5 Fun Things to Do at Custer State Park

Posted By Allison on Aug 8, 2018


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Hello!

Have you heard of Custer State Park in South Dakota?

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.

Pinterest photo of custer state park

Lakes

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.

Picture of a deer in Custer

Wildlife

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 hang out near the road hoping for handouts from tourists. 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. 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.

Picture of rock tunnel

Scenic Drives

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.

Hiking

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.

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

Website: https://gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/custer-state-park/

Picture of our cabin

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.

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Hi there! I am the founder of Tips for Family Trips. I am a married mom of two children, ages 10 and 12, living near Salt Lake City, Utah. We took our first child on a two-week road trip when she was four weeks old and we have been traveling as a family ever since. We love to get out of the house to see and do fun things, both far away and in our own neighborhood.

2 Comments

  1. I’m loving all of your individual posts about South Dakota. About how much time did you spend in Custer State Park? Also, what food did you bring the burrows? If they tell you not to feed the animals don’t they get mad at all the people doing it?

    Post a Reply
    • Thank you, Jillinda! We spent two days in Custer State Park and could have spent more. You can hit the highlights in one day, but it is large and there is a lot to do. Custer State Park will be our base for our Black Hills trip this summer.

      We brought raw carrots and apples for the burros, thinking they would be more nutritious than the cheese puffs we saw others feeding them. We drove through the Begging Burros twice and there was no park staff there to stop visitors from feeding them. At this date, I’m having a hard time finding a current official source online that clearly bans the feeding of this feral herd, beyond general advice to not feed the wildlife. I have found information advising visitors to use good judgement around the burros, and I second that. They are large and assertive. The burros are somewhat different from the other animals at Custer State Park because they are not native wildlife. The herd was brought to the area as domesticated animals in the 1930’s.

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