Custer State Park is one of those places that you find by accident- one of those really awesome accidents like finding money, or stumbling across a really great restaurant that no one else knows about. Most people discover it when going to see Mount Rushmore – everyone comes to see Mount Rushmore. They may go to visit Hot Springs or Crazy Horse or Wind Cave National Park and suddenly find themselves passing through a State Park.
It is THEN that they realize that they have found one of those rare hidden gems that all travelers hope for. An amazing adventure that no-one ever talked about. “Change of plans everybody, we have GOT to check this place out!”
Visiting Custer State Park In South Dakota
Custer State Park is a 71,000-acre preserve in the Black Hills of South Dakota just south of Rapid City. Not only is it huge, but it is also as beautiful and surprising as any national park we have ever seen. If I was to make a guess I’d say that the only reason it is NOT a national park is that the State of South Dakota just won’t give it up! Not surprising really. I wouldn’t give it up either.
We were awe-struck by the beauty within this park, however, people don’t rave about this park as much as they rave about Yellowstone or Bryce Canyon or the other equally beautiful national parks even though it rivals any for beautiful scenery, wildlife, and just pure awesomeness!
The park was named after Lt Col. George Custer who found traces of gold in the Black Hills and sparked a gold rush to the area. He of course famously met his end at the Battle of Little Bighorn in nearby Montana.
There are 2 Visitor Centers in the park. One is at the East Entrance and the other is the Wildlife Station along the wildlife loop which runs around the most of the park and offers a beautiful array of wildlife viewing opportunities.
Custer offers some 11 different camping options with varying amenities and options. There are also 5 different and unique lodges to stay in including State Game Lodge which has hosted presidents Coolidge and Eisenhower.
Custer State Park is the home to a number of awesome wildlife species and the viewing is every bit as good as Yellowstone or other better-known parks. There are so many great reasons to visit this park, but here are our 5 favorites and why we feel this park has to be on your bucket list.
5 Reasons Why You Should Visit Custer State Park
Custer State Park is home to a herd of around 1300 free-ranging bison.
The herd was started in 1914 with just 36 animals and has grown to upwards of 2500 at one time. However, the herd is now managed at 1300-1500 in order to keep it healthy.
Each year in September the park holds a buffalo roundup in which cowboys (and girls) from all over the area come together to drive the herd into pens for vaccinations and auctioning off the surplus animals. The thunderous event draws tens of thousands of spectators and is certainly not to be missed.
On an average day in the park, just driving around the Wildlife Loop Road is almost certain to bring a very close up encounter with many of these enormous beasts as the road travels right through the middle of the grazing grounds.
They will come so close that you could, “roll down the window and slap him on the backside!” (DONT DO THAT!).
Some afternoon you can through the large herd (very carefully) and watch the bigger bison herd the younger ones, there may be hundreds of bison- it is quite something to watch.
2) NEEDLES HIGHWAY:
For an unforgettable driving experience do not miss the opportunity to drive the white-knuckle Needles Highway. This winding 14 mile scenic byway takes you through some of the most breathtaking scenery you will see anywhere.
Weathering and erosion have worn the mountaintops here down into needle-like formations which point up to sky forming a truly surreal landscape. The road is narrow and extremely curvy adding to the drama as each vista reveal itself. There are some one-lane tunnels, one of which will test your competence as a driver (DO NOT FORGET to fold in your mirrors.)
The pinnacle of the rode is the aptly named “Eye of The Needle” formation which looks very much like…well…the eye of a needle. Getting there in the late afternoon is perfect timing for this awesome pic. Plan to spend a little time on this road.
The road passes near Center Lake for a worthy side trip, and right by Sylvan Lake with it’s amazing views.
You will find yourself driving really slowly and gripping the wheel a bit. One of the most beautiful scenic drives anywhere, the views are well worth the terror- lol.
3) PRAIRIE DOGS:
How cute are prairie dogs? Bopping their heads up like whack s moles ans scurrying about. You just can’t get enough of them.
They seem to have little personalities as they sit up and stare back at you, then scurry around and play with each other. Pick a couple and fill in their conversations and right there you have a couple of captivating hours of family fun.
Custer has some really big prairie dog communities that can be found all along the Wildlife Road, so pack a lunch and plan to spend a little time. The kids absolutely love this part because you can see them up close. Adults will too.
4) AWESOME LANDSCAPE:
At 71,000 acres, Custer State Park is a driving park. It is spread out and covers a varied landscape. From rolling prairies to the rugged granite outcroppings of the Black Hills, there is a landscape for everyone.
Sylvan Lake and the historic Sylvan Lake Lodge are a favorite spot for weddings (and photographers because of the spectacular rock outcroppings and scenery around the lake.
There are other lakes, rivers, valleys, meadows, mountains, forests, etc etc etc. So get out your best lenses and the old polarizing filter and get ready to get some awesome landscape photography!
Also try the Iron Mountain Road for some great scenery. It runs across the the park on to Mount Rushmore. It is a lesser traveled route to the memorial and well worth the drive.
5) BEGGING BURRO’S:
Here’s something you just don’t find every day. Wild free ranging burro’s! Have you ever seen any? Well, Custer has them. The herd is made up of the descendants of burros that were brought out west as pack animals in the early 20th century. Over time they morphed into a trail ride service before eventually being released into the park.
Since then the pack has roamed freely and become quite a favored attraction as they actively beg for food from passing motorists.
The herd faced very hard times recently when 3 of the 9 remaining donkeys were fatally injured as a result of the wildfire that decimated a good deal of the park in December 2017.
The 6 remaining were taken out of the park for rehabilitation and have since returned to their familiar stompin’ grounds. The regrowth of the park has been matched by the herd through the generosity of a local resident who donated a couple of burros back to the park as well as a new addition to the herd, a baby born this spring!
We truly have enjoyed this herd immensely and wish for their continued health.
2022 UPDATE: The good news is that the herd is back to health and vitality. The park now has it’s full desired number of 11 burros, having auctioned off 6 young ones that were born in summer ’21. The park authorities feel that this is an optimal size for the herd in the park with all of the other animals that need resources as well.
I urge you to be careful around the burro’s and keep an eye on little ones. As cute as they are, the burros are wild and can get a bit aggressive during feeding frenzy’s. They can and will bite or kick from time to time.
6) WILDLIFE: WHAT?
A 6th reason? That’s right folks, a BONUS reason to visit this amazing state park. 6 for the price of 5!
That would be the rest of the wildlife. This park is just chock full of opportunities to view elk, deer (whitetail AND muleys), pronghorns, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and if you are REALLY patient, maybe a cougar.
Any place that has this much diversity, you just have to visit! For you bird people, there are about 400 species in the areas including all types of raptors, jays, and woodpeckers. For you fly fishermen, there are trout in all of the lakes and rivers in the area. It is a fly fishing paradise.
Some Quick Tips
Try to get up early to get into parks, because not only are they less crowded, the animals are more active and the views are magnificent. You can bring a lunch along and find a picturesque spot to stop and have a picnic.
There are two Visitors Centers in Custer. The main VC is at HWY 16a and Wildlife Loop Road near the East Entrance to the park. The other is the Wildlife Station Visitor Center which is about 8 miles south on the Wildlife Loop Road.
So as you can tell we are big fans of Custer State Park in South Dakota. If you are in the area, whether it be to see Mt Rushmore, the Badlands, Sturgis, or Deadwood, don’t miss the opportunity to cruise through this wonderful park. I promise you, you will be glad you did.
Have you been to Custer State Park? What was YOUR favorite part?
Grainne Foley grew up in Ireland and spent summers caravanning around Europe with her family. Now, as a wife and mother of 2, she spent 5 years traveling the USA as a full time RVing family. She is passionate about travel, and helping others who are considering the RV lifestyle. She has created dozens of helpful RVing checklists which are available throughout the website, and has curated hundreds of simple, flavorful meals for families on the go.