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10 Best Things to do in Custer State Park

10 Best Things to do in Custer State Park

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

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

1. Buffalo Jam

bison and baby bison together in custer state park

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, 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.

2. Camping and RV Campgrounds

Custer State Park Lake Sylvan

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 for 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.

Best Camping Options
Book your travel experience with Outdoorsy, the Airbnb of RV rentals. If you prefer to camp at a specific campground, use Tentrr to find and book your campsite in advance.

I will make sure to specify between 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 RV’s! Here are a few lists of some of the best Custer State Park camping options.

RV Campsites:

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

3. Hiking

the needles hiking 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 Loop (Rated: Moderate)
  • Cathedral Spires Trail (Rated: Moderate)
  • Little Devils Tower Spur 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)

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 best wildlife destinations in the world.

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

4. 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 at 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

5. 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.

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.

6. 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 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 and Legion Lakes.

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

7. 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. The Holiday Inn, Comfort Inn, Best Western Buffalo Ridge Inn, and Super 8 Custer are all wonderful options for the less outdoorsy people. Check this site for all your hotel booking needs.

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

8. Needles Highway

needles highway view from road

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

9. Hot Air Balloon

hot air balloon ride custer south dakota

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! Black Hill Balloons flies in the southern part of the Black Hills, 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 Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Wind Cave National Park, and the Badlands. 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

10. Rock Climbing

person rock climbing on an overhang

Don’t want to drive on the Needles Highway? How about climb 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.

See Related: 15 Best Unknown Places to Visit in the U.S.

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