For a state park that feels like a national park, head to Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Known for some of North America’s top wildlife viewing, Custer also offers lots of recreation opportunities, from hiking to boating to rock climbing. To extend your trip, reserve one of its lodging options or campsites. Custer can be your base to explore the Black Hills region since it’s centrally location inbetween top sites, like Mount Rushmore, the South Dakota show caves and more. Here’s what to do in Custer State Park.
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. Alongside the banks of the French River his troops found gold in 1874 and spurred a gold rush. You can still buy Black Hills gold in the area.
Top Things to do 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.
Custer State Park Visitor Centers
Custer State Park features two visitor centers. The visitor center are open every day except Thanksgiving, December 25 and Easter.
The Custer State Park Visitor Center and the Wildlife Station Visitor Center is located at 13400 U.S. 16A. 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 located at 13378 U.S. 16A. Open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from the end of May until October 1.
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–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.
Iron Mountain Road–Or 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.
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.
Guided Scenic Tours
Custer Resorts operates the lodges and offers tours within Custer State Park.
Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour
Take a guided tour with an experienced animal spotter. On my 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 the buffalo herds and wild donkeys. Kids will love the wind in their face while riding in the open-air jeep. Tours last 1½ to 2 hours and tickets are $55 for adults and $50 for kids under 12. Reservations recommended. Tours run from June 1 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 am 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 $58 for adults, $51 for kids 12 and under. Kids under 3 are free and must ride in an adult’s lap. Reservations required. Vegetarian options available. Ride departs from Blue Bell Lodge.
Guided Trail Rides
Take a guided trail ride from Blue Bell Lodge. Kids as young as 5 can saddle up. Trail ride start at one-hour long rides to all day excursions with lunch at the Blue Bell Lodge.
1 Hour Trail Ride $50
2 Hour Trail Ride $90
Half Day Ride + Lunch $190
Full Day Ride + Lunch $275
Reservations required. Long pants and closed-toe shoes required. Maximum weight is 230 pounds. Helmets 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.
Custer State Park offers lodging for visitors who bring their horses.
Little Buckaroo Ride
If a trail ride sounds like too much, then a 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 Cirle. Each ride is about 15 minutes and is $15 per rider. Reservations not required.
Hiking 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.
Also find strenuous trails to Harney Peak along with longer trails throughout Custer State Park.
Custer State Park offers challenging mountain climbing.
Buffalo Round Up
Custer State Park is home to the largest bison herd in the U.S. Each September the herd is rounded up. With the sound of distant thunder, cowboys on horse back gather the buffalo to ensure their health.
This extremely popular event attracts over 14,000 attendeess each year and reservations are a must. After the round-up attend the Arts Festival.
Boating and Fishing
Rent a canoe, kayak or SUP while visiting Custer State Park. Available by the half-hour and hour at Sulvan Lake and Legion Lake. Rates start at $14 and includes a life jacket.
Sylan Lake and Legion Lake both offer swimming beaches.
Fishing licenses required to fish in Custer State Park and 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.
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 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, find a grill and make dinner al fresco.
The living area offers 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.
Lodges in Custer State 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.
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.
Camping in Custer State Park
For families on a budget with kids that crave cabins, Custer State Park’s camping cabins ($55 a night) that feature bunks 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. Find campgrounds at Bluebell Campground, Center Lake Campground, Game Lodge Campground, Stockade North Campground, Stockade South Campground, French Creek Natural Area, Grace Coolidge Campground, Sylvan Lake Campground, Legion Lake Campground and French Creek Horse Camp.
Where’s Custer State Park
Custer State Park is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, 32 miles from Rapid City, the closest regional airport. It’s located north of Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore is close by.
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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