Trail, and driving the Wildlife Loop.

Best Time to Go to Custer State Park

Cathedral Spires

Best Time to Visit Custer State Park

Summer is a great time to visit Custer State Park. On average, daily highs hit 80°F with cooler temperatures at night.

Spring and fall also make great times to visit Custer State Park. Daily highs range from the 50’s to the 70’s. Rainfall is more likely in the spring and summer months, so if you want to visit Custer State Park with cool, drier weather, go in autumn.

Winters in Custer State Park can be very cold. The main visitor center remains open but the Peter Norbeck Center and the Wildlife Visitation Center are closed from October 1 to Memorial Day. The Needles Highway is also closed during the winter months.

If you want to catch Custer State Park ablaze in fall colors, plan your visit for late September into early October. We were in the Black Hills between October 8 and October 13 and the colors were just past peak, although there were still a fair amount of leaves on the trees.

Plan Your Visit

Park Fee: $20 per vehicle, valid for 7 days.

The park is open 7 days a week 365 days per year. The Needles Highway is closed during the winter months.

Pets are permitted in the park but they must be on a leash. Pets are not allowed near swimming areas or in any park buildings.

Get updates on park conditions and trail closures on the official park website. 

Where to Stay

There are four lodges within the park, the State Game Lodge, the Sylvan Lake Lodge, the Legion Lake Lodge, and the Blue Bell Lodge. We didn’t go into any of the lodges but the State Game Lodge has a beautiful setting. In the evening, bison and deer were grazing in the fields right outside of the lodge. This lodge also has a great central location inside of Custer State Park.

State Game Lodge things to do in Custer State Park

There are also numerous campgrounds scattered throughout the park. Several campsites have cabins. Campsites can be reserved one year in advance.

The town of Custer is located just outside of the park, on the west side. The Bavarian Inn is a beautiful property that gets rave reviews and the Rocket Motel is a nice pick if you are looking for a budget property that gets good reviews.

Keystone is located north of Custer State Park, near Mount Rushmore. It is located near the end of Iron Mountain Road. This town has a very touristy feel to it but it does have a nice, central location for exploring the Black Hills. We recommend the K Bar S Lodge and the Rockerville Lodge and Cabins.

Hill City is another small town to consider. The Comfort Inn & Suites and the Black Elk Resort are two of the highest rated properties in this town.

Where to Go Next

There are an unbelievable number of things to do in and around the Black Hills of South Dakota. We spent one week here and had a great time exploring this area. Here is a list of things to do.

Learn how to put all of this together: One Week in South Dakota: Black Hills & the Badlands

 

More Information about South Dakota


If you have any questions about things to do in Custer State Park or if you want to share your experience, let us know in the comment section below.

If this is part of a bigger road trip through the USA, visit our United States Travel Guide for more inspiration and travel planning tips.

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Custer State Park Best Things to do

 

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  1. We’re planning to visit Custer State Park for 5 days in late July/2021. Link to this article showed up in Google based upon other searches I’ve done to plan our trip. What a great article! The pictures are absolutely stunning. Great source for driving the area’s scenic bi-ways and hiking … what we plan on doing. Thanks for posting!

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  2. More great travel information from your family! Thank you. Beginning on my detailed trip itinerary (September 2021) to hit some of the same places you did on your trip. I was going to include Theodore Roosevelt NP. It appears you did not visit there yet? Also, I was not going to include Custer State Park… i.e. Just a state Park???? But, you spent a lot of time there. So, based on the great distances in the West, I’m leaning now on including Custer but skipping (for now) Theodore Roosevelt NP. Sound like a good tradeoff? Right now, my plan starts by flying to Omaha, booked in Sioux Falls SD, on to Wall for 1 night, and in Badlands for one night. I will also include Minuteman, Wind Cave, Mount Rushmore, Little Bighorn NM, Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Flying back from SLC. Thank you again! Don’t forget Congaree!

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      Custer is awesome…and right up there with the national parks, just on a smaller scale. Yes, we haven’t been to TRNP yet (didn’t have time on our last trip), so I don’t know if it’s better than Custer, but it is a long drive to get there and back, so unless you have tons of time, it might be best to leave it off of your itinerary. What a great road trip you have planned!

      We were hoping to visit Congaree in March but it was flooded…so maybe end of April (after our visit to Sedona)? Tim and I are really hoping to get to Congaree soon.

      Cheers, Julie

  3. Really informative article, Julie! Custer State Park does have some of the most thrilling hiking trails in the country. I think you can explore almost all areas of the park in one day, though it requires a lot of driving. If you are looking for something special to do in the area, I highly recommend an early morning hot air balloon ride that leaves from Custer town.

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  4. Thank you so much for this terrific guide to Custer State Park. You provide great detail, there’s so much to do! I’m hoping to go there later this year and will be referring back to your website as I plan my trip.

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