15 Amazing Things to do in Custer State Park, South Dakota

Custer, South Dakota is a great place to visit if you’re looking for things that are off the beaten path.

The small town offers plenty of activities and attractions for visitors including the 1881 Courthouse Museum, Four Mile Old West Town, and other historic attractions.

But the major attraction of Custer is its outdoor attractions!

Located near the stunning Black Hills National Forest, Custer is just a stone’s throw away from the incredible natural wonders just outside its boundaries.

Custer also serves as an access point to one of America’s most popular state parks – Custer State Park.

Discover the best things to do in Custer State Park as well as other Custer, South Dakota attractions in this epic guide.

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Where Is Custer State Park located?

Custer State Park is located in the Black Hills of western South Dakota.

It is located near Rapid City as well as Mount Rushmore National Memorial and can be easily seen on the same trip.

Custer State Park address is 13329 US Highway 16A Custer, SD 57730

Best Time To Visit Custer State Park

The best time to visit Custer State Park on a memorable South Dakota road trip is from May to October. 

Summer is the peak season.

You need advance reservations for lodging and camping in Custer from June to August.

However, the trails and scenic drives are crowded during this time.

Also, summers in Custer are hot with high temperatures hovering around 90-95F.

It can get chilly in the evening due to the wind – dress in layers to enjoy your stay in Custer State Park.

To skip crowds, travel in the shoulder season – before Memorial Day or after Labor Day weekend.

If planning a trip during this time, you will encounter fewer crowds and pleasant weather.

Winter is one of the least popular times to visit due to the freezing cold and closed roads.

However, the park’s landscapes look spectacular amidst the snow.

Creekside Lodge in Custer State Park is open all year long and caters to winter visitors.

See amazing Custer State Park attractions here.

Custer State Park Trip FAQs

Custer State Park has it all: beautiful campsites, scenic lakes, wildlife, spectacular drives, and miles of hiking trails!

More than 1.5 million visitors visit Custer State Park every year for its beauty and activities.

Here are some common FAQs to plan your trip.

How far is Custer State Park from Mount Rushmore?

The distance from Mount Rushmore to Custer State Park is roughly 45 mins or 21 miles. 

The road is highly scenic through the Needles Highway in Custer State Park and via the Iron Mountain Road.

How far is Custer State Park from Rapid City?

The distance from Rapid City SD to Custer State Park is also 45 mins or 35 miles but it is along relatively straight roads. 

This is a great option if you are flying into Rapid City and renting a car at the airport.

How far is Custer State Park from Badlands National Park?

The distance from Badlands to Custer State Park is about ~75 miles and takes about 1.5 hrs to reach.

If you are traveling via Sioux Falls and visit Badlands National Park first then you will be taking this route.

How much does it cost to visit Custer State Park?

Costs to enter the park are $20 per vehicle; the entry fee is valid for an entire week of stay.

Best Things to do in Custer State Park, South Dakota

Spread over an area of over 71,000 acres, Custer State Park is one of the largest state parks in America. 

There are many amazing things to do in Custer State Park for outdoor and nature lovers.

Visitors can enjoy hiking, water sports, camping, rock climbing, and wildlife watching in the park.

Explore the landscape on scenic drives, backpack through the back country, or enjoy horseback riding in the park.

Custer State Park is the ultimate outdoor adventure.

Here are our favorite things to do in Custer State Park, South Dakota this summer.

Visit the historical sites in the park

Custer State Park has a rich history and is home to many historic sites.

The State Game Lodge in the park was the Summer White House of President Coolidge.

Today, it is on the National Register of Historic Places and a must see for visitors.

Badger Hole Historic Site near Legion Lake is a pine cabin that was the home of poet, Charles Badger Clark.

The cabin is preserved in its original condition.

Badger Clark Historic Trail near the cabin is also great to visit.

The Gordon Stockade Historical Site is where illegal white settlements were built on Sioux land following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874.

Interpretative signs near the site tell the history of this illegal occupation as well as their eviction by the US Cavalry.  

Open seasonally from Memorial Day to late September, Mount Coolidge Fire Tower is the tallest point in Custer State Park.

The fire tower is still in use today as a lookout tower and the views from the top of the tower are beautiful.

Cool down in Custer State Park’s lakes

Custer State Park is home to 4 mountain lakes: Sylvan Lake, Legion Lake, Stockade Lake, and Center Lake.

The lakes are popular for canoeing, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, boating, swimming, and fishing. 

Sylvan Lake is most popular to visit. The shore trail is popular with families.

Legion Lake is located on the southern portion of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway near Mt. Coolidge and Badger Hole. 

One-mile long Legion Lake hiking trail is also good for beginners.

The Stockade Lake trail takes visitors to a ridge from where you can enjoy lake views as well as see Black Elk Peak.

Variety of watercraft rentals are available for visitors at Sylvan Lake and Legion Lake; Stockade Lake has a boat ramp.

Surrounded by pine trees and campsites, Center Lake is a favorite with many visitors.

The lake has a swimming beach and a boat dock and is a must on any Custer State Park itinerary.

Enjoy the hiking trails in Custer State Park

Hiking in Custer State Park is the best way to explore its vast wilderness.

You will find many popular trails in the park including Sunday Gulch Trail, Lovers Leap Trail, Prairie Trail, and Creekside Trail. 

The park has trails for all fitness levels.

Hiking in Custer State Park is also our favorite way to seethe diverse wildlife including mountain goats, squirrels, deer, and burros.

Badger Clark Historic Trail, located behind Badger Hole, is a short 1-mile trail of moderate difficulty.

Creekside Trail, along Grace Coolidge Creek, is an easy and accessible mile long trail popular for its bridge crossings.

The 4 miles long moderate Sunday Gulch Trail is one of Custer’s most popular hiking trails. 

It has rocky slopes, water crossings, and is great fun for older kids.

Sylvan Lake Shore Trail is another easily accessible trail for the whole family. 

The trail goes around the lake and has incredible views as well as rock formations for scrambling.

Prairie Trail is a 2-mile easy nature trail that is known for stream crossings, wildflowers, birding, and wildlife.

The 12 miles long French Creek Natural Area hiking and backpacking trail leads visitors inside the French Creek Gorge and has great wildlife views.

Another of Custer State Park’s popular hiking trails, the Lover’s Leap Trail is about 4.2 miles long. 

The moderate trail has many elevation changes, stream crossings, and incredible birds eye views.

The South Dakota Centennial Trail is a 111-mile long through hike that traverses the Black Hills and passes through Custer on a 22-mile long section.

Climb to the top of Black Elk Peak

If you’re a hiker, you don’t want to miss the chance to hike one of the most popular trails in Custer State Park which leads up to Black Elk Peak.

The 7,242-foot summit is the highest point in South Dakota and is named for Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man.

The Black Elk Peak trail to the summit originates from Sylvan Lake and is well marked with a number of scenic overlooks along the way.

Be sure to keep a look out for wildlife along the way, including bighorn sheep!

See the iconic Cathedral Spires

Another classic hike in Custer is the Cathedral Spires Trail which leads hikers to some of the most beautiful formations within the park called the spires.

The Cathedral Spires Trail begins near Sylvan Lake and follows Cedar Creek before reaching its destination after about 1.5 miles.

Along the way, you’ll find a number of spots where you can explore and get up close to these amazing natural creations.

Because of its easy to moderate difficulty, Cathedral Spires Trail is a favorite with families.

See A Play At The Black Hills Playhouse

Looking for unique things to do in Custer State Park? See a play in the Black Hills Playhouse!

This is one of the oldest continually operating playhouses in the country. 

Along with popular plays, the playhouse also offers attractions such as a picnic lunch before the show.

Camp Near A Lake Or Among Pine Forests

Camping in Custer State Park is easy; the park has 9 beautiful campgrounds – many of them available first-come, first-serve. 

Camping in Custer is also worth doing; the park has 9 great campgrounds for tent camping as well as RV camping. 

At the famous Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park or the Creekside Lodge, you can stay in charming pine cabins and have a relaxing stay.

We camped at the scenic Center Lake campground and our campsite was just a short walk away from the water’s edge. 

The site was beautifully shaded by pine trees and was perfect for relaxation. We especially loved this campground for tent camping in Custer State Park.

Other campgrounds at Custer including Bluebell campground and Grace Coolidge campground also have great campsites. 

French Creek Natural Area has primitive backcountry camping and is a favorite with backpackers hiking the French Creek Trail. 

Game Lodge campground is conveniently located near the Visitor Center.

Stay In One Of Custer’s Beautiful Lodges

While we camped in the park, roughing it is not the only option here. 

The has many beautiful lodges with rustic pine cabins which can be booked in advance for a relaxing stay. 

Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park is a Western Ranch where guests can participate in cookouts and take hayrides in the park. 

Legion Lake Lodge, built-in 1913, is one of the park’s oldest and has great water views. 

State Game Lodge is famous as the summer home of President Coolidge while the beautiful 

Sylvan Lake Lodge is built in a spot suggested by the famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Enjoy Horseback Riding In Custer State Park

At Custer State Park, you can bring your own horses and enjoy horseback riding in Custer SD. 

The park’s wild trails and beautiful grasslands are perfect for horseback riding. 

Bluebell Campground has horse stables while nearby French Creek horse camp is specially designed for horse campers with a corral attached to each campsite. 

If you don’t have your own horse but would like to enjoy horse riding then the Bluebell Lodge offers all-day horseback rides inside Custer as well as short rides perfect to explore nearby areas. 

Horseback riding in Custer State Park is also great fun because of the 4 marked horse trails starting from French Creek horse camp.

Take In The Wildlife Viewing And Bird Watching Paradise

Custer State Park has excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. a herd of 1300 bison

Hiking in Custer State Park and driving along the Wildlife Loop Road are the best ways to come across the wildlife. 

During our stay in Custer, we saw white-tailed deer, bison/buffalo herds with the calves, begging burros, pronghorn deer, burrowing owls, mountain goats, chipmunks, marmots, elk, antelope, pheasants, turkeys, and rabbits. 

I especially enjoyed our encounter with the begging burros, they came near car windows to ‘beg’ for food and allowed visitors to pet them. 

We recommend stopping at all the visitor centers and talking to the rangers to get the latest information about animal sightings in a particular area. 

There are also rattlesnakes in this part of the state so we advise visitors to watch where they step. 

Also, all animals are wild and the prairie dogs often carry rabies so keep your distance from all wildlife.

Read More Wildlife of South Dakota and the Northern Great Plains: Where & What to See 

Custer State Park has spectacular wildlife most of which can be easily seen from the Wildlife Loop Road

Cruise on Custer’s Scenic Drives

Custer State Park has some of the best of South Dakota’s scenic drives

The most popular scenic drives of Wildlife Loop Road, Iron Mountain Road, and Needles Highway are together called the Peter Norbeck Scenic Drive.

Wildlife Loop, Custer State Park

Driving on the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park offers the best chance to view the area’s abundant wildlife. 

We drove along the wildlife loop road early in the morning and then again at dusk after just after it had rained a bit. 

Both times the road and scenery were beautiful and we came across many animals including deer, bison/buffalo herds, etc. 

The road passes through rolling hills and wide-open meadows and driving under the blue sky while deer stroll by is a unique and thrilling experience.

Iron Mountain Road

Iron Mountain Road is a windy and stomach-churning road that was once called ‘the road that can’t be built’. 

However, Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota was adamant about his vision of a road that hugged the curves of the Black Hills and passed through the heart of the mountains to give the visitor’s an awe-inspiring experience. 

The result is Iron Mountain Road, a road that constantly loops in hairpin turns, has 3 pigtail bridges, and 3 tight, rock-cut tunnels. 

Driving the Iron Mountain Road is an adventurous experience and from the last two tunnels, we could see great views of Mount Rushmore straight ahead.

Needles Highway

Needles Highway is a winding road that drives through the Needles formations of the Black Hills –  a type of geological formation of weathered granite rocks that point straight up towards the sky. 

Of special interest is the Custer State Park Needles Eye, a unique rock formation shaped like a needle, and the extremely tight tunnels along the road.

Also Read: Top 5 South Dakota Scenic Drives: Road Tripping with a view!

Custer State Park has spectacular scenic drives

Enjoy Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

Held in the last weekend of September, Custer State Park’s Annual Buffalo Roundup draws over thousands of visitors. 

Park rangers and cowboys round up the park’s nearly 1300 stampeding buffaloes and the sight of saddled men and women riding behind the charging animals as safari vehicles accompany them is a thrilling experience. 

The Buffalo Roundup is free to attend for the public; for more information check here.

Take A Sunrise Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour

Custer State Park offers one day Buffalo Safari Jeep tours that take guests off-road into Custer’s natural areas. 

These tours typically include guides narrating historical information about the park and facts about its wildlife. 

Some tours also drive along Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway and all of them have excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. 

The tour is good for visitors who don’t have a rental car and want to see Custer State Park and its major attractions in a day. 

The sunrise safari tour is a big draw as most animals are out at this time of the day.

On a sunrise safari tour, you will have exceptional bison viewing opportunities

Photograph the beautiful landscapes

Custer State Park is a favorite with photographers. 

The breathtaking scenery and wildlife create some amazing shots.

Sunrise and sunset over the rolling plains and rolling hills look spectacular in photos.

Also Read The Amateur Photographer’s Guide to Badlands National Park

Besides the above-mentioned things to do in Custer State Park, the park also holds many events and activities during the peak season including guided adventure hikes, family hikes, a variety of junior ranger programs, etc. 

To know more about seasonally offered programs, check here.

Best Things to do in Custer, South Dakota

Apart from Custer State Park, there are many other amazing things to do in Custer, South Dakota.

From museums and historic attractions to cave systems and prehistoric fossils, Custer has a variety of attractions for all interests.

Here are some of the top things to do in Custer, South Dakota on your next trip.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

The Presidential Memorial carved in the Black Hills ranks alongside the Statue of Liberty and the Independence Hall as the top patriotic places in the country. 

The carvings of the 4 Presidents are sculptures of great artistic ability and wow visitors with their majesty. 

Hiking the Presidential Trail allows for closer views at the Memorial. 

Read our detailed guide to visiting Mount Rushmore National Memorial here.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Some locals call Crazy Horse Memorial, depicting the Lakota leader Crazy Horse, the ’fifth-face’ in the Black Hills of South Dakota. 

Work is ongoing on the sculpture since more than half of the last century and when complete, the sculpture will be the largest in the world. 

The Memorial has an interesting history and is a great place to learn more about the rich Lakota culture and heritage. 

Read our complete Crazy Horse Memorial Visitor Guide here.

Badlands National Park

Badlands is one of the most beautiful national parks in America.

The spectacular, multi-colored landscape of Badlands delights visitors while the Badlands hiking trails offer an opportunity to explore the bizarre formations from up close.

Be sure to take the detour to Badlands when you visit the Black Hills.

Badlands National Park has great hikes and dramatic landscapes

Hill City

Hill City is not to be missed when it comes to day trips from Custer.

The historic mining town located 15 miles away features a number of unique attractions and activities.

Visit the Museum at the Black Hills Institute, which houses an impressive collection of fossils from dinosaurs that once roamed the area.

Head over to the Hill City Train Depot Museum and take a look at historic train cars, watch a historic film about Hill City, and enjoy a train ride!

Wind Cave National Park

Spend a day exploring Wind Cave National Park, another area attraction that is located near Custer.

Wind Cave is an absolutely incredible place to visit where you can explore more than 70 miles of caves and take a guided tour deep underground to see the amazing rock formations.

Wind Cave is also home to the endangered Black-Footed ferret which lives in prairie dog tunnels within the park.

You’ll find some great hiking trails along with excellent wildlife viewing opportunities!

Jewel Cave National Monument

Custer is also located near Jewel Cave National Monument, another great attraction to visit.

Jewel Cave is the world’s third longest cave and contains some of the most incredible rock formations.

It’s also home to the world’s largest boxwork formation, a geologic phenomenon that is absolutely incredible!

We hope you liked our guide to things to do in Custer, SD.

Let us know if you have any questions in the comments below.

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