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The Quick Guide to Visiting Custer State Park

Bison in Custer State Park

Custer State Park, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is a 71,000-acre wildlife preserve. This state park not only houses thousands of wildlife with over 12 different species, but it offers endless activities filled with outdoor experiences year-round. Whether you spend a day or a week you will never run out of things to do!

With less than an hour’s drive from Rapid City, South Dakota, and only a 35-minute drive to Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park is right in the hub of all of the Black Hills’ most scenic and popular vacation spots. Whether you stay inside the park or in a neighboring town, you will find the location very convenient.

Let’s look at some of the most popular things to do inside Custer State Park with a quick explanation and helpful information on each activity to help you plan your day or stay. Follow along as I briefly cover each aspect of visiting this popular treasure!

Custer, South Dakota: The Heart of the Black Hills

Scenic Drives

There are three scenic drives located inside Custer State Park. If you have time to do them all, that would be the best choice but if time is limited I’ll sum up each one to help you decide which ones you want to include in your trip.  

Map showing scenic drives in Custer State Park

Wildlife Loop

Prairie dog eating a snack

The Wildlife loop is open year-round and one of my favorite parts of Custer State Park. In case you haven’t read many of my articles I’ll clue you in as to why. Animals!  Bison, burrows, prairie dogs and more will pepper the landscape of the wildlife loop as well as stunning views.  The loop takes approximately 45 minutes if you don’t veer off onto any of the additional back roads. Along this loop, you may stop off for as much animal viewing as you want, as well as check out some trailheads, the visitor center, and/or the new bison center which is beautiful and has a great souvenir shop.

I recommend a stop at the visitor center to see where the buffalo are located in the park and talk with a knowledgeable staff member.  There are some interactive things for families and an impressive movie about the history of the park narrated by Kevin Costner.  The visitor center is open year-round and, I will add, has extremely nice clean bathrooms!

Needles Highway

The Needles Highway is a very interesting scenic highway that includes rock spires, tunnels, intense views, mountain goats, and some trailheads.  The uniqueness of the highway even inspired an article of its own that you can read more in detail if you wish.

The Needles (as South Dakotans call it) are 14 miles in length but can take you up to an hour or possibly more during peak season.  Though it’s called a highway, the speed limit is 25 miles per hour and you will catch yourself pulling over at one or many of the small parking areas to explore and take pictures.  This is a very twisty and winding road so be prepared with motion sickness tablets if you have people in your party prone to getting car sick.

Some of the needles spires
Tunnel on Iron Mountain Road in Custer State Park

Iron Mountain Road

Another long, winding road that may need some Dramamine is Iron Mountain Road.  Like the Needles Highway, it has stunning views and tunnels but the famous tunnel that people often love to drive through is the one that frames Mount Rushmore.  This feature is worth the drive and is a scene like no other.

Iron Mountain Road is 18 miles long and will take about 45-60 minutes with lush foliage, pigtail bridges, and wildlife.  Keep a look out in the rocks for the elusive marmot!  This road is between Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park and is closed in the winter.

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway

Now I know I said there were only three scenic drives and there are, but the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway includes all three drives as well as some other scenic portions of the Black Hills, even Mount Rushmore!  Remember to take your time on all of these roads, follow the speed limit, or go just a tad under, watch for wildlife, and enjoy!

Hiking

Hiking is a very popular activity in the Black Hills for locals and travelers alike. My favorite place to hike to date is inside Custer State Park.  There are at least 18 different hiking trails within the park varying between a simple walk in the woods and some serious long mountain treks.  Some of the best and highest views in the Black Hills will be found in Custer State Park.

A good portion of trailheads will be located at or very near Sylvan Lake.  This is a good spot to park, picnic, and hike any level of trail you desire on any given day.  My favorite trail thus far is Sunday Gulch and one of the most challenging that I accomplished was the Little Devils Tour.  Another popular hike is Black Elk Peak. The peak of the trail reaches a height of 7242 feet and is the highest elevation point between the Rocky Mountains and the Pyrenees Mountains in France. Don’t let these statistics scare you, this is a doable hike for many!

Black Elk Peak Fire lookout

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Lakes

Since I already mentioned Sylvan Lake, I think it’s a good time to mention that Custer State Park has five glorious lakes! All five lakes offer fishing, swimming, boating (with some restrictions), and camping.  The scenery is beautiful and the facilities are great so take a picnic lunch and enjoy a stop at one or each of them. Last summer my husband and I camped in Custer and one morning got up early and took the fishing pole and explored each lake in Custer State Park except for Game Lodge Pond. Sylvan Lake is still our favorite! 

Stockade Lake is a little bit larger and all boats are allowed. Sylvan and Legion Lakes only allow boats with electric motors. Center Lake allows only slow, non-wake boating. You can find boat ramps at Stockade and Center Lakes.

No lifeguards are on duty at any lakes in Custer State Park, nor are pets or glass containers allowed on any zoned swimming beaches.  Did you know South Dakota also has lots of ice fishing? Don’t forget to get a fishing license

Center lake Custer State Park
Frozen Sylvan lake with ice fishers in Custer State park

Activities

Aside from hiking, scenic drives, and hitting up the lakes inside of Custer State Park, there are still more activities that you can do! I’ll list some of our most popular ones, including links if necessary.

Buffalo Safari Tour

If you don’t want to search for buffalo throughout the park in your own vehicle and want a little adventure, then you can book a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour.  These jeeps will take you through the park and ensure you find buffalo!  The tours were also named “Top 10 Safaris in the US.”  The tour lasts from 1.5 to 2 hours and can get pricey so it isn’t necessary.  You can always stop off at the visitor center and get up-to-date locations on the buffalo and save some money!

Scenic Trail Rides

What can be more peaceful than a scenic trail ride through a state park?  All ages can enjoy a trail ride on a well-disciplined horse for an hour or even up to a full day if you choose.  The trails throughout Custer State Park will stun you with magical glitter, flowers, butterflies, animals, and breathtaking views. There might not be a better way to travel the mid-west than by horse. Book a tour through Blue Bell Stables in advance to make sure you don’t miss out!

horse back riding in the black hills

Evening Chuckwagon Cookout And Scenic Wildlife Hayride

Need I say more?  This 3-hour adventure will include a steak dinner, a wildlife hayride, and live entertainment.  Very reasonably priced for a meal, entertainment, and a fun adventure.  Custer State Park has this and many other excursion packages that you can book and read about on their website.

Watercraft Rentals

Several of the lakes inside Custer State Park will rent out canoes, kayaks, and paddle boards.  The prices are great and even though it says first come first served there are always plenty of boats available anytime I’m at the lake!  Don’t forget your fishing pole, my husband loves to fish off the paddle board on Sylvan Lake!

Paddle boaring on Sylvan lake

Lodges & Campgrounds

There are four lodges located inside Custer State Park available if you don’t want to camp but are still looking for a rustic stay. Each lodge brings something different to the table whether it be in location, style, or experience.

State Game Lodge

The State Game Lodge is absolutely beautiful inside and out. Built in 1920 and located in a mountain valley setting with parklike surroundings and paths.  The State Game Lodge served as the “Summer White House” for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927 and was visited by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. For a more historical experience, you can stay in one of the historical rooms but there are only 7 of them so book early.

This lodge also has frequent visitors of the bighorn sheep and bison that roam Custer State Park.  You may wake up to find a herd right outside your window or have your morning coffee out on the shared patio for wildlife viewing.

Game Lodge CSP

Legion Lake Lodge

Legion Lake Lodge is on Legion Lake and is more of a tranquil lake setting.  You can dine out on the lakeside patio or have a picnic on the lake itself.  The lodge doesn’t house visitors but it has cabins as well as a general store where you can get a fishing license or any supplies you might need.

Blue Bell Lodge

Another lodge that doesn’t have hotel rooms but does have cabins is Blue Bell Lodge. It is one of my favorite lodges in Custer State Park.  The log cabins will give a real old west vibe and this is where you can rent horses for trail rides or participate in that mouth-watering chuck wagon dinner.  Enjoy the live entertainment while you stay!

Sylvan Lake Lodge

Located at the top of the Needles Highway, Sylvan Lake Lodge is a stunning stone and timber lodge surrounded by pine and spruce.  The Lodge offers hotel-style rooms or very rustic-style cabins with rocks and breathtaking scenery. You can take in the fresh air and enjoy the beauty of Sylvan Lake.  It also has a great general store that serves top-notch BBQ and has the best souvenirs in Custer State Park itself.

Campgrounds

There are nine developed campgrounds inside of Custer State Park, all of which require reservations except Center Lake Campground which is a first come first serve campground. You can stay in a tent sight for as low as ~$15 per night or opt for your trailer, or RV, or even book a stay in a cabin.  Reservations do fill up for everything inside of Custer State Park so book ASAP

Eating

The four lodges inside Custer State Park offer dining rooms and serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  The prices are above average but not terrible and the menus all have a variety of options. Some of these will have indoor/outdoor seating with a lake view and offer pick-up to take back to your cabin/lodge.

The Sylvan Store located at Sylvan Lake is more affordable and has a made-to-order counter service and lots of pre-made grab-n-go items.  You might not be able to resist the smell of BBQ burgers when lunchtime comes around.

We usually bring our lunch and picnic at one of the lakes.  95% of the time you will find us at Sylvan Lake with our lunch and paddle boards.  It’s more affordable to bring your lunch when you live in the area but for vacationers sometimes you just want to relax and have someone else prepare your meal!

Lastly, as an option, you can always drive into Custer and have a meal.  The quaint little town has the best burger place in the Black Hills, “Burgers and Buns“. The delicious cuisine doesn’t stop at hamburgers, however.  Custer has several diverse options for dining from on-the-go, casual, to elegant.  You can read more about dining in Custer and other areas of the Black Hills in our article Where to Eat IN And AROUND Mount Rushmore.

Additional Information

Custer State Park is open year-round and offers a great number of things to do, in all seasons. 

Though summertime is the most popular option, it does have its drawbacks like crowds and heat, which leads to fewer animal sightings. 

Winter has fewer crowds (it sometimes feels desolate and barren), and fewer things open including the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road, but MORE animal sightings.  Don’t be surprised by a lone wandering bison interested in your car only to want to come and lick off the salt from the roads.  We’ve always enjoyed a drive through the park in the winter because of the frequent animal sightings.

Big Horn sheep in Custer State Park
Begging burro Custer State Park

Some last tips I would suggest are to have some carrots in your car to feed the begging burrows, snacks, and water because the drive is long, and binoculars so you can pull over and investigate animals in the distance that sometimes turn out to be rocks or tree stumps.

This sums up the basics of Custer State Park.  I hope this has some helpful information for you to plan your trip to the Black Hills.

Is There Anything Else I Should Know?

The Black Hills are confusing because it’s a huge area and there are so many things to do! 

Need a game plan so you don’t miss out on the best things to do? Check out our itinerary

Most travelers want to visit the most popular sites and still avoid the crowds. We have a detailed itinerary that gives you a step-by-step game plan so you can get to the best places at the right times!

But that’s not all! Our itinerary includes a free audio guide to listen to while driving with over 3-hours of stories about the park!

MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO THE BLACK HILLS

BLACK HILLS TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about the Grand Canyon, check out our Black Hills Homepage

AREAS: The Black Hills is home to some amazing national parks and monuments: Mt. Rushmore, Wind Cave and Jewel Cave National Parks, Badlands, and Crazy Horse.  Plus, the amazing Custer State Park

THINGS TO DO: There is much more to do than hike and look at Mt. Rushmore.  Explore the 1880 train, Reptile Gardens, slip down a natural waterslide, or go on a scenic drive

GREAT CITIES TO STAY OR CHECK OUT: Explore some amazing mountain towns including Deadwood, Keystone, Hill City, and Rapid City.

GET QUIRKY: Want something REALLY different? Check out Devil’s Tower and Wall Drug

WHERE TO EAT: Check out the best places to eat in and around Mt. Rushmore plus where to eat in each city

WATCH: Enjoy videos of the amazing Black Hills while learning our best tips for visiting by watching our Black Hills YouTube Playlist

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