Any time we travel in the vicinity of a national park, we make an effort to see it because they are nearly always worthwhile. I can’t say the same for state parks. I know that there are some amazing, must-see state parks out there, but too often, I assume that state parks are second-tier parks that didn’t make the cut.
After seeing Custer State Park in South Dakota, I stand corrected. There is nothing second-tier about this state park in the Black Hills.
One of the big draws for us at Custer State Park 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 several of these species on our trip. We drove about half of the wildlife loop before our first wildlife sighting, but these were hard to miss – the famous begging burros.
The begging burros are a feral herd that hang out near the road waiting for handouts from tourists. Many people, our family included, bring food with them specifically for this purpose. Expect a traffic jam because the burros are assertive and many tourists enjoy this opportunity to interact with the burros. Please use caution and common sense as you would with any wild animal. Custer State Park asks visitors to NOT feed wild animals.
The whole park is a scenic drive but in addition to the Wildlife Loop, there ware two routes that we recommend. The first was 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 was Needles Highway. We took this winding drive on a rainy day. Some of the views were made more interesting by heavy fog, while others were obscured, so this is a drive I would like to do again sometime. The Needles Highway ends at Sylvan Lake, which would be a lovely place to boat, fish, hike or picnic.
Dining at the Blue Bell Lodge
After our Needles drive, the rain was still pouring down when we decided to give the Blue Bell Lodge dining room a look. What I expected was an overpriced restaurant with mediocre food that that my kids would hate. What we found were moderately-priced lunch options and a paper children’s menu with crayons featuring our kids’ favorites: burgers and mac-n-cheese.
For grown-up palates, the house specialties are bison, steaks and trout. My husband and I both ordered bison burgers for about $10 each and we were happy with our choice. For a full-service restaurant in an isolated location, we thought it was a good value.
Custer State Park is located about 40 miles south of Rapid City, S.D. We didn’t dig deep into all the park has to offer on this trip, but outdoor enthusiasts can find hiking, mountain biking, hunting, fishing and camping throughout the park. I would love to stay at one of Custer State Park Resort’s four lodges – especially for a romantic getaway.
Planning a trip to the Black Hills?
Here are other destinations we recommend.