How to Have Your Best Summer Yet at Custer State Park | Black Hills Travel Blog

How to Have Your Best Summer Yet at Custer State Park

  • How to Have Your Best Summer Yet at Custer State Park
    How to Have Your Best Summer Yet at Custer State Park
Friday, January 28, 2022
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Do you want to know the secret to having your best summer yet? It’s simple — plan a trip to Custer State Park in South Dakota.



Historic lodges, one of the most outstanding scenic byways in the nation, pristine mountain lakes, abundant wildlife and the region’s top trails– Custer State Park has all the makings for an unforgettable getaway, and then some.


Here’s everything you need to know to make the most of your time in Custer State Park.


Rest Up for Adventure



Make plans to stay in Custer State Park, so your next great adventure is just outside your front door.


The park has five historic lodges, all with modern amenities. Pick from Blue Bell Lodge, State Game Lodge, Sylvan Lake Lodge, Legion Lake Lodge or Creekside Lodge. Each has its own dining options, ranging from elevated meals to hearty ranch fare and family-friendly homestyle cooking. Bring your appetite because you’ll want to get a taste of each.


Is camping more your pace? Custer State Park has nine campgrounds that can accommodate RVs and tents. Set up camp in secluded ponderosa pine forests, alongside fresh flowing streams or near a mountain lake. Or relax in one-room, log-style camping cabins throughout the park.



For a primitive outdoor experience, try backpacking in French Creek Natural Area. Hike the 12-mile nature trail that runs next to French Creek, then find the perfect spot to pitch your tent. Be sure to self-register at the stations located on each end of the natural area, and keep in mind that open fires are prohibited.


Trip Tip: Looking to snag a site at a Custer State Park campground? Making reservations is fast and easy online, or by calling or call 1.800.710.2267.


Live Life on the Wild Side



Watching a baby bison scurry over to its herd, spotting white-tailed deer frolicking through tall prairie grass or laughing at the playful antics of a prairie dog colony – does it get any better than that?


Custer State Park’s animal inhabitants will greet you with a warm welcome and accompany you on all your amazing adventures.


Critters like pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, elk and bighorn sheep roam free in the park’s 71,000 acres. You find it’s easy to spot them along trails, in the campgrounds and beside the road.



Make friends with the resident burros, lovingly dubbed the beggin’ burros. They are uncommonly friendly. They’ll stop to say hello to every slowing motorist and sneak their heads into any auto that offers a chance for a quick snack.


Encountering the approximately 1,300 bison that call Custer State Park home is not a question of “if,” but “when.” The herd is the second-largest public free-roaming herd in the U.S. and spends most of its time grazing throughout the park.



If you want to have a truly remarkable experience, book a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour. These off-road tours depart daily from the State Game Lodge, taking you through the park in an open-air jeep. As you search for bison, your knowledgeable guide will share all sorts of historical and educational info about the park.


Keep your camera close for one-of-a-kind photos. Remember to use extreme caution when photographing any wildlife. Keep a safe distance from animals and do not approach them.


Trip Tip: Your best chance for seeing these animals is on Wildlife Loop Road. The 19-mile road winds through prime sighting spots in the southeastern part of the park. It takes about one and a half hours to complete unless you run into a buffalo jam.


Trade Screen Time for Windshield Time



Prepare to pick your jaw up from the floor after driving one of the park's scenic highways and byways. At some point, you'll begin to wonder if it's possible to exclaim, "Wow! Look at that!" one more time. Then you'll round another corner and find yourself amazed again.


Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road and Wildlife Loop Road are part of the extensive network of backcountry lanes on the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. For 70 miles, the route threads its way around pigtail bridges, through one-lane rock-walled tunnels and ascends to the uppermost heights of the Needles. You'll even catch a glimpse of Mount Rushmore.



For the full experience, slow down. Take your time. Roll down the car windows. Lean into the breeze and joyfully inhale the fragrance of ponderosa pine.


Trip Tip: It will take you about two to three hours to travel the whole byway. In the words of Peter Norbeck himself, "You're not supposed to drive here at 60 miles an hour. To do the scenery half justice, people should drive 20 or under…"


Hit the Water



Your perfect summer getaway isn’t complete without some lake time.


Get out on the water and relax on a warm summer day at Custer State Park’s four alpine lakes — Center Lake, Legion Lake, Stockade Lake and Sylvan Lake.


Roll out your towel and soak in the sun on the beaches at Sylvan Lake and Legion Lake, followed by a relaxed 1-mile hike around either of the lakes.


Cast a line for a chance to catch that trophy trout. The lakes offer nearly 182 acres of crystal blue water and are home to several species of fish. Purchase a fishing license at any of the park’s General Stores.



Check the park’s calendar of events while you are there. They offer free fishing during their Mother’s Day Open House (May 9, 2021), general Open House (May 21 to 23, 2021) and their Father’s Day Open House (June 20, 2021).


Trip Tip: Didn’t have room to pack your canoe? Rent canoes, kayaks and stand up paddle boards from Sylvan Lake and Legion Lake. They even provide life jackets.


Get Some Dirt on Your Boots



Whether you’re looking to hike to the tallest peak east of the Rocky Mountains or you want to take an easy ramble in the woods, it’s safe to say you’ll have plenty of options in Custer State Park.


Pick the perfect adventure from 14 scenic hiking trails that wind through the park’s forested mountains and expansive prairie.


Some of the top trails include Cathedral Spires Trail, Sunday Gulch Trail, Little Devils Tower Trail, Lover’s Leap Trail and Sylvan Lake Shore Trail.



Make this the year you cross off Black Elk Peak from your bucket list. Head to the summit from one of two trailheads within the park. The most popular is Trail No. 9, which starts by Sylvan Lake.


Be prepared. Black Elk Peak is the highest peak in South Dakota, at 7,242 feet. The hike is rated moderate, but it is a long, slow incline. You’ll gain 1,100 to 2,200 feet in elevation, depending on which route you take. Be sure to bring plenty of drinking water, know where you’re going and wear proper gear. The view from the top is all worth it.


Trip Tip: Stop in to one of the park’s visitor centers before heading out. Their knowledgeable staff is happy to chat with you, get you trail maps and provide recommendations on which route to choose.


Custer State Park is truly one of the most special places in the world. There’s so much to see and do here, and always a new way to experience it. So, what are you waiting for? Start planning your trip today.

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