The Ultimate Guide To Custer State Park

The Ultimate Guide To Custer State Park

South Dakota
The Ultimate Guide To Custer State Park

Custer State Park , a spectacular slice of nature!

With spectacular towering rock spires, gorgeous lakes, scenic drives, and plentiful wildlife, Custer State Park is a world of beautiful nature!

South Dakota, the Mount Rushmore State, popularly known for its man-made marvels, including the marvelous Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the gigantic Crazy Horse Memorial, is also home to a wealth of natural scenery! Encompassing a large area of South Dakota’s Black Hills, an isolated forested mountain range in western South Dakota extending into northeast Wyoming, Custer State Park is known for its scenic beauty, unique rock formations, and wildlife!

Custer State Park, often overshadowed by the mainstream attractions of South Dakota, is home to a diverse array of natural landscapes and wildlife! Spotting the area’s natural resources and diverse wildlife, including bison, bighorn sheep, elk, burro, and others, the region was designated as a State Park and a Wildlife Refuge, making it one of the largest State Parks in the US. Custer State Park is located about 20 miles from Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial and is a must-see on a trip to South Dakota!

Custer State Park is home to a variety of wildlife and is considered one of the premier wildlife-watching destinations in the US!

The massive Park features three scenic drives, several hiking trails, historic sites, gleaming lakes, campgrounds, and many rustic lodges, offering a unique wilderness experience! However, due to the harsh winter conditions in the region, Custer State Park is best visited during the summer months, when all hiking trails and roads are accessible in the Park. The Park is also an ideal place to see Fall foliage and attracts a lot of visitors during its annual Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival.

Here is my ultimate guide to Custer State Park, featuring essential trip-planning information, things to do in Custer State Park, including scenic drives, hiking trails, and nearby attractions, and recommendations on hotels and restaurants near Custer State Park!

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Planning Your Trip To Custer State Park

Planning Your Trip To Custer State Park

While Summer is the peak season, the shoulder seasons of Spring and Fall are a great choice to beat the crowd at Custer State Park!

Best Time To Visit Custer State Park: Custer State Park is open year-round. However, due to the cold temperatures and snowfall, the Park receives fewer visitors during winter, and some of the Park facilities remain closed in winter. Summer, June through August, is the Park’s busiest season, but if you don’t mind a little cooler weather, the shoulder months, late Spring and early Fall, are also a great choice to beat the crowd in Custer State Park. Early Fall, September through early October, is the best time to see foliage in Custer State Park. 

Time Required At Custer State Park: There’re several things to do in Custer State Park, but the Park’s significant highlights are easily accessible via its three scenic drives and short hiking trails. You could see the major attractions in Custer State Park in just 3 – 4 hours but said that, I recommend spending at least an entire day in the Park so that you can leisurely explore all that this spectacular Park has to offer. If you have more time, you could spend 2 – 3 days in Custer State Park, experiencing some of the pristine areas and hiking the several trails in the Park. 

Getting To Custer State Park: Located in southwest South Dakota, Custer State Park is pretty far from the major international airports, making the Rapid City Regional Airport the best choice to get to the Park. There’re no direct Amtrak train services or Greyhound bus services to Custer State Park or anywhere in South Dakota.

  • Flight: Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP), Rapid City, South Dakota, around 35 miles from Park, is the closest major regional airport to Custer State Park. The Denver International Airport (DEN), Denver, Colorado, is the nearest international airport to Custer State Park, but it’s located about 365 miles from the Park. 
  • Train: There’re no direct Amtrak train services to Custer State Park or anywhere in South Dakota. The closest Amtrak station to Custer State Park is in Fort Morgan, Colorado, about 300 miles from the Park.
  • Bus: Unlike other states, Greyhound doesn’t offer bus services to South Dakota. The closest Greyhound bus stop to Custer State Park is located about 260 miles south of Custer State Park in Cheyenne, southeast Wyoming.

Parking & Transportation In Custer State Park: There’s ample parking available at Custer State Park, at the vista points, trailheads, and at pull-offs along the scenic drives. Summers get really busy, and finding parking near the major attractions can be challenging, so getting an early start in Summer is a good idea to beat the crowd in Custer State Park. There’re no shuttles in Custer State Park, and you would need to drive yourself or take a tour offered by several local tour companies – Custer State Park Tours

Other Attractions Near Custer State Park: Custer State Park is located just a few miles from several other popular tourist attractions of South Dakota, including Mount Rushmore National MemorialCrazy Horse Memorial, and Wind Cave National Park. All of these places are worth visiting, and I recommend adding all of them to your South Dakota trip itinerary.

Lodging Near Custer State Park: There’re several lodging options inside the Park, including six lodges and eleven campgrounds inside Custer State Park. You will also find a few hotels and bread and breakfasts in the town of Custer and Keystone, located close to Custer State Park and other attractions in the region.

Dining Options In Custer State Park: There’re quite a few dining options inside Custer State Park offered at the Park lodges, including the Blue Bell Dining Room, State Game Lodge Restaurant, Sylvan Lake Lodge Diner, and Legion Lake Restaurant. You will also find a few more dining options in the nearby town of Custer, including Black Hills Burger and Bun Co. serving comfort food, Skogen Kitchen for American fare, and Purple Pie Place for yummy desserts.

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Things To Do In Custer State Park

Custer State Park Attractions Map

Custer State Park Attractions Map

Three visitor centers, three scenic drives, gorgeous lakes, wildlife, and several hiking trails, there’s a ton of things to do in Custer State Park!

Custer State Park Entrances

There’re four entrances to Custer State Park, one on the east side of the Park, two on the north, one on the west, and one on the south of the Park.

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Custer State Park Visitor / Information Centers

There’re three visitor centers in Custer State Park, one is open year-round, and two that are seasonal open outside the winter months. 

  • Custer State Park Visitor Center: The main visitor center of Custer State Park, Custer State Park Visitor Center, is open year-round, except Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The visitor center features an information desk, several exhibits, and a theater playing an informational video about Black Hills and Custer State Park. Custer State Park Visitor Center Address: Custer State Park Visitor Center, 13400 US-16A, Custer, SD 57730.
  • Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center: Located just a mile west of the primary Visitor Center, the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center, with several interpretive exhibits, outdoor classrooms, and play areas, is an excellent place for families with kids to learn about the Park’s history and ecology. However, the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center is seasonal and open only outside the winter months. Address: Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center, 13378, US-16A, Custer, SD 57730.
  • Wildlife Station Visitor Center: The seasonal Wildlife Station Visitor Center, located in the northeast section of Custer State Park, about 8 miles north of the main Visitor Center along the Wildlife Loop Road, offers an information desk and several exhibits. Wildlife Station Visitor Center Address: Wildlife Station Visitor Center, Hermosa, SD 57744.
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Custer State Park Scenic Drives & Lakes

Things To Do In Custer State Park

Custer State Park Scenic Drives: There’re three scenic drives in Custer State Park, featuring mountain vistas, unique rock formations, valleys, and wildlife. However, some of these drives are seasonal, closed in the winter months, and have narrow tunnels and hence not recommended for large trailers and camper vans. 

Needles Highway Scenic Drive: Featuring needle-like rock spires, Iron Creek Tunnel, Needles Eye Tunnel, and several pull-offs, the Needles Highway is the most popular scenic drive in Custer State Park! The 14 miles long Needles Highway Scenic Drive, winding through the Black Hills, connects Sylvan Lake in the northwest section of the Park to Wilson Corner located in the center of the Park. Though all scenic drives in Custer State Parks are incredible and offer unique experiences, if you have time for just one scenic drive, you must drive the Needles Highway Scenic Drive. Though Needles Highway Scenic Drive is just 14 miles long, with several vista points and hairpin turns, it takes about 1 – 1.5 hours.

Wildlife Loop Road: Located on the southeast section of the Custer State Park, the Wildlife Loop Road is an 18 miles loop connecting Custer State Park Visitor Center to the Blue Bell section via the CSP Road 1. The Wildlife Loop Road passes through the open valleys of Black Hills, which is home to a variety of wildlife in the Park, including bison, deer, elk, big-horn sheep, coyote, and others. Though there’re several pull-offs along the road, it’s essential to maintain a safe distance from the wildlife. The Wildlife Loop Road is open year-round and 24 hours a day, but the best wildlife sighting opportunities are during early mornings and in the evenings. The Wildlife Loop is the second most popular scenic drive in Custer State Park, the first being the Needles Highway Scenic Drive, and it takes about 1 – 1.5 hours.

Iron Mountain Road Scenic Drive: Iron Mountain Road is a 17 miles long scenic drive that connects the east entrance of Custer State Park, located near the Park’s Visitor Center, to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The Iron Mountain Road is a scenic highway, with only a portion of the drive located within the boundaries of the Custer State Park, but the entire road offers spectacular views. The Iron Mountain Road is open year-round, but driving conditions in winter may be risky as there’re several hairpin turns and steep curves along the road. I recommend keeping the Iron Mountain Scenic Drive as the last activity on your trip to Custer State Park, and exiting the Park from the East Entrance/Exit and driving towards Mount Rushmore via the Iron Mountain Drive for the best views and sceneries, including pigtail bridges, several pull-offs, three narrow tunnels, and amazing views of Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Custer State Park Lakes: There’re five gorgeous waterbodies in Custer State Park, including Center Lake, Legion Lake, Stockade Lake, Sylvan Lake, and the Game Lodge Pond. These lakes offer several water recreational activities, including boating, fishing, and swimming, but proper gear, equipment, and licenses are required. Though every lake is gorgeous, Sylvan Lake, with a backdrop of granite spires, is the most popular and beautiful of all lakes in Custer State Park.

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Hiking In Custer State Park

Hiking In Custer State Park

There’re several hiking trails in Custer State Park, most of them being easy to moderately strenuous. The most popular hikes in the Park are along its gorgeous lakes, especially Sylvan Lake, which features stunning formations and lake views, and a couple of others hikes that lead to historic sites and lush valleys. Below I have listed the most popular hikes in Custer State Park

Sylvan Lake Shore Trail: The Sylvan Lake Shore Trail is the most popular hike in Custer State Park! The Sylvan Lake Shore Trail is an easy 1-mile loop that circles around Sylvan Lake, featuring unique rock spires and lake views. If you have time for just one hike in Custer State Park, you must hike the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail!

  • Trailhead: Sylvan Lake
  • Distance: 1 Mile Loop
  • Time: 45 Minutes – 1 Hour

Black Elk Peak Trail: The second most popular hike in Custer State Park, the Black Elk Peak is a summit hike featuring panoramic views of the Black Hills and the historic Harney Peak Fire Tower. The hike is moderately strenuous, but the views are very rewarding. 

  • Trailhead: Sylvan Lake
  • Distance: 7 Miles Roundtrip
  • Time: 4 – 5 Hours

Cathedral Spires Trail: The Cathedral Spires hike is a moderately strenuous hike offering close-up views of the peculiar towering needle-like granite spires in Custer State Park. The Cathedral Spires trailhead is located on the Needles Highway Scenic Drive, 2.2 miles east of Sylvan Lake.

  • Trailhead: Cathedral Spires Trailhead
  • Distance: 1.5 Miles Roundtrip
  • Time: 1 – 2 Hours

Legion Lake Trail: Looping around the Legion Lake, the Legion Lake Trail is a moderately strenuous hike meandering through the forested lakeshore of tranquil Legion Lake.

  • Trailhead: Legion Lake Campground
  • Distance: 1 Mile Loop
  • Time: 30 – 45 Minutes

Prairie Trail: The Prairie Trail hike offers valley views covered with wildflowers, especially during the summer months. The Prairie Trail is a moderately strenuous hike with the trailhead located 13 miles south of the Custer State Park Visitor Center. 

  • Trailhead: Prairie Trailhead
  • Distance: 3 Miles Loop
  • Time: 2 – 3 Hours

Stockade Lake Trail: This is a moderately strenuous hike along the forested banks of Lake Stockade. The Stockade Lake Trailhead is located on the bank of Lake Stockade, 1.1 miles past the West Entrance Station on the west side of the Park.

  • Trailhead: Stockade Lake Trailhead
  • Distance: 1.5 Miles Loop
  • Time: 1 – 2 Hours
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Custer State Park Suggested Itineraries

Custer State Park Suggested Itineraries

I recommend spending an entire day at Custer State Park, but if you’re pressed for time, you could still see all the significant highlights in the Park by driving a couple of scenic drives in 3 – 4 hours! 

Based on the time you plan to spend in Custer State Park, you could tour the Park’s main sections in 3 – 4 hours or spend a couple of days exploring the wilderness and some of the pristine regions of the Park. If you’re pressed for time and have just half a day in Custer State Park, your best option is to drive the scenic drives in the Park, making brief stops at the vista points. If you have an entire day, which is the minimum I recommend spending in Custer State Park, you could additionally add a couple of hikes to your Custer State Park trip itinerary.

Half-Day Custer State Park Trip Itinerary: If you just have 3 – 4 hours in Custer State Park, your best option is to stick to the two scenic drives in the Park, making brief stops at the vista points. 

  • Needles Highway Scenic Drive takes about 1.5 Hours
  • Wildlife Loop Road Scenic Drive takes about 1.5 Hours

1 Day Custer State Park Trip Itinerary: If you have an entire day at Custer State Park, you must do all the three scenic drives in the Park, leisurely exploring all vista points, and hike the popular Sylvan Lake Shore Trail to enjoy the spectacular lake vistas and rock formations.

  • Lake Shore Trail at Sylvan Lake takes about 1 Hour
  • Needles Highway Scenic Drive takes about 1.5 Hours
  • Wildlife Loop Road Scenic Drive takes about 1.5 Hours
  • Iron Mountain Road Scenic Drive takes about 1.5 Hours

2 Day Custer State Park Trip Itinerary: Same as 1-day itinerary, plus an additional summit hike in Custer State Park.

  • Day 1 – Hike Sylvan Lake Shore Trail, drive Needles Highway Scenic Drive, and Wildlife Loop Road Scenic Drive.
  • Day 2 – Hike Black Elk Peak Trail and drive the Iron Mountain Road Scenic Drive
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Other South Dakota Attractions & Related Posts

The Ultimate Guide To Custer State ParkI hope you enjoyed reading the post, The Ultimate Guide To Custer State Park, and I expect this will help you plan your trip to the Custer State Park. You can find other South Dakota attractions in my South Dakota Travel Guide.

Happy feeding your soul!
Shreyashi

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