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

There are so many great things to do in Custer State Park, South Dakota that we don’t know where to start. 

The hiking in Custer State Park is excellent with a lot of quality trails including Sunday Gulch trail, lovers leap trail, prairie trail, and others. 

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. 

You can also go horseback riding in Custer State Park, many of the Custer State Park trails are allowed for horses. 

However, our favorite thing to do is to slowly drive the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park. This road has incredible wildlife sightings and is the highlight of Custer State Park’s visit. 

Here are the 15 best things to do at Custer State Park along with a little trip planning information:

About Custer State Park

Custer State Park encompasses an area of 71,000 acres and is one of the largest state parks in the country. 

This park has it all: nature camping at its best, beautiful lakes to enhance your visit, heaps of wildlife viewing opportunities on a road rightly called the Wildlife Loop Road, scenic drives that rank among the top 10 in the country, and miles of hiking trails to satisfy outdoor enthusiasts. 

However, we did not know all that when we added Custer to our week-long South Dakota Road Trip and so kept only 2 days at the State Park. 

However, Custer State Park and the Black Hills of South Dakota is itself worth a week-long visit and we definitely plan to spend a little more time camping at Custer the next time.

Also Read: 38 Amazing Things to do in the Black Hills

Custer State Park is a truly wild place where a herd of 1300 bison and other wildlife roam free and bikers, hikers, and cars share the roads with these magnificent beasts. 

More than 1.5 million visitors visit Custer State Park each year. Costs to enter the park are $20 per vehicle; the entry fee is valid for an entire week of stay.

Planning Your Custer State Park Trip

Where Is Custer State Park?

Custer State Park is located among the Black Hills in western South Dakota. It is located very near to Rapid City or Mount Rushmore National Memorial. 

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. We recommend this route over all others.  

You can check out our detailed South Dakota road trip plan to see the order in which we saw the attractions.

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.

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

We loved visiting Custer State Park just after Labor Day since the summer crowds were gone and the leaves were just beginning to turn color

When To Visit Custer State Park?

The best time to visit Custer State Park and this part of South Dakota is from May to October. 

Summer is the peak season and advance reservations for lodging/camping in Custer are highly recommended from June to August. 

Most of the Custer State Park trails are full of hikers and the Wildlife Loop is crowded with cars. 

If you travel in the shoulder season i.e before Memorial Day and school vacations and after Labor Day weekend, you will encounter fewer crowds and pleasant weather. 

Weather-wise, summers in Custer are extreme with high temperatures hovering around 90-95F mark but it drops quickly in the evening after sunset due to the winds. 

We strongly recommend dressing in layers to enjoy your stay in Custer State Park. 

Winter is one of the least popular times to visit but the park’s landscapes look spectacular amidst the snow. Creekside Lodge is open all year long and caters to winter visitors.

See amazing Custer State Park attractions here.

Custer State Park – A Family Adventure Destination

Custer State Park is known, with good reason, as South Dakota’s premier family destination. The park offers excellent ways for children to connect with nature and understand wildlife. 

The many historical sites inside the park are also great for learning local history and understanding of the state’s rich culture. 

With so many things to do in Custer State Park, staying and camping at Custer is a great adventure. 

We highly recommend families to visit this state park and enjoy some of our favorite activities.

Also Read: Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary: When to Go and What to See

Best Things To Do In Custer State Park, South Dakota

See The Historical Sites At Custer State Park

State Game Lodge

Game Lodge in Custer State Park was the Summer White House of President Coolidge in 1927 and is listed among the National Register of Historic Places. 

The nearby Squaw Creek is renamed Grace Coolidge Creek after the visiting First Lady. The State Game Lodge was later visited by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953. 

Today, guests can tour the lodge and stay in the same rooms as the former Presidents.

Badger Hole

Badger Hole Historic Site near Legion Lake is a pine cabin that was the home of South Dakota poet, Charles Badger Clark. He lived in the cabin inside the park for nearly 30 years. 

The cabin is kept preserved in the condition it was when the poet lived there till 1957 and visitors can tour the cabin for free. 

There is also a Badger Clark Historic Trail near the cabin.

Gordon Stockade

The Gordon Stockade historical sight inside Custer State Park is where illegal white settlements were built following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1874. 

Under the peace treaty of Fort Laramie, the area belonged to the Sioux Indians and any kind of settlement was not allowed. 

Interpretative signs near the site tell the history of this illegal occupation of fortune hunters for almost a year before their eviction by the US Cavalry.  

Mount Coolidge Fire Tower

Open seasonally from Memorial Day to late September, Mount Coolidge Fire Tower can be reached by a narrow gravel road. 

Originally called Sheep Mountain, Mount Coolidge 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.

See A Play At The Black Hills Playhouse

Definitely, one of the more unique things to do at Custer State Park, seeing a play in a theatre located amidst nature is a great treat. 

The Black Hills Playhouse located inside Custer State Park is one of the oldest continually operating playhouses in the country. 

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

Enjoy Water Sports At The Lakes In Custer State Park

Custer State Park has 4 clear mountain lakes and they are the highlight of the trip for many visitors. 

The lakes offer opportunities for canoeing, kayaking, paddle boating, swimming, and fishing. 

The lakes are the center of activity for most campers during summertime.

Custer State Park has 4 beautiful mountain lakes that are very popular with visitors

Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake is a must stop in Custer State Park. 

Visitors can walk up to the rocks at the shore; there is a beautiful path among the rocks at the end. 

Sylvan Lake has watercraft rentals and visitors can get canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards to explore the serene lake. 

The lake also hosts Custer State Park weddings and is one of the best places to hold a ceremony in South Dakota.

Legion Lake

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

The lake is perfect for boating, fishing, swimming, or just relaxing by the beach and enjoying picnics. 

Legion Lake has watercraft rentals available for guests and a convenient one-mile hiking trail that goes around the lake.

Stockade Lake

The Stockade Lake trail is one of the best ways to enjoy the beauty of this lake and reach a ridge on the top of Stockade Lake that has great lake views along with views of the Black Elk Peak. 

Stockade Lake also has a boat ramp to launch your water vehicles and enjoy the lake’s waters.

Center Lake

Surrounded by pine trees and secluded campsites, Center Lake is a favorite for many people. 

The lake has a swimming beach and a boat dock. We camped at this campground and loved spending time by the lake.

Rock Climb The Needles Of Black Hills

Custer State Park has many hills that are excellent for rock climbing. 

We saw rock climbers at many places in the park, but they were mostly concentrated around the Needles of Needle Highway. 

The rocks near Custer State Park Needles Eye are perfect even for children and we saw many families trying to climb them.

On most of Custer’s hiking trails, mountain goats will provide you with company

Custer State Park Hiking Alongside The Mountain Goats

Custer State Park hiking trails are dedicated to exploring its vast wilderness. 

There are trails are for all fitness levels and everybody can enjoy Custer’s natural beauty by walking through the park. 

Hiking in Custer State Park is great fun as all trails offer great opportunities to spot Custer’s rich wildlife. 

We have seen mountain goats, squirrels deer, and burros on Custer’s hiking trails.

Badger Clark Historic Trail

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

The trail has some traffic and is beautiful in spring when the wildflowers bloom. This is a nice family hike and great even for younger kids.

Creekside Trail

Creekside Trail along Grace Coolidge Creek is an easy and accessible trail that is a mile long. 

The trail also passes by the State Game Lodge and the visitor center. 

The trail has some great bridge crossings which are popular with children.

Sunday Gulch Trail, Custer State Park

Almost 4 miles long, the Sunday Gulch Trail is one of Custer’s more popular trails. 

The trailhead is located behind Sylvan Lake, towards the right, and climbs down to great water views. 

There are rocky slopes in some parts of the trail, however, the park service has provided handrails which make climbing down easier. 

The hike also has many water crossings. While not very easy for small children, the hike can be completed easily by pre-teens.

Sylvan Lake Shore Trail

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

The trail goes around the lake and has incredible views of the water. The trail is very kid-friendly with picnic areas to stop and admire the views. 

There are also rock formations along the lake which you can try climbing.

Prairie Trail, Custer State Park

This is a 2-mile easy trail that is mostly level and very easy for families with small children. 

The trail is beautiful when wildflowers are in bloom and functions as a great nature trail. 

The trail also has great birding and wildlife viewing. The trail has few stream crossings and goes over rolling hills of prairies.

French Creek Trail

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

There are lots of buffalo sightings on this trail.

Lover’s Leap Trail, Custer State Park

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

The trail has many ups and downs and several stream crossings and is of moderate difficulty level. 

The views from the top are worth the hike.

South Dakota Centennial Trail

The South Dakota Centennial Trail is a 111-mile long trail traversing the natural areas of the Black Hills and passes through Custer for a 22-mile long section.

Also Read 9 Awesome Badlands Trails: Guide to hiking in Badlands National Park

Mountain Bike Across Custer’s Hills And Grasslands

Mountain biking is a great way to explore Custer’s outdoor areas and spend time with your family. 

Custer’s many hiking trails can also be used by mountain bikers including Badger Clark Historic Trail, South Dakota Centennial Trail, and Creekside Trail.

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. 

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.

Our campsite in Custer State Park was surrounded by beautiful pine trees

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. 

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 South Dakota 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

Channel Your Inner Photographer

Custer State Park is a great place for photographers. 

The breathtaking scenery and beautiful landscape are great for taking panoramic shots while the close animal encounters make wildlife photography a great experience. 

Sunsets and sunrises over Custer’s expansive plains and rolling hills are beautiful while the 4 mountain lakes look pretty in the afternoon sun.

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.

Custer State Park Nearby Attractions

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

Of all South Dakota’s natural landscapes, the Badlands are the finest. 

This spectacular landscape of colorful, multi-hued tones and a variety of bizarre landforms is an outdoor wonder waiting to be explored. 

Badlands delights visitors with its varied scenery and otherworldly charm and is visited by over a million visitors each year. 

Read our full guide to hiking in the Badlands National Park here.

Badlands National Park has great hikes and dramatic landscapes

Corn Palace At Mitchell

This unique roadside attraction is worth a shortstop on every South Dakota Road Trip. 

Known as the World’s Only Corn Palace, the Corn Palace at Mitchell is a building completely decorated with corn murals. 

The displays keep changing every year and the attraction is a great tribute to the corn belt and American farmers. 

Our detailed guide for visiting the Corn Palace at Mitchell can be read here.  

With so many things to do in the area, Custer State Park is a great stop to reconnect with the great outdoors. 

Hands down, our week-long South Dakota Road Trip remains one of our favorite road trips to date, and Custer (along with Badlands) is a top reason for that. 

So long, buffaloes of Custer and South Dakota.

If you are planning to visit South Dakota, you will love our many travel resources for the Mount Rushmore State.

Did you visit Custer State Park? What was your favorite moment? Did you do any activity that we missed out on? Let us know in the comments.

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