5 Amazing Things To Do In Custer State Park, South Dakota

by Mark and Kristen Morgan
5 awesome things to do in Custer state park granite rocks with green yellow and orange trees

Custer State Park is one of the largest, most diverse State Parks in the United States and a firm contender for our personal favorite. What isn’t to like about stunning scenic drives, fantastic family friendly hiking and up-close wildlife spotting?!

We were shellshocked by the sheer beauty of this 71,000 acre region of the Black Hills in South Dakota and would return in a heartbeat.

Whether you’re planning a vacation around Custer or you’re just looking for the best things to do near Mount Rushmore, we’re confident you will love what we have in store for you here.

We suggest either spending an action packed 2 days in and around Custer State Park or including this area as part of an unforgettable South Dakota Road Trip.

Let’s get stuck into the 5 best things to do in Custer State Park!

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Custer State Park is widely regarded as one of the best in America and we can’t argue with the consensus!

But why is it rated so highly?

  • Scenic drives here blow most other scenic drives out of the water.
  • Hiking opportunities in Custer State Park are right out of the top drawer.
  • Wildlife spotting is fantastic for a State Park.
  • All of the best things to do are close to each other & easy to visit.
  • Perfect for families and all ages, plus far less busy than National Parks.
  • Consistent spectacular views and scenery across the entire region.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, it’s not!

We find it difficult to conjure up any negatives when we consider Custer State Park.

Perhaps one – If it were a National Park, entry would be included with the America the Beautiful national park pass. Instead, you will pay US$ 20 to enter.

We visited in peak Fall season and highly recommend you do the same if possible. Bright yellows, burnt oranges and deep greens contrasting against needle-like granite rocks truly is a sight to behold. 

Your Custer State Park Factfile

Address: Custer State Park, 13329 US Highway 16A, Custer, SD 57730
Website: gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/custer-state-park
Phone: (605) 255-4515

Park Hours: All day, every day
Entrance Fee: US$ 20 Vehicle (good for 1 week)
Visitor Center: Open 8am – 4.30pm daily (8am – 6pm in Summer)

Campgrounds: 9 Campgrounds (view options here)
Backcountry camping: French Creek – Reservations not required / self registration required
Accommodation: Lodges at campgrounds or hotels in Custer / Keystone

Top Activities: Hiking, Camping, Horseback Riding, Rock Climbing, Wildlife Spotting, Swimming

Annual Visitors: ~ 2 million

Best Time to Visit: Spring or Fall (comfortable temperatures and fewer crowds)

Getting To Custer State Park South Dakota

Custer State Park is in a truly stunning part of South Dakota, but it is remote and it can be a pain to reach. From the East it’s a slog along I-90 with a compulsory stop off at Badlands National Park.

Denver is 350 miles South and Yellowstone National Park is 400 miles West.

Read our 10 day road trip itinerary from Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone if you plan to travel West from Custer State Park.

Unless you live nearby or you’re taking a 2 or 3 month US road trip and South Dakota is on your way, it’s highly likely you’ll need to fly into Rapid City and hire a car.

Once you reach Custer and the Black Hills, all of the best things to do are close to one another.

Resources
  • Read our 15 money saving steps to follow when searching for flights.
  • We always recommend and personally use Skyscanner for booking the cheapest and most flexible flight times
  • Similarly, we always hire our cars using Rental Cars, who have the biggest and best selection of vehicles.

5 Awesome Things To Do In Custer State Park

1. Cathedral Spires Hike

Cathedral Spires hike one of the best things to do in Custer state park

What is it?

Cathedral Spires trail is a family friendly moderate difficulty 3 mile roundtrip out-and-back hike. Allow roughly 1 hour 30 minutes – 2 hours depending on stops.

Its first section is flat with a shallow incline through forest, followed by a short rock scramble around 2/3 of the way up in which you gain a little elevation. Finally, the trail turns East into a flat valley flanked by awesome razor sharp needle-like granite rocks jutting out of colorful trees.

Why do it?

This short trail packs a heavy nature and scenery punch. You will find this hike to be much quieter than Black Elk Peak and others around Sylvan Lake. We recommend this hike to those who are shorter on time or prefer an easier, slower and quieter trail.

Cathedral Spires is perfect for families and any age group. This is a lovely trail with just one slight negative for us – the trail end is slightly anticlimactic. That being said, towering granite rocks as opposed to fantastic views are the reason you walked this trail. Look out for tiny colorful specks as rock climbers ascend the spires.

Where is it?

Hiking begins right at a small car parking area on Needles scenic highway, around 2.5 miles from Sylvan Lake. Be careful when parking up as the trailhead is situated on a U bend on the road, particularly in Summer when it’s busy. 

2. Custer State Park Wildlife Loop

Huge brown bison on side of road wildlife loop Custer state park

What is it?

Custer State Park is home to a famous 18 mile one way driving wildlife loop through open grassland. This is one of the best places in the entire US to see Bison roaming across rolling plains by the herd. But there are also Pronghorn, Burros, Deer, Elk, Prairie Dogs and Eagles.

It is important to respect the animals by driving slowly and cautiously. Allow anywhere between 1 and 2 hours to complete the loop, depending on how many animals you see and photos you take!

Why do it?

Custer’s wildlife loop is an amazing opportunity to get up close and personal with many animals that you would usually only see from afar. It’s worth it for the Bison alone – spotting other species is a bonus.

The landscape is gorgeous as you drive through huge open spaces and there’s a constant anticipation of spotting wildlife.

If you’re traveling with your family, does it get any better than this?!

Also, you might run into some ‘Begging Burros’ along the way. We had to very slowly slalom our car around 5 Burros (Donkeys) who were looking at us with sad eyes.

Where is it?

The one way road begins right at the Custer State Park visitor center. It’s definitely worth having a look around inside the visitor center – particularly the movie which is narrated by none other than Kevin Costner!

The loop is easy to drive around and of course is ideal for all age groups. Our top tip is to visit either earlier or later in the day when the animals are more active. Our schedule meant we had to visit in the middle of the day and we certainly saw less wildlife than we had hoped. But you can’t win them all! 

3. Needles Highway Scenic Drive

Iron Creek Tunnel along Needles highway black hills SD

What is it?

Needles highway is a 14 mile (very!) scenic drive through spruce and pine forest, surrounded by meadows and stunning needle-like granite towers.

This road is meant to be driven slowly to enjoy the views so give yourself an hour to drive the 14 miles.

Also, it is important to note that there are a number of low and narrow tunnels along the drive, which means RV’s can not take this road.

Why do it?

Aside from non-stop beautiful scenery, you can expect multiple switchbacks and tunnels, making the drive feel adventurous and exhilarating. Be sure to stop a few times just to get out and admire views as far as the horizon. Scenic drives don’t come much more scenic than this.

If you plan to take on Cathedral Spires or Black Elk Peak you will have no choice but to drive along this road anyway!

Where is it?

The Northwest entrance is off 16, not far from Hill City and the Southeast entrance is off 87 towards Custer Wildlife Loop.

This road is closed in Winter so be sure to plan your visit Spring through Fall and remember these narrow roads do get congested.

4. Black Elk Peak Hike

Black Elk Peak summit is one of the best things to do in Custer state park South Dakota

What is it?

Black Elk Peak is the highest point East of the Rockies and West of the Pyrenees Mountains in France/Spain, standing at 7,102 ft (2,165m). This is a non-technical 7 mile moderate roundtrip hike that should take between 4-5 hours.

Take Route 9 up and Route 4 down for variation and expect exceptional 360 degree views at the summit. This trail is suitable for all age groups and abilities so as long as you have a little stamina, this trail is the one for you!

Hiking Black Elk Peak was one of our favorite things to do in Custer State Park and we enjoyed this trail so much we wrote an entire article about it!

Why do it?

At the summit of Black Elk Peak you will find Harney fire watchtower and views across South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming. You can see as far as the horizon in a 360 degree panorama.

The trail is easy to follow and well signposted, scenery for the entire roundtrip is stunning and this is not a challenging hike. Black Elk Peak is our top recommendation for your visit to the Black Hills area.

Where is it?

Black Elk Peak trailhead begins at picturesque Sylvan Lake just off 89 onto Needles highway. There are plenty of lodges and camping opportunities around this area to consider.

5. Iron Mountain Road Scenic Drive

What is it?

Iron Mountain Road is an awesome scenic drive stretching 17 miles between Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Custer State Park entrances. This is a road engineers once claimed ‘could not be built’ and requires excellent driving skills!

How intriguing does this sound?

Driving around 314 curves, 14 hairpin bends/switchbacks, 3 tunnels and 3 pigtails (a turn that climbs and loops back over itself).

Why do it?

Because it is one hell of a drive!

The first time we didn’t know what to expect but it blew us away, so we did it again and shot a timelapse on our GoPro of the entire road! Unfortunately, it was right in the middle of the day so glare and sun beams were strong. therefore our top tip is to drive this road before or after the sun is at its strongest.

Tunnels along Iron Mountain Road were built with one thing in mind – to frame Mount Rushmore in the distance. As you leave the tunnels, look straight ahead and you’ll see the memorial head on. Superb planning and craftsmanship on the positioning along the scenic drive.

Where is it?

The Northern entrance begins between Keystone and Mount Rushmore and its Southern entrance can be found 2 miles from Custer State Park visitor center. Keep in mind, Iron Mountain Road is not open in Winter so be sure to plan your trip between Spring and Fall to experience this exciting scenic drive

Things To Do In Custer State Park Interactive Map

The interactive map below shows each of the 5 best things to do in Custer State Park, plus nearby towns to consider booking your hotel.

Click into the map and move around, zoom in and out, click on the icons to orientate yourself with the area.

Where To Stay In & Near Custer State Park

Chipmunk eating food sat on a log in Custer state park
Campgrounds

There are 9 campgrounds in and around the park to choose between, check this map for locations of each campground. Sylvan Lake and Center Lake are great places to set up base for closeness to each of the best things to do in Custer State Park.

Lodges

Sylvan Lake, Blue Bell, Legion Lodge, State Game (all located at campgrounds – use same map as above).

Hotels

When visiting South Dakota’s Black Hills, you have plenty of choice for where to stay. We recommend Custer, Keystone, Hill City, Rapid City or the northern parts of the Black Hills.

Read our in depth guide to the best hotels in South Dakota’s Black Hills, near Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park and the best of the area.

And you might find our ultimate guide on how to book the cheapest hotels helpful to save a few dollars along the way.

If you choose to stay in the popular town of Keystone, below are our top hotel choices. Click each hotel name to check prices and availability:

What To Pack For Custer State Park

Salomon Hiking Shoe
Merrell Hiking Shoe
Down Jacket

For basic hiking clothes to take on Cathedral Spires and Black Elk Peak, we recommend the following:

  • Summer – Moisture wicking shirts, shorts, and sunscreen. Don’t forget swimwear to jump in the lake!
  • Spring / Fall – Layers are your best friend for the differing temperatures as you hike and stop.
  • Winter – Several warm layers, jackets, hats and gloves because it can get mighty cold up in South Dakota!

We visited in October and layers were the key for us. Evenings were chilly and mornings were freezing but days were warm.

Down jackets are the perfect balance between lightweight and warmth for Spring and Fall. We never leave home without ours.

For hiking shoes we use and recommend:

These trails are meant for day hikes and are extremely well maintained so there’s no need for heavy hiking boots. You won’t need to scramble or climb at any time and walking poles not required.

Resources
We hope these awesome things to do convinced you to include Custer State Park to your next visit to South Dakota!

Please let us know if you have any questions in the comments section below.

-Happy Travels-

Trivia: Roughly how many Bison are inside Custer State Park?

1,500

Custer State Park is home to one of the largest free-ranging Bison herds in the world. It is not uncommon to be held up on the wildlife loop by Bison crossing the road!

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Valuable Resources For Your Next Trip
  • Booking Flights: Skyscanner is our preferred flights booking search engine, finding the best and cheapest flights has never been easier | Skyscanner
  • Booking Hotels: Booking consistently offers best prices around the world, along with a genius program and mobile discount | Booking
  • Rental Cars: When we hire a car at an airport or in the city, we always use Rental Cars for best value and most options | Rental Cars
  • Travel Insurance: Never leave home without insurance, it’s not worth the risk. World Nomads is our preferred travel insurance provider | World Nomads
  • Photography Gear: Peak Design is one of our favorite brands, we love their innovative camera accessories and travel photography equipment | Peak Design

Leave a Comment

2 comments

Graham Bedford June 4, 2020 - 3:32 am

Great posts, I enjoyed your expansion into you tube. I would love to visit that national park, that is my type of day out.

Reply
Mark & Kristen Morgan June 4, 2020 - 10:55 am

Thanks Graham! Custer State Park is awesome, we would go back in a heartbeat!

Reply

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