Custer State Park: The Complete Guide

The Needles, a beautiful formation of granite spires in the Black Hills of South Dakota. They tower over the surrounding landscape, and in this image, are catching the morning sun.

Mike Kline (notkalvin) / Getty Images

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When it comes to national and state parks, South Dakota is a big hitter—Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Wind Cave National Park and Badlands National Park call this state home as well as 17 different state parks. One of the most well-loved state parks, due to its granite crests, open ranges, rolling plains, and mountain waters, is Custer State Park, South Dakota’s largest and first state park. Read this ultimate guide, where you'll find information on the best hikes, drives, swimming experiences, and wildlife viewing in this 71,000-acre playground in the Black Hills.

Things to Do

The man-made Sylvan Lake, the park’s most popular, is definitely worth a visit. Many drive right past it on the Needles Highway or fail to carve out enough time for a proper swim and hike around the lake. Rent a kayak or paddle board and plan on spending a few hours here, especially if the weather is in your favor.

Besides Sylvan Lake, you can fish—with a state license—and swim at Center, Legion, and Stockade Lakes.

Mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, and fishing are also fun to experience throughout the park. Reserve the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour, Hayride and Chuckwagon Cookout, Guided Trail Rides, and non-motorized water sport rentals through Custer State Park Resort.

Best Hikes & Trails

The best things to do in the park are to get out and explore on foot, taking in the vast scenery. Most of the hikes are relatively short and can be done in a day, however, a few are quite strenuous.

  • The Sylvan Lakeshore Trail is a 1-mile, relatively flat, walk around the lake, ideal for everyone in your family. Granite rock formations outline parts of the trail—climbing and exploring this area is loads of fun.
  • The Black Elk Peak Trail, also known as Harney Peak, begins at Sylvan Lake and continues for seven miles through a pine forest on a loop trail. While the summit, at 7,242-feet, is quite challenging, you’ll get a big payoff with views of the Black Hills. Also, you’ll earn the chance to explore Harney Peak Fire Tower, built in 1938, where you can go inside and walk to the top of the tower for even better views.
  • Cathedral Spires Trail is a short, yet strenuous hike that leads to a beautiful viewpoint. Start at the Cathedral Spires Trailhead and hike 2.2 miles roundtrip.
  • Little Devil’s Tower Trail is a 3-mile roundtrip strenuous hike, which has a rocky finale that is fun to boulder and play on.

Visitor and Education Centers

It’s always a good idea to pop in the visitor center before heading out into the park. You can chat with a park ranger and learn about which trails are best for the day of your visit as well as where animals have been spotted recently. Visitor centers are also where you can equip yourself with gear, food, and water, and learn about any special ranger talks or presentations.

  • The Custer State Park Visitor Center, which is open at 9 a.m. every day of the year except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, is situated at the junction of US Hwy 16A and Wildlife Loop Road. An educational 20-minute movie plays every 30 minutes in the theater.
  • Make a stop at the Wildlife Station Visitor Center, which is eight miles south of Hwy 16A on Wildlife Loop Road. The building, once a herdsman’s house, has been renovated to highlight the diverse landscapes of the park as well as some of the wildlife that calls this area home.
  • Another great resource, near the Custer State Park Visitor Center, is the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center, which is where you’ll find family-friendly alfresco activities as well as interactive programs held indoors. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, you’ll learn about the area’s history, cultural heritage, and wildlife at this center.

Wildlife Viewing

Home to a large herd of bison, elk, deer, coyotes, mountain goats, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, river otters, pronghorns, cougars, and even several feral burros, Custer State Park is a real treat for wildlife lovers.

A great way to view wildlife is on a scenic drive. Needles Highway (14 miles-long) and Wildlife Loop Road (18 miles-long loop) will get you everywhere you need to go. Parts of the roads have hairpin turns, steep inclines, and rocky tunnels to drive through, making this drive really exciting. You’ll see the impressive granite pinnacles, “The Needles”, and, of course, the wildlife viewing is incredible.

Typically found on Wildlife Loop, the burros, often called “The Begging Burros” will often come right up to your car. Resist the urge to roll your window down to feed them as they are, indeed, wild.

Bison grazing in Custer State Park, South Dakota
Blaine Harrington III / Getty Images

Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival

If you can time your visit to the Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival, an annual event held each September, you can watch cowboys and cowgirls count and move over 1,300 bison. There’s a pancake breakfast and lunch held in the corrals and you can watch the wranglers sort, brand, and conduct tests on the massive herd. Walk around the festival afterward and shop for local goods at over 150 vendor sites. Native American dancing and music will be present as well, under a tent on the festival grounds across from the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center.  

Where to Camp or Stay

Choose from nine different campgrounds or RV sites for your visit, mostly located on the north end of the park, or book accommodations at Custer State Park Resort (Blue Bell Lodge, State Game Lodge, Sylvan Lake Lodge, Legion Lake Lodge, Creekside Lodge, and Specialty Cabins), where casual dining options are also available. Activities at the campgrounds and lodges are plentiful.

 How to Get There

Located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park is an easily accessible drive. It's about 30 minutes, or 25 miles, southwest of Rapid City. Rapid City Regional Airport is the closest airport to the park. You’ll need to rent a car to explore the park and get around.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Wildlife viewing is the best in the early morning or evening when the sun is just about to rise or set.
  • Summer, in July and August, is when you’ll find the most visitors to the park. Plan ahead for your visit and be aware that traffic will be heavier during this time. Also, hotel and dining prices will likely be higher—make reservations well ahead of time.  
  • Don’t miss venturing through the Needles Eye Tunnel. The area near here can be quite congested, so it’s best to visit right when the park opens or just before it closes.
  • Be sure to bring plenty of water and sun protection when out on a hike. Also, be aware, that bathroom facilities may not be available, in which case you’ll have to practice Leave No Trace principles and pack out what you bring in.
  • Make sure you pull off the road safely, in a designated turn out, to take photographs and always keep your distance from wildlife. It’s common to even see wildlife, like bison, on the road so you’ll need to drive with caution and be patient as the animals cross.
  • Expect to pay for either a weekly park license at $20 per vehicle or an annual pass for $36 per vehicle.
  • Be sure to consult a map whenever you’re out in the wilderness. Even if you have an app, it’s important to bring along a paper map as well for safety reasons.
  • If you plan on visiting Mount Rushmore, a road trip along Iron Mountain Road (which connects Custer State Park to Mount Rushmore) is an absolute must.
  • Needles Highway is closed in the winter months. Depending on snowfall, the road is open between April and mid-October.
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Custer State Park: The Complete Guide