The Best Things to Do in Custer State Park (+ where to stay & itineraries!)

Heading to Custer State Park in South Dakota? In this guide we’re sharing the best things to do in Custer State Park, including hikes, scenic drives, wildlife viewing, and more!

If we had to pick a favorite spot that we visited during our week-long road trip across South Dakota, it would be Custer State Park. With gorgeous mountain views, crazy rock formations, super cool scenic drives, and tons of wildlife, it is unlike anywhere we have ever been!

We spent about 1.5 days exploring the Custer State Park area and had an absolute blast doing a few really unique hikes, including hiking to the highest point in South Dakota, squeezing our van into a tunnel, and driving by hundreds of buffalo. We were constantly in awe of this special place!

If you’re visiting the Black Hills region of South Dakota, you must add Custer State Park to your list. And we’re so excited to share some of the best things to do in Custer State Park, as well as suggestions of where to stay, when to visit, and more, to help you plan your time in the park. Put on your hiking boots, get your camera ready, and let’s hit the road!  

Check out more of our South Dakota guides!

Things to do in Badlands National Park
7 Day South Dakota Road Trip: Black Hills to Badlands
Things to do in the Black Hills

Leave No Trace Principles

Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!

  1. Plan ahead & prepare. Make sure you research and prepare for every adventure so that you know the rules, stay safe, and to minimize resource damage.
  2. Travel & camp on durable surfaces. Stay on the trail and only camp in designated areas, as well as the required length away from water sources.
  3. Dispose of waste properly. Whatever you pack in, pack it out! Make sure to carry out your trash, as well as any trash you find. If you have a dog, please do not leave poop bags on the trail. For human waste, use a trowel to dig a hole far from water sources or use a wag bag (sometimes required).
  4. Leave what you find. Do not take any items from the trail with you, including rocks, plants, or artifacts.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts. Know the rules of where you can and cannot have campfires and if allowed, use designated fire rings. Use local firewood to prevent bringing any pests or diseases to the area you’re visiting and make sure to fully extinguish your fire.
  6. Respect wildlife. Keep your distance from wildlife, control your pets on the trail, and never ever feed them! Make sure to keep your food stored properly as well (we like this bear canister).
  7. Be considerate of other visitors. Be respectful to others on the trail. Hikers going uphill have the right of way on hikes and it’s always courteous to let those quicker than you pass. Avoid playing music out loud, talking loudly, and having your pets bother others.

Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!

About Custer State Park

Custer State Park Map

It is said that Custer State Park is one of the few truly wild places that remain in the country.

Tons of wildlife call the 71,000 acres of the park home, including nearly 1,300 bison, elk, coyotes, mule deer, mountain goats, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, cougars, and burros! In fact, it has been named one of the world’s top 10 wildlife destinations. And we can agree…we have never seen so much wildlife at once!

But not only is there abundant wildlife, there is abundant adventure to be had as well! There are towering pinnacles you can walk among and beneath. You can drive through twisting and turning scenic roads and tunnels that wind through the park, climb to the highest point between the Rockies and Pyranese, and dip your toes in the sparkling waters of the lakes in the park.

Located in the Black Hills in southwestern South Dakota, Custer State Park is not alone in its majesticness, as it is nearby many other famous and important landmarks including Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Rapid City, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and many other attractions. There is SO much to do in the area!

When to visit Custer State Park

Custer Weather

While Custer State Park is open year round, to be able to experience all that Custer State Park has to offer you will want to visit in the warmer months, typically between May and September. This is when all facilities will be open, trails will be more accessible, and any tours you want to go on will be operating. However, crowds are busiest between June-August, especially early August for the Sturgis Rally, so keep that in mind if you want to have some solitude.

Early October is also a great time to visit to see the fall foliage, which typically peaks late September-early October. But one thing to note is that between October 1 – April 30, showers, flush toilets, and other water systems may be closed in the park. Vault toilets remain open, though!

If you plan to visit the park in the colder months, you may run into a light dusting or a blanket of snow (which sounds beautiful!), but you also may run into some closed roads, so be sure to call the park in advance to confirm the roads are open if you’re traveling during winter weather.

We visited in late August of 2020 and had perfect weather! The mornings were a little chilly, but the afternoons were sunny or partly sunny and between the mid to upper 60s or low 70s. We did experience random rain or thunderstorms almost every day during our trip, but they only lasted a short period of time and then the sun came back out!

Getting to Custer State Park

Custer State Park to Rapid City

Custer State Park is located in Southwestern South Dakota, about 40-45 minutes from Rapid City, the closest nearby larger city.

If you’re visiting from out of state and flying to South Dakota, your best airport to fly into would probably be Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP). Major airlines that fly into this airport include Allegiant, American Airlines, Delta, and United, with direct flights from Atlanta, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Dallas, Chicago, Phoenix, Denver, and Salt Lake City, with some additional seasonal flights.

Southwestern South Dakota and Custer State Park are pretty isolated from any other major cities in the US, but depending on where you’re coming from and going, it can be a great road trip stop! Here’s how far Custer State Park is from some nearby destinations!

  • Badlands National Park: 1.5 hours, 89 miles
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park: 4.5 hours, 267 miles
  • Sioux Falls, South Dakota: 5.5 hours, 372 miles
  • Denver, Colorado: 5 hours 45 minutes, 361 miles
  • Yellowstone National Park: 7.5 hours, 430 miles
  • Jackson, Wyoming: 8 hours, 490 miles
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota: 9 hours, 600 miles

If you’re looking for a fun and epic road trip while in the area, we have you covered in our 7 Day South Dakota Road Trip Guide including Rapid City, Badlands, and the Black Hills!

Getting around Custer State Park

While you can book a tour to take you around the park, the best way to experience the park is to have your own car. That way, you can explore the park on your own time, do longer hikes, and also have the experience of driving some of the crazy roads yourself.

If you are flying into South Dakota, you will need to rent a car to get to all the sights around the area and to your accommodation or campsite. You can either rent from the airport or find a better deal in the Rapid City area.

How long should you spend in Custer State Park?

Hiking Black Elk Peak | Things to do at Custer State Park

As we mentioned above, we spent about 1.5 days in Custer State Park and we wished we could’ve spent more! To see the major highlights and our personal favorite things to do in Custer State Park, we’d suggest having at least 2 days, maybe 3 total, depending on how much you like to fit into one day.

We’re including some suggested itineraries at the end of this guide to help you plan your time in the park.

One important thing to know is that it costs $20 per vehicle to enter Custer State Park which is good for 7 days, so if you spend 1, 3, or 7 days, you’re covered!

Where to Stay in Custer State Park

There are lots of options when it comes to places to stay in Custer State Park, from actual accommodations and campgrounds inside the park, to Airbnbs, hotels, and campgrounds outside of the park, but still close by. Here are some of our top suggestions!

Airbnbs

We LOVE Airbnb and it’s always our go-to if we want a bit more space, a kitchen to cook meals, and some modern amenities, like WiFi, laundry, etc. There are a couple cool towns near Custer State Park with a variety of rental options and close to other activities.

Airbnb Custer

Keystone

The Woodsley: A 2 bedroom, 1.5 bathroom with some cool design features, a great patio, a grill, and views!
The Notch Cabin: Owned by the same folks as the Woodsley, this cabin is equally as cute and has 2 bedrooms and 1 bathroom.
Hugo Cabin: A large studio cabin, with a twin bed in a sunroom as well!
Backroads Inn and Cabins: A super cute cabin with a king bed, kitchenette, grill, and fire pit.

Custer

Custer Pine Palace: A gorgeous 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom cabin. We love the design of this place!
Black Hills Rambler Tiny House: A 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom tiny home!
EO Bungalows: A modern, studio bungalow with lots of high end touches and walking distance to town.

Hotels

Want something a little simpler than a full on Airbnb? There are a lot of different hotels right by Custer State Park. Here are some options to look into!

Comfort Inn & Suites (Custer)
Bavarian Inn, Black Hills (Custer)
Best Western Buffalo Ridge Inn (Custer)
K Bar S Lodge (Keystone)
Holiday Inn Express (Keystone)
Best Western Golden Spike Inn & Suites (Hill City)
Holiday Inn Express (Hill City)
Comfort Inn & Suites (Hill City)

Glamping

Under Canvas Mount Rushmore

Want a unique, luxurious camping experience? Check out Under Canvas by Mount Rushmore! We have always wanted to stay at one of their locations. The glamping tents can either have shared or private bathrooms and they even have some with kids tents!

Custer State Park Lodges

If you’re looking for a unique and authentic stay in the park that will make you feel like you’re a cowboy or cowgirl, then check out the lodges in the park! There are a variety of accommodations available, ranging from rustic log cabins to beautiful stately lodges with all the modern amenities. 

Keep in mind these lodges are very popular so if you are interested, don’t wait long before booking!

State Game Lodge Custer

Blue Bell Lodge

These log cabins in the Blue Bell area are some of the nicest cabins in the park. All cabins are climate controlled, include a kitchen or kitchenette, are fully furnished, come with many modern amenities, and include daily housekeeping service.

There are 29 cabins to choose from when you reserve, ranging from rustic to more luxurious with fireplaces with open-beamed ceilings.

State Game Lodge

The State Game Lodge is the largest resort in the park and offers a variety of unique stays including historical rooms, hotel rooms, cabins, and a creekside lodge.

In the main lodge and the Creekside Lodge you’ll have hotel-like rooms available. But if you’re looking for something more luxurious, check out the Creekside Cabin & Bunkhouse, Gamekeeper’s Cabin, Custer Ranch House, or the Reunion Cabin.

Adam would love to stay in the Coolidge room or the Eisenhower room, which are rooms named after the former Presidents who stayed here during their time visiting the park…how cool!

Sylvan Lake Lodge

Known as the Crown Jewel of Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake and the lodge are not only beautiful, but rich in history. Several popular trails leave from this area, as this has long been a popular spot for adventures and the lodge was suggested to be built here by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. 

There are 31 cabins ranging from rooms in the lodge, to a honeymoon lodge and housekeeping lodges. Not only are there accommodations here, but there is also a restaurant and water sport rentals.

Legion Lake Lodge

This lodge was recently rebuilt and has a modern feel combined with a classic lakeside vibe. There is a restaurant, water sport rentals, and tours available, along with the 26 cabins to choose from.

Creekside Lodge

The Creekside Lodge is the newest resort lodge in the park built in 2008. These more spacious rooms have a modern and woodsy vibe to them.

Campgrounds

Love to camp? There are tons of campgrounds to choose from when visiting Custer State Park! Here’s a handy map of all the campgrounds both in Custer State Park (green) and in the Black Hills National Forest (blue), which is also a very convenient area to stay, especially if you’re going to explore outside of the park as well.

Campgrounds in Custer State Park

There are 9 campgrounds inside Custer State Park, which are great options if you want to be close to all of the action! However, unlike other South Dakota state park campsite reservations, which become available 90 days before arrival, Custer State Park campsite reservations become available one year before arrival.

Warning: Custer State Park campgrounds are hot commodities and sometimes book completely full within a week of opening, so we recommend booking as soon as you can!

We’re detailing some of the more popular campgrounds in various areas of Custer State Park below, but you can read about all of the campgrounds here.

Bluebell Campground

This is a popular campground with campsites and cabins. Located near French Creek and has spots available for Rvs as well.

Campground Price: $15/night
# of sites: 31 (map)
Open: May 1- October 14
RV spots: Yes
Reservations?: Yes, you can reserve here

Camping Cabin Price: $55/night
# of cabins: 23
Open: April 27 – October 31

These cabins are different from the cabins at the Blue Bell Lodge. These cabins are more rustic and do not have private bathrooms, but have 2 shared vault toilets.

Sylvan Lake Campground

This campground is located just a few steps from the Crown Jewel of Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake. It is a very popular campground and they pack people in here, so the spaces aren’t the largest and they are not suitable for anything over 27 feet, but what you lack in space you earn back in easy access to Sylvan Lake! 

You are also located 1 mile from the Sylvan Lake Lodge, where you can visit their full service restaurant, gift shop, and rent kayaks or SUP boards.

Open: May 17 – September 30
Price: $15/night with no electricity and $30/night for hookups
# of sites: 39 (map)
RV spots: No vehicles over 27 feet
Reservations?: Yes, you can reserve here

Game Lodge Campground

Game Lodge Campground is centrally located in the park. The Grace Coolidge Creek flows through the campground into a swimming beach, which would make for a great splash after a long day in the park!

Open: April 1 – November 15 with full facilities and November 16 – March 31 with comfort station closed
Price: $26/night with no electricity and $30/night for hookups
# of sites: 59 and 11 cabins available for $55/night (map)
RV spots: Yes
Reservations?: Yes, you can reserve here

Center Lake Campground

Center Lake is located in the north of the park, close to the Needles Highway. You have easy access to the Needles Highway, the Iron Mountain Road, and Mount Rushmore.

Open: May 1 – September 30
Price: $19/night
# of sites: 71 sites with no electricity (map)
RV spots: Yes, smaller RVs
Reservations?: Same day reservation

Black Hills National Forest Campgrounds

Black Hills National Forest has a lot of different campgrounds to choose from. Below are some that we’d suggest looking into!

You can reserve the following campgrounds, find need to know information, and see all the campgrounds in the Black Hills National Forest here. Something to keep in mind for all Black Hills National Forest campgrounds, there is a $2 fee per pet and they must be leashed and attended at all times. 

Bismarck Lake Campground

Bismarck Lake Campground

We stayed here for one night and LOVED it! We had site #4 and it was incredible! We were on the lake (with some trees and a bit of a trek to get down to it), the spot was huge, and we had a lot of privacy with no one really next to us or behind us.

Open: Mid-May-December 31
Price: $26/night
# of sites: 21
RV spots: Yes, but no hookups
Make reservations (it is first-come, first-served from the end of September until December 31)

Dutchman Campground

Open: Mid-May-December 31
Price: $20/night for a single site
# of sites: 44
RV spots: Yes, but no hookups
Make reservations (it is first-come, first-served from mid September until December 31)

Comanche Park

Open: Mid-May-December 31
Price: $16/night
# of sites: 20
RV spots: Yes, but no hookupsMake reservations (it is first-come, first-served from mid September until December 31)

Grizzly Creek Primitive

We stayed here one night and it was really nice! It’s more for tents vs. RVs, but we managed to squeeze our van in.

Open: Mid-May-Mid-September
Price: $20/night
# of sites: 20
RV spots: Maximum vehicle length is 24 feet, no trailers allowed
Make reservations

Things to know before visiting Custer State Park

Wildlife Loop Custer State Park

Before you visit Custer State Park, here are a few of our top tips to ensure you have a fun and safe time:

  • Make sure to pack the 10 essentials. Although many of the trails are well trafficked and well marked, always have the 10 essentials with you just in case things do not go according to plan. 
  • Stay away from wildlife. Lots of wildlife call Custer State Park home, including bison, whitetail and mule deer, antelope, mountain goats, elk, coyotes, burros, bighorn sheep, birds, wild turkeys, prairie dogs, and rarely seen mountain lions. Make sure to never approach wildlife or feed wildlife when exploring the park.
  • Dogs are allowed! One huge perk of Custer State Park is that dogs are allowed, as long as they are on a leash no longer than 10 feet. They are not allowed in any park buildings or on designated swim beaches.
  • Download maps beforehand. With little to no service in the park, we highly recommend downloading AllTrails maps before you go. You will need an AllTrails Pro membership to do so, which is $30 a year and so worth it! We also recommend downloading Google Maps so you can navigate around the park easier too.
  • Drones are legal to fly in some areas. Drones are legal to fly in Custer State Park, as long as you follow FAA rules. However, they are not legal to fly in the Black Elk Wilderness, which is where Black Elk Peak is located. So make sure to use an app like Airmap to see where the boundaries are!
  • Leave time for “traffic jams.” We got stuck in some bison jams for quite some time, which was honestly the best traffic jam EVER! Make sure you aren’t in a hurry when driving around the park and have extra time because rush hour in South Dakota is pretty wild. 😉

Things to do in Custer State Park

There are so many things to do in Custer State Park, ranging from scenic drives, to epic hikes, both easier and harder, to relaxing by a lake. Below are our top suggestions of things to do in Custer State Park and everything you need to know about each activity!

Note: Trails at Custer State Park are dog friendly, as long as they are kept on a leash.

Hike to the tallest point in South Dakota: Black Elk Peak!

Hiking Black Elk Peak | Things to do at Custer State Park

If we had to pick one hike in the park, it would be hiking to Black Elk Peak! Sitting at 7,242 feet it is not only the highest peak in South Dakota, but it’s also the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyranese…which is CRAZY! Here are some stats on the hike:

Miles (round trip): 7.4 miles
Elevation gain: 1,515 ft
Trail map & current conditions

This mountain is named after Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota Medicine Man who’s first vision came to him at the top of the peak that is now named after him. However, the peak was formerly named Harvey Peak, so if you see that name in places, know that it is the same place as Black Elk Peak.

There are multiple ways to do this hike. We went up trail 9 and down trail 4. Both trailheads start by Sylvan Lake, so your car will be close to whichever trail you start and end at. You can go up and down the same way, but we had read this was the best combo and gives you the chance to see different scenery each way!

Trail 9 is a nice steady climb to the top, through the forest, but you get fantastic views very early on in the journey of the crazy rock formations throughout the park. 

But the best part about this hike is the stone lookout tower at the top! This tower, which is called the Harney Peak Lookout, was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938 and the coolest thing about it is that you can explore the inside! In our experience with fire lookouts, you can never actually go inside, but not here!

You are able to explore the main floor, as well as go downstairs and upstairs, and enjoy the nice patio looking out onto the Black Hills. You can even see Mount Rushmore from here!

We did this hike at sunset (HIGHLY recommend!) on a Saturday in August and had the entire lookout to ourselves! We couldn’t believe it! We hung out at the top for about 45 minutes or so until the sun tucked behind some wildfire smoke. 

While we highly recommend doing this hike at sunset, make sure to bring headlamps…with new batteries. We didn’t hike back with one partially alive headlamp and a phone flashlight or anything….😅. Although we didn’t get to see much of Trail 4 because our hike was mostly in the dark, it was an easy, downhill trail with great views of the Cathedral Spires (even in the dark!).

Between the views, relatively easy hike for a state high point, and the lookout tower, this trail is a MUST!

Walk among giant towers at Cathedral Spires

Cathedral Spires Custer State Park

If we had to pick another must-do hike at Custer State Park, it would be Cathedral Spires! The stars of this hike are the spires, which are towering, needle like rock formations. But there’s not just a few of them, there are tons of them! It is absolutely magical! And the best part? It’s not too long or hard! Here are the stats:

Miles (round trip): 1.6 miles
Elevation gain: 488 ft
Trail map & current conditions

This trail doesn’t have a ton of parking, so we recommend starting early to snag a spot. We started right before sunrise on a Saturday and only saw 3 people total, mostly just on our way back.

The hike starts out relatively flat and even though you’re walking through some vegetation, you can immediately see some of the spires. You begin to gain some elevation and after a bit of climbing, you enter this open area where you are surrounded by the spires. It is INSANE and honestly one of the most unique and crazy views we have ever seen! Words can’t really do it justice, so here are some photos we got from our drone.

This open area full of spires isn’t the end of the trail, but it’s the best part in our opinion. The end of the trail is very anti-climatic. It just ends. There isn’t a viewpoint, but just a sign on a tree that says “end of trail.” However, we hear people love to scramble up in some of the spires. We didn’t try this, but if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s worth a shot!

From the trail, you can also connect to Trail 4, which will take you up to Black Elk Peak and connect to another trail called Little Devil’s Tower, which we will cover in a bit. So if you want to knock out a couple hikes at once, these are good options!
But even by itself, Cathedral Spires are jaw droppingly beautiful. We had no idea such scenery existed, let alone in South Dakota!

Explore Sunday Gulch

During our time at Custer State Park we did a total of three hikes and each one had something unique about it. Black Elk Peak has a lookout tower (and the title of “highest point” for thousands of miles), Cathedral Spires has crazy rock towers, and Sunday Gulch has a fun adventure on the trail with steep rocks to climb and handrails.

Here’s a quick rundown on the hike:

Miles (round trip): 3.9 miles
Elevation gain: 797 ft
Trail map & current conditions

This hike is a loop and starts at Sylvan Lake. You can either hike clockwise or counterclockwise and the direction you choose determines if you go up the steep and slick rocks, or down them. We ended up doing the hike clockwise, which had us starting on the left side of the lake and going up the rocks at the end.

After a nice stroll along the lake, you go through a super cool little rock tunnel, which is a pretty fun start to the trail. After exiting the tunnel, you go left onto the official trail and the adventure begins! By going clockwise, you save the adventurous part of the trail for the end, which we liked because it gave us something to look forward to.

At the beginning of the trail, you’re walking through some cool rocky areas, climbing up rocks, and have great views of the park. You then tuck into the forest for a while, going kind of close to a road, and the trail is a little less scenic, but still beautiful.

About 75% of the way to the end of the trail, you reach the gulch. This area is so cool! You spend the majority of the rest of the time on the trail hiking through this ravine, going up metal stairs, and climbing up steep rocks (and using handrails to help you). It’s very different from any trail we have ever done!

As we mentioned above, you could go counterclockwise and knock out this part of the hike first, but we personally think going up into the gorge (by going clockwise), was easier than going down into the gorge, which we imagine causes a bit of slipping and falling.

We really enjoyed this hike and had a lot of fun experiencing some of the different trail features!

Other trails to hike in the park

Looking for more trails to hike? Here are a couple that we didn’t check out, but have heard great things about! We hope to hike these next time we’re at Custer State Park!

Little Devils Tower Trail

This trail takes you to the top of Little Devils Tower, which resembled Devils Tower in Wyoming a bit! The views from the top look amazing, but it does require a bit of scrambling to get there, so make sure you’re prepared for a bit of climbing!

Miles (round trip): 3.9 miles
Elevation gain: 797 ft
Trail map & current conditions

Lover’s Leap Trail

This loop trail takes you through the forest and across some creeks to a pretty awesome view of the Black Hills! Reviewers on AllTrails recommend going left at the fork and doing the trail clockwise. Quite a few also reported seeing bison and other wildlife!

Miles (round trip): 4.2 miles
Elevation gain: 636 ft
Trail map & current conditions

Want even more trail options? Check out AllTrails!

Relax at Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake  Things to do in Custer State Park

Located in the northern part of Custer State park lies the “crown jewel” of the park, Sylvan Lake. The lake was created in 1881 when a man named Theodore Reder built a dam across Sunday Gulch Creek. While there are five lakes in the park, Sylvan Lake is the most recognizable due to the huge boulders all around, and in the middle, of the lake. It’s really cool looking!

This is probably the most popular area of the park, not only because of the lake, but because of the popular hikes that start right by it (such as Black Elk Peak and Sunday Gulch) and its proximity to the Needles Highway. If you’re heading to Custer State Park, there’s a very good chance you’ll find yourself at Sylvan Lake.

If you don’t feel like doing any of the bigger hikes that start by the lake, we suggest spending some time walking the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail, which is a flat 1.1 mile loop around the lake. After you’re done, you can enjoy a picnic by the lake or rent kayaks or SUP boards at the lake for an afternoon on the water!

Want to enjoy more lakes in the park? Check our Legion Lake and Stockade Lake for more water activities, short trails, and beautiful views!

Take a scenic and unique drive

Custer State Park is not only home to some unique and epic hikes, but it’s also home to some unique and epic scenic drives! There are three popular scenic drives in the park, but two are especially known for the road features: the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road.

Together, these two make up the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Highway, which loops around the park and connects Mount Rushmore to the Crazy Horse National Monument.

The Needles Highway 

The Needles Highway is a 14 mile stretch of road that starts north of Sylvan Lake and ends near the Center Lake campground. This highway is named after needlelike granite formations (like the Cathedral Spires) that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway. As you wind through this road, you have incredible views of these spires, but what makes this drive even more special are the two tunnels, the Needles Eye Tunnel and Iron Creek Tunnel.

The Needles Eye Tunnel is one of, if not the most, famous tunnel in the area. The tunnel is named after a rock that looks like a needle’s eye that is right after you exit the tunnel (going north) or right before you enter the tunnel (going south). Make sure to keep an eye out for it!

But before you conquer this highway, it’s important to know that these tunnels are not large RV friendly. The Needle’s Eye Tunnel is 8′ 9″ wide by 9’8″ high and the Iron Creek Tunnel is 8′ 9″ wide by 10’10” high. We were so nervous to drive through these in our 170 WB Sprinter Van, so much so that Adam measured our van 3+ times and also researched tons of forums online. 

When we arrived at Custer State Park the day before driving in the tunnels, the woman at the entrance booth said “you will not fit,” which made us nervous, considering all of our measuring and research showed otherwise. We had seen photos of Sprinters in the tunnel, so we decided to go for it anyways and I promised Adam I wouldn’t get mad if we knocked off a mirror.

And good news! Our van survived without any damage (we ended up having plenty of space)! It was super exhilarating and fun driving through there…so much so that we drove through it 3 times!

Note: The Needles Highway is closed to vehicles after the first snow and stays closed until at least April 1, or later if the conditions are poor. Hikers, walkers, bikers, and skiers can still go on it though!

Iron Mountain Road

Iron Mountain Road
Photo credit: https://gfp.sd.gov/csp-scenic-drives/

Iron Mountain Road connects Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park and was constructed in the 1930s and the Governor at the time, Peter Norbeck, stated that “this is not meant to be a super highway, to do the scenery justice you should drive no more than 20 mph and to do it full justice you should simply get out and walk.”

This highway goes through some of the most gorgeous scenery in the Black Hills and is also home to three tunnels, including the Doane Robinson Tunnel which frames Mount Rushmore in the distance (you need to drive south to north to see it). Here is the clearance for the three tunnels in case you’re in a large vehicle like we are:

Doane Robinson Tunnel: 12′ 0″ wide by 11′ 4″ high
C.C. Gideon Tunnel: 11′ 6″ wide by 10′ 9″ high
Scovel Johnson Tunnel: 10′ 9″ wide by 11′ 0″ high

Besides the tunnels, Iron Mountain Road is known for “pigtail bridges,” which allow drivers to drop and gain altitude quickly. They look SO cool!

Note: Iron Mountain Road closes off and on in the winter, depending on how quickly they can clear the road.

See wildlife up close

The third scenic drive in the park is less about the road and tunnels and more about what you see on the road…wildlife. And very fittingly, it’s named the Wildlife Loop!

This 18 mile road is one of the best spots to see wildlife in the park and we can attest that this is true! We cannot even count how many bison we saw, it was likely between 100-200! Beyond the park’s 1,400 bison (one of the nation’s largest free roaming herds!), you also have the chance to see white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and the famous begging burros.

The burros are not native to the area. They used to be used to take visitors up to Black Elk Peak from Sylvan Lake and once they stopped that service, they were released into the wild.

While we’d normally say to not feed wildlife, it’s actually encouraged to feed the burros! These buddies are VERY friendly and used to being fed. In fact, they’ll stick their head in your car to get food from you, hence the name “begging” burros. And we hear they will eat almost anything!

We unfortunately didn’t see any during our drive (we were SO bummed!), but most people have better luck with them than us, so hopefully you will too! 

Note: The Wildlife Loop is open year round and they say it takes 1.5 hours to drive this road typically due to the “traffic jams,” so make sure you plan enough time to fully enjoy it and wait in any traffic!

It’s also said that the best time to drive the road is early in the morning or just before sunset. We arrived around 8 AM or so and while we didn’t see any begging burros, we saw tons of bison, white-tailed deer, mule deer, and prairie dogs!

Watch the Buffalo roundup

Every year on the last Friday of September is a one-of-a-kind event that is a must do if you’re visiting when it happens…the buffalo roundup!

The buffalo roundup is part of Custer State Park’s plan to maintain a healthy balance between the number of bison and available land. The park is only able to have a specific number of bison based on the condition of the grassland and the amount of food available. The roundup gives them a chance to sort the animals and determine which stay in the herd and which are sold at an auction in November. 

As a visitor, you are able to watch the process as horseback riders herd the bison, which looks SO cool! You get to see hundreds of bison running together and can view it from various viewing areas, as well as enjoy breakfast and lunch, and even buy crafts from locals at an art festival.

The 2021 event will be held on Friday, September 24. Get all of the details to attend the event, or watch virtually, here.

Visit the Gordon Stockade

If you enjoy history and older buildings, definitely check out the Gordon Stockade! The current buildings are a replica (but on the original site) of a log fortress built during the 1874 gold rush by the Gordon Party as protection from attacks by the Lakotas. The fortress was lived in illegally from 1874-1875 and the stockage has signage to tell you the story of its history.

This can be a quick stop, but if you visit from June through August between 1-4 PM, you can have the chance to speak with a park employee about the stockade to learn even more about the stockade’s history!

Experience the park on a tour 

If you want to explore Custer State Park with a guide, who can provide a lot of knowledge on the area and give you a unique experience, there are quite a few options to choose from!

Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour: Go off-roading in the park and experience an area not accessible by many visitors. On this tour you’ll get to see wildlife and learn historical and educational facts about the park and its furrier residents. The tours usually last 1.5-2 hours.

Hayride & Chuck Wagon Cookout: Want to see the park and get to eat? On this tour you take a 45 minute hayride (cowboy hat and bandana included!) and ends with a feast! 

Guided Trail Rides on Horseback: We recently went horseback riding in Kentucky and loved it and would love to ride horses through trails at Custer State Park! There are different ride options you can go on, from one hour to all day, and the tours run from mid-May through the end of September.

Looking for more things to do? Check out our things to do in the Black Hills guide (coming soon!), where we share more suggestions outside of Custer State Park!

Where to eat near Custer State Park

With quite a few towns and cities near the park, there are lots of places to grab food before or after exploring. Here are some spots we’d suggest!

Black Hills Burger and Bun Co: If we could recommend one spot to eat, this is it! Black Hills Burger and Bun Co. was named TripAdvisor’s #1 burger in America in 2014 and we can totally see why! Their ground fresh daily homemade burgers with in-house baked and toasted buns are AMAZING!

We got the “Hot Granny” and “Black Hills Blues” and swapped for bison patties. They were so juicy and flavorful and you can tell the quality is top notch!

Note: Closed Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays

Skogen Kitchen: Looking for something a bit fancier? This spot has a chef driven menu, with high quality and creative dishes. Make sure to make a reservation in advance!

Begging Burro Mexican Kitchen: After seeing the begging burros, go grab Mexican food at Begging Burro Mexican Kitchen!

Baker’s Bakery & Cafe: A great spot for breakfast! 

The Custer Wolf: A casual spot with pub food.

If you don’t want to leave the park, some of the park’s lodges have restaurants that you can grab a bite to eat at:

  • State Game Lodge
  • Bluebell Lodge
  • Legion Lake Lodge

Custer State Park Itinerary Options

As we mentioned above, we feel like you really need 2 days to experience all of the best things to do in Custer State Park, but it is possible to see the major highlights in 1 day or have a more relaxed itinerary with 3 days!

Below are some sample itinerary options based on the items we shared in this guide. We hope it gives you a good starting point for planning your time in the park!

If you plan to visit Badlands National Park, Rapid City, and the Black Hills in addition to Custer State Park, read our 7 Day South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary! And to see our exact itinerary, watch our South Dakota vlogs!

1 Day at Custer State Park

This itinerary hits up what we think are the major highlights and must-dos in the park! This itinerary is more jam packed and we’d suggest packing meals to ensure you have enough time to see it all!

  1. Start the morning by driving the Wildlife Loop and hopefully spotting lots of bison and begging burros!
  2. Drive the Needles Highway up to the Cathedral Spires trailhead.
  3. Hike the Cathedral Spires and stand in awe of the towering giants!
  4. Continue driving the Needles Highway and go through the Needle’s Eye Tunnel.
  5. Take a little stroll around Sylvan Lake, the crown jewel of the park.
  6. End the day with a hike up Black Elk Peak!

2 Days at Custer State Park

This itinerary includes all of our favorite things to do in Custer State Park and is the ideal itinerary if you want to spend just two days in the park.

Looking to combine the park with some other activities in the Black Hills? Read our 7 Day South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary!

Day 1

  1. Drive Iron Mountain Road down to the Wildlife Loop and spend the first few hours of your day curling around pigtails, going through tunnels, and seeing wildlife! Note: you will not see the iconic Mount Rushmore view on Iron Mountain road this way, but the drive will still be epic!
  2. Grab lunch at Black Hills Burger and Bun Co. 
  3. Drive the Needles Highway up to the Cathedral Spires trailhead.
  4. Hike the Cathedral Spires and stand in awe of the towering giants!
  5. Continue driving the Needles Highway to go through the Needle’s Eye Tunnel.

Day 2

  1. Start the morning with a hike along the Sunday Gulch trail
  2. Spend the afternoon kayaking or SUP boarding on Sylvan Lake. This would be a great spot to enjoy a picnic too!
  3. End the day with a sunset hike up Black Elk Peak! If you are nervous about hiking back in the dark, you could do this hike a little earlier in the day as well. The views will be amazing any time of the day!

3 Days at Custer State Park

This itinerary includes almost all of the things to do in Custer State Park that we mentioned in this guide!

Day 1

  1. Kick off the morning by driving the Needles Highway up to the Cathedral Spires trailhead.
  2. Hike the Cathedral Spires and stand in awe of the towering giants!
  3. From the Cathedral Spires trail, take Trail 4 to connect with the Little Devil’s Tower trail and climb up the tower for amazing views.
  4. Continue driving the Needles Highway to go through the Needle’s Eye Tunnel.

Day 2

  1. Start the morning with a hike along the Sunday Gulch trail
  2. Spend the afternoon kayaking or SUP boarding on Sylvan Lake. This would be a great spot to enjoy a picnic too!
  3. End the day with a sunset hike up Black Elk Peak! If you are nervous about hiking back in the dark, you could do this hike a little earlier in the day as well. The views will be amazing any time of the day!

Day 3

  1. Drive the Wildlife Loop and try to spot as much wildlife as you can!
  2. Spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon hiking the Lover’s Leap Trail.
  3. Enjoy some relaxing time at Stockade Lake and hike the short trail that goes around the lake and has beautiful views.
  4. Grab dinner at Black Hills Burger and Bun Co.
  5. End the day by driving the Iron Mountain Road and going around the pig tails and through tunnels. We recommend driving this from south to north to see the iconic view of Mount Rushmore through the Doane Robinson Tunnel.

Ready to explore Custer State Park?

Pin this guide with the best things to do in Custer State Park to help plan your trip!

about us

Hi y’all! We’re Adam, Kathryn, and Kona, an adventurous married couple (+ pup!) living on the road in our self-converted sprinter van! You can often find us driving all around the US and Canada, scoping out the best coffee shops, eating tacos and ice cream (we’re a 5+ taco and 2+ scoop household), and enjoying nature.

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