8 Fun Things To Do In Custer State Park, South Dakota


Stunning greens and yellows in fall driving through Custer State Park SD ponderosa pine trees contrasting with grey granite rocks

Custer State Park is a 71,000-acre recreational area in the beautiful Black Hills region of South Dakota. It’s one of the largest, most diverse and popular state parks to visit in the country, with around 2 million visitors each year. That’s more than many famous national parks, so there must be a lot of fun activities, right? Well yes, there are! When it comes to planning your time in the park, think scenic drives and picturesque hikes.

In this guide we show you the best things to do in Custer State Park based on our own experiences.

Our Custer State Park Experience

Hiker in a red coat and shorts standing on boulders at the summit of a granite mountain with distant views over forests and granite rocks
Mark at the summit of Black Elk Peak back in the fall of 2019

We’ve seen the best of Custer State Park across two South Dakota road trips. First in October 2019 with excellent weather conditions and again in April 2021 with cold and snowy weather. Custer is one of our personal favorite US state parks because we’re hikers and photographers, and this place provides plenty of opportunities for both.

We think Custer State Park is perfect for family vacations, hiking, photography, spotting wildlife, relaxing and enjoying nature. For us, hiking the picturesque Black Elk Peak Trail is the standout highlight of the park, but there’s a lot of competition so you might have a different opinion! Read more about us.

Custer State Park Entry Fees

Hiker in red coat walking a snowy path around a lake
Kristen walking around Sylvan Lake in the snow

A 7-day Custer State Park License costs $20 per vehicle. You’ll buy your license the first time you enter through any of the 5 park entrances. Keep it safe because you’ll use the same pass to access all areas of the park for the next week.

Considering the high quality scenic drives and hikes on offer inside the park, we think $20 is a steal when compared to many other parks we’ve visited across the US. Now, let’s get right into the attractions!

1. Custer Wildlife Loop

Photo of a car driver looking out of an open window at a landscape filled with golden grass and trees
Kristen enjoying the slow and picturesque wildlife scenic drive
  • Activity: Scenic drive
  • Time: 1-3 hours
  • Starts: US-16A
  • Ends: SD-87
  • Worth it: Definitely

Custer’s Wildlife Loop is an 18-mile scenic drive through peaceful rolling hills. It’s a fantastic attraction for families to enjoy because the loop road passes by wildlife roaming freely and it has a maximum speed limit of just 25mph. You can drive straight through or you can stop several times and walk short distances from the road to better see bison, burros, deer, elk, prairie dogs, pronghorn and eagles.

We recommend you drive the wildlife loop early in the morning or much later in the day for the best chance of seeing active animals. We got stuck in a burro jam on the road for at least 20 minutes, so be ready for animal delays! The wildlife loop is open 24 hours a day 365 days a year and it can easily be reached from Mount Rushmore or Keystone by driving the exceptionally scenic Iron Mountain Road.

More Information: Custer Wildlife Loop


2. Needles Highway

The front of a car driving on a road towards a narrow tunnel built into a granite rock
Driving our car through Hood Tunnel on Needles Highway
  • Activity: Scenic drive
  • Time: 2 hours
  • Starts: US-385
  • Ends: US-16A
  • Worth it: Definitely

Needles Highway is a 14-mile scenic drive with twists, hairpin turns and stunning views through the most striking area of the Black Hills. The road passes through ponderosa pine and spruce forests, beneath towering granite rocks and through three extremely narrow tunnels called Hood Tunnel, Needles Eye Tunnel and Iron Creek Tunnel. The narrowest of those tunnels is just 8 feet wide and 10 feet tall, so you might want to measure carefully if you’re traveling in an RV!

You can drive Needles Highway in either direction. We’ve driven it in both directions and we don’t think there’s any major benefit to driving it one way or the other. So our advice is to plan your drive around hiking trails along the route, including Black Elk Peak, Sunday Gulch and Cathedral Spires (all of which we cover in this guide). The enormously popular Sylvan Lake is also located along Needles Highway, so the road gets busy in peak season.

More Information: Needles Highway

3. Cathedral Spires Trail

Tall granite rocks towering into the sky behind green and golden leaves on trees on a sunny day with deep blue sky in Custer State Park SD
Views of granite peaks along Cathedral Spires Trail

Cathedral Spires Trail is a moderately difficult 3-mile roundtrip hike with 600 feet elevation gain. In essence, i’s a picturesque trail leading to a bowl-shaped climax with needle-shaped granite towers bursting into the sky. So there’s no far reaching viewpoint at the end. It can can be hiked as a spur from Black Elk Peak but we recommend hiking it in full from Cathedral Spires Trailhead on Needles Highway instead.

Sure, Black Elk Peak is unquestionably the best hike in the Black Hills. But Cathedral Spires is also a fantastic hike because it’s much shorter, easier and less time consuming. The trail dead-ends at a circle of stumped trees and the views looking up are immense. We really like this hike and its unexpected ending. It’s unusual not to have some sort of far-reaching view at the end of a hike, but it works here!

More Information: Cathedral Spires Trail

4. Iron Mountain Road

Wooden bridge crossing over the top of a curving road
One of the pigtail bridges on Iron Mountain Road

Iron Mountain Road (US-16A) is a 17-mile scenic byway with more than 300 curves, three pigtail bridges and three tunnels. One of the tunnels ends with a distant but direct view of Mount Rushmore, which is a cool photo stop. It has a speed limit of 35mph, and it’s hard to defy with so many twists and turns! We think Iron Mountain Road is one of the best things to do in the Black Hills because it’s free, fun and anyone can drive it.

The two ends of Iron Mountain Road are Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park, so it’s the perfect attraction connector. We’ve driven US-16A in each direction, and we think it’s worth doing both for different perspectives and to enjoy the beautiful natural surroundings more than once. This scenic drive is usually much quieter than Needles Highway because it has no hiking trails or other popular stops along the route.

Watch: Our Iron Mountain Road timelapse

5. Sylvan Lake

Hiker standing on a rock overlooking a lake with lots of snow on the ground and snow clouds in the sky
Mark enjoying the solitude at Sylvan Lake in the snow in April
  • Activity: Relaxation
  • Time: 2-6 hours
  • Location: Sylvan Lake
  • Worth it: Definitely

Sylvan Lake is among the most popular places to visit in Custer State Park, especially in summer months when you can can relax on a small beach, swim, paddle and float in the lake. Lakeside amenities include picnic tables, a campground, a general store and canoe rentals. So, it’s set up well for tourism and particularly families. We’ve been to Sylvan Lake in April when it was snowy and October when it was beautiful but too cold to swim!

You can walk a family friendly loop trail around Sylvan Lake, and stronger hikers can take on Sunday Gulch from the west side of the lake or Black Elk Peak from the east side. You’ll notice huge boulders on the distant shores after arriving, and they were used as a filming location for the entrance to the treasure room in Nicolas Cage’s National Treasure 2. Overall, it’s a great spot to visit.

Need help planning your Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone road trip?

Our popular 45+ page Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone Guidebook includes a detailed 10 day itinerary with maps, directions and top attractions.

6. Black Elk Peak Trail

Two hikers holding onto a summit flagpole built into boulders with far reaching views over trees on a clear day in Custer State Park, Black Hills
Here we are at the summit of Black Elk Peak

Black Elk Peak Trail is a moderately difficult 7-mile roundtrip hike with 1,500 feet elevation gain. There’s a handful of routes you can take to the summit, but we recommend trail #9 on the way up and trail #4 on the way down so you see more and have the option to add a spur trail to Little Devils Tower near the end of your hike. At the summit you’ll find Harney Peak Fire Tower and spectacular 360-degree views over four US states.

We’ve included Black Elk Peak in our popular guide to the 50 best US hikes because it’s an outstanding trail. The best time to hike it is late September or early October when the Black Hills are glowing with golden yellow leaves. We didn’t expect it to be so beautiful. If you’re a hiker, this is the one trail you shouldn’t miss when you visit South Dakota!

Read More: How to hike Black Elk Peak Trail

7. Sunday Gulch Trail

Hiking trailhead covered in snow with a trail closed sign
Here’s what you’ll find at Sunday Gulch if you visit in April
  • Activity: Hike
  • Time: 4-6 hours
  • Location: Sylvan Lake
  • Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
  • Worth it: Yes, but not essential

Sunday Gulch Trail is a moderately strenuous 3-mile roundtrip loop hike with 700 feet elevation. Half of the loop is easy and half is strenuous because it has boulders, steep scrambling sections and metal guardrails. Our advice is to go clockwise if you want an easier descent with the fun part at the end or go counter-clockwise if you want to descend into the gulch via the steep boulders (more exciting).

We only saw four or five others when we hiked Sunday Gulch in October because most were hiking Black Elk Peak. In truth we don’t think the trail is hard, but it has to be rated as strenuous because of the boulders and potentially dangerous conditions when wet or icy. You’re effectively dropping down a gulch to hike alongside a creek, which often swallows up excess water from Sylvan Lake. So the trail is often submerged in spring.

More Information: Sunday Gulch Trail

8. Mount Coolidge Fire Tower

Far reaching views over South Dakota's Black Hills with a narrow gravel road in the near foreground on a sunny day
Summit views from Mount Coolidge Fire Tower

Mount Coolidge Lookout is a 1930’s fire watchtower located at the top of a 6,023-foot tall peak. It has horizon-reaching views over Custer State Park, the Black Hills and even Badlands National Park on a clear day. The summit tower can only be accessed by driving a 1.7-mile narrow gravel road with hairpin turns and no guard rails, but the views are amazing so it’s well worth the nerve-racking drive up.

We strongly recommend you take binoculars or a telephoto lens for your camera so you can easily see Crazy Horse, the Needles, Mount Rushmore and Black Elk Peak. Driving to Mount Coolidge Lookout is completely free and barely anyone knows it exists, so chances are you’ll have it to yourself. It’s a Black Hills hidden gem!

Reviews: Mount Coolidge fire tower

Custer State Park Attractions Map

Click or touch the map below to activate.

Map key:

  • Red – Scenic drives
  • Blue – Hiking trails
  • Yellow – Attractions

Note: Routes included to show Custer Wildlife Loop and Iron Mountain Road. We couldn’t include the route for Needles Highway because we’re creating this map in February when the road is closed and Google won’t allow the route to fill. Needles Highway is the squiggly white road with the three hikes (blue icons).

Layout Of The Park

Custer State Park has an interesting layout. It’s borders are almost perfectly rectangular, with the exception of two locations on its northwest side; Stockade Lake and the exceptionally popular Needles Highway scenic drive leading to Sylvan Lake with it’s awesome hiking trails.

Below you’ll see the best map we can find to show the shape of the park, as well as what is and what isn’t included within park boundaries.

Map showing the layout of Custer State Park with its attractions and lodging
Source: SD Game, Fish and Parks

Here are the popular Black Hills attractions that are not located inside Custer State Park:

Why is this relevant?

Because you can use your $20 pass to access any area of the park for a week, but you can’t use the same pass to access Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Wind Cave or Jewel Cave. They all have separate fees.

Leave No Trace

Please take great care not to disturb formations, vegetation or wildlife when you explore the Black Hills. It’s a beautiful place to visit and we all have to keep it that way for future generations to enjoy.

Remember and follow these 7 principles of leave no trace when visiting Custer State Park:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of others

Best Time To Visit Custer State Park

Rolling hills covered in green and golden grass and leaves on a bright day in South Dakota
Gorgeous greens and yellows lighting up the Black Hills in early October

We think the best time of year to visit Custer State Park is the last week of September or first week of October. It’s less crowded, nearby hotels have better availability and affordability, hiking trails are safe, animals are active, scenic roads are open and colors are most vibrant with golden leaves on display.

Late May, June and the rest of September would also be a good time to take advantage of most benefits. July and August are naturally the two busiest months of the year because the weather is nice and kids are out of school.

Try to avoid weekends and especially holidays when the park will be most crowded. We always try to visit places on weekdays, particularly when we know they’re popular tourist spots.

Where To Stay Nearby

Hiking trail in Custer State Park leading through trees towards tall granite peaks on clear day with no clouds
Part of a trail we hiked in the park with awesome views

Custer is the closest and most convenient place to stay near Custer State Park. It’s also centrally located within the Black Hills, so it’s easy to reach most other nearby attractions. There’s a great selection of cheap and mid-range budget hotels in town, and it has lots of excellent restaurants. Here are the best hotels in Custer.

Keystone is the obvious alternative and we think it works better if Mount Rushmore is your top priority. It’s also closer to Badlands National Park and Rapid City airport. You can simply drive Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway to access both sides of the park from Keystone. The selection of hotels and restaurants selection isn’t as good, but it’s fine for a few nights. Here are the best hotels in Keystone.

Further Reading: The best places to stay near Mount Rushmore

In Conclusion

Custer State Park is a popular tourist destination for good reason. Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road are ultra-scenic drives, Black Elk Peak is a fantastic hike and the wildlife loop is perfect for families with kids.

Overall, we think South Dakota’s Black Hills are one of the best places to visit in the US and Custer State Park is at the heart of what makes it such a great vacation spot.

More From South Dakota

Want more South Dakota content? Head over to our South Dakota Travel Guides to explore Mount Rushmore, Badlands, the Black Hills and beyond.

We hope this Custer State Park guide helps with planning your trip to the Black Hills!

Please let us know if you have any questions or need help planning your visit in the comments below.

Happy travels,

Mark and Kristen

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4 thoughts on “8 Fun Things To Do In Custer State Park, South Dakota”

  1. We went in late July and it was still spectacular. I will go back someday during Fall for the leaves and I had already decided I want to go again. Even in “peak” season it was not too populated. Favorite were the nature loop
    Went first in mid afternoon and it was a bust. Went two days later at sunrise and it was a life-time highlight. Pronghorn elk, flock of juvenile turkeys, mule dear, wild mules, prairie dogs and twenty minutes as a herd of bison, maybe four hundred, used the road to migrate across the park. Their rumble was accentuated by their grumble. Never new they verbalized so much.

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


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