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16 Best Things to do in Custer State Park, South Dakota

16 Best Things to do in Custer State Park, South Dakota

Whether this is your first time visiting Custer State Park, or you’re coming back to relive a childhood memory, be sure to stop and take time to enjoy some of the best sightseeing and scenic drives in the entire United States.

This is truly one of the last places in the United States that remains completely wild. Massive pine trees, creeks, rivers, lakes, and massive granite deposits spread throughout the massive 71,000 acres.

It is absolutely a sight to see. From RV camping to serious rugged outdoor camping, Custer State Park offers everything in between and all of the above.

No matter what adventure you’re on, make sure to check out Custer State Park and all it has to offer.

Map of Custer State Park

You can grab one of these at any visitor center.

Custer State Park Map

I mean who doesn’t want to see a massive bison on the side of the road! Don’t miss out on all of the things there are to experience when you visit Custer State Park.

Best Things to do in Custer State Park, South Dakota

Let’s get roaming with our Custer State Park Itinerary!

1. Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake is Custer State Park’s most beautiful crown jewel for a reason. This scenic lake is popular for swimming, canoeing, and fishing because of its stunning surroundings of gigantic rocks and amazing water.

Take a hike around the lake or choose to relax on the sandy beach; Sylvan Lake is a great destination for anyone wanting to spend some time outdoors.

And despite being passed by many people when are on the scenic drive Needles Highway, Sylvan Lake is worth spending a full weekend at. With plenty of different experiences to enjoy, Sylvan Lake should definitely be on your travel itinerary.

Sylvan Lake Lodge is the perfect destination for anyone looking to enjoy the beauty of Sylvan Lake. This historic lodge offers rooms with amazing views of the lake as well as delicious meals made with locally sourced ingredients.

The lodge also offers a variety of activities such as fishing, hiking, and canoeing. You can even relax and enjoy a massage at the on-site spa.

2. Buffalo Jam

Bison and Baby Bison Together

If you’re looking for things to do in Custer State Park, South Dakota look no further because I have the perfect first adventure idea!

Custer State Park is home to around 1,300 bison, which equates to the second-largest public free-roam herd in the entire United States. There is about a 98% chance that you will see or encounter a bison on your trip through.

The best chance to see the incredible beasts are on Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road, which is a 19-mile road that winds through perfect sightseeing spots in the southeast part of the park.

Not only will you be able to see bison on this adventure, but watch out for the rest of the wildlife that lives in the state park such as pronghorn, deer, elk, coyotes, and birds of prey.

For the adventurous spirit, take a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour, which takes you in an open-air Jeep where only the state game employees are allowed. Ask your guide and they will tell you about the historical and educational information about the park.

As cuddly and fluffy as the bison may appear, do not approach them at any time during your visit. They are large, dangerous, wild animals that are not domesticated.

They will protect their young at all costs, so please follow all safety guidelines put in place by the park.

3. Camping and RV Campgrounds

Rocks Surrounding a lake

With nearly 100 campsites and RV campgrounds to choose from in Custer and surrounding towns nearby, it can be overwhelming trying to find the right campground for you and the family.

Not to worry, that’s why I’m here! Take the stress away, and look at this compiled list of the best campsites and RV campgrounds in and around the Custer State Park area.

There are some camps that have RV accommodations, while some have a mix of both, or some have will be strictly RV camps or actual campsites or cabins with no RV accommodations.

I will make sure to specify all of the options. There are options listed that are technically campgrounds near Custer State Park while not being located within the actual state park. But there are also options for the best campground in Custer State Park, as well.

It is always recommended that you look, and reserve your spots beforehand. Custer State Park is a very popular place for travelers, so campsites and RV parks are sometimes booked out for months on end, especially during the summer months.

There are restaurants at nearly every campground listed, however, on any camping expedition you’re going to want to bring food and snacks! It is always better to be overprepared than underprepared.

Be sure to check out this great website, it’s like Airbnb for RVs! Here are a few lists of some of the best Custer State Park camping options.

RV Campsites:

  • Sunset RV Park
  • Fifth Street RV Park
  • Bridal Ridge Horse and RV Camp

Regular Campsites:

Mixed Campsites:

All of these campsites have their “pros and cons”. It all depends on what you are looking for in a campsite, and what you want out of your camping adventure in Custer!

All of the camping options listed above have great options for Custer State Park hiking. Any one of these sites listed is going to offer great hiking trails leading to beautiful scenery, no matter which one you choose.

There are options for Custer State Park camping reservations, so the people who like to plan ahead far in advance, we got you covered.

A few of these sites have some of the best Custer State Park cabin rentals that South Dakota has to offer. Who doesn’t want to wake up to the sounds of gentle waves rolling onto the shore in the early morning hours, or maybe an owl softly hooting above the tree line?

See Related: RVShare vs Outdoorsy

4. Hiking

Sharp Towering Rocks in a Trail

Anyone who loves hiking an amazing trail should be sure to check out Custer State Park at least once in their lifetime. With the serenity of long, meandering trails leading through huge plots of fields and meadows, you can’t beat the scenery that comes along with these hikes.

Custer State Park has a ton of different hiking scenarios to choose from, including wooded and lake-area hikes and rugged terrain through all the different rock formations. Listed below are some of the best Custer State Park hiking trails.

Rocky/Mountainous Trails:

  • Black Elk Peak Trail (Rated: Moderate)
  • Cathedral Spires Trail (Rated: Moderate)
  • Little Devils Tower Trail (Rated: Moderate)
  • Badger Clark Historic Trail (Rated: Easy)
  • Bear Gulch Trail (Rated: Moderate) Note: Reports of male Bison have been reported on this trail. Please plan accordingly, and never approach a Bison.
  • The Lost Trails: Upper Loop and Overlook (Rated: Moderate)
  • Custer State Park Boundary Trail (Rated: Moderate)

Meadows/Prairies/Lakes/Creek Trails:

  • Sunday Gulch Trail (Rated: Hard)
  • Sylvan Lake Shore Trail (Rated: Easy) PRO TIP: Check out Sylvan Lake Lodge
  • Prairie Trail (Rated: Easy)
  • Grace Coolidge Creek Trail (Rated: Easy)
  • French Creek Trail (Rated: Moderate)
  • Calkin’s Draw (Rated: Moderate)

Best Hiking Trails in Custer State Park

Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak) Summit Hike

The Black Elk Peak hike is a challenging one that rewards you with stunning 360-degree views of the Black Hills National Forest. Be sure to pack plenty of water and snacks, as the hike is 7 miles round-trip.

Cathedral Spires Trail

Cathedral Spires Trail offers access to a number of hiking trails, including the strenuous hike to the top of Black Elk Peak, the highest point in South Dakota.

There are so many different hikes to choose from just within Custer State Park, imagine what the rest of South Dakota holds! Custer State Park is one of the top ten wildlife destinations in the world. The abundant wildlife is hard to believe at times.

On your hikes, you will be able to spot and are not limited to: bison, deer, pronghorn, mountain goats, elk, coyotes, bighorn sheep, a variety of birds, turkey, and prairie dogs. Bring your binoculars, because you wouldn’t want to get close to some of those big animals!

Now, all of these trails are located within Custer State Park, so they are all free to use. A quick entrance fee for one to seven days will cost you a mere $20 per vehicle.

If you’re planning on revisiting frequently, grab an annual park entrance license for $36, and add a second pass for family members for only $18.

See Related: 16 Best Things to do in South Dakota

5. Annual Buffalo Roundup

Herd of Bison

Every September brings a special time in Custer State Park. You are not going to want to miss this opportunity to see some real-life cowboy action. Watch from afar as cowboys and cowgirls round up the herd of around 1,300 buffalo in the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup.

Not only is it a truly special sight to see but also plays a role in managing and maintaining a strong and healthy herd.

Guests arrive as early as 6:30 am, so make sure to get there early to ensure you receive a parking spot! There are two different viewing parking lots, so make sure you know ahead of time which viewing lot you will be parking at, as these spots fill up quickly.

Make sure to bring your chairs, cameras, binoculars, layers of clothing, rain gear, and sunscreen. And of course any other necessities your family might need for a day out in the South Dakota prairie.

It is encouraged that you do not bring your RV or camper to the roundup, as there is limited space with expected numbers of 20,000 or more people that show up annually to watch the roundup.

Included in the roundup is the Annual Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival, a collection of 150 different vendors that offer their fine arts and crafts for sale to the public, many of which are locally South Dakota made.

After a long day watching the buffalo roundup, make sure to rest easy by booking with Kayak.

See Related: Best Things to do in Wyoming

6. Horseback Riding

Horses in Sunset

Have you ever thought about going horseback riding through a beautiful open prairie or a wooded trail? Look no further, because I have found some of the best Custer State Park horseback riding for you!

For beginners to experts and everyone in between, jump on one of these beautiful animals and take a trail ride that you will be reminiscing about for years to come. Take a moment and check out these amazing horseback rides that you can take through Custer State Park.

  • Rockin’ R Trail Rides

With four different trails to choose from, Rockin’ R Trail Rides offers a ride of a lifetime for all ages. Reservations are highly recommended, but walk-ins are welcomed when slots are available.

With a number of different trails to choose from, Hollingsworth Horses makes sure to pair you with the perfect horse that matches your riding ability and personality. Bond with your horse an hour before riding time to ensure that you and your horse are a perfect fit for each other.

For more experienced riders, there are unguided tours that can be booked. You will have to pass a test to ensure that you are experienced enough to be on an unguided tour.

These guided horseback tours depart from Blue Bell Lodge Stables and are one of the best ways to experience trail riding on horseback in Custer. Reservations are highly recommended, but walk-ins and same-day rides are available depending on availability.

7. Kayak and Canoeing on Custer State Park’s Lakes

Man Kayaking in Sunset

Do you want to catch a sunrise or sunset while being in the middle of a lake? The perfect way to do that is by canoe or kayak! Head out and enjoy a picturesque evening on the water paddling along the shores of either Sylvan Lake, Center Lake, or Legion Lake in Custer State Park.

Take time to explore and relax on the sandy beaches, and see massive rock formations on both Sylvan Lake and Legion Lake.

There are three-person canoes for rent, three-person kayaks, and single-person paddleboards for rent on both lakes. Life jackets are provided, and anyone under the age of 18 must have an adult sign for the rental.

Don’t forget to pay with your Amex Platinum card while paying for things in Custer State Park, such as a night at Legion Lake lodge.

See Related: Best Things to do in Pierre, South Dakota

8. Buffalo Ridge Camp Resort

Fire Flame from Campfire

I purposely didn’t put this resort in with the rest of the campground section above, only because this isn’t exactly your typical campground. This has been considered by campers, “glampers”, and everyone in between, the best campground next to Custer State Park. Less than a half-hour drive and you’re in the state park!

Your getaway starts at Buffalo Ridge Camp Resort. This is a true luxury resort experience, in the middle of South Dakota! The resorts range from different styles of sleeping arrangements while giving you the convince of modern appliances whilst being able to celebrate the escape to nature.

This 86-acre campground is filled with modern cabins, luxury canvas tents, “glamping” teepees, smaller camping cabins, RV sites, and tent camping sites.

The best part about the resort location is the fact that it is within miles of iconic sights. Visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Crazy Horse Memorial, Crown Jewel Cave National Monument, and the obvious Custer State Park. This wonderful resort is both the perfect getaway and retreat to all the nature Custer has to offer.

If the outdoor retreat isn’t your thing, make sure to stay at one of the many hotels located in Custer, South Dakota. The Holiday Inn, Comfort Inn, Best Western Buffalo Ridge Inn, and Super 8 Custer are all wonderful options for the less outdoorsy people.

If you want to rest your head somewhere while heading to Custer State Park, make sure to book an Airbnb along the way for great places to stay!

See Related: Outdoorsy vs RVShare

9. Needles Highway

Big Sharp Rocks and Skyline

Are you a person that likes to take long road trips? If being in the car for countless hours doesn’t bother you, and you want to spend a little more time in the car, take a drive on the iconic Needles Highway.

This is considered the number one thing to do in Custer State Park. Needles Highway is a 14-mile-long National Scenic Byway that includes hairpin sharp corners, narrow tunnels, and unbeatable views. (Cue fast car revving its engine.) But the speed limits are set to slow, so be extra careful while driving on the highway.

Needles Highway refers to the granite formations called “needles”. These needles are projected out of the hillside high into the sky shaped into pillars and towers.

These make for a terrific photo opportunity, on one of the many pull-off areas along the byway.

See Related: 10 Best Roadtrips in the USA

10. Hot Air Balloon

Hot Air Balloon Ride

Do you want to surprise your travel partner with something spectacular? Why not rent an hour-long hot air balloon ride over the Black Hills National Forest!

Black Hill Balloons fly in the southern part of the Black Hills National Forest, circling above Custer Valley and Custer State Park, this hot air balloon ride will be something that you will remember for the rest of your life.

Just miles away from Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Wind Cave National Park, and Badlands National Park. Your flight will include mountains, hillsides, valleys, lakes, and prairies.

This is one of the best ways to view the most spectacular parts of South Dakota.

See Related: Best Hotels in the Midwest

11. Rock Climbing

Person Rock Climbing on an Overhang

Don’t want to drive on the Needles Highway? How about climbing over The Needles instead!

From Sylvan Lake, The Needles Highway gives access to an entire playground for rock climbers. Climbers can face narrowing spires that stick straight up, led by quartz crystals. Some crystals the size of a hand have been found!

You can check out this website for all of your rock climbing needs. From your very first time to expert rock climbers, feel safe and secure with the team from Sylvan Rocks. Available rock climbing classes are set up with reservations, there are no walk-ins available at this time.

This site is a really thorough way to find the best climbing routes through The Needles. There are detailed climbing reports and routes, perfect for more knowledgeable climbers who know how to read climbing routes.

12. Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road

Custer State Park in South Dakota is home to one of the best scenic drives in the United States, the Wildlife Loop Road. This 18-mile drive takes you through the park, where you’re likely to spot bison, pronghorn, elk, and all the other wildlife that Western South Dakota has to offer.

Be sure to stop at the pull-offs and take in the stunning scenery! Custer State Park is also a great place to go hiking, camping, and fishing.

So if you’re looking for a great place to get away from it all and enjoy some beautiful scenery and wildlife, this scenic drive is definitely the place for you.

13. Mount Rushmore National Monument

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Mount Rushmore National Monument is a must-see when visiting South Dakota. The 60-foot sculptures of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln are an awe-inspiring sight, and the monument is surrounded by beautiful hiking trails.

Mount Rushmore is open all year round, so there’s never a bad time to visit. And if you’re looking for a truly unique experience, check out the monument’s night sky program.

Every summer, rangers give presentations on the night sky and offer telescope viewing (weather permitting). It’s an unforgettable way to see Mount Rushmore.

14. Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial is a mountain monument under construction in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is dedicated to the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse and was designed by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski.

When completed, it will depict Crazy Horse mounted on a horse and pointing into the distance. Crazy Horse Memorial is the world’s largest sculpture in progress and still under construction.

It began in 1948 and is not expected to be completed until several decades from now. In the meantime, visitors can tour the visitor center, watch workers carve the monument, and learn about Crazy Horse and the history of the Lakota people.

15. Iron Mountain Road

The Iron Mountain Road is one of South Dakota’s most popular scenic byways, and it’s easy to see why. The road takes you through some of the state’s most beautiful scenery, including the Black Hills National Forest. The scenic drive features numerous switchbacks and tunnels, so it’s not for the faint of heart! But the views are worth it.

You’ll see everything from towering mountains to pristine lakes, and you might even catch a glimpse of some wildlife along the way. So if you’re looking for an adventure, be sure to add the Iron Mountain Road to your list.

16. Take a day trip to Rapid City

Rapid City is a great place to visit if you’re looking for things to do. The city is home to the Mammoth Site, a museum dedicated to the excavation and study of mammoths and other prehistoric animals.

The museum is home to the largest collection of mammoth bones in the world, so it’s a must-see for anyone interested in paleontology.

Rapid City is also home to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, which is a great place to see wild horses in their natural habitat.

So if you’re looking for a city with lots to do, be sure to add Rapid City to your list.

17. Deadwood

Deadwood is a city in South Dakota that is rich in history. The city was founded in 1876 after gold was discovered in the area, and it soon became a booming mining town.

Today, Deadwood is a popular tourist destination, and visitors can explore the city’s historic main street, visit the Old West Cemetery, or take a ride on the Deadwood ghost tour.

During your visit to Custer State Park, you’ll be happy that you checked out some of the nearby towns and their history. Western South Dakota is truly unique in its history in America.

Like what you are hearing? Read these best things to do in Deadwood, South Dakota.

18. Visit Center Lake

Center Lake is one of the most popular attractions in Custer State Park. The lake is perfect for fishing, swimming, canoeing, and kayaking.

There are also several hiking trails that lead around the lake, so you can explore the area at your own pace.

The views from the trails are incredible, and you might even see some wildlife along the way. So if you’re looking for a place to relax and enjoy the outdoors, be sure to add Center Lake to your list.

Custer State Park Visitor Centers

Another great and instructive pastime at Custer State Park is going to the Visitor Center. Make a pit stop at this lovely place to speak with knowledgeable personnel while you visit Custer State Park.

Wildlife Station Visitor Center

Wildlife Station Visitor Center
Image by Mike GoadCC BY-SA 2.0

The Wildlife Station Visitor Center is an ancient cattle herd house that has been renovated into a visitor center since 1987. These are excellent rest stops when traveling along the Wildlife Loop Road.

Custer State Park Visitor Center

Custer State Park Visitor Center
Image by TripAdvisor

The visitor center is located at the junction of Highway 16A and Wildlife Loop Road, and it serves as a crucial introduction. The theater has a capacity of 100 people and shows twenty-minute, half-hour educational films.

Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center

Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center
Image by TripAdvisor

Peter Norbeck Visitors Center is a great place to learn about the history and geology of the Black Hills. It’s also home to a number of interactive exhibits. The education center is about a mile west of the Custer State Park visitor center.

Peter Norbeck was one of South Dakota’s most influential governors and senators. He’s credited with helping establish Custer State Park and creating the state’s first scenic byway, now known as the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway.

Today, the visitors center that bears his name offers travelers a chance to learn about his legacy and the unique natural history of this region. With its interactive displays and knowledgeable staff, the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center is an essential stop for anyone exploring the Black Hills.

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking for an interesting and educational destination to visit, be sure to add Custer State Park, South Dakota to your list. The state park has something for everyone, from beautiful scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities to interactive exhibits and historical sites. Be sure to add these top Custer State Park things to do to your itinerary list.

FAQs

What are the best things to do in Custer State Park?

There are many things to do in Custer State Park, but some of the most popular include driving the Wildlife Loop Road and Needles Highway, watching the buffalo, and visiting Sylvan Lake.

What are some of the most popular attractions in Custer State Park?

The most popular attractions in Custer State Park are the Wildlife Loop Road, Needles Highway, and Mount Rushmore National Monument.

What are some of the best hiking trails in Custer State Park?

The best hiking trails in Custer State Park are the ones that take you to the most scenic areas of the park, such as Black Elk Peak, Cathedral Spires Trail, and Black Elk Peak Trail.

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