A visit to Custer State Park is ticking off one of the best places in the USA. It is not only filled with beautiful views, but it is also a total wildlife destination. You’ll spot everything from prairie dogs and bighorn sheep to cute white-tailed deer, and mule deer. But the star attraction is definitely its herds of bison. Situated in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the 71,000 acres state park is also incredible for hiking trails and scenic drives. If you love outdoor activities and spectacular views will love these best things to do in Custer State Park. I know we did.
Top Things to Do in Custer State Park
This guide has amazingly memorable things to do in Custer State Park. Whether you opt to head to Stockade Lake or Center Lake, Cathedral Spires Trail, or Wildlife Loop Road, we’ve got top-tier activities lined up. Are you ready to start planning? Let’s go.
Book this private tour to see the top South Dakota attractions in one day. Let your personal guide pick you up at your hotel to see three South Dakota landmarks including Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. Book it here.
1. Sylvan Lake Shore Trail
Sylvan Lake Shore Trail is one of the most popular things to do in Custer State Park. The hiking trail laps Sylvan Lake, the prettiest of Custer State Park’s lakes. With massive gray rock formations and woodland that spills right up to the shoreline in parts, Sylvan Lake is easily recognizable.
Sylvan Lake is so beautiful that it caught the eye of movie producers and was used as a set in the Nicolas Cage movie ‘National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets’. (Watch it on Amazon) You can take these views in for yourself with a quick hike on the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail.
The Sylvan Lake Shore Trail takes 40-60 minutes to complete and is a total breeze to hike. The route is flat and easy to navigate – suitable for families with small children or tourists wanting a quick hiking trail. There are many natural stopping points around the trail as well. Sylvan Lake has a spot where you can sunbathe with a beach towel. And the shallow shoreline is perfect for paddling to cool off from the hike. At Sylvan Lake, visitors also boat and fish. If you want a luxury treat after your walk, Sylvan Lake Lodge is available for fine dining.
South Dakota is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the USA, book this hot air balloon flight to see the Black Hills from above. Enjoy a champagne toast and experience South Dakota from the sky. Details here.
2. Center Lake
Center Lake is where to visit to avoid crowds, not join them. While Sylvan Lake is its flashy neighbor, this lake is the girl next door. The lake has its own campground – Center Lake Campground – where you can camp or enjoy recreational facilities. And the lake is set scenically amidst Ponderosa pines. Visiting Center Lake is one of the best things to do in Custer State Park: sit down and enjoy lake views in peace and quiet.
Since this lake is a little smaller than most other lakes in Custer State Park, its water warms up much faster. This means that you can head for a mid-morning swim quite easily. It is ideal for those wanting a quick dip to start their day, as the water is warm and the crowds are almost non-existent.
Unlike Sylvan Lake, Center Lake is better for its atmosphere than any of its activities. You can still walk around the lake and enjoy the water, but its main draw is its peaceful atmosphere. Bring a picnic and a book and curl up by the shoreline.
3. Iron Mountain Road
Iron Mountain Road is one of the best scenic drives in the state park. The road has 314 dramatic switchback turns and passes through 3 tunnels. Iron Mountain Road is fascinating to drive, and this little road trip is one of the best things to do in Custer State Park. You’ll want to hop out every few minutes to snap pictures. It is the sort of road you can imagine drone footage of – with curved switchbacks that look like something straight out of a travel magazine.
Iron Mountain Road takes around 60 minutes to drive. However, we suggest allowing a couple of hours so you can stop as many times as you want. Iron Mountain Road is one of the most famous in the USA, let alone the Black Hills. Make the most of the photogenic sections and hop out to snap photos. Make sure to stop at Mount Rushmore National Memorial as well, which is located along this road.
Logistically you’ll likely use Iron Mountain Road to access some of your planned attractions. But double-check, and make time to drive this exciting stretch of road if not. It is worth noting that this road is more arduous with long vehicles like RVs because of all the tight turns. If you decide to venture along this road with such a vehicle, allow double the time as a precaution so you can take it nice and steady.
Pick up this guided audio driving tour as you self drive through the Black Hills and Mt Rushmore. Explore at your own pace with an easy-to-use, downloadable app. If you need to rent a car, check out RentalCars.com to compare car rental prices.
4. Cathedral Spires Trail
Cathedral Spires Trail is one of the best things to do in Custer State Park if you want a challenging hike. The trail is 1.5 miles one way and takes around an hour to complete. Despite its short length, it is one of the most strenuous hiking trails and should only be attempted by hikers with proper attire. Cathedral Spires Trail is definitely a late spring and summer hike as well since snowfall renders the trail too slippery.
The hike starts by approaching the stunning Cathedral Spire rock formations, just into the sky en masse in pointed pinnacles. As you get closer, the terrain then switches. You make your way up the rocks via short scrambles. There are sections of unmarked trails where you climb up the rock faces.
Cathedral Spires Trail’s main draw is the scrambles’ excitement and beautiful views. Custer State Park is known for its classic views – like the rock formations around Sylvan Lake. Cathedral Spires is another one of the park’s best views. The rocky pinnacles are a photogenic phenomenon and are perfect for sightseeing.
Book this day trip to the Black Hills that includes and entire day of sightseeing. Take in the views of its rock formations, canyons and lakes as you learn about the areas rich history including Custer’s expedition to the area in 1874. See more details here.
5. Wildlife Loop Road
It is impossible not to love Wildlife Loop Road. It is the best of Custer State Park’s scenic drives for wildlife sightings and takes between an hour and two hours to drive. The road loops through grasslands and passes herds and herds of bison, mule deer, and elk. Pack a pair of binoculars, too, because you can often catch sightings of lurking prairie dogs, coyotes, and overhead eagles and hawks. Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park’s very own safari experience. Book this jeep safari in advance.
The road is only 18 miles long. However, there is a speed limit of 25 miles per hour because of the number of animals that stray alongside and on the road. Trust us, it is in your best interests to abide by this, as a rogue bison can damage your vehicle. We suggest bringing snacks and refreshments and keeping it steady to get the most out of Wildlife Loop Road.
As a side note, you can book a guided safari experience if you don’t fancy the drive. You head out in 4WD jeeps and are guaranteed to get up and close to some of the most impressive animals in Custer State Park. These jeep tours are like the African safari experiences and a fun way to venture out around Custer State Park. With open sides, you have unobstructed views of the surrounding wildlife, and you have the joy of sitting back and enjoying the drive as a passenger. More details here.
6. Little Devils Tower Trail
Little Devils Tower is one of the best hikes in the park. For experienced hikers, don’t hesitate to add it to your Custer State Park list of things to do. The 3.8 miles out and back trail is moderately challenging and takes around 3 hours to complete. The elevation gain is the trickiest part, as you gain approximately 700 feet, mainly in the hike’s final quarter. You scramble up rocks, looking for the blue-painted triangles that signal the correct path. And at the top, you get 360-degree views over the Black Hills and surrounding scenery.
The top of Little Devils Tower pokes out as a gray mound from the top of the Ponderosa pine trees. It is the ultimate vantage point and stands at 2,121 meters in height. However, it is also a gorgeous natural landmark close to Black Elk Peak and Cathedral Spires. If they feel ambitious, many people tackle two of the three significant landmarks together or even all three at once. When you reach the summit, you’ll get views of the other two, so keep an eye out.
Little Devil is one of the best hiking trails to avoid crowds. It is much less busy than Cathedral Spires Trail, so you won’t be hiking in a monotonous line of other hikers. Still, we suggest walking Little Devil in the early morning to beat the midday temperatures. If you plan to tackle Little Devil with Cathedral Spires or Black Elk Peak, set off as early as possible to give yourself adequate time.
7. Legion Lake
Legion Lake is a sleepy retreat that coined its name from a former American Legion post. The resort lake is packed with cabins and often quite cheesy activities. You don’t have to be a guest to enjoy Legion Lake, though, and you can just pop in to enjoy the friendly vibe and water activities. Legion Lake General Store also sells fishing licenses and park passes – something to consider if you are nearby and need to tick off acquiring these essential documents.
Legion Lake has the Custer State Park’s trademark grey rock formations stretching right into the lake’s waters. Surrounded by pines, it is a shaded and peaceful spot blessed with a lot of natural beauty. It is an excellent place to visit and relax, rather than heading to Sylvan Lake and frog-marching around on the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail. You can rent a kayak or paddleboard to enjoy Legion Lake from the water. Alternatively, camp on one of its sandy shores with a beach towel or check out Legion Lake Lodge.
8. Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway
Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway is the ultimate road trip and one of the top things to do in Custer State Park. The 70-mile route encompasses a chunk of Custer State Park’s other scenic drives, including Iron Mountain and Needles Highway. If you want to combine these drives into one experience, we recommend noting down Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway.
The byway passes visitor centers, the Needles, Mount Rushmore, and many wildlife – including mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Curling your way through grey rock formations that spike into the road and force bizarre turns and quirky tunnels, driving the byway is a memorable activity in Custer State Park. It can be driven in 3-4 hours, but honestly, allow yourself the whole day to enjoy it. The last thing you want is to feel rushed.
Stay alert while driving this scenic byway. A slowing motorist could act suddenly because of animals or an unexpected turn ahead. The wacky series of curves and tunnels also demand a high concentration level. Consider switching between drivers if you think you’ll be tired.
9. Needles Highway
Needles Highway is another incredible one of the scenic drives in Custer State Park. It is most famous for the Needles Eye Tunnel – a tiny hole in a granite spire that allows you to narrowly squeeze through in a vehicle. It is a seemingly impossible feat until you emerge from the other side. You can find hilarious videos of people trying to fit various vehicles through the tunnel online.
Apart from the Needles Eye Tunnel, though, the Needles Highway is one of the most beautiful routes in Custer State Park. It takes around 60 minutes to complete and has many attractions along the way. Iron Creek Tunnel is another famously narrow tunnel along Needles Highway, measuring 8’9″ wide.
If you want to admire rock formations and dramatic geographical landscapes, drive Needles Highway. When visiting Custer State Park, driving the Needles Highway is a rite of passage. It is family-friendly as well; just wait for the shrieks of delight from your kids as you try to squeeze through some of the tunnels. When visiting with kids, check the visitor center for information on the Pups Program, which helps children aged 4-6 learn more about the state park.
10. Black Elk Peak
Visiting Black Elk Peak is one of the best things to do near Custer State Park. Black Elk Peak is the highest natural point in Dakota – e.g., very tall. When visiting Custer State Park, you can scale Black Elk Peak as a day trip activity. There are numerous routes up to the top, all of which provide stunning views and can combine other attractions along the way, like Cathedral Spires.
We recommend Black Elk Peak Trail from Lake Sylvan, along which you can choose between trails 4 or 9. For the easiest hike, pick the less steep Trail 4 on the way up and Trail 9 on the way down and treat Black Elk Peak as a loop hike.
The 7-mile Black Elk Peak Trail starts on the shores of Lake Sylvan. It takes around 5-6 hours in total for the average hiker. Still, it’s wise to allow yourself an extra couple of hours just in case it takes longer than expected. You have beautiful viewpoints staggered throughout the trail every mile or so, which should keep you motivated. Bring snacks and plenty of refreshments to enjoy on these natural breaks. The final viewpoint at Black Elk Peak summit is stunning. You get 360-degree views and expansive views of the Black Hills and even the surrounding states on the horizon.
11. Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore is one of the most unmissable things to do in Custer State Park. The huge cliff-face is an iconic destination and landmark – known worldwide and featured in countless movies. Mount Rushmore dons the four faces of prominent presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. The faces of these presidents are cut into the rock in 60-foot-tall carvings. Mount Rushmore has become a place of utmost patriotism and a marker of the USA’s political history.
Book this tour that includes Mount Rushmore and Black Hills from Rapid City that includes Two Meals and a music variety show. Now that’s fun!
Visiting Mount Rushmore is a must when in the Black Hills region. Over 2 million visitors come each year, mainly between June to August, and 9 am and 3 pm if you want to give the crowds a miss. It is one of those famous landmarks that are actually worth the hype. So add it to your itinerary outside of peak hours and circle it as a must-visit attraction.
If you visit Mount Rushmore, add a detour to the Crazy Horse Memorial. Only 16 miles away, it is a massive memorial dedicated to Lakota Sioux warrior Crazy Horse. It is worth noting that by driving to Mount Rushmore, you’ll also be completing the Iron Mountain scenic drive. Talk about killing two birds with one stone.
Considering that Crazy Horse Memorial, Iron Mountain Drive, and Mount Rushmore go so well together, we suggest allowing a whole day to complete all three together. This premiere private tour includes sightseeing through the Black Hills including Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse and Custer State Park. Full details here.
12. Go Horseback Riding
Horseback riding is a fabulous way to experience Custer State Park. Horses can get to all the places where vehicles can’t go and faster than a person could ever hike it – perfect. You can channel your inner cowgirl or cowboy on a ride through Custer State Park. The amount of wildlife the park has is just a huge extra bonus. S
potting bison and prairie dogs from horseback is so much more special. And not only will you appreciate the experience more from horseback, but you’ll also be more likely to get close to wild animals. Horseback riding tours are a brilliant way to go sightseeing wildlife in Custer State Park.
One of the best stables within Custer State Park is Blue Bell Stables at Blue Bell Lodge. It runs guided trail rides that range from 1-hour introductory rides to full-day rides for more experienced riders. The hour-long rides include a jaunt at a walk and trot to the nearby French Creek. The hour-long rides usually have heron and deer sightings.
Half-day rides are more tailored towards bison sightings and take you briefly to Wildlife Loop. Full-day rides take you on a 6-hour experience to find even more animals. You head through French Creek, out to Wildlife Loop, and down to Parker Canyon – where you’ll have lunch.
Horseback riding season in Custer State Park is primarily from May to September. Bear this season in mind when booking if horseback riding is something you are really dying to do. For those wanting an even more ‘Western’ experience, consider a wrangler position for a season. Blue Bell Lodge takes on wranglers each season, which is perfect for those looking to visit the state park for a much more extended period.
13. Badlands National Park
For scenic viewpoint after scenic viewpoint, take a day out of the state park perimeters and venture to Badlands National Park. This national park is one of the best national parks in the USA. Out of all the national parks, it stands out most for its prairie wildlife and layered rock formations.
Book this private Badlands Package where your private guide shows the best of Badlands National Park drive with a stop at Wall Drug, the ghost town of Scenic, and the Minuteman Missile Site.
Its 242,756 acres are jam-packed with hiking trails and road trip routes. Just an hour and 15 minutes away, it is a breeze to combine with a holiday in Custer State Park. Read all about it at The Best Things to Do in Badlands National Park
Wildlife sightings are never-ending in Badlands National Park. The national park has bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs. Like the Wildlife Loop Road, Badlands is an absolute mecca for the animal kingdom.
You can also visit some of the best fossil beds in the world – some of which preserve ancient mammal remains like the saber-toothed tiger. This park has so much nature, be it natural history or living animals to spot. The Fossil Discovery Trail is the best place to spot fossils in the park, and you can check online to see when paleontology talks are running.
If you only have a day in Badlands National Park, we suggest completing the Badlands Loop Road and stopping at the multiple overlooks. Roberts Prairie Dog Town is also a highlight on this loop road, and the whole experience takes around 3 hours.
14. Rock Climbing
Rock climbers will love Custer State Park. The park is an absolute dream for rock climbing. There are quite literally rock formations everywhere. In fact, the rock formations are mostly what brings Custer State Park its fame. The park has spectacular views, and if you are up for an active half-day, add climbing to your Custer State Park itinerary.
There are some areas where experienced rock climbers can climb independently. If you get stuck on which spots to choose, you can always head to a visitor center and get some advice. However, we suggest booking a climbing tour. With a tour, you’ll always have a guide with you. This way, it doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or can scale the trickiest sections with your eyes shut. You can get helpful tips with your technique and expert introductions and explanations of the region.
Some of the most famous rock climbing areas in Custer State Park include the Needles, Spearfish Canyon, and the nearby Mount Rushmore.
15. Big Thunder Gold Mine
Big Thunder Gold Mine is one of the most historical things to do near Custer State Park. The 1895 gold mine is a 30-minute drive from the park’s main visitor centers. The mine is perfect for a day trip away from Custer State Park and insight into the region’s industrial days. The attention to detail is immense. Big Thunder Gold Mine has a vast historical goldmine, reconstructed to be safe for informative visits. It also has an 1895-built gold mill. The whole attraction is full of informative exhibits and helpful guides.
Visitors get their hands well and truly dirty, too, donning yellow hats to head into reconstructed mine shafts themselves. You can even get involved with activities like gold panning as well. Big Thunder Gold Mine is a really immersive way to embrace the history surrounding Custer State Park.
We suggest booking in advance to avoid experiences being booked out. Doing a mine tour and gold panning experience in a single visit is feasible. It is good too, as this way visitors get to participate firsthand in both methods. Most excitingly, you get to keep whatever you find in the gold panning.
Custer State Park FAQs
Now that we’ve covered the most notable 15 things to do in Custer State Park, let’s look at some common FAQs. These are the essential bits of information that you need to visit Custer State Park.
How to Get to Custer State Park
The best way to get to Custer State Park is by plane and then by car. Rapid City Regional Airport has connecting flights to destinations all over the USA. It is around an hour’s drive away from Custer State Park. You can hire a car at the airport and then drive to one of the cities around the park’s outskirts. Assuming you stay in either Custer, Keystone, or Hill City, it will take 5 and 30 minutes to reach the state park by car. Check Rental Car Prices here.
If you can’t hire or bring a car, you could fly into Rapid City Regional Airport, transfer to Custer, and cycle to Custer State Park. The bike ride from Custer takes around 20 minutes, and you could then leave your bike somewhere safe (like the visitor centers) or use it to explore the park’s bike paths.
For those with a lot of time on their hands, it could be fun to road trip to Custer State Park. South Dakota has fascinating attractions, and you could create an incredible road trip itinerary.
Getting Around Custer State Park
The best way to get around Custer State Park is by car. Not only is the park 71,000 acres in size (too big to realistically navigate solely on foot), but the herds of bison and other wildlife are best observed from safely inside a vehicle. We suggest saving the walking for specific hiking trails. Plus, using a car to get around Custer State Park, you can enjoy scenic drives like Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road.
It is possible to explore most of the park by bike. Custer has many bicycle hire shops in the city center, so you can nip in and hire one for as long as you need. Many shops also have power bikes, which provide assisted cycling – ideal for tackling steep hills, especially if you aren’t usually a cyclist.
Custer State Park also has shuttle services and guided tours that you can purchase. This highly rated tour offers a private full-day sightseeing experience from Rapid City. As you can see, it combines Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Custer State Park, which is relatively common but would be ambitious if driving yourself. If you are staying in a game lodge, it may also offer shuttle services and excursions.
The Best Time to Visit Custer State Park
June is the best time to visit Custer State Park. June is warm, with highs of 76 Fahrenheit and plentiful wildlife sightings. It is also quieter, with fewer crowds than in July or August. It is shoulder season and one of the best months for a stress-free visit to Custer State Park. You can easily find accommodation at a game lodge or find a spacious plot at a campground. And attractions won’t be as busy as they will in the height of summer.
If you need a wider window, May to September is the general tourism season in Custer State Park. During this period, you can enjoy hiking trails without snow and in warm temperatures. Custer State Park is also one of the best wildlife destinations from May to September. It is full of mountain goats, prairie dogs, and mule deer.
Of course, the best time to visit does depend on what things to do in Custer State Park you want to do. If you plan to visit Custer State Park in September, you can attend the Custer State Park Buffalo Round Up and Arts Festival.
You can book Round-Up tickets in advance. It happens only once a year. Secure your spot for the annual Buffalo Roundup that takes place on the last Friday of September. This full-day tour picks you up from Raid City where you’ll enjoy a continental breakfast, picnic lunch, and sightseeing to Sylvan Lake, Iron Mountain Road, and Needles Highway.
If you want to spot wildflowers (like the state flower of South Dakota, Pasqueflowers), visit in April, May, or June. Sunday Gulch Trail.
The things to do in Custer State Park are exciting and perfect for the outdoors lover. The 71,000 acres are full of natural beauty and are a fantastic base to appreciate the Black Hills of South Dakota. The park is somewhere to hike, hunt, sightsee, and explore. You can pick a state game lodge or find a romantic little cabin to use as a base for a hiking or rock climbing holiday.
Looking for inspiration for places and things to do near Custer State Park? Here are our guides on things to do in Deadwood, the top 8 South Dakota attractions, plus some photographic evidence that South Dakota is one of the most beautiful places in the world. After you visit Custer State Park, allow plenty of time to sightsee the rest of the beautiful state.