Top 10 Most Essential Things to Do on Your (first) Visit to Custer State Park | Black Hills Travel Blog

Top 10 Most Essential Things to Do on Your (first) Visit to Custer State Park

  • Top 10 Most Essential Things to Do on Your (first) Visit to Custer State Park
    Top 10 Most Essential Things to Do on Your (first) Visit to Custer State Park
Thursday, July 22, 2021
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Visiting Custer State Park on your Black Hills vacation is a must. The park is one of the few truly wild places that remain in this country. Towering pines, gentle creeks and massive granite outcroppings sprawl throughout the park’s 71,000 acres, captivating all who enter.

In March 1919, Custer State Park was named the first official state park. In 2019, South Dakota’s oldest state park celebrated 100 years of outdoor tradition.

Whether you’re coming to the park for the first time, revisiting a childhood road trip or returning to your favorite place in the world, we’ve compiled a list of the quintessential experiences while you’re here.

Here are the 10 can’t-miss-experiences at one of the world’s top wildlife destinations.

1. Get Caught in a Buffalo Jam

Custer State Park is the proud home of approximately 1,300 bison—the second largest public free-roaming herd in the U.S. It’s very likely that you’ll encounter one of these majestic beasts in the park.

Your best chance for seeing buffalo is on Wildlife Loop Road, a 19-mile roadway that winds through prime sighting spots in the southeastern part of the park.

For a truly exceptional experience, take a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour—named one of the 10 best safaris in the U.S. by These off-road tours depart daily from the State Game Lodge, taking you through the park in an open-air jeep where only they are allowed to go. As you search for bison, your knowledgeable guide will share all sorts of historical and educational info about the park.

As sweet and fluffy as bison may appear, please do not approach them. They are dangerous. Remain in your vehicle or stay at least 100 yards away.

2. Wake up to Wildlife

After your action-packed day, sleep under the stars in Custer State Park. There are nine campgrounds tucked away in ponderosa pine forests, alongside fresh flowing streams or near a mountain lake. Campsites accommodate RVs and tents. Or, you can relax in one-room, log-style camping cabins throughout the park.

For a primitive outdoor experience, backpackers should try French Creek Natural Area. Hike the 12-mile nature trail that runs next to the creek and pitch your tent wherever sings to your soul. 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.

Stay at one of the park’s distinct historic lodges and wake up among the many critters that call the park home. In fact, named Custer State Park as one of the top 10 Wildlife Destinations in the world! Pick from Blue Bell Lodge, State Game Lodge, Sylvan Lake Lodge, Legion Lake Lodge or Creekside Lodge. Each one offers its own unique style and amenities to suit your adventure.

Be sure to pack your fishing pole so that you can cast your line and catch a trout in one of the park’s four alpine lakes. Center Lake, Legion Lake, Stockade Lake and Sylvan Lake offer nearly 182 acres of crystal blue water and are home to several species of fish.

Do you remember the park’s quintessential evening campground programs from when you were younger? They are still offered on most evenings at the Game Lodge, Center Lake, Stockade North and Blue Bell campgrounds from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Schedules are posted weekly on campground bulletin boards.

3. Wind Your Way Through 71,000 Acres

There is so much to see and do in Custer State Park. You may start to wonder how exactly you’ll get to do it all. If there is one thing you absolutely must do, though, it’s slow down. Take your time. Roll down the car windows, lean into the breeze and joyfully inhale the fragrance of ponderosa pines as you set out on one of the park’s scenic highways and byways.

The park is a driver’s delight. There are three scenic drives—Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road and Wildlife Loop Road—which 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.

Along the highways, you’ll find the park’s visitor centers. Stop into the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center for an informal chat with a naturalist and to ask your most pressing questions. Little ones can participate in the Junior Naturalist or Pups program here, too. Look for a current schedule of programs in the campgrounds or at any of the visitor centers.

4. Delight in a Day at the Park’s Crown Jewel

Whether you're planning a multiday Custer State Park excursion or curating a day of adventure, Sylvan Lake Lodge makes the perfect basecamp.

To get there, you’ll traverse Needles Highway surrounded by a hillside forest of pine and spruce. The rugged landscape is juxtaposed with the breathtaking beauty of Sylvan Lake. It’s clear why the lodge has been dubbed the crown jewel of the park.

If you’re a hiker, you’ll love the easily accessible trailheads located at the lodge. The original Sylvan Lake Hotel was a stopping point for adventurers hoping to scale Black Elk Peak, the highest point in America east of the Rockies. Summiting Black Elk Peak is a must. The most popular approach, Black Elk Peak Trail No. 9, is conveniently located at Sylvan Lake. The more moderate Sunday Gulch Trail sets hikers on the loop trail here, too.

For those seeking solitude, get out on the water and relax on a warm summer day. You can rent watercraft, go fishing or take a swim at Sylvan Lake.

Round out your remarkable day with dinner at the lodge. Sit on the veranda overlooking the sloping hills and breathtaking beauty of Sylvan Lake, while savoring a thoughtfully crafted meal starring buffalo, fresh fish or wapiti (elk) tenderloin.

5. Experience the Needles Eye

The granite formations that pierce the horizon in Custer State Park, known as the Needles, are truly see-it-to-believe-it phenomena. Drive Needles Highway to see for yourself just how majestic these outcroppings are in person.

The adventurous should carve out time to hike Cathedral Spires Trail. The moderate 1.5-mile out and back trail offers spectacular views of these unique rock formations. You’ll likely pass rock climbers hauling gear in or out of the trail, as the spires are home to some of the most sought-after climbing routes in the Black Hills.

6. Make New (Wild) Friends

As you make your way through Custer State Park, you’ll notice wildlife along trails, in the campgrounds and beside the road. Critters like prairie dogs, white-tailed and mule deer, pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, elk, and bighorn sheep roam free in the park’s 71,000 acres. Come spring, you may even cross paths with the newest additions to the park–baby wildlife.

Your best chance for seeing these animals is on Wildlife Loop Road. It takes about one and a half hours to complete unless you run into a buffalo jam.

Along the route, you may be greeted by the infamous begging burros. These critters 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, no matter the season.

There’ll be plenty of opportunities 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.

7. Live Like a Cowboy for the Day

The allure of the Wild West is just as strong as it was 100 years ago in Western South Dakota. Embrace the spirit of the West and live like a cowboy for a day.

The Hayride Chuckwagon Cookout is a Blue Bell tradition. Take an old-fashioned hayride on back roads to a mountain meadow canyon for an authentic chuckwagon feast. Along the way, sing along to classic country and folk music—and maybe even see some wildlife. You’ll fit right in with your souvenir cowboy hat and bandanna.

Saddle up for a true Western adventure and embark on a guided horseback trail ride at Blue Bell Lodge. It’s one of the most peaceful, scenic ways to experience the park's rugged terrain and well-maintained trails.

8. Discover “a Place Where One Can Still Be an Unworried and Unregimented Individual”

Let your legs move you through Custer State Park. The early pioneers, ranchers and loggers left behind more than 50 miles of trails and backcountry roads to explore. Hikers of all abilities can pick the perfect adventure from the 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. You can begin your trek to Black Elk Peak at one of two trailheads within the park.

Looking to add a twist? Take the Custer State Park Trail Challenge. Collect all eight stamps and get a prize. To learn more or pick up the official Trail Challenge form, visit any of the park’s visitor centers.

There’s no better way to cool off after a day of hiking than taking a dip or relaxing on the banks at one of the park’s four mountain lakes.

9. Eat Like a Local on the President’s Front Porch

While you’re in the Black Hills, enjoy a meal at the State Game Lodge that will expand your culinary palette.

The State Game Lodge is a native stone and wood lodge built in 1920 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It served as the “Summer White House” for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927 and was visited by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953.

The restaurant features dishes that highlight local game, liked seared rainbow trout, elk Osso Bucco, crab-stuffed walleye roulades, rabbit and rattlesnake sausage, pheasant spring rolls, and buffalo burgers. We’re hungry just thinking about it!

Once you get a taste of these regional dishes, continue your culinary adventure at Blue Bell Lodge, Sylvan Lake Lodge, and Legion Lake Lodge.

10. Experience the Buffalo Round Up & Arts Festival

Without a doubt, one of the most thrilling events to attend is the Custer State Park Buffalo Round Up & Arts Festival. Watching the buffalo rumble across the plains, driven by cowboys and cowgirls on horseback, is truly magnificent. It takes you back to days gone by and gives you a glimpse of Old West history.

The annual roundup keeps the park’s bison population in balance with the available land and resources. Most return right back to their home, the grasslands of the park.

The Arts Festival is held for three days, in conjunction with the roundup. Visit with more than 100 artisans and crafters from across the Midwest as they exhibit and sell their wares.

Make plans to attend in 2020: Sept. 24 to 26.

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