Lodges and Glamping

Top 9 Things to do in Custer State Park with Kids

South Dakota's Black Hills, Black Hills for kids, Custer State Park
Custer State Park in South Dakota offers world-class outdoor recreation. Credit: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Protected since 1912, Custer State Park is known for some of North America’s top wildlife viewing. Nestled between the National Park sites of South Dakota, it is in the middle of the Black Hills. From hiking to boating to rock climbing, Custer State Park also offers abundant outdoor recreation opportunities.  Since it offers lots of camping and lodging options, it can be the base camp for a Black Hills getaway to remember. Here are the top things to do in Custer State Park with kids.

Top 9 Things to Do at Custer State Park with Kids

  • Stop by the Visitor Center
  • Take a Scenic Drive
  • Attend a Guided Wildlife Tour 
  • Eat at the Chuck Wagon Cook-out
  • Go Horseback Riding
  • Take a Hike
  • Rent a Kayak
  • Complete the Junior Naturalist Program 
  • Camp in Custer

Custer State Park at a Glance

Year Established: 1912
Located: South Dakota
Size: over over 71,000 acres
Top Features: Scenic Drives and Wildlife

Why Visit Custer State Park?

If you’re a regular reader, you know I don’t mention state parks that often. I prefer to visit and write about the national parks. Custer State Park feels like a national park with its epic scenery, wildlife viewing and abundance of historic lodges. In South Dakota’s Black HIlls, there are several national park sites. However, none are grand scenic parks like Custer State Park.

Badlands National Park protects the desert-like scenery east of the Black Hills. Mt. Rushmore protects the iconic sculpture. Both Wind Cave and Jewel Cave are dedicated to underground scenery. The Minuteman Missile Site is dedicated to the Cold War.

So, Custer is the destination for wide-open vistas, hiking, horseback riding, camping and more. I recommend spending a good portion of the day exploring the park.

Mount Rushmore Guide

Custer State Park Visitor Centers

I always recommend stopping at a Visitor Center in a park. It offers park rangers information like maps, restrooms and water stations. Custer State Park features two visitor centers and an outdoor education center. The center features a 20-minute interpretive film along with displays covering the park’s geography and wildlife.

The Custer State Park Visitor Center is located at 13400 U.S. 16A. It is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in September and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year.

Wildlife Station Visitor Center is located at 13479 Wildlife Loop Road.  Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from the end of May until September 30.

The Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center is located at 13378 U.S. 16A. Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from the end of May until September 30.

Scenic Drives in Custer State Park

With three scenic routes through Custer State Park, it’s hard to decide which way to go. I suggest them all.

Wildlife Loop Road

From Blue Bell Lodge to Game Lodge, this 18-mile drive traverses the southern prairies of Custer. Find the buffalo herds, including little cinnamons or baby buffalo, in the spring.

Needles Highway

Take the 14-mile drive through spire-like granite peaks and tunnels bored through solid granite. It runs from Sylvan Lake to Blue Bell Lodge and includes corkscrews and S-curves as it passes the Needles Eye and through the Needles Tunnel.

Iron Mountain Road

Take the 17-mile drive from the Visitor Center at Highway 16A to Mount Rushmore. It offers a scenic route to the American icon, along with three tunnels.

Top Things to Do in the Black Hills of South Dakota
Wildlife Loop, Custer State Park, Custer State Park for families,
Taking a drive along the Wildlife Loop offers families easy access to ranging buffalo in Custer State Park. Credit: Catherine Parker

Guided Scenic Tours 

Custer Resorts operates the lodges and offers tours within Custer State Park.

Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour

On one of my trips to Custer State Park, I took a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour by Custer State Park Resorts. Our tour guide drove off the gravel roads near the wildlife loop to find buffalo herds and wild donkeys. Kids will love the wind in their faces while riding in the open-air jeep.

Tours last 1½ to 2 hours, and tickets are $69 for adults (12 and older) and $59 for kids under 12. Reservations recommended. Tours run from mid-May to October 1.

Chuck Wagon Cook-Out

Kids love a cookout, so reserve a chuck wagon cookout and hayride for your getaway. The excursion starts with a 45-minute guided hayride to see wildlife.

Then, enjoy dinner cowboy-style with an 8-ounce sirloin steak or 1/3-pound burger, beans, coleslaw and all the fixings, including some Chuck Wagon coffee. Each paying guest gets a complimentary cowboy hat and bandana, along with a burger option for dinner.

Dinner is $74 for adults (12 and older), $64 for kids 3 to 11. Kids under 3 are free and must ride in an adult’s lap. Reservations required. Vegetarian options available. Ride departs from Blue Bell Lodge.

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Guided Trail Rides

Take a guided trail ride from Blue Bell Lodge. Kids as young as 5 can saddle up. Trail rides range from one-hour rides to all-day excursions with lunch at the Blue Bell Lodge.

1 Hour Trail Ride $55

2 Hour Trail Ride $110

Half Day Ride + Lunch $250

Full Day Ride + Lunch $350

Reservations required. Long pants and closed-toe shoes are required. Maximum weight is 230 pounds. Helmets are required for kids 18 and under. Kids 5 and older, as long as they can control a horse alone and listen to the wrangler’s instructions.

Little Buckaroo Ride 

If a trail ride sounds like too much, consider a guided ride. It’s perfect for first-time riders, and kids ride on the back of a guided horse in the Little Buckaroo Circle. Each ride is about 15 minutes and $20 per rider. Reservations are not required. Offered daily from 8 a.m. to noon.

Custer State Park offers boarding for visitors who bring their horses.

Best Hiking Trails in Custer State Park

Custer State Park offers several hiking trails throughout the park.

  • Badger Clark Historic Trail–A 1.0-mile moderate loop (1.6 km) starting behind Badger Hole.
  • Creekside Trail–A 2.0 mile easy trail (3.2 km) follows Grace Coolidge Creek.
  • Cathedral Spires Trail–A 1.6-mile in-and-out trail with a 488-foot elevation gain
  • Sylvan Lake Shore Trail–A 1.1-mile loop trail around the lake.
  • Prairie Trail–A 2.1-mile loop trail with a 423-foot elevation gain.
  • Legion Lake Trail–A .7-mile loop trail that circles the lake.

Also, find strenuous trails to Harney Peak along with longer trails throughout Custer State Park.

Custer State Park offers challenging mountain climbing.

Badlands National Park Guide 
Custer State Park, Buffalo Round Up
Each fall, cowboys drive Custer’s herd of buffalo into the corral in a thundering rush of dust and power. Photo Credit: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Buffalo Round-Up

Custer State Park is home to the largest bison herd in the U.S. Each Late September, the herd is rounded up. With the sound of distant thunder, cowboys on horseback gather the buffalo to ensure their health.

For 2024, the Buffalo Round Up is Friday, September 27. The parking lot opens at 6:15 a.m. Breakfast and lunch are available for purchase.

It is an extremely popular event that attracts over 14,000 attendees yearly, and reservations are necessary. After the round-up, attend the Annual Buffalo Arts Festival at the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center. It will be from Thursday, September 26, to Saturday, September 28.

Boating and Fishing

Several lakes in Custer State Park allow visitors to rent a canoe, kayak or SUP. Rentals are available by the half-hour and hour at Sulvan Lake and Legion Lake. Rates start at $14 for a half-hour and include a life jacket.

Sylan Lake and Legion Lake both offer swimming beaches.

Fishing licenses are required to fish in Custer State Park and are available at the General Stores inside the park.

Kids at Custer State Park

Custer State Park offers a Junior Naturalist Program similar to the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program. Pick up booklets at the visitor center to complete for kids 7 to 12. For younger kids, Custer State Park offers a Pups Program with specially designed activities.

The History of Custer State Park

Founded in 1912, Custer State Park is South Dakota’s first and largest state park. It encompasses 71,000 acres, and President Calvin Coolidge called it his summer home.

Custer State Park’s namesake, Lt. Colonel George Custer, was dispatched to the Black Hills to chart the unknown territory. In 1874, his troops found gold along the banks of the French River, spurring a gold rush. You can still buy Black Hills gold in the area.

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Custer State Park, Reunion Cabin, Custer State Park for families,
Need a large cabin for an extended family gathering? The Reunion Cabin in Custer State Park offers sleeping for 28.

Lodging in Custer State Park

I recommend extending the experience by staying in Custer State Park’s numerous lodging or camping facilities. From luxuriously appointed mountain homes to rustic camping cabins with bunk beds to camping sites with water and electricity, Custer has options for every traveler.

Cabins in Custer State Park 

I stayed in the glamorous Reunion Cabin ($$$$+) located in the State Game Lodge area along the Grace Coolidge Creek. With sleeping for 28 across four separate bedroom suites, a cute cousin’s loft and several sleeper sofas, this 4,200 square foot fully-furnished mountain home has everything a group needs for their stay. Two of the bedrooms feature working fireplaces, one has a library nook, one has an accessible shower, and all feature luxurious linens.

The kitchen offers everything, such as pots, plates and appliances, that make meals a snap. I found an extra-long table for the extended family to gather around. Outside on the back deck, find a grill and make dinner al fresco.

Custer State Park, Reunion Cabin, Custer State Park cabins,
The kitchen in the Reunion Cabin has everything needed to cook for a large group, and a grill is located on the back deck.

The living area offers cathedral ceilings and a stone fireplace, perfect for families to gather. I took my coffee to the front porch swing for a moment of quiet with my favorite book. This area also offers ample opportunity for wildlife watching.

If the Reunion Cabin is too large, Custer State Park offers smaller cabins like the Ponderosa Cabin and the Galena Cabin. In all, Custer offers 13 specialty cabins across the park.

Custer State Park, Cabin in Custer State Park, Reunion Cabin
The loft in the Reunion Cabin has two sets of bunk beds and another full-sized bed. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Lodges in Custer State Park

Custer State Park offers four distinct historic lodges, like the State Game Lodge, where Presidents Coolidge and Eisenhower stayed. Built in 1920, the State Game Lodge was Coolidge’s Summer White House. The Restaurant offers local game and fish in the dining room that once hosted state dinners.

Find lodges across Custer State Park, like Blue Bell Lodge, where many of the activities originate. Or the lake lodges, find lodges at Sylvan Lake or Legion Lake along with Creekside Lodge. And each lodge offers dining for guests.

For families on a budget with kids who crave cabins, Custer State Park offers camping cabins ($55 a night) with bunk beds and electricity. Cooking is done outside on the fire pit, and camping cabins include picnic tables.

Custer State Park also features campgrounds with primitive sites (from $7 a night) to RV sites with full hook-ups.

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Camping in Custer

Bluebell Campground
  • Open May 1 – November 1
  • Reservations Recommended
  • Camping Cabins
  • 31 sites for tents and RVs
  • Potable water
  • Flush toilets and Showers
Center Lake Campground
  • Open May 1 – Sept 30
  • First Come-First Serve
  • 59 sites for tents and RVs
  • Vault toilets and Showers
Game Lodge Campground
  • Year Round (Limited services from Nov 15 to March 31)
  • Reservations recommended
  • Camping Cabins
  • 71 sites for tents, no hook-ups
  • Potable water
  • Flush toilets and Showers
Grace Coolidge Campground
  • Late May to Oct 10
  • Reservations recommended
  • 20 sites for tents and RVs
  • Potable water
  • Flush toilets and Showers
Legion Lake Campground
  • Late May to Oct 10
  • Reservations recommended
  • 26 sites for tents and RVs
  • Potable water
  • Flush toilets and Showers
Stockade North Campground
  • Late May to Oct 1
  • Reservations recommended
  • 42 sites for tents and RVs
  • Potable water
  • Flush toilets and Showers
Stockade South Campground
  • Late May to Oct 1
  • Reservations recommended
  • Camping Cabins
  • 23 sites for tents and RVs
  • Potable water
  • Flush toilets and Showers
Sylvan Lake Campground
  • Late May to Oct 1
  • Reservations recommended
  • Camping Cabins
  • 39 sites for tents and RVs
  • Potable water
  • Flush toilets and Showers
French Creek Horse Camp
  • Year Round
  • Reservations recommended
  • Camping Cabins
  • 28 sites for tents and RVs
  • Potable water and Dump Station
  • Flush toilets and Showers
French Creek Natural Area

Primitive camping is accessible via a 12-mile hiking trail.

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Where’s Custer State Park

Custer State Park is in the Black Hills of South Dakota, 32 miles from Rapid City, the closest regional airport. It’s north of Wind Cave National Park, and Mount Rushmore is nearby.

Getting Around Custer State Park

Custer State Park offers a 7-day private vehicle pass for $20. The park is open 365 days a year and 24 hours a day.

Know Before You Go

  • Give Custer State Park enough time to explore.
  • See animals at dusk and dawn.
  • Take it slow on the scenic routes, like Needles Highway, it’s a favorite for bikers.


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Discover Custer State Park in South Dakota's Black Hills for a getaway in the outdoors. Take a wildlife Jeep tour or a trail ride, rent a kayak or canoe, drive along one of several scenic routes. Find out where to stay from luxury cabins to campsites, what to do and where to hike during your trip. What to do in South Dakota's Black Hills | What to do in Custer State Park | Cabins in South Dakota #SouthDakota #Custer

Catherine Parker has a passion for travel and seen all 50 U.S. States. As a former flight attendant with one of the largest airlines, there isn't a North American airport that she hasn't landed in at least once. Since clipping her professional wings after 9/11, she combines her love of the open road with visiting architectural and cultural icons. She is based out of Central Texas dividing her time between writing and restoring a pair of 100-year-old houses. She shares her life with her three kids and her husband.

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