Top 7 Wildlife Experiences Perfect for Young Families in Custer State Park | Black Hills Travel Blog

Top 7 Wildlife Experiences Perfect for Young Families in Custer State Park

  • Top 7 Wildlife Experiences Perfect for Young Families in Custer State Park
    Top 7 Wildlife Experiences Perfect for Young Families in Custer State Park
Wednesday, March 2, 2022
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Inspire your children to become life-long lovers of the natural world with thrilling wildlife adventures in Custer State Park.

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. It's clear why the park is named one of the world's top wildlife destinations.

Here are the top seven wildlife experiences—perfect for young families—that get you up close with the park's critters.

1. Get Off the Beaten Track on a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour

Custer State Park is home to approximately 1,300 bison—the second largest public, free-roaming herd in the U.S. There's nothing quite like your first encounter with one of these majestic beasts while you're in the park.

Take a trek through the park on the 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 and your family through the park in an open-air jeep where only they are allowed to go–off-road. As you search for bison, pronghorns, and elk, your knowledgeable guide will share all sorts of historical and educational facts about the park and wildlife.

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. Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center

Stop into the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center to enhance and enrich your experience in Custer State Park. The center is located on Highway 16, near the State Game Lodge.

In 2017, updates transformed the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center into the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center. The building now provides a place for young visitors to learn about the outside world and surrounding park land. The interior is designed to encourage children and families to explore the unique ecosystems within the park while the exterior Outdoor Classroom provides a chance for unscripted play.

While there, catch an educational program. The majority of the interpretive and educational programs within the park occur here. Look for a current schedule of programs in the campgrounds or at any of the visitor centers.

3. Become a Junior Naturalist

Custer State Park offers two programs for young visitors to learn about and explore the park around them, the Junior Naturalist Program and Pups Prowl.

These hands-on, in-depth topic explorations highlight the park's resources through nature hikes, evening programs, recreational activities and other educational offerings. Plus, they get tons of impressive knowledge to share with their friends back home.

Pick up your free workbook in the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center and begin your journey to becoming a Junior Naturalist.

4. Spend an Afternoon at Legion Lake

Spend a relaxing afternoon with your family at Legion Lake Lodge. Located on the southern portion of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, this newly built lodge is a quiet lakeside retreat that has it all.

Pack a picnic and enjoy a lazy day at the beach followed by a nature trek on Badger Clark Historic Trail — a one-mile route that circles the lake. Kiddos can play eye-spy as they identify little critters on their trek.

Rent a watercraft from the lodge and explore the lake and its aquatic animals in a canoe, kayak, or stand up paddleboard. Life jackets are provided with rentals, too. Families love spending time on Legion Lake, which is free of power motorboats.

5. Saddle Up for Adventure

Embrace the spirit of the West and live like a cowboy for a day.

Saddle up for a pony ride at Blue Bell Lodge. These rides are perfect for your lil' buckaroo that is experiencing horses for the first time. A wrangler will lead your little rider around the pony circle three times. Be sure to bring your camera to capture the moment.

In the evening, take an old-fashioned hayride on back roads to a mountain meadow canyon for an authentic chuckwagon feast. The Hayride Chuckwagon Cookout is a beloved Blue Bell tradition. Along the way, your family will make memories as you sing along to classic country and folk music—and maybe even see some wildlife. Dress the part in your souvenir cowboy hat and bandanna.

6. Make a Splash

Custer State Park has five alpine lakes that provide nearly 182 acres of pristine waters that are perfect for boating, fishing, swimming, or just relaxing. Center Lake, Legion Lake, Stockade Lake, Sylvan Lake and the Game Lodge Pond reward visitors with their distinct experiences and dramatic scenery.

Be sure to pack your fishing pole so that you can cast a line. You'll find fish ready to bite, including rainbow, brown and brook trout.

Fishing is allowed anywhere in the park. A valid South Dakota Fishing license is required and may be purchased online at

7. Get in Touch with Your Wild Side

For your best chance to see the park's animal inhabitants, take a scenic cruise on Wildlife Loop Road. The 19-mile roadway winds through prime sightings spots and takes about an hour and a half to complete unless you run into a buffalo jam!

Along the route, the infamous "begging burros" may greet you. These critters, which are small donkeys, are uncommonly friendly. They'll stop to say hello to every slowing motorist and sneak their heads into your window if you offer 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.

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