6 Amazing Hikes In Custer State Park You Won’t Want To Miss

Male hiker win front of the granite spires in Custer State Park in South Dakota

While traveling full-time throughout North America in our RV, we have explored over 25 states and hiked 1,000s of miles of breathtaking trails. We have seen so much beauty in so many places and we still think about how surprising and wonderful South Dakota is. Hiking in Custer State Park is a tantalizing clash of forest and towering rock that leaves you in awe with each step you take. In this article, we break down the best hikes in Custer State Park that are the perfect balance of challenge and reward.

About Custer State Park

View of the twists and turns of the Needles Highway in Custer State Park in South Dakota

Custer State Park and Wildlife Reserve is nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Covering over 71,000 acres, a trip to Custer State Park offers you a variety of landscapes to enjoy including prairie grasslands and jagged mountains. 

This is South Dakota’s largest state park and is also home to South Dakota’s highest peak (Black Elk Peak). A haven for hiking, wildlife viewing, scenic drives, camping, boating, biking, fishing, swimming, and rock climbing; Custer State Park boasts swaying ponderosa pines, and towering granite spires, and elicits a sense of pure joy and wonder around every corner. 

This gem in America’s heartland is a great destination for adventure and connecting with nature, especially in the amazing weather that summer and early fall bring. Below are some of the best things to do in Custer State Park, to help you plan a trip that inspires you to get outside and slow down for a while!

  • Entrance Cost: $20 per vehicle for a 7-day pass, $36 for an annual pass (purchased at the entrance station or online)
  • When is Custer State Park Open?: Open year round

Map of Custer State Park

Traveling to Custer State Park

Located in the Black Hills National Forest, traveling to Custer State Park is most accessible from nearby Rapid City South Dakota.

Distance from Rapid City & Rapid City Regional Airport: 1 hour

If you plan to visit Custer State Park and the Black Hills as part of an RV trip or road trip, it can be a great addition to visits to nearby Badlands National Park, Devil’s Tower National Monument, Thunder Basin National Grassland, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. This area has plenty of great camping options, including free boondocking in the National Forests and other public lands.

When To Visit

For us, Custer State Park was the perfect place to spend some early fall days. Right at the edge of autumn foliage, the park was thriving with beautiful scenery. With fewer crowds than in the summer months and extremely pleasant weather, the edge of autumn felt like the perfect time to be in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Custer State Park Hiking Trails

As avid hikers with no experience traveling in the Midwest, we weren’t sure how we’d feel about the hiking we would experience in South Dakota—especially coming from hiking 14ers in Colorado only a few months prior. We were amazed by the hiking we did in Custer State Park and the surrounding Black Hills National Forest. Interesting trails with fun challenges, epic views, and pristine surroundings. Below are the best hikes you can do in Custer State Park (with the added bonus that they are also all dog friendly!):  

Map of Custer State Park Hiking Trails & Parking Lots

For more information on trail conditions or what trial might be best for you during your visit, we highly recommend stopping into the Custer State Park Visitor Center and talking with park rangers to ensure you can have the best possible experience.

Visitor Center Hours:

  • Memorial Day – Labor Day: Open 8 a.m. – 8 p.m.
  • Labor Day – September 30: Open 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
  • October 1 – Memorial Day: Open 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. 7 days a week.
  • Closed: Thanksgiving, Christmas

Below are our top choices for hiking trails in Custer State Park, based on our experience hiking in the park in early Fall:

Sylvan Lake Trail

The blue waters of Sylvan Lake butting up against the jagged rocks and green trees in Custer State Park

Sylvan Lake is a popular area for hiking, picnics, and fishing. You will find happy families and dogs on leash wandering around this pristine lake, admiring the unique rock formations that emerge from the water’s surface. This is a mostly easy stroll with some small rock scrambling sections and a few steps if you venture onto the back side of the lake’s loop.

This is a great place to start your Custer State Park adventures as you acclimate to the altitude. In fall it is also a nice place to enjoy some fall foliage!

Sylvan Lake Shore Trail Hike Details:

  • Distance: 1.1 mile loop (you can hike the flat areas and turn back if the rock scrambling makes this trail not accessible for you)
  • Elevation Gain: 82 feet
  • Duration: 20 – 45 minutes
  • When to hike: April to October
A hiking couple and their dog sitting on rocks overlooking Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park
If you hike around the backside of Sylvan Lake you can climb up for a great bird’s eye view

Black Elk Peak Trail (Previously Harney Peak)

Sharp rocks among green trees and layers of mountains looking out from Black Elk Peak

Black Elk Peak (previously Harney Peak) is the highest point in South Dakota and the highest point in the U.S. east of the Rockies! There are multiple trails to reach the peak, giving you a few options depending on the length and difficulty of the adventure you are after.

We completed both Black Elk Peak and Little Devils Tower in a loop and found it to be a fun trail that offers a bit of a workout and breathtaking views, both into the spires of Custer State Park and the mountains of the surrounding Black Hills and out into the flat prairie grasslands. 

From the top of Black Elk Peak, you are treated to panoramic vistas, including views of nearby Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The Black Elk Peak hike is an incredibly scenic hike, from start to finish and one of our favorites in the park!

Some Black Elk Peak Hiking Options:

Black Elk Peak Loop

  • Distance: 7.1 mile loop
  • Elevation Gain: 1,500 feet
  • Duration: 3.5- 5 hours
  • When to hike: May to October

Black Elk Peak + Little Devils Tower

  • Distance: 7.7 mile loop
  • Elevation Gain: 1,700 feet
  • Duration: 4 – 6 hours
  • When to hike: May to October

Black Elk Peak via Harney Peak Trail

  • Distance: 6.4 miles out and back
  • Elevation Gain: 1,500 feet
  • Duration: 3-5 hours
  • When to hike: May to October

Black Elk Peak via Cathedral Spires Trail

  • Distance: 7.2 miles out and back
  • Elevation Gain: 1,500 feet
  • Duration: 3.5 -5 hours
  • When to hike: May to October

Black Elk Peak via Trail 9 North

  • Distance: 10 miles out and back
  • Elevation Gain: 2,480 feet
  • Duration: 5.5 – 7 hours
  • When to hike: May to October
Large stone tower of the Harney Peak Lookout adorning Black Elk Peak
The Harney Peak Lookout adorns the summit of Black Elk Peak
View overlooking Custer and the Black Hills from inside the Harney Peak Lookout
The Harney Peak Lookout building has a steep set of stairs to get to the highest point in the tower and look out of the 360° view windows
Slotted stairs on the Black Elk Peak Trail leading up to the Harney Peak lookout in Custer State Park in South Dakota
Male hiker and his dog on rock steps leading up to the Harney Peak Lookout on the Black Elk Peak Trail in Custer State Park in South Dakota
Hiking couple holding their dog on a hiking trail's rocky overlook at Custer State Park in South Dakota

Little Devils Tower Spur Trail

Little Devils Tower is an adventurous trail that includes some steep sections with large boulders and rock scrambling to reach a stunning overlook with 360° views of Black Elk Peak, the Cathedral Spires, and the surrounding Black Hills. This trail can be done on its own or combined with a hike to Black Elk Peak.

We found the combination loop to be most rewarding, especially given you are already hiking in the area as well. This allowed us to use our time wisely and see more of the park during our other hiking excursions. What we loved most about this spur trail due to its fun and challenging nature with the rock scrambling, lack of crowds, and great views.

Hiking couple and their dog in front of the view of the spires from Little Devils Tower Trail lookout in Custer State Park

Little Devils Tower Hike Details:

  • Distance: 3.8 miles out and back
  • Elevation Gain: 757 feet
  • Duration: 2- 4 hours
  • When to hike: April to October
Rock scrambling on the Little Devils Tower trail in Custer State Park in South Dakota

Sunday Gulch Trail

Sunday Gulch is another great trail characterized by a few unique features; towering rock wall passageways, some running water, and lots of stairs

A peaceful wooded and shaded trail, along the way you get great views looking out into Custer State Park, overlooking some of the twists and turns of the Needles Highway, and the sparkling waters of Sylvan Lake.

No climbing to a peak here, but still a nice workout that includes several flights of uneven and potentially wet rocks steps (with handrails). In the fall, this trail felt like walking through an enchanted wood of greens, oranges, and yellows. 

Female hiker and dog under a rock passage on the Sunday Gulch Trail in Custer State Park South Dakota

Sunday Gulch Trail Hike Details:

  • Distance: 3.9 mile loop (we enjoyed hiking this trail clockwise, going up the flights of stairs rather than down, and seeing views out over the Needles Highway during the initial part of the hike)
  • Elevation Gain: 800 feet
  • Duration: 2- 4 hours
  • When to hike: June to October
One of the flights of stairs along Sunday Gulch Trail in Custer State Park
The stairs can be a bit intimidating, but make for a fun challenge throughout the trail
Handrails guiding a rocky climb on the Sunday Gulch Trail in Custer State Park

Cathedral Spires Trail

The Cathedral Spires trail is a wonderful way to get into the heart of what gives the famed Needles Highway its name. After an initial steep and rocky climb that might take your breath away, you emerge into a sun-filled valley between walls of tall, sharp granite spires. The scale of the rock is mesmerizing and this hike offers plenty of opportunities for exploring the unique formations. 

A popular trail, you can expect to see other hikers enjoying this area amidst the trees, rock, and wildflowers. In addition, the Cathedral Spires trailhead has a small parking area that can fill up quickly, so you will want to arrive early or hike later in the day or during the shoulder season for the best shot at avoiding large crowds. 

Spires along Cathedral Spires trail in Custer State Park

Cathedral Spires Trail Hike Details:

  • Distance: 1.6 miles out and back trail (you will come to a clear “end of trail” marker)
  • Elevation Gain: 488 feet
  • Duration: 2- 4 hours
  • When to hike: April to October

Lover’s Leap Trail

This trail came highly recommended to us by locals due to its peaceful nature, winding through towering ponderosa pines before leading hikers out to a spectacular granite lookout.

Lover’s Leap Hike Details:

  • Distance: 4.2 mile loop
  • Elevation Gain: 626 feet
  • Duration: 2- 3 hours
  • When to hike: April to October
Rock climbers on the spires in Custer State Park
Custer State Park and the Black Hills are a haven for rock climbers, so it is common to see people scaling the granite spires above you while hiking through the park

Other Attractions In The Area

Flags lining the path to Mount Rushmore in Custer South Dakota

Once you have had your fill of the best hiking trails that Custer State Park has to offer, there are several other great attractions that bring you close to nature and wildlife right in Custer State Park and nearby in South and North Dakota as well:

  • Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop Road (18 miles round trip): Look for prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, and bison roaming the open grasslands that contrast with the rugged terrain and mountain peaks on the other side of the park
  • Wind Cave National Park
  • Jewel Cave National Monument
  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial
  • Iron Mountain Road Scenic Drive
  • Badlands National Park (1.5 hours away in Wall, SD)

Read More: For more in-depth information about the destinations above, check out our comprehensive guides to the best things to do in Custer State Park and the best things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota!

Fulfilling Travel Tips

Our biggest tip when it comes to Custer State Park is to not overlook this destination or let it be overshadowed by more popular places or National Parks. There is so much beauty to explore and you won’t want to miss it.

Hiking in Custer State Park is an experience that is both invigorating and fulfilling. The park boasts an incredible diversity of landscapes, from rolling prairies to towering granite peaks, making it a hiker’s paradise. As you hike through the park, you will encounter breathtaking vistas of rugged terrain, lush valleys, and sparkling streams. The beauty of the landscape is truly awe-inspiring, and it’s hard not to feel a deep sense of connection to nature as you take in the sights and sounds around you. With a range of hiking trails to suit all abilities, exploring Custer State Park on foot is an excellent way to discover the park’s unique beauty and immerse yourself in the natural wonders of South Dakota.


Places To Stay Near Custer State Park:

Campgrounds & Camping Options:

The towns surrounding Custer State Park are full of great campsites, ranging from RV resorts to no-frills campgrounds. If you are looking for the perfect one-stop shop for comparing RV parks and glamping options and prices with instant booking, we highly recommend Campspot.

Our other favorite resources for finding great campgrounds and campsites and reading reviews include Campendium, RV Life, and iOverlander.

You can also check out HipCamp and TheDyrt for more unique camping experiences and accommodations.

RV Rentals: If you are looking to get closer to nature but don’t have an RV, consider renting one through RV Share. We used this service when renting out our Casita and found them to be high quality and easy to use!

Other Custer Area Accommodations:

Another great way to get closer to nature is glamping or nature-centric stays. Here are some options like that near Custer South Dakota:

You can explore all Custer area accommodations and compare prices on Booking.com, which is a great resource for unique stays at the best rates.

Looking for other great hikes, experiences, or National Park adventures in and around the Custer South Dakota area? Check out these other helpful guides:

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