Custer State Park is the perfect destination for your next family vacation as well as a playground for any outdoor adventurist. With 71,000 acres of land in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park has tons of things to do including epic camping, hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, swimming in beautiful lakes, kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding, boating, and great fishing. In the winter, it’s a great destination for cross country skiing and snowshoeing.
How many times will I make the assumption that a place will disappoint only to completely be awestruck by its uniqueness and originality? Custer State Park will certainly go on this list. I’ve written a few blogs now on South Dakota and have mentioned several times that South Dakota has been low on our radar. I assumed that since it isn’t home to any large mountain ranges, it can’t be that pretty. I was wrong.
Custer State Park and the majority of the Black Hills actually reminded me a lot of our visit to Germany a few years ago. The dark forest broken up with meadows and crystal blue streams makes for a gorgeous backdrop.
But what makes Custer State Park itself unique and something you should move higher up on your radar is the amount of wildlife, the lack of crowds, and the abundance of adventures to be had here.
Entrance Fees + Visitor Centers at Custer State Park
You need to purchase a license when entering the park. It’s only $20 and is good for 7 consecutive days.
The park is open year-round (except for major holidays) and winter can be a great time to explore the area. The Wildlife Station, which is located on the Wildlife Loop, and the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center, near the Game Lodge, are both open Memorial Day through September.
Tips To Help You Plan Your Visit to Custer State Park
Food is limited inside Custer State Park, however, the town of Custer is only 20 miles away and has a grocery store and restaurants. We loved eating at Custer Wolf.
We had very limited cell service in the park (we have T-Mobile though). Ironically, we did have service out on the Wildlife Loop Road but nothing in the main section of the park between the Game Lodge and the Wildlife Loop turn off.
1 | See Buffalo
This is the #1 reason to visit Custer State Park. On our visit to Custer State Park, we saw hundreds of Buffalo, there was even a large male bull that walked right through our campground. There are often Buffalo sitting right outside the Game Lodge.
Remember to stay safe by remaining in your vehicle or keeping at least 100 yards between you and bison, elk, and other animals. When you drive the Wildlife Loop the buffalo might walk up to your car and start licking salt off it. They have been known to dent cars so be careful.
2 | Birdwatching
There are so many beautiful birds to see in Custer State Park. One year we also a baby and adult great horned owls in our campground at Grace Coolidge. Another year there was the most gorgeous blue bird that kept hanging out in front of our RV door.
3 | Visit at Sylvan Lake
I personally loved Sylvan Lake and think the two hikes, Black Elk and Sunday Gulch (shown below) are must do’s.
Custer State Park is also home to Center Lake, Legion Lake, Stocade Lake, and the Game Lodge Pond, all of which you are allowed to swim in but unfortunately, no cliff or rock jumping is allowed.
Sylvan Lake is gorgeous but it can get crowded. You might prefer relaxing by one of the other lakes. The lakes in Custer State Park are also great for SUP and boating as well as fishing.
4 | Drive The Needles Highway
There are 4 really great scenic drives in Custer State Park. The Needles Highway, which connects the main part of Custer State Park with Sylvan Lake, is 14 miles and will take about an hour. Its smallest tunnel is 8 feet wide and 9’9” high so most RV’s won’t be able to drive this. This is closed in the winter.
5 | Drive Iron Mountain Road
Iron Mountain Road, which connects the main part of Custer State park and Mount Rushmore, is 18 miles long. This is another highway that doesn’t accommodate most RV’s since its smallest tunnel is 10’9” wide and another tunnel is only 10’9” high. Remember that these drives are best enjoyed at a slow pace so take your time and enjoy the process. If you are in a hurry, there are plenty of other highways you can take to bypass the scenic drives.
The Peter Norbeck Scenic Drive is a loop including Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, highway SD 89 and SD 244,
6 | Drive the Wildlife Loop Road
The drive that everyone needs to do is the Wildlife Loop Road. This 18-mile road goes through the grasslands and hills of Custer State Park and while it is large enough and wide enough to accommodate RV’s, there are a few steep, sharp turns that I would not want to be towing my large 42’ fifth wheel on. The good thing is that there are great campgrounds nearby where you can drop your trailer and just take the truck.
7 | Camp in Custer State Park
As you can read about in my other blog, Best Campgrounds in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I really loved camping here at Grace Coolidge Campground.
It’s a small quaint campground set in the trees with a small creek running through it, which was great for the kids for fishing. I enjoyed staying at the Game Lodge Campground too. It’s larger with a little more open space, plus you are closer to the lodge and trailheads.
Sylvan Lake Campground is very popular for good reason. You are close to the best hikes, the incredibly scenic lake, and epic rock climbing. The only reason we didn’t stay there was that our rig was so long.
There are 9 campgrounds in Custer State Park and all of them contain reservable sites at https://gfp.sd.gov/custer-state-park/. If you arrive in the park without reservations and find an empty campsite, you need to go online or call that number to pay for your campsite. All the campgrounds, except Center Lake, have electricity and flush toilets, and all the campgrounds in Custer State Park have free, hot showers!
8 | Hike Around Legion Lake
I also love camping at Legion Lake because there’s a nice one mile hike that goes around the lake. Even if you don’t camp here, the hike around the lake is really peaceful and serene.
9 | Stay at a Lodge
The State Game Lodge is great especially if you like history and having nice amenities. There are 6 great lodges to stay in at Custer State Park. Click here for a full description of them all. All the lodges are in scenic locations with peaceful nature surrounding them. If you like to be close to the best hikes or climbing, I’d choose the Sylvan Lake Lodge.
10 | Become a Junior Naturalist
Kids ages 4-6 can join in the Pups Program, while kids ages 7-12 can learn about and explore the park through the Junior Nationalist program. Stop by the Custer State Park visitor centers to get started and to get the current schedules of other interpretive programs happening in the park.
11 | Learn History
Learn the history of the Black Hills and Custer State Park at one of the 3 Visitor Centers.
12 | Bag The Famous Black Elk Peak
The absolute best hike in Custer State Park is Black Elk Peak combined with Little Devil’s Tower Spur Trail. Click here to our blog to get exact details on the best way to hike this and see Cathedral Spires along the way. I like that all the trails inside Custer State Park are well marked with blue diamonds so you never worry about getting lost.
13 | Hike Sunday Gulch
The other must-do hike in Custer State Park is Sunday Gulch, which also starts from Sylvan Lake. The Back Elk trail loop is 7.6 miles is pretty strenuous and is plenty for one day, however, you could easily squeeze the Sunday Gulch and Lovers Leap hike in one day.
Grab our free adventure resource bundle with trail guides, pack lists, and more.
14 | Road Bike Through Custer
Last time we were in Custer State Park, Victor kicked himself for not having his road bike to ride the smooth paved trails that run through the park. Plus, early morning and weekdays provide a great opportunity to ride the windy road.
15 | Explore on Mountain Bike
Mountain biking provides a totally different way to experience Custer State Park. With a vast number of fire access and logging roads to explore, mountain bike is a sure win in Custer.
16 | Hike or Bike The Centennial Trail
The South Dakota Centennial Trail is 111 miles long, 22 of which go through the park. This is a well maintained and graded gravel trail that is great for walking, running, or mountain biking.
17 | Take The Lover’s Leap
Near the Game Lodge is a pleasant hike called Lover’s Leap.
18 | Attend the Annual Buffalo Round Up
Every year, Custer hosts a Buffalo Roundup, where they sell off excess buffalo in order to keep the size of the heard compatible with the available foliage.
19 | Attend the Summer Arts Festival
There is also an Arts Festival occurring each September and the third Saturday of summer months, with live music from local bands.
20 | Go Fishing
I don’t fish, but I wish I did. There are so many great spots in Custer State Park to fish. Just across the street from Grace Coolidge Campground is a wonderful walk-in fishing lake. There’s also the scenic Sylvan Lake, Legion Lake, and Center Lake to enjoy in Custer State Park. Tatiana tried her hand at fishing for the first time at the pond at the Game Lodge Campground and had a blast.
21 | Feed & Pet The Wild Donkeys
Ask anyone who has visted Custer State Park what their favorite thing was and they’ll say it was seeing the wild donkeys.
The wild donkeys that live in a small section of Custer State Park along the road might be the most popular thing to see and do in Custer State Park.
They’ve earned the title “begging burros” because they’ve become famous for approaching vehicles and expecting food. Many visitors bring crackers and carrots to feed them.
22 | Home Base Out of Custer For The Sturgis Rally
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally takes place every August and staying in Custer State Park is a great way to take a break from the crowds.
What To Choose If You Only Have 1 Day
Even if you only have a day to visit, I think it is still worth the detour to drive the Wildlife Loop and stop by Sylvan Lake for a picnic, some pics, and maybe do the rocky side of Sunday Gulch. You should be able to sandwich all of that fun with the scenic drives along Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway.
Of course, there’s certainly a week’s worth of fun and enjoyment to be had here if you have time.
I hope that helps you get excited to visit Custer State Park!
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