Black Hills Explorer: Fun in Custer State Park

Last time on American Nomad, we explored highlights in the majestic Black Hills of South Dakota and southeastern Wyoming.

Today I wanted to take some time in one of my favorite parks in the US – Custer State Park.

I first visited Custer State Park in 2009 after graduating from college. My mom and I did a cross country trip and enjoyed camping in the park for about three weeks and touring the area.

I returned in June 2022 for another Custer adventure. During my last trip, I enjoyed staying at the historic State Game Lodge. A jewel in American ‘parkitecture,’ The Game Lodge exudes rustic elegance and old west meets modern style. It played has played host to several presidental stays, including Calvin Coolidge’s ‘Summer White House’ sojourn in Custer during the 1920s.

What makes Custer unique?

Located in the southwestern tip of South Dakota, where the Black Hills and windswept prairie meet, Custer State Park offers over 71,000 acres of exploration… CSP is the largest state park in the US – second only to The Adirondacks State Park in New York

The Wonders of Custer State Park:

  • Picturesque mountain scenery
  • Enjoy a picnic by the lake
  • Hike hundreds of miles of area trails, including scaling Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak) the highest mountain between the tallest mountain of Applachian Chain in NC (Mt. Mitchell) and The Rockies
  • Go on a western wildlife expedition to see bison, antelope, mule deer as well as prairie dogs and the park’s famous ‘begging burros.’
  • Enjoy fine dining or a cookout at one of the many eclectic dining options in an around the park
  • Take in Broadway quality theatre at The Black Hills Playhouse – located within the park
  • Drive the scenic park byways, curving through the out of this world granite spires and unique geographic formations like the Eye of the Needle
  • Drive the Iron Mountain Road to Mt. Rushmore
  • Discover the mountain poetry of Poet Laureate Badger Clark in his historic cabin The Badger’s Hole

There are so many fun things to do a Custer State Park, that even after a three week camping trip in the park I didn’t see or do everything.

Custer is one of the most professionally run state parks I’ve visited. It feels more like a National Park with it’s unique historic lodges, pristine beauty, wildlife and unusual flora, fauna and geology.

Custer State Park is often referred to as a ‘mini-Yellowstone,’ with its biodiversity and unique geology. If you have time for a road trip – I recommend starting in Custer (or Yellowstone) and driving from one park to the other – the scenery and history of this area of the high plains and northern Rockies will astound you.

Custer is home to over 1400 bison – the largest publically owned bison herd in the world. Custer differs from Yellowstone in that it monitors the health of each bison and their age and quality of life through the Buffalo Roundup every September. Bison are given vaccines and a health check. Custer’s herd is remarkably healthy and roams throughout the park…Bison can travel for several miles a day and run up to thirty miles per hour. The herd can often be found near The State Game Lodge or along The Wildlife Loop Trail.

  • Discover fun facts about bison at Custer here.

A brief history:

  • Custer State Park lies twenty miles (takes about an hour to drive through over mountain passes FYI) from Rapid City, SD
  • It is near the site where gold was first discovered in The Black Hills at French Creek by Gen. George Armstrong Custer who led an expedition to the area in 1874.
  • The park and neighboring gateway town of Custer are named after General Custer, who is known for the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn and Custer’s Last Stand several years after his time in the Custer State Park area. Learn more here.
  • By 1913 it was decided to designate the forest, prairies and mountain landscape of present day Custer State Park as a State Game Preserve.
  • One of the founding fathers of Custer State Park, was Governor Peter Norbeck, who advocated for public parks and conservation. We can thank Gov. Norbeck for the wonderful legacy that Custer affords us today.
  • In 1919, Custer was designated the first State Park in South Dakota.
  • In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge and Mrs. Coolidge spent three months at the State Game Lodge, which became known as The Summer White House. Reporters from all over the country flocked to Custer to be at the center of Coolidge’s Summer Residence. It was during this time Coolidge was being courted to fund the building of Mt. Rushmore. It worked! He fell in love with The Black Hills.
  • Much of the park’s landscape can be credited to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. These young men from across America were enlisted to work on public works projects during the darkest days of The Great Depression. So many of our national and state park’s would not have the infrastructure we have today without the hard work and dedication of the CCC.

Planning your trip:

  • Getting to Custer:
    • If you plan to fly to The Black Hills I recommend booking a flight into Rapid City SD You can also consider flying into Billings MT and traveling about four hours east through scenic countryside (including a stop by Devils Tower NM in Sundance Wyoming – 2 hours from Custer State Park).
    • Another option is to fly into one of the Yellowstone area airports like Bozeman or Jackson Hole and enjoy a longer road trip from Yellowstone/Grand Teton, across The Bighorn Mountains and Wyoming Prairie before you reach The Black Hills.
  • Driving: Custer State Park is 20 miles south of Rapid City’s I-90

Fun Things to Do in Custer State Park:

  • It could take a lifetime to to discover all the wonders of Custer State Park and the unique beauty of The Black Hills, but here is my short list of Fun Things to Do in Custer State Park

Scenic Drives:

Custer’s founding father, Peter Norbeck plotted most of the roadways in Custer on horseback and designed each park byway to offer maximum views. The roads are not meant for speeding. Governor Norbeck wanted to ensure that park visitors were forced to slow down and truly take in the scenery. The drive is meant to put you in the heart of the landscape – taking in each scenic vista mile by rugged mile.

Many of the roads have hairpin curves that reveal astonishing views of the granite outcroppings known as ‘Needles’ and unique geologic formations. There are a few turnouts for photos, but in truth you something need to just breathe in and enjoy the moment in Custer – you don’t want to be so focused on the perfect photo you forget to take in the 360 view.

If you are not a fan of hairpin turns, I recommend signing up for one of the CSP Guided Tours run by the park. These are a lot of fun and allow you to sit back and take in the view without worrying about gearshifts and braking.

There are three main scenic drives in Custer. I was able to do all three in two days. They mileage isn’t super long, but instead designed for you to stop at important turnoffs and points of interest along the way.

  • The Wildlife Loop: This eighteen mile loop meanders from the heart of the rocky outcroppings near Legion Lake into the wild mixed prairie landscape of Custer State Park. This is a mini-Serengeti where you’ll encounter Bison, Antelope, Mule Deer, Prairie Dogs and The Begging Burros.
    • Please don’t honk at Bison or animals – this is their home and you are guests. Be patient and drive with caution.
      • Do NOT pet or feed wildlife. Bison will gore you and park visitors have been attacked by Bison when they get to close.
      • The only exception? The Begging Burros are a tame and domesticated herd of donkeys/burros that live in the park and readily come up to people’s windows asking – begging for food. Learn more about best practices with wildlife here.
    • Midway through the trail, you’ll find a nature outpost with some great exhibits.
My photo from Needles Highway
  • Needles Highway: A fourteen mile ascent through zigzag and curvy roads into the eye of the needle spires and Cathedral Spires of Custer. These granite outcroppings feel otherworldly and are beautiful to behold. This is a popular road for motorcyclists.
    • Don’t speed and prime your gears (lower gear) and you’ll be fine.
    • Highlights on this Road include outstanding Black Hills vistas, unique geologic formations; stop by Sylvan Lake and enjoy lunch at Frank Lloyd Wright inspired Sylvan Lake Lodge.
Sylvan Lake
  • Iron Mountain Road – the most scenic way to Mt. Rushmore. Every inch of this road is gorgeous and defeats the lawas of gravity with pigtail bridges and switchbacks that profile Mt. Rushmore in the distance. Learn more here.

Spend a day at the lake: Custer State Park is home to five lakes and ponds, along with countless miles of fishing creeks. Each lake has a unique character and feel depending on your lake goals.

  • Stockade Lake: Part of the CCC campaign in the 1930s, Stockade Lake is the largest of Custer’s lakes and allows for boating and recreation, as well as offering lakeside hiking trails and picnic access. Stockade Lake has a great campground (especially for RVs). Stockade Lake is fairly close to the town of Custer where you can pick up groceries at The Dakota Mart for a picnic.
  • Center Lake: Right off The Needles Highway, I camped here during my Custer sojourn. It is quiet and a relaxing family beach with campgrounds, day use and showers.
  • Legion Lake: Small, but picturesque, enjoy lunch with lakefront views from The Legion Lake Lodge dining room before hiking The Legion Lake Loop (around 1.5 miles over rocky shore) in the afternoon.
  • Sylvan Lake: perhaps the crystal jewel of Custer, with sparkling waters and iconic otherworldly granite boulders. This was the filming site of National Treasure 2 in the mide 2000s.
  • The Game Lodge Pond is hidden to most unless you know where to look. It is near the State Game Lodge area campgrounds.

Learn about nature:

Custer State Park Rangers offer countless opportunities for kids and families to engage in nature walks and talks, as well as stargazing.

I recommend stopping at the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center for the latest happenings during your trip.

Arts and Culture:

Custer State Park is home to one of the oldest summer theatres in the country – The Black Hills Playhouse. This amazing theatre troupe performs throughout the summer months. Learn more and get your tickets here.

One of South Dakota’s favorite poets, Badger Clark lived in Custer in his Badger’s Hole for many years. Today you can learn about this amazing cowboy Poet Laureate while touring his ‘hole’ in the Custer woods.

Buffalo Roundup…every September, thousands of tourists stampede into Custer for The Buffalo Roundup where the bison herd is rounded up for annual health checks. Some members of the herd (past a certain age and usually in poor health) are auctioned off. This event is also accompanied by an arts festival and lots of fun.

Where to stay:

For the most up to date information click here.

  • State Game Lodge (historic luxury)
  • Creekside Lodge (near Game Lodge)
  • Legion Lake Lodge (modern cabins)
  • Blue Bell (rustic and moderncabins)
  • Sylvan Lake Lodge (historic luxury and great views)
Sylvan Lake Hotel –

Custer has 9 campgrounds including one of my favorites, Center Lake. Learn more here.

Where to EAT:

Custer State Park Resorts offer tons of dining options from the affordable family friendly Legion Lake to the more formal dining at The State Game Lodge and Sylvan Lake Lodge

You can also find a number of delicious local restaurants in the neighboring gateway town of Custer, SD

Sylvan Lake Restaurant

Ready to plan your own Custer and Black Hills adventure…here are a few helpful links:

Custer State Park Resorts

Travel South Dakota

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