Custer State Park is a gorgeous state park in South Dakota. In my personal opinion, I think that it is even better than many national parks. Custer State Park should be a National Park. There are many unique features of Custer State Park that make it stand out among others. There are many things to do here, ranging from water sports to long distance hikes to wildlife viewing. Custer State Park is definitely worth a visit! It will not disappoint!
About Custer State Park
Custer State Park is located in Southwest South Dakota. It is near to Mount Rushmore National Monument, Wind Cave National Park, and Badlands National Park. It became a South Dakota State Park in 1919 and is still the largest state park in South Dakota. President Calvin Coolidge and his wife stayed here for 3 months in the 1920’s. There is a lot of history surrounding this area which can be further explored here.
How to Get to Custer State Park
The best way to get to Custer State Park is by car. There is not a shuttle in this park. The park can be accessed from any direction. The main road cutting through the park is 16a which comes from Rapid City in the east and goes to Custer on the west side. It is free to drive straight through the park on 16a, but if you take any of the other roads or park your car anywhere, it costs $20 for a pass that lasts up to 7 days. The pass will come as a small sticker that should be placed on the inside of your windshield.
If flying, the closest big airport is in Rapid City, SD. There are many car rental options from the Rapid City airport.
Where to Stay at Custer State Park
In Custer State Park, there are several campgrounds and lodges. There are 9 campgrounds throughout the park. Campground information and reservations can be found here. Within the park, there are also several lodges. Lodge information and reservations can be found here. We had dinner at the Blue Bell Lodge and it was a really great experience. They also had fast, free WIFI, which was really useful as some in our group were taking online classes during our visit.
If you are wanting to stay out of the park, you have several options. The town of Custer has several lodging options ranging from hotels to camping. Keystone, which is near the Mount Rushmore National Monument, is to the north of Custer State Park and also has many lodging options.
We opted to stay in the town of Custer due to its proximity to the park and the cute vibe of the town. See more about Custer down below in the “What to See” section.
What to See
The Needles Highway runs from Sylvan Lake to near the Wilsons Corner Entrance. A park pass is needed to drive on this highway. The Needles Highway is very curvy and steep at times, weaving through the Needles section of the park. Much of the road is surrounded by beautiful rock pinnacles, pine trees, and blue sky. It is a beautiful drive and allows you to see some beautiful pieces of the park without even needing to get out of your car (but you should get out of your car to see even prettier views if you can)! Its best to start early in the day before it gets crowded and backed up with traffic.
Needles Eye Tunnel
Needles Eye Tunnel is the coolest tunnel to drive through! It is a narrow, one-car wide tunnel, cut through the rock while weaving through the Pinnacles! Plus there are views to be seen on each side of the tunnel.
The parking area for Cathedral Spires is very near to the Needles Eye Tunnel. There are not many parking spots here, so try to get here early in order to get a spot at the trailhead. The trail is a 1.6 mile round trip, out-and-back trail. It is not too strenuous, especially if you take it slow. From the parking lot, you ascend through a beautiful forest to a wide, flat valley between many rock spires towering up to the sky. Once you reach the end of the trail, you can turn around and head back to your car, or continue up the trail to Little Devil’s Tower and Harney Peak (see below).
Black Elk Peak
Black Elk Peak, also known as Harney Peak, is the highest point in South Dakota and the highest peak in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains at an elevation of 7242 feet. While the Black Elk Peak is not technically in Custer State Park, the shortest trail is accessed from inside Custer State Park. The trail from Sylvan Lake is a loop trail that’s around 7 miles. If you have 2 cars, or someone that can pick you up at the end of the trail, you can begin at the Cathedral Spires trailhead, go up to the peak, and return down to Sylvan Lake. This way gives beautiful, unique views throughout the entire trail. Whichever way you go, the view from the top is spectacular.
With the final push to the top, there are grated stairs that weave under and over rocks to make it to the top. At the top, there is a large stone tower that at one point was a fire tower. From here there are 360 degree views filled with beautiful pine trees and rocks jutting through the expanse forests. From the tower, you can walk and climb all over the surrounding rocks to get different views and take a break before heading back down. Overall, it is beautiful and worth the long hike. This was one of my very favorite things that we did in the state of South Dakota.
Sylvan Lake is a lake surrounded by more rock spires. It is gorgeous. Here there is a large parking lot, bathrooms, multiple trailheads, picnic tables, and a store. There are also kayak rentals so that you can see more parts of the lake that can only be seen from the water. This is definitely worth the stop, whether you stop here to take a picnic break or have a big water adventure, you will find beauty here.
Wildlife Loop Road and Watching for Wildlife
There are so many types of wildlife throughout the park! In the southern part of the park, Wildlife Loop Road is suppose to have many different types of wildlife to see. We drove this road, and although it was beautiful, we did not see any wildlife, but we believe it was the wrong time of day. However, each time we drove through the main road through the park, we saw different types of wildlife. One evening we saw a large herd of elk with babies very close to the road. Another evening, we saw huge buffalo who were standing feet from the edge of the road. We also saw many other animals, but the elk and the buffalo were my favorite!
The Town of Custer
Custer is the closest town to Custer State Park. It is only minutes from the West Entrance of the park. Custer is a cute little town with many shops and restaurants. It has an old, small town vibe that we really enjoyed. For wonderful coffee, be sure to stop at Miner’s Cup, which is a local coffee hut that has a small drive through and a walk-up counter. They also have breakfast items there. For the best baked goods, be sure to stop at Baker’s Bakery and Café on the main strip. They have a huge sign out front “You’ll love our buns!” and are filled with many delicious baked delicacies.
These are our recommendations for Custer State Park! Did we miss anything? Let us know what your favorite part of Custer State Park is!
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