10 Amazing Things To Do in Custer State Park [+ A Custer State Park Itinerary!]

Granite spires and ponderosa pines in Custer State Park in South Dakota

​Wondering what to do in Custer State Park in South Dakota?

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. You get all of that at Custer State Park!

We spent two weeks exploring South Dakota’s Black Hills and now are breaking down the best things to do in Custer State Park and providing an example Custer State Park itinerary to help you with your travel planning!

About Custer State Park

Female hiker overlooking rock formations in Custer state park

With big-name attractions like Mt. Rushmore and Badlands National Park just around the corner, Custer State Park is often overlooked.

The good news is that you are here finding out that it is absolutely worth the visit!

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, whether it is hiking South Dakota’s highest peak, watching the bison roam, wandering around the granite spires, or experiencing a one-of-a-kind donkey traffic jam (yes, really!).

Must Know For Exploring Custer State Park:

  • Custer State Park Entry Fee: $20 per vehicle for a 7-day pass, $36 for an annual pass (purchased at the entrance station or online)
  • Custer State Park hours: Open 24/7
  • When is Custer State Park Open?: Open year-round (The Needles Highway is closed in winter)
  • Best time to visit: Summer and early fall (May through September)

Directions 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 to Custer: 1 hour

If you fly in to visit Custer, the best way to get around and explore will be with a rental car.

Other popular nearby attractions include Mt Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and historic Deadwood:

  • Distance from Mt Rushmore to Custer State Park: 17 miles (35 minutes)
  • Distance from Badlands National Park to Custer: 1.5 hours (85 miles)
  • Distance from Deadwood SD to Custer: 1 hour (60 miles)

If you plan to visit Custer State Park and the Black Hills as part of a road trip, it can be a great addition to visits to nearby Badlands National Park (with scenic 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.

Best Things to Do in Custer State Park

A female hiker and her brown dog sitting on large boulders overlooking the granite spires in Custer State Park

For your first stop in the park, we recommend stopping in at the Custer State Park Visitor Center to get any important updates about park conditions, or get recommendations from a park ranger about where to spot wildlife!

These are our favorite Custer State Park activities (you can check out a park map here):

1. Drive The Needles Highway

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

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.

Pro Tip: Allow at least 1 hour for this scenic drive. Note that this drive is closed in winter, typically remaining open between April and October each year

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
Narrow rock tunnel along the Needles Highway in Custer State Park

2. Hike The Sylvan Lake Shore Trail

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

Popular things to do around Sylvan Lake include 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.

Pro Tip: This is 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
A hiking couple and their dog sitting on rocks overlooking Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park

2. Watch For Bison While Driving 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 home on this amazing Custer State Park scenic drive.

Baby bison among adult bison in Custer State Park
Wildlife Loop Road is the perfect place to get up close to a bison herd and appreciate their beauty, power, and grace

Wildlife Loop Road Details & Trip Planning:

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!

3. Find The Begging Burros

Donkeys in the trees in Custer State Park

While you are driving along the Wildlife Loop Road scenic drive, you might find yourself in a bit of traffic.

Why you might ask? Well, the begging burros of course!

These friendly (and notoriously hungry) animals commonly hold up traffic, making their way to car windows looking for a snack.

Park rules do prohibit feeding wildlife, but it is clear these burros have been sneaking a snack or two over the years. Always respect wildlife and keep your eyes peeled for the chance to meet this rowdy bunch, get your face slobbered on, or at the very least bring a smile to your face with their quirky demeanors.

Donkeys begging for food along Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park
Watch out for the “Begging Burros”: A group of donkeys known to block a section of Wildlife Loop road, begging for food

4. Drive Iron Mountain Road

Another great Custer State Park scenic drive!

Iron Mountain Road 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.

This road 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

5. Hike to South Dakota’s Highest Point on Black Elk Peak Trail

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 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.

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 Trail

Distance: 7.7 mile loop
Elevation Gain: 1,700 feet
Duration: 4 – 6 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

6. Hike The 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.

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

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
Rock scrambles required to reach the top

7. Hike Through Passageways On The 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.

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
Handrails guiding a rocky climb on the Sunday Gulch Trail in Custer State Park

8. Hike Through The Needles On The 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.

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

Rock climbers on the spires in Custer State Park
Rock climbers atop a granite spire. Custer State Park is a popular area for trad climbing

9. Camp In The Park

Male hiker and his dog looking out at the Black Hills from Little Devil's Tower in Custer State Park South Dakota

What better way to enjoy the beautiful scenery of Custer State Park than camp right in the heart of it!?

There are 9 Campgrounds in Custer State Park (341 campsites and 50 cabins). These can be reserved online here; advanced booking is recommended!

You can learn more about these different Custer State Park campgrounds and the amenities offered here!

10. Take A Guided Tour

Lone bison in the prairie grasslands of Custer State Park

Sometimes the best way to experience a place is to learn from the local experts! Whether you want to get off the beaten path and up close with wildlife on a safari jeep tour, take to the skies on a hot air balloon, or sit back and relax on a fully planned private tour, there are options for you!

The Custer State Park Resort offers these guided tours:

  • Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour
  • Sunrise Safari
  • Hayride & Chuck Wagon Cookout
  • Guided Trail Rides
  • Scenic Byway Tours

If you are looking for a stress-free day trip from Rapid City, consider one of these private tours:

Map Of Custer State Park Things To Do

All of the best activities and attractions in Custer State Park, pinned on one convenient map:

Custer State Park Itinerary

Depending on how much time you have in the park, consider the following itineraries to help you plan out your trip!

Example 1 Day Itinerary:

For one perfect day in the park, your best bet will be to drive around as much of the park as you can!

  • Start your day at the Visitor Center, entering through the east entrance and driving clockwise
  • Drive Wildlife Loop Road, looking out for bison and the begging burros
  • From Wildlife Loop Road continue north onto the Needles Highway
  • Stop to hike the Cathedral Spires trail to get a chance to experience the “Needles” up close
  • Head to Sylvan Lake. Here you can enjoy a picnic, rent watersport equipment from the Sylvan Lake Lodge, hike the Sylvan Shore Trail, or hike up to Black Elk Peak if you have time
  • To see more of the area, skip the Black Elk Peak hike and drive the Iron Mountain Road to Mt Rushmore

Example 3-Day Itinerary:

With more time in the park, you can take your time and do a few more hikes!

We recommend getting an early start each day to avoid crowds (especially in the summer). We loved visiting in the fall as it was quieter and gave us a bit more luxury with time. The beautiful foliage was an added bonus!

  • Day 1: Drive Wildlife Loop road, drive the Needles Highway, hike Cathedral Spires
  • Day 2: Hike Black Elk Peak + Little Devils Tower, and enjoy a well-earned bite to eat in Custer
  • Day 3: Visit Mt. Rushmore in the morning, hike the Sylvan Lake Trail and Sunday Gulch Trail in the afternoon

Our top recommendations for avid hikers:

The hiking in Custer State Park far exceeded our expectations! Hike early or later in the afternoon (depending on the season and amount of daylight) to avoid peak crowds

  • Black Elk Peak + Little Devils Tower Loop
  • Sunday Gulch Trail
  • Cathedral Spires

Other Things To Do Near Custer South Dakota

Flags lining the path to Mount Rushmore in Custer South Dakota
Mount Rushmore is an icon, just around the corner from 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 of our 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!

Plan Your Trip To Custer State Park

We hope this Custer State Park guide provides you with some ideas of the amazing things to do in the park… and helps you see why it is absolutely worth visiting!

Below are a few more resources to help you with your trip planning:

Mapping out your visit

Custer Visitor Centers

  • Use this Custer State Park Map to further help you with your trip planning! To fully experience the park and surrounding areas, it will involve a fair amount of driving!

Custer Weather

Where to Stay Near Custer State Park

Free Camping & Boondocking near Custer State Park:

RV boondocking at North Pole Road in Custer South Dakota
Our free boondocking spot in the Black Hills National Forest near Custer South Dakota

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-known, 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.

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.

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

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!

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

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:

View looking out over the Black Hills from Saint Elmo Peak
View overlooking Rafter J Bar Ranch Campground from Saint Elmo Peak in the Black Hills National Forest

Where To Eat in Custer

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

Looking for other great hikes, experiences, or National Park adventures in the Custer South Dakota area? Read More:

Hiking couple holding their dog on a hiking trail's rocky overlook at Custer State Park in South Dakota
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