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 and winter can be a great time to explore the area. We happened to be here right after COVID and so the visitor center and wildlife station were closed, however, normally the Visitor Center is open year-round (except for major holidays). 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 | Wildlife in Custer State Park
This is the 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. We also saw a baby and adult great horned owls in our campground.
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 | Chill 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. Tatiana tried her hand at fishing for the first time when we were here.
3 | Take a Scenic Drive
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.
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,
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.
4 | Camp in Custer State Park or Stay in a Lodge
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 think I would’ve 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 camps.com or by calling 1.800.710.2267. 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!
If camping isn’t your thing, there are 6 great lodges to stay in at Custer State Park. 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. The State Game Lodge is great if you like more history and amenities. If you want a peaceful retreat, check out Legion Lake Lodge. Click here for a full description of them all.
5 | 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.
6 | Take a Hike in Custer State Park
All the trails inside Custer State Park are well marked with blue diamonds. There are a few great hikes in Custer State Park that I highly recommend. The absolute best is the Black Elk Peak combined with Little Devil’s Tower Spur Trail. Click over to our blog to get exact details on the best way to hike this and see Cathedral Spires along the way.
The next must-do hike 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. Near the Game Lodge is a nice trail to Lover’s Leap. Last,
7 | 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.
There is also an Arts Festival occurring each September and the third Saturday of summer months, there is also live music from local bands. Also, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally takes place each August.
8 | 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.
I hope that helps you get excited to visit Custer State Park!
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.
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