Custer State Park is one of the best state parks in the United States. It's located a short distance from Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
My family has visited Custer twice, and it was a highlight of our Black Hills trip both times. On our second trip in July 2018, we stayed just outside the park entrance, and made Custer our base for the whole week. I recommend at least one full day in Custer State Park if you're planning a trip to the Black Hills.
Here's are my family's favorite things to do in Custer State Park.
Custer State Park is home to four lakes that are fun for water sports, beach play, fishing and camping. Our most recent trip to the Black Hills was a family reunion during the first week of July. We brought our kayaks and my sister's family brought stand-up paddle boards and tubes. We used them nearly every day of the trip. If you don't bring your own water toys, rentals are available.
Center Lake kept us coming back for more. This lake is located at the north end of Custer State Park, near the Black Hills Playhouse. It has a sandy beach, picnic tables, small playground, showers and primitive bathrooms – all close to the small parking lot. Other lakes in the park have more amenities or are more accessible, but Center Lake was much less crowded.
Sylvan Lake is the most beautiful lake in Custer State Park, against stiff competition. You'll find it at the end of the Needles Highway – one of the best scenic drives in the park – or via Highway 89. Sylvan has a lodge and several trail heads. Sylvan has a lot more parking than Center Lake, but it fills quickly on busy days.
Legion Lake and Stockade Lake are lovely, and are both on the main road. Legion Lake was more crowded and Stockade Lake wasn't as nice for swimming, so we didn't spend much time here.
One of the big draws on our first Custer State Park visit was the chance to see wildlife such as bison, antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, prairie dogs, and wild turkeys and we did see wildlife on both trips. On our first trip, our first encounter was the famous begging burros.
The begging burros are a feral herd that hangs out near the Wildlife Loop hoping for handouts from tourists. If you find them, expect a traffic jam because the burros can be assertive and many tourists enjoy this opportunity to interact with the burros.
Custer State Park asks visitors to NOT feed wild animals, but they look the other way when it comes to feeding the burros. As always, use caution and common sense.
Custer State Park's Wildlife Loop is a good place to look for animals. Morning or early evening are generally the best times to spot wildlife.
Related: Tips for Visiting Mount Rushmore
In addition to the Wildlife Loop, there are two routes that we recommend. The first is Iron Mountain Road. This road winds through the Black Hills, offering excellent panoramic views of the area and occasional glimpses of Mount Rushmore.
The second scenic drive is Needles Highway. This road winds from the main road up to Sylvan Lake. It includes some lovely vistas and two tunnels. Needles Highway ends at Sylvan Lake.
Custer State Park has more than a dozen hiking trails – many of them easy or moderate. I hiked the easy Sylvan Lake Shore Trail and recommend it. Some of our group hiked Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak,) which is the highest point in South Dakota. They loved it. For a 7-mile moderately strenuous hike, the payoff was well worth it.
Related: Jewel Cave vs Wind Cave
Black Hills Playhouse
Looking for a little culture? Buy tickets for a play at the Black Hills Playhouse. It's a long-running summer stock theatre program with great reviews. Kids under age 18 get in free with paying adults on select dates. We haven't seen a show here yet, but you can learn more at https://www.blackhillsplayhouse.com/.
If your family loves the outdoors, Custer State Park is a top-notch destination. It's surrounded by other great places like Mount Rushmore, Jewel Cave National Monument, Wind Cave National Monument and others. I hope your family has just as much fun as ours did. Happy travels!
Good to Know
Where: Western South Dakota, just south of Mount Rushmore on Highway 16A.
When: The park is open year-round, but is only busy during the summer. Weather can be cold and possibly snowy the rest of the year. Summer temperatures are warm, but not too warm.
How Much: $20 per vehicle for up to 7 consecutive days
How Long: At least one full day
Amenities: lodging, camping, dining, visitor centers, outdoor activities
Need a place to stay?
There are four lodges and nine campgrounds inside Custer State Park. The towns of Custer, Keystone and Hill City are close by. On our first trip, we stayed in Rapid City – about an hour away. Popular lodging and camp sites fill fast for the summer. Book 6-12 months in advance for best availability in the summer.
More recently, we booked a great cabin through VRBO, located just outside Custer State Park. My extended family stayed 5 minutes away in camping cabins at Stockade South campground, inside the park.
Click the button below to check rates and availability for hotels near Custer State Park on TripAdvisor.com.