While there is often a lot of focus on national parks, as full-time travelers and RVers we have found that State Parks are some of our favorite destinations in the United States! Not only can they hold amazing sights, hikes, and unique wildlife, but they often can offer more freedom to explore and smaller crowds than their sister sites sitting in the spotlight. In this article, we break down the top things to do in Custer State Park for any nature lover or outdoorsy person for the best trip to South Dakota’s iconic state park.
About Custer State Park
Custer State Park and wildlife reserve is nestled in South Dakota’s beautiful Black Hills. 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
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 and free camping at the famed Nomad View Dispersed camping area, 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, which we will dive into further later in this article.
Top Things to Do in Custer State Park
There is no shortage of things to do in Custer State Park! Whether you love epic adventures, getting lost in the woods, experiencing wildlife, going for a scenic drive with your windows down, or enjoying a picnic in beautiful surroundings, Custer State Park has something for everyone.
As with most parks, we recommend stopping in at the Custer State Park Visitor Center to get any important updates about park conditions, get recommendations from a park ranger about what to see and do (or where to spot wildlife) based on your unique goals, and learn more about what the area you are about to witness and experience!
Based on our experience, here are some of the best things to do in Custer State Park:
Hike Custer State Park’s Unique Trails
As avid hikers, 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 a few of the best Custer State Park hikes (they are also all dog friendly!):
Sylvan Lake Shore Trail
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 on the back side of the lake’s loop. This is also a great place to start your Custer State Park adventures as you acclimate to the altitude. In fall it is 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
Black Elk Peak Trail
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 did 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.
Distance: 7.1 mile loop
Elevation Gain: 1,500 feet
Duration: 3.5- 5 hours
When to hike: May to October
Distance: 7.7 mile loop
Elevation Gain: 1,700 feet
Duration: 4 – 6 hours
When to hike: May to October
Little Devils Tower Spur Trail
Little Devils Tower is an adventurous trail that includes some steep sections 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 alone or combined with a hike to Black Elk Peak, which is what we chose to do. We loved this spur trail due to its fun and challenging nature, lack of crowds, and great views.
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
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 fall, this trail felt like walking through an enchanted wood of greens, oranges, and yellows.
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
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.
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
Enjoy Scenic Drives Filled With Nature & Wildlife
A 14-mile road that winds through Custer State Park offers breathtaking views of towering pine forests, large granite spires and unique rock formations, peaceful grasslands, and potentially hair-raising narrow and low stone tunnels. Needles Highway closes during the winter months. We loved experiencing it during fall, watching the autumn colors come to life.
This road is definitely NOT RV friendly and while we made it through all the tunnels, twists, and turns, in our long bed dually truck, it was certainly tight.
Our best advice? Take it slow, check for oncoming traffic and roll the windows down and check your distance from the sides. If you are like us and driving Needles Highway in a large vehicle, you can expect an audience watching nervously to see if you get through.
Allow at least 1 hour for this scenic drive.
There are 2 one-way narrow tunnels to take note of along the Needles Highway:
- Iron Creek Tunnel: 8′ 9″ wide by 10’10” high
- Needles Eye Tunnel: 8′ 0″ wide by 9’8″ high
Watch For Bison On Wildlife Loop Road
The Black Hills of South Dakota and Custer State Park are not only great destinations for hiking and unique sights. It is also home to a variety of wildlife! We loved getting to experience the variety of wildlife that calls the Black Hills and Custer State Park home, in a variety of landscapes!
Wildlife Loop Road Details:
An 18-mile scenic drive through prairie grasslands and rolling hills of Custer State Park. Along this route, you might see wildlife including one of the nearly 1,400 bison that exist in the park’s herd, prairie dogs, pronghorn, deer, elk, coyotes, eagles, hawks, and burros. Rarer, but still possible to be seen here, are species such as bighorn sheep and mountain lions.
If you plan to take your time meandering along the twists and turns of this scenic road and stopping to enjoy photo opportunities or just observe, leave at least 90 minutes for this journey.
Something really unique that we unfortunately just missed during our visit is the annual Bison Roundup.
In this annual event held in late September, you can watch cowboys and cowgirls round up the roughly 1,300 bison herd. This is a highly sought-after event and an important practice to maintain the size and health of the herd. Could be a great opportunity if you can align your visit with this event!
Enjoy the Scenery of Iron Mountain Road
This scenic drive includes 17 miles of winding roads connecting Mount Rushmore to Custer State Park. A road meant for slowing down and enjoying the beautiful scenery this area has to offer it is recommended to allow at least 1 hour for this scenic route.
We did not get to complete this during our visit, but we have heard great things about this road and how beautiful and fun it is to explore!
Includes 3 tunnels:
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.
Where to Stay Near Custer State Park
Free Camping & Boondocking near Custer State Park
- North Pole Road Dispersed Camping: A large area with limited spots. We did not find it very busy and found a perfect secluded spot that worked well for our big rig and solar and Starlink needs. Great views, quiet, and the ability to hike out into nature from your site.
- Bear Mountain Lookout Road Dispersed Camping
- Glen Erin Road Dispersed Camping
Private & State Park Campgrounds near Custer State Park
Rafter J Bar Ranch: With family coming to visit while we were in Custer, it was important for us to be on the grid for a while. Rafter J Bar Ranch is a well know, high-ranking campground. It is nicely spread out, well-maintained, and very peaceful. It also has a great location, right across from Custer State Park.
Horsethief Campground: Private campground nestled in nature with amenities close to many Black Hills attractions.
There are 9 Campgrounds in Custer State Park (341 campsites and 50 cabins). These can be reserved online here; advanced booking is recommended!
- Blue Bell Campground
- Center Lake Campground (offers same-day reservations)
- French Creek Horse Camp
- Game Lodge Campground
- Grace Coolidge Campground
- Legion Lake Campground
- Stockdale North Campground
- Stockdale South Campground
- Sylvan Lake Campground
You can learn more about these different Custer State Park campgrounds and the amenities offered here!
Where To Eat
We enjoyed some delicious meals during our visit to Custer South Dakota! Here are a few of our favorite restaurants:
- Skogen Kitchen: An amazing fine dining experience perfect for a birthday dinner celebration or special occasion. Fresh and innovative eats in a small hip space. Reservation recommended!
- Mount Rushmore Brewing: A lovely outdoor patio perfect for a brew and a bite after a day of adventures
- Custer Wolf: Another great spot with outdoor dining and yummy plates including fresh burgers and creative sandwiches. Has a nice outdoor patio as well
Other Attractions Near Custer State Park
Set in the beautiful scenery of South Dakota’s Black Hills, there are even more opportunities for exploration and outdoor adventure outside of Custer State Park. This makes it easy to craft a full itinerary for a week in this area. A few favorites include:
- Wind Cave National Park: Known for its intricate cave formations, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota offers visitors the opportunity to explore one of the longest and most complex caves in the world.
- Jewel Cave National Monument: Anot spot for a cave tour, Jewel Cave National Monument is home to one of the world’s most extensive cave systems, featuring sparkling calcite crystals and unique formations that are really captivating.
- Crazy Horse Memorial: A monumental tribute to the Native American culture and heritage, the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota is an ongoing sculptural project dedicated to honoring the legendary Lakota leader, Crazy Horse.
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial: Carved into the granite cliffs of the Black Hills in South Dakota, Mount Rushmore National Memorial is an iconic symbol of American history, featuring the sculpted faces of four U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.
For more information about these great destinations and more, check out our Complete Guide to the Black Hills of South Dakota!
Best Time To Visit Custer State Park
The most visited time of year in the Black Hills and Custer State Park falls between late May and late September or early September.
We found temperatures to be perfect in mid-September, with a touch of coolness with the emergence of fall. Perfect for boondocking comfortably and exploring the best hikes and things to do in the Black Hills and surrounding areas.
Fulfilling Travel Tips
Be present. Be where your feet are.
Custer State Park is a place of bountiful beauty. It is rugged yet peaceful. Full of life and wilderness yet full of quiet and calm. It is a place where nature sucks you right in, allowing you to get lost in the present moment for a while. If you do get a chance to visit Custer State Park, we encourage you to take a few moments to slow down and truly soak it all in.
Whether that means scheduling some pauses into your hike to admire the views or focus on your breath, bringing your favorite mindful practice with you onto the trail, spending a few minutes journaling, or taking a few moments for a gratitude practice; we hope you will find a way to reap the benefits of spending time in this magical place. This is truly a special place and in our opinion, one of the best state parks in the country! Put down your phone, step away from your emails, and fill your cup. Nature is healing and Custer State Park is no exception!
Custer State Park Overall
Custer State Park has so much to offer in the way of nature and outdoor adventure. We absolutely loved our experience here and had no idea what our time in South Dakota Black Hills would have in store for us. The weather was magnificent, the hikes were unique, and the scenery and wildlife rivaled some of our favorite locations in other parts of the country. If you are looking for other unique things to do during your visit to Custer, consider checking out:
The annual bison round-up: As part of a wildlife management tactic, Custer State Park holds a yearly bison roundup featuring cowboys and cowgirls on horseback rounding up the bison herd, which attracts nearly 15,000 visitors each year. We found out about this during our stay and unfortunately missed the event by a week.
Custer State Park Visitor & Education Centers
- Custer State Park Visitor Center
- Wildlife Station Visitor Center
- Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center
- Custer State Park Bison Center
PLANNING YOUR TRIP TO CUSTER STATE PARK
Places To Stay Near Custer State Park:
Campgrounds & Camping Options:
- Custer State Park Campgrounds
- Rafter J Bar Ranch (great private campground close to the park)
- North Pole Road Dispersed Camping (free)
- Horsethief Campground: Private campground nestled in nature with amenities close to many Black Hills attractions.
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.
If you are looking to get closer to nature but don’t have an RV, consider renting one through Outdoorsy, or RV Share. We used both of these services 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 the Custer South Dakota area? Read More:
- Best Things To Do In The Black Hills (South Dakota)
- Best Hikes in Custer State Park
- Consider making it a complete Dakotas Road Trip and visit North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park and camping at the iconic Nomad View Camping Area while visiting Badlands National Park