With Custer State Park, being one of the largest state parks in our nation, it’s no surprise that the wildlife loop draws crowds upwards of 2 million people annually. So what can you expect to see?
This 71,000-acre Park has diverse terrain, such as prairies, grasslands, mountains, granite cliffs, and over 12 species of animals to enjoy all while driving the Wildlife Loop. This popular and scenic drive has been getting a lot of attention lately because it’s a State Park that acts like a National Park. With such beauty and diversity, travelers have been spreading the word about this must-see state park.
I’m Brandi and I live in the stunning Black Hills of South Dakota. I frequently visit the Custer area along with the Wildlife Loop which has stolen my heart. Living in a place that is also a touristy destination is so much fun and whenever I take a day or half-day to visit some of my favorite spots It takes me back to the first time I visited the Black Hills and I feel like I’m on vacation all over again. Keep reading as I share some of my insights into the Wildlife Loop!
Where Does it Start and End?
There are four main entrances to Custer State Park. There are also a few small dirt roads that can be taken to get inside but they will take you much longer and they are also out of the way for the most part.
The East Entrance starts near the visitor center on Highway 16 A. This is also closest to the Mount Rushmore area and Iron Mountain Road. You can access this route from the towns of Keystone or Hermosa.
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The west entrance which is near the small but adorable town of Custer is also on Highway 16 A. If you are staying in Custer this would be a great way to enter or leave Custer State Park.
Sylvan Lake Entrance
The Sylvan Lake entrance which is the northwest entrance is closest to the Needles Highway and will take you a little bit longer to get into the wildlife loop as well as take you on some winding roads. This entrance is also close to the Crazy Horse Monument so you could tackle some of these things on the same day.
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Blue Bell Entrance
The Blue Bell entrance which is the southwest entrance is the closest to Jewel Cave National Park and the Wildlife Loop.
Which End Should I Start?
My favorite place to enter the wildlife loop is from the East Entrance near the Custer State Park Visitor Center. I particularly like this entrance because it’s a great place to start off the trip stopping off at the visitor center and figuring out where the Bison are. Here you can talk to park staff members, watch the movie, and hit the bathroom before continuing on the journey. There are also some interactive displays which are great for kids!
Of course, with there being several ways to enter the park my suggestion is just entering the park closest to where you are coming from. If you are staying in Custer for instance it would be silly to drive an extra hour to get into the East Entrance. There is no perfect way to enter the park and you will have a great time no matter which way you come in.
How Long is It?
The Wildlife Loop is 18 miles long. This is not counting the roads inside the park nor the roads coming and going. This is just the loop itself.
How Long Does it Take to Drive It?
It will take a minimum of an hour and a half to travel the entire wildlife loop. Now keep in mind this is without stops. There will be multiple places to stop and view wildlife, interact with wildlife, or check out some of the visitor centers.
There are also a lot of trailheads throughout the Wildlife Loop that people enjoy hiking. If you are all about adventures on foot then this would be a great time to look up some of the hikes on the Custer State Park guidebook handed to you at your point of entry. This will help you determine which hikes will best fit your schedule if you choose. I recommend taking a hike if time permits! A great one is The Black Elk Peak Hike in Custer, South Dakota.
Realistically, I would set aside at least half a day for your trip on the wildlife loop. No matter where you are coming from in the black hills It’s going take you a fair amount of time to get to the entrance of Custer State Park. This is not counting the amount of time it will take to drive around the Wildlife Loop.
What is the Best Time of Day to Drive the Loop?
My favorite time of day to drive the wildlife loop would be early in the morning. The earlier the better. As the summer days warm up, it will be hard to find some of the animals because they like to hunker down in the shade of a grove of trees or near a creek. Custer State Park is very large and not everything can be seen from the road.
The other thing that happens in the peak season and warm months is more visitors and cars on the road. The Wildlife Loop is big enough to handle the entourage of cars and people but it’s just more relaxing to drive the loop with less traffic.
Another decent time I’ve found is in the late afternoon and into the evening. This is also less crowded and the animals start to come out again. Be especially careful as the sun starts to go down because the deer are everywhere and you have to watch out for animal crossings. South Dakota’s skies are also brilliant and the colors make a fantastic backdrop to pictures if you time it right.
Is There a Fee to Drive It?
There is a $20 fee to enter Custer State Park which is where the wildlife loop is located. This entrance fee is good for seven days from the point of entry. You can purchase an annual park pass for ~$36 which is a great value if you plan on coming again within the year.
When is it Open or Closed?
Custer State Park and the wildlife loop are open 365 days a year and 24 hours a day. The only thing that will close for weather in the winter is the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road. Some of the visitor centers will close down for the winter season but the main visitor center near the East Entrance is open year-round except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Of course, always check the website or your visitor guide for the hours.
There are tunnels on three highways near or in Custer State Park. This is important to note if you drive an RV or pull recreational equipment. You can still enjoy driving the Wildlife Loop if you have a vehicle that won’t pass the tunnel safely, just make sure to avoid these roads.
Iron Mountain Road
This road has 3 tunnels with the most narrow tunnel at 10’9” wide and the lowest height of 11 feet.
Sylvan Lake Road (SD 87/89)
There is only one tunnel to look out for here called the Hood Tunnel. The height is 9’8” and it is 8’9” wide.
This highway has two tunnels and nowhere to turn around if you get stuck or at least it will be a very difficult feat and cause a lot of traffic. The smallest tunnel which is the Needles Eye Tunnel (awesome tunnel!) is 8’ wide and 9’9” in height.
Things to See
As stated before there are roughly 12 types of animals located in the Wildlife Loop. Around 1400 bison are roaming the prairies. Locating them is part of the adventure and they don’t all stick together so you may find small herds peppered throughout or a lone bachelor basking in the sun. Keep your eyes peeled for the big mounds off in the distance.
Just because there are lots of animals inside the park doesn’t mean you will see every kind. Some are more elusive than others. The time of day and year might affect that as well. But some of the animals you are more likely to see (but not guaranteed) are the begging burros, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, white-tailed deer, mule deer, birds, and prairie dogs.
Some of the more elusive animals that I’ve yet to see are mountain lions, coyotes, and elk. Mountain goats are found outside of the wildlife loop but not far away. They are hanging out on the rock spires of the Needles Highway and near some of the trails by Sylvan Lake.
Beautiful prairies and hills will greet you as you loop around Custer State Park. Some of the park has forests, streams, and creeks. The spring and summer scenery is stunning with the green fields peppered with yellow and purple wildflowers. It is a calm feeling to drive the loop with your window down when the weather is nice. We like to open the sunroof too which also makes it a great place to stand up and take pictures. (While parked of course.)
There are 4 visitor centers along the Wildlife loop with bathrooms, some interactive and educational things as well as knowledgeable staff. The new Bison Center that opened in 2022 is gorgeous and has a great gift shop. The Custer State Park Visitor Center near the East Entrance is where you see the park map with the bison locator. There is also a wonderful 20-minute movie narrated by Kevin Costner called “Spirit of Tatanka,” that you shouldn’t miss.
Where to Eat
If you haven’t brought a picnic lunch and are wanting to grab a bite to eat the closest places to eat would be at the State Game Lodge for a nice sit-down meal. The Sylvan Lake General Store has a great lakeside grill for cook-to-order items or snacks to go.
I will go out on a limb here and recommend driving back out the East Entrance and hitting up Lintz Bros Pizza in Hermosa. This pizza parlor is the most talked about pizza parlor in the Black Hills and though I’ve never eaten there, you can be sure I’ll be doing so soon since I love pizza.
You can also make your way into Keystone for lots of options of dining from casual to even fine dining. Keystone has MY favorite pizza parlor which is called Cruizzers. If you aren’t in the mood for pizza and want a more luxurious sit-down meal then sit down to great ambiance at the Ruby House. The food is delicious!
Any of the charming and small towns surrounding Custer State Park and the Wildlife Loop contain many options for eating out as well as treats, snacks, and even coffee shops! For a more detailed look at food options in the Black Hills check out my article Where to Eat In and Around Mount Rushmore.
Can I Drive It in the Winter?
Not only can you drive the wildlife loop in the winter but you definitely should drive the wildlife loop in the winter. This is one of the best times to travel inside the loop. More animals will be visible because of the cooler weather. Some of my most successful trips to the wildlife loop have been in the winter months.
The buffalo love to come up to the cars and lick the salt off of them from the roads. The burros are very very aggressive in the winter so I recommend staying in your car and feeding them carrots through the window. When I say aggressive I only mean that they will herd around you trying to get the treats. They are quite large and this can be a dangerous scenario.
The only other mention for winter visits is the scenic drive will look brown, barren, and desolate. The beauty of the hills is not as magnificent when brown and in a state of dormancy but if you are going for the wildlife then this won’t matter.
Iron Mountain vs Needles: Which One Should I Drive if I Can Only Do One?
Why do you have to choose? Do both! Ok but if time is flying by and you can only do one I would do The Needles Highway. This road not only has some stunning views but it offers some hiking trails and parking areas to pull off and enjoy. It is also really close to Sylvan Lake which is the perfect spot for a walk or a picnic if you don’t have time to swim.
I do like both and it would also depend on where you want to end up but Iron Mountain Road, though unique and beautiful, has so many hairpin turns and pigtails that I tend to get a little queasy. Even when I drive myself!
Explore the Side Roads
You may see the gravel side roads throughout the wildlife loop and think they are forbidden. They are NOT. Please take them on your adventure to spot wildlife. My first time in the loop we followed some cars and ended up stuck for 45 minutes in a bison traffic jam. It was wonderful and we got so many fun pictures and videos of bison up close. If the road doesn’t say do not enter then you are good to explore!
Don’t Feed the Fluffy Cows
This may sound like a funny joke and it sorta is here in South Dakota but the Bison are dangerous and should never be approached under any circumstances. Take pictures from your car or far away. The state law says 100 feet away.
Did you know bison can run 35 mph? That’s reason enough for me but they can also jump a 6-foot fence from a 20-foot running start. Wildlife can be unpredictable so just be careful and respectful of their space.
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Don’t forget the treats for the begging burros! There is nowhere to get carrots inside of Custer State Park, nor do any gas stations en route have them. I’ve checked! So grab some whenever you see a grocery store if you know you will be hitting up the Wildlife Loop sometime on your trip.
Bring Snacks and Water
The Wildlife Loop is going to be much more fun if you or someone in your group doesn’t get hangry. And by first-hand experience, I will tell you that I don’t venture on my day trip without snacks. I also always have water for everyone in my car along with some electrolyte packets. My favorite is Redmond Re-Leyte because there is no sugar or junk. Beef Jerky or beef sticks are some of our other go-to snacks if we aren’t packing a full picnic.
This may seem obvious but there are times when you may assume there will be plenty of gas stations available. This would not be one of them. Gas up before entering because even though it may only be 18 miles on the loop, you may travel well over that if you are hitting all the side roads, driving the scenic Needles Highway or Iron Mountain Road. Better to be safe than sorry!
If you have a pair of binoculars then bring them on your vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota and leave them in your car. It never fails that whenever we see something in the distance and want a closer look, we’ve forgotten our binocs (as we call them). From trying to distinguish between an eagle and an osprey to a close-up look at a mountain goat in the rocks, binoculars have been paramount in our wildlife viewing.
I hope you have the best visit in my neck of the woods and I hope I’ve been able to give a little insight and tips on visiting the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park. Take your time, take in the sounds, sights, and smells, and keep your eyes on the horizon for all that awaits you on your journey!
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