Custer State Park, located in southwestern South Dakota, is just a stone’s throw away from Mount Rushmore and should absolutely be a part of any trip out to see the National Monument. In terms of scenery and activities, it’s honestly one of the best state parks you’ll find in the United States. My fiance even remarked that it wouldn’t feel out of place as a national park. While there are ample opportunities for hiking and camping, the best things to do in Custer State Park can be done right from the comfort and convenience of your vehicle along the various scenic drives, which makes it especially great for families with young kids.
So, without further ado, here are the top seven things to do in Custer State Park:
Marvel at the Needles Highway
Custer State Park’s Needles Highway is located in the northwest portion of the park and passes through some of its most dramatic scenery. This is my favorite part of the park, as the 14 mile long road winds its way through granite rock formations that seem to erupt out of the forest cover toward the sky.
One of the Needles formations actually looks like it has a needles eye thanks to erosion from wind and rain. You’ll find it just west of the Needles Eye tunnel, which is marked on park maps. This super narrow tunnel – only 8’4″ wide – was also a highlight.
While our small SUV made it through without a hitch, we were treated to a “performance” by a bus driver coming through after us. His tour bus barely cleared the rock wall sides as he inched through the tunnel. We were sure he was going to get stuck, but he made it through. When he pulled up to enjoy the applause from the crowd that had gathered to watch, he waved a bottle of Maalox (heartburn/indigestion treatment for those who aren’t familiar with it) and pointed to a student driver sign he had taped to his windshield. Then, he called me over and fake whispered, “Hey, lady I don’t want the people on the bus to know, but I’m a little bit lost – Is this the way to Mount Rushmore?” Of course, he’d accidentally-on purpose left the mic on, so everyone on the bus started laughing. Gotta love a guy who has that much fun at his job.
You’ll pass through other narrow tunnels on this scenic drive, but the Needles Eye one is the narrowest. The road is not recommended for RVs, though pretty much any passenger vehicle should be ok. If yours is on the larger side, take a good look at the tunnel dimensions listed on the park map before heading out.
Another highlight of the Needles Highway is Sylvan Lake. This small, dammed lake, is partially surrounded by granite rock formations. You may even recognize it as a setting from National Treasure 2. In addition to hiking around it, you can also take a swim or rent a boat to paddle out into the lake.
Get caught in a buffalo jam on the Wildlife Loop
The third famous scenic drive in the park is the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop, an 18-mile long drive through the flatter southern end of the park. The state park maintains a large herd of bison (buffalo) – more than 1000! – that can frequently be seen along this portion of the drive. The first time we visited when I was a kid, we came around a bend and found our car face to face with a large buffalo casually strolling down the road toward us.
It’s not uncommon to see a large herd together, as we did on my most recent visit. “Buffalo jams” are not uncommon as the herd can hold up traffic by blocking the road. Just remember that all these photos were taken from the safety of our vehicle. Looking at their gentle, cow-like eyes, it’s easy to see why visitors can be lulled into thinking that they’re approachable animals, but bison can be dangerous and will charge if threatened. Visitors should keep a good distance away from them, especially during spring and fall.
The park is also home to a herd of donkeys affectionately known as the begging burros. These friendly animals, descended from donkeys used as pack animals years and years ago, love to stick their heads in car windows in search of a snack. Back in the ’90s when I visited with my family, we thought one of them was going to climb right in the open sliding door. While feeding wildlife is strictly prohibited in all other cases, the begging burros have a kind of exception and will happily chomp on anything you offer. On my most recent trip, we encountered them marching down the road, streaming in between vehicles, though wherever they were heading had them focused enough that none even took a second look at my wide open car window. It’s the first time I’ve ever been slighted by a donkey before.
There is plenty of other wildlife in the park, though they aren’t as easy to spot as the bison and burros. Custer State Park is also home to prairie dogs, deer, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, antelope, and coyotes. Rattlesnakes are also active in the park, so keep an eye out when hiking.
Drive the Iron Mountain Highway
I feel like I’m cheating a little with this one because only part of the 17 miles of this scenic drive are actually in Custer State Park, but it’s still a highlight. Though it seems to be more well-known, the scenery along it is a little less striking than The Needles Highway. Visitors love it for the distant views of Mount Rushmore as they wind through switchbacks into the mountains. One of the highlights along the way is the pair of somewhat unique “pigtail” bridges which form a small spiral (somewhat like you’ll find in many parking garages) to gain elevation quickly in a short distance.
What the Iron Mountain Highway is really known for is the tunnels you pass through (larger than the ones along the Needles Highway). If you look through the tunnels as you’re heading toward Keystone (or at your rearview mirror if you’re driving the road south), you’ll see Mount Rushmore perfectly framed in the distance. We were lucky enough to visit on a slow enough weekday that we were able to hop out and take pictures, though at busier times this may not be an option. General recommendations are to drive it toward Mount Rushmore for the best effect, though we did not due to the route we had planned for the day.
There are other overlooks along the way that offer views out toward Mount Rushmore as well, so keep an eye out for places to pull over. The Norbeck Overlook is a particularly good one with a small parking lot.
Attend the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup
Each year in late September, riders round up the park’s herd of buffalo and drive them to corrals. The Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival is a big spectator event and there are two viewing areas to watch the herd come in. If you’re an accomplished rider with your own horse, you can even apply to be one of the riders. For spectators, the park recommends bringing your own chairs and coming prepared for the weather. Breakfast and lunch can be purchased on site for the event. The event also includes an art festival where visitors can browse products made by vendors in a large tent.
Go for a hike
While many visitors to Custer State Park stick mainly to the scenic drives, there are ample opportunities to get off the road and onto trails. With routes ranging from easy to strenuous, you can find suitable walks for any skill level.
The park’s website has a great breakdown of trails by area and describes the terrain, distance, and difficulty level. One of the park’s top trails leads to Black Elk Peak – the highest point east of the Rockies. This trail begins in Custer State Park, but crosses over into National Forest Land.
The Sylvan Lake area is one of the premier hiking areas in the park. It includes the trailheads for Black Elk Peak, as well as two of the park’s other most popular trails.
The Sunday Gulch Trail is a strenuous hike that follows a stream along boulders and steep granite walls. The mile and half long trail features all kinds of plant life in addition to the scenery.
A good, scenic route for hikers looking for less of a challenge is the mile long loop around Sylvan Lake. An easy walking trail leads around the outer edge of the lake and you can go off-trail to large outcroppings of rock that protrude from the water as well. While some of the trail is suitable for strollers or even wheelchairs, there is a section around the “back” (the furthest part from the buildings) where it passes over a rocky area with stairs. It’s not overly challenging, but does rule out anything on wheels. In this area, you can also see the small dam that formed the lake.
Explore on horseback
For visitors who prefer to explore on horseback, the park has three maintained horse trailheads that link up to the Centennial Trail which bisects the park from north to south. Note that all horses from outside South Dakota must have a recent health certificate carried by the rider, so be sure to check the park’s website for information when planning your trip.
Learn about the wildlife at the Custer State Park Visitor Center
The Peter Norbeck Visitor Center was redesigned in 2016 and has a small exhibit about the park’s history and animal residents. There’s quite a lot about the park’s famous buffalo, as the story of how they were saved from the brink of extinction is the main focus of the exhibits, but there is info about other creatures as well. You can also meet with rangers and get information about other things to do in the park and hiking trails.
Where to stay in Custer State Park
The state park has five separate lodges with rooms and cabins, as well as multiple campgrounds. The Sylvan Lake Lodge is the most scenic in my opinion – the park’s website even refers to that one as its “crown jewel” – but the others also offer views and proximity to wildlife.
There are nine campgrounds in the park, most of which accept advance reservations. One – Horse Camp – requires that visitors have horses with them. For a more spontaneous visit, try Center Lake Campground, which allows same day reservations only. All sites within the state park have gravel or paved camping pad, plus a picnic table and fire pit. Most also have electric hookups. Reservations can be made here.
If you want to stay nearby, but not in the park, the cities of Keystone and Custer have a variety of hotels, both independently run and part of chains.
Where to eat in Custer State Park
If you’re looking for food in Custer State Park, four of the lodges offer dining. The Blue Bell Lodge, State Game Lodge, Sylvan Lake Lodge, and Legion Lake Lodge all have dining rooms as well as lighter snacks for purchase. If you opt to pack in your own lunch, there are plenty of areas to enjoy a meal along the scenic drives.
Tips for visiting Custer State Park
- If you want to see just the main highlights of the three scenic drives, you’ll be able to cover the park pretty well in one day – half a day even if you don’t linger too long anywhere. It can easily be combined with a visit to Mount Rushmore in one day thanks to its proximity.
- Try to get an early start in the morning to see the animals along the wildlife loop, especially on hot days.
- Add in a stop to the Crazy Horse Memorial before or after your visit to Custer State Park.
- Pack a pair of binoculars in case you spot more elusive wildlife away from the road. A good zoom on your camera is also helpful as phones won’t do the trick for anything far away.
- At the park entrance, you’ll need to purchase a vehicle pass (currently $20). It’s good for all South Dakota state parks for one week, so if you have other stops planned you’ll get your money’s worth.
- The park is open year round, though some facilities may close in late fall and winter. Roads may also temporarily close due to weather conditions, so it’s best to check the status before heading out.
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