Custer State Park in South Dakota’s Black Hills offers the recreation, wildlife viewing and facilities that rival any national park. On my first visit, I completely underestimated the time we would want to explore Custer. Even after several trips I still leave Custer State Park yearning for my next adventure, like the Buffalo Round-up.
Custer State Park
Custer State Park, South Dakota’s first and largest state park, was founded in 1912. It encompasses 71,000 acres and President Calvin Coolidge called it his summer home.
Lt. Colonel George Custer, Custer State Park’s namesake, was dispatched to the Black Hills to chart the unknown territory. His troops found gold alongside the banks of the French River in 1874 and spurred a gold rush.
Activities in Custer State Park
Custer State Park had my carful of kids exploring the western charm of South Dakota for days. With scenic drives, wildlife excursions, chuck wagon dinners, trails and evening ranger programs, a few days was not enough.
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.
Needles Highway offers 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.
Wildlife Loop Road from Blue Bell Lodge to Game Lodge traverses the southern prairies of Custer where the buffalo herd and the wild burros graze. This route is a must for kids. Iron Mountain Road from the Visitor Center at Highway 16A to Mount Rushmore offers a scenic route to drive to the American icon.
On my latest trip to Custer State Park, I took a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour. Our tour guide took the Jeep up thegravel roads off the wildlife loop to find the buffalo herds and wild donkeys. Kids will love the wind in their face when riding in the open-air jeep. Tours last 1½ to 2 hours and tickets are $50 for adults and $45 for kids under 12; reservations recommended.
Chuck Wagon Cook Out
Kids love a cookout and Custer State Park’s chuck wagon cookout has kids in mind. Kids get a complimentary cowboy hat and bandana along with a burger option for dinner. Hop on the hayride to enjoy dinner cowboy-style with sirloin steaks, beans, coleslaw and all the fixings including some chuck wagon coffee. Dinner is $54 for adults, $47 for kids 3 to 12 and kids under 3 are free; reservations recommended.
Custer State Park offers several hiking trails throughout the park. Horseback rides depart from Blue Bell Stables and Custer State Park has lodging for visitors who bring their horses.
Custer State Park offers challenging mountain climbing. Pack a rod and fish Custer’s lakes with a valid state fishing license.
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.
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 family.
I had the opportunity to stay in the glamourous 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 has everything like pots, plates and all appliances that make meals a snap. I found an extra-long table for the extended family to gather around. Outside on the back deck, the grill will give the guys a chance to make dinner.
The living area has cathedral ceilings with 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 offers ample opportunity for wildlife watching as well.
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 offers four distinct historic lodges, like State Game Lodge, where presidents Coolidge and Eisenhower stayed. Built in 1920, State Game Lodge was the Summer White House for Coolidge. The State Game Lodge Restaurant offers local game and fish in the dining room that once hosted state dinners.
For families on a budget with kids that crave cabins, Custer State Park’s camping cabins ($50 a night) that feature bunks beds and electricity. Cooking is done outside on the fire pit and camping cabins include picnic tables.
Where’s Custer State Park
Getting Around Custer State Park
Custer State Park offers a 7-day private vehicle pass for $20 or an annual pass for $30. The park is open 365 days a year and 24 hours a day.
Custer State Park has two visitor centers that are open every day except Thanksgiving, December 25 and Easter.
- The Custer State Park Visitor Center and the Wildlife Station Visitor Center are open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Memorial Day to Labor Day and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year.
- The Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from the end of May until October 1, closing for the season after October 1.
Know Before You Go
- Give Custer State Park enough time, on my first trip I didn’t have enough time to explore this park.
- The best time to see animals is dusk and dawn.
- Take it slow on the scenic routes, like Needles Highway, it’s a favorite for bikers.
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