Take a relaxing break by granite peaks and rolling plains at Custer State Park. Bring your entire family to this South Dakota State Park and forget about life as you enjoy the outdoors.
With thousands of acres in the Black Hills, Custer Park offers adventure for everyone, including camping, hiking, biking, swimming, boating, fishing, and so much more.
Custer State Park is known for its bison herds and other wildlife, along with camping and scenic drives. With a diverse cultural heritage and impressive beauty, everyone will find something to love at this park.
Basics About Custer State Park
- 1 Basics About Custer State Park
- 1.1 Where is Custer State Park Located?
- 1.2 Map
- 1.3 How Far is Custer State Park from Mount Rushmore?
- 1.4 Distance to Rapid City from Custer State Park
- 1.5 Closest Airport to Custer State Park
- 1.6 How Big is Custer State Park?
- 1.7 Custer State Park Costs and Fees
- 1.8 Custer State Park Hours
- 1.9 Are Dogs Allowed at Custer State Park?
- 1.10 What Animals are in Custer State Park?
- 1.11 Best time to visit Custer State Park
- 2 Visiting Custer State Park
- 3 Staying at Custer State Park
- 4 Video of Custer State Park
- 5 History of Custer State Park
- 6 Final Thoughts
Where is Custer State Park Located?
Custer State Park is in South Dakota in the south left corner close to Wyoming and Nebraska at the eastern edge of the Black Hills National Forest. To the south is the Wind Cave National Park and to the north is Rapid City.
How Far is Custer State Park from Mount Rushmore?
Depending on the route you take from Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore is between 19 to 30 miles away. Nearby Mount Rushmore is Black Elk Peak if you want to spend more time outside.
Distance to Rapid City from Custer State Park
From Custer State Park, it will take you 40 minutes to get to Rapid City or 30 miles. Simply take Route 36 to 79, and you will arrive in the small city.
Closest Airport to Custer State Park
To the southeast of Rapid City sits the Rapid City Regional Airport, about 35 miles or 43 minutes from Custer State Park. The larger airports are not accessible to the park. Furthermore, there are no trains or buses that go directly to the park or even close to the park.
How Big is Custer State Park?
Custer State Park measures a massive 71,000 acres. The park is large enough to hold 9 campgrounds, 341 campsites, 50 camping cabins, and a horse camp.
Custer State Park Costs and Fees
People in a car can get a seven-day license for the park for just $20 or for $3 a day per person. Additionally, you can sign up for an annual pass for $36 for the first vehicle and $18 for the second vehicle. You can also get a license that is transferable between vehicles for $80. If you are simply driving through the park on US Highway 16A, then you do not need to pay a fee.
Custer State Park Hours
You can visit Custer Park year-round, which is open 24 hours a day. The visitors center is open except on holidays; the hours at the gate change to 9 am to 6 pm except on memorial day when the park closes at 4 pm. The park is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Parking is not a problem at the park with tons of options, but parking at the main attractions fills up quickly. Unfortunately, the park does not offer a shuttle, but you can find several tour companies available, but you will have to drive to those too.
The park has five entrances, but the east entrance is the most popular with a visitors center and offers the most ease when going to Rapid City, Mount Rushmore, and the rest of the state. If you are coming from Wyoming, then enter through the west gate.
Are Dogs Allowed at Custer State Park?
Pets are welcome in Custer State Park but with a few caveats. First, you must clean up your pet’s waste. Second, they can not be left unattended in the campgrounds. Third, pets are not allowed on the beaches where people swim. Additionally, they cannot go in park buildings, including cabins, lodges, or comfort stations, unless otherwise marked.
Furthermore, between April 1st to September 30th, pets must be on a leash no longer than 10 feet long in developed areas and campgrounds. In other parts of the park, pets must be in immediate control of the owner and no more than 200 feet away. Between October 1 through March 31st, pets can go without a lease but under the immediate supervision of the owner. Expect a small $10 charge for pets at accepting cabins.
What Animals are in Custer State Park?
As a wildlife refuge, Custer State Park is home to bison, whitetail deer, mule deer, antelope, mountain goats, elk, coyotes, burros, bighorn sheep, a variety of birds, including wild turkeys and prairie dogs. The majority of animals can be observed from your car, which is one of the reasons for the park’s popularity. Custer State Park is famous for its herd of nearly 1,300 buffalo that roam the park freely. Keep in mind that they are wild creatures, so keep a safe distance.
Best time to visit Custer State Park
South Dakota tends toward colder weather and snowfall in the winter and is not an ideal time to visit the park. Many of the park facilities close in the winter, further complicating a stay. The busy season is from June to August, making Spring and Fall the best times to visit if you do not want a crowd. In the fall, from September to October, you can see some gorgeous foliage and enjoy comfortable weather making it the optimal time to visit.
Visiting Custer State Park
Custer State Park offers tons of activities along with many sights to see. Take a look at the options:
Hiking is one of the best options in the park. The Sylvan Lake Shore Trail offers a shorter one-mile loop around the lake. Black Elk Peak Trail is 7 miles and provides panoramic views for the effort with the highest peak. On the Cathedral Spires Trail, you can walk for just 1.5 miles but enjoy needle-like giant spires. Legion Lake Trail loops for a mile around the lake and campground through forested lakeshore. Prairie Trail gives you views of fields covered in wildflowers during the summer for three miles. Finally, Stockade Lake Trail measures 1.5 miles through the forest.
Find several scenic byways if you want to see the park by vehicle. Take the Needles Highway Scenic Drive if you want to see the rock spires. The byway takes just 14 miles but offers vista points and hairpin turns. On the wildlife, Loop Road enjoy 18 miles on a loop through the valley of the Black Hills, where you can see wildlife. Enjoy several pull-offs to get out and visit nature. Iron Mountain Road Scenic Drive offers 17 miles right by the east entrance, and it is the only byway located inside the park with spectacular views.
You will want to visit the Begging Burros while at the park, too, for a quirky adventure. Originally, burros were pack animals to transport people around the park. Now you can stop and visit them right from your car or even get out and say hello. Give them a little food, and they will be your new best friend. Pack some crackers, apples, or carrots to keep their diet healthy.
If you love wildlife, see the bisons corralled too. As they have no natural predators in the park, you can spot 1,400 bison rounded up for care. It’s free to visit, and the event lasts three days during a festival for the arts. Plan for the last week of September if you want to enjoy the roundup.
The spires are a sight to see with incredible rocks and valleys, making them a must-see. You will also want to see the Sunday Gulch with railing to make sure you can climb the steep and craggy rocks. It’s the most unique option in the park with beautiful landscape and adventure. The park even has rocks you can drive through, making it seem like driving through a mountain.
Plan a day to stay at Sylvan lake, and you can also visit four other lakes in the park. However, Sylvan offers huge boulders surrounding and in the water, making it the most popular part of the park. Of course, you can enjoy water sports such as swimming and fishing here too.
Make sure to check out the interesting stone Harney Peak Fire Tower, too, for impressive panoramic views. It was built in 1928 to watch for fires but is no longer in use. Find it on the Black Elk Peak Trail.
Next, check out the Gordon Stockade, with tons of history and buildings to explore. The existing structures are a copy (but on the original site) of a log stronghold built by the Gordon Party to protect themselves from Lakota raids during the 1874 gold rush. The stronghold was unlawfully occupied from 1874 to 1875, and the stockade features plaques telling you about its history. This is a quick stop, but if you go between the hours of 1–4 pm from June to August, you may speak with park staff about the stockade and discover more about its history!
Take a Tour
There are several options for exploring Custer State Park with a guide who can provide a wealth of information about the area and provide you with a unique experience!
Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour: Go off-roading in the park and see a side of the park that few visitors see. You’ll view wildlife and discover historical and educational facts about the park and its furrier residents on this tour. The excursions are normally 1.5-2 hours long.
Chuck Wagon & Hayride Cookout: Want to tour the park while also getting some food? This trip begins with a 45-minute hayride (complete with cowboy hat and bandana!) and ends with a feast!
Horseback Trail Rides: We recently went horseback riding in Kentucky and had a great time; we’d love to ride horses through the Custer State Park trails! There are various ride options available, ranging from one hour to a whole day, and tours are available from mid-May to the end of September.
Staying at Custer State Park
Find the right option for staying at Custer State Park with many options available right in the park and options nearby too.
Camping in and Around Custer State Park
Stay at one of the many different campgrounds in the Park. There are 9 campgrounds, 341 campsites, 50 camping cottages, and a horse camp in the park. The campsites start at $15 per night for tent only and no electricity or $30 for electricity. You can go primitive for just $7 a night, but you will have to bring your own water and sanitation necessities. Find amenities, including showers, playgrounds, and picnic spots. Most of the options have accommodations for RV’s too.
If you want to camp outside the park, you can stay at Plenty Star Ranch, with options for RV’s, tents, cabins, yurts, and horses. The ranch prices start at $30 and go up depending on the accommodations you choose. Also, consider staying at Custer’s Last Chance Camping with options for RV and tents starting at $23 per day.
Custer State Park Hotels
Stay at the Creekside Lodge with gorgeous and luxurious rooms with all the amenities. The cabins start at $140 per night and go all the way up to $1,555 for rooms large enough for groups and a full kitchen. The lodge also offers a restaurant, banquet facilities, gas pumps, and a general store. Also, in the park, find the Blue Bell Lodge, State Game Lodge, Sylvan Lake Lodge, Legion Lake Lodge, and specialty cabins, all with a wide range of prices ready to work with many people budgets and with packages including activities. The town of Custer nearby offers multiple hotels, too, as do surrounding towns Keystones and Hill City.
Video of Custer State Park
Below is a nice YouTube video exploring some of the different highlights of Custer park:
History of Custer State Park
An expedition led by Lt. Col. George Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills in 1874, and word traveled quickly. To protect themselves from probable Lakota attack, one of the first groups of gold seekers, the Gordon Party, built a wooden castle on the bank of French Creek. The Gordan Stockade, once known as Fort Defiance, stands on the original site at Custer State Park’s entrance. Interpretive markers describe the story of this short-lived unlawful occupation, which was carried out in contravention of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which granted the Sioux land rights.
Many of the park’s structures are from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) men who built roads, bridges, dams (which produced Stockade, Center, and Legion lakes), a fire tower, museum, campgrounds, and picnic spots throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The park received a few substantial enhancements in 1964 and 1965 that are now an important component of its identity. Custer State Park grew by 22,000 acres in that year, making it one of the nation’s largest state parks at 71,000 acres. The Park hosted its first Buffalo Roundup and Auction in 1965, and it has since become one of the Black Hills’ flagship events.
Custer State Park is a must-see on your Black Hills vacation. The park is one of the few remaining really natural areas in the United States. The park’s 71,000 acres are dotted with towering pines, calm rivers, and gigantic granite outcroppings, all of which captivate visitors. Plan your visit today and have an epic adventure perfect for the whole family.