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8 Must Sees Within 1 Hour of Custer, SD

8 Must Sees Within 1 Hour of Custer, SD


avatar   Stacy
Trip Date 08/03/2020
Posted On 10/12/2020 09:10:00

Camping | Destinations | South Dakota | Black Hills | Black Hills National Forest | Southern Hills | Custer | Keystone | Hill City | Hot Springs | Crazy Horse | Mount Rushmore | The Mammoth Site | Jewel Cave | Wind Cave | Custer State Park | 1880 Train | Four Mile Old West Town



Make the most of your time exploring the Black Hills by carefully choosing where to stay. A memorial, monuments, a museum, mammoths plus a train and parks are all within a one hour drive of Custer, South Dakota! Whether you choose camping or another type of lodging, you can't go wrong with making Custer your home base.

Located centrally within the Southern Hills, it's easy to get to the two huge granite carvings from Custer. Both Mount Rushmore National Monument and Crazy Horse Memorial are less than 20 miles from the downtown area. Very near Mount Rushmore, you can also take a ride on the 1880 Train and stroll around Keystone and Hill City.

Rivaling most national parks, Custer State Park is less than five miles away. From scenic drives to hiking and wildlife watching to water activities, no matter how much time you have, it will never be enough. The adjoining Wind Cave National Park complements the state park with more wildlife plus the opportunity to explore a cave. And, if you are excited by the prospect of cave exploration, Jewel Cave National Monument is only 15 miles from downtown Custer.

Hot Springs, located just outside of the Black Hills National Forest, is home to The Mammoth Site. This research and education facility is also an active dig site where fossils of mammoths, camels, bears and more have been unearthed.

Last, but not least, the Four Mile Old West Town Museum is the closest to downtown Custer. With so many different buildings to explore, this "ghost town" is fun for both kids and adults.

All 8 of these destinations are unique and won't disappoint any visitor to the Black Hills. Plus - spending time in downtown Custer is a must! Don't miss our itinerary to help you solve the puzzle of getting to everything during your days in the Southern Hills.

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The Black Hills and the Black Hills National Forest

The mountain range located in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming is known as the Black Hills. The range is home to Black Elk Peak (often referred to by its former name Harney Peak), the tallest mountain in South Dakota.


Black Elk Peak

Black Elk Peak

The mountains are covered by a forest of trees, predominantly ponderosa pines. When admiring the mountains from a distance, the shadow cast by the trees makes the stone of the mountains appear black in color. Because of this, the Lakota Sioux tribe referred to the mountains as Pahá Sápa which translates to "hills that are black".

A 1.2 million acre area of land in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming makes up the Black Hills National Forest. The national forest includes the mountain range as well as lower elevation lands in the Great Plains.


Black Hills National Forest

Black Hills National Forest

Especially during the summer months, visitors from all around the world head for the hills! In addition to camping and hiking, the most adventurous of travelers participate in active or extreme sports. With the variety of natural beauty and man made creations, even those less adventurous will love their time in the Black Hills and Black Hills National Forest.

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Custer, South Dakota

With its rather central location, the city of Custer is a perfect starting point for exploring the Southern Black Hills (or Southern Hills as the area is referred to by the locals). It's easy to plan daily itineraries which can include one or more of the best sites in the area. But, don't miss out on spending some of your time getting to know the mining and tourist town of Custer, the oldest town in the Black Hills.


Greetings from Custer, South Dakota

Greetings from Custer, South Dakota

The Custer Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, located at 615 Washington St. is the place to ask questions and get ideas for what to see and do that match your interests.


Bust of General Custer at the Custer City Visitor Center

Bust of General Custer at the Custer City Visitor Center

General Custer Buffalo at Custer City Visitor Center

General Custer Buffalo at Custer City Visitor Center

A walk up and down Mt. Rushmore Road gives an introduction to some of what the city has to offer. It was there where we stumbled upon the Dr. Flick Cabin, the oldest structure in the Black Hills.


A Walk on Mt. Rushmore Road

A Walk on Mt. Rushmore Road

Dr. Flick Cabin

Dr. Flick Cabin

We also enjoyed wandering around the city looking at the murals and trying to find all of the painted buffalo. (Most of the buffalo sculptures are owned by a local resident. Each year, the buffalo are lent to the city and placed on the streets for all to enjoy. The timing perfectly coincides with the sculptures arriving downtown in late May just as peak tourist season begins. Just after the late September Buffalo Roundup at Custer State Park, the buffalo sculptures return to their home.)


Our Favorite Painted Bison in Custer City

Our Favorite Painted Bison in Custer City

Big Rock Park is a great place to make sure that you meet your step goals while also enjoying awesome panoramic views of the city. The Skywalk Trail starts at the south end of 6th Street and climbs uphill to two lookout points. Your first 200+ stair steps take you to Sunrise Point. After soaking in the view, it's your choice as to whether you want to return to your starting point, or go up even further. It's another 90 steps to reach the top of the Big Rock Observation Deck for a bird's eye view of the surrounding area.


Starting Custer Skywalk Nature Trail

Starting Custer Skywalk Nature Trail

View from Sunrise Point

View from Sunrise Point

The Final Set of Steps to the Big Rock Observation Deck

The Final Set of Steps to the Big Rock Observation Deck

Panoramic View from Big Rock Observation Deck

Panoramic View from Big Rock Observation Deck

If you've worked up an appetite, the Black Hills Burger & Bun is known for awesome bison burgers. But, their hours are limited (Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11:00 AM - 2:00 PM and 5:00 PM - 7:30 PM), so you definitely have to coordinate your hunger! If your timing doesn't match, most of our gang ate a late bison burger lunch at Baker's Bakery & Cafe and left stuffed and happy.

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Make sure not to leave the city without looking up to see "CUSTER" - either during the day or lighted up at night!


Looking Up in Custer

Looking Up in Custer

And now, our pick of the top 8 places to see - all within one hour of Custer City. First, a map to help you get your bearings followed by a brief introduction to each. (The list starts with the closest place to downtown Custer and continues in order based on distance from the city.)

A Visual of the 8 Locations on a Map

To help get your bearings, here's a quick visual of the city of Custer surrounded by our 8 must see locations:


8 Must See Places within 1 Hour of Custer, SD

8 Must See Places within 1 Hour of Custer, SD

1. Four Mile Old West Town Museum

Step back in time as you explore the Four Mile Old West Town Museum. Open from mid-May through early October, the museum gets its name from its four mile distance west of downtown Custer. (In the 1800s, unnamed towns were assigned numbers so traveling stagecoaches could more easily make stops at the correct location.)


Entrance to Four Mile Old West Town

Entrance to Four Mile Old West Town

What can be explored today is a re-creation of the former stagecoach stop which stood in the same location. After passing the talking outhouse, visitors can walk through nearly all of the buildings which make up the "ghost town". Then it will be your opportunity to decide if your favorite was one of the shoppes, the bank, hotel, jail or church ... or one of the other almost 50 buildings?


Surveyor, Town Hall, Saloon and More

Surveyor, Town Hall, Saloon and More

Moss City Bank

Moss City Bank

Four Mile Stagecoach Stop

Four Mile Stagecoach Stop

Butcher Shoppe, Sweet Shoppe, General Store and More

Butcher Shoppe, Sweet Shoppe, General Store and More

Four Mile Church

Four Mile Church

The interpretive exhibits and original artifacts will keep your attention and make you yearn to learn more about western history. Admission is $6.00 per person plus tax ($12.72 for two - cash only). Save time to wander through the gift shop before you leave - you may find a unique souvenir or gift perfect for yourself or a loved one back home.

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2. Custer State Park

With over 70,000 acres, Custer State Park is the largest South Dakota state park and one of the largest in the entire United States. With stunning scenery along unique drives, the high probability of wildlife jams, plus plenty of opportunities for hiking and other activities, it's not a park that can be explored in just one day.

The 20 minute movie narrated by Kevin Costner and shown every half hour at the Custer State Park Visitor Center is thoroughly enjoyable. Driving the entire 70 mile Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway can be done in segments and even split among more than one day. It will be hard to decide if the Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road or the Wildlife Loop Road is your favorite. You may even want to drive the Wildlife Loop at two or more different times of the day to improve your wildlife sighting success.


Needles Highway

Needles Highway

Depending on your interests, there are so many outdoor activities to choose from. There are a variety of hiking trails making it easy to find those that match your hiking capabilities and the time that you are willing to devote.


Sitting on the Rocks at the Hight Point of Lover's Leap Trail

Sitting on the Rocks at the Hight Point of Lover's Leap Trail

There are points of interest within the park that are fun to explore such as the still actively used Mount Coolidge Fire Tower. There's even places that water lovers will enjoy including resorts, fishing lakes, swimming and even a beach.


Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake

From downtown Custer, the west entrance to Custer State Park is less than 5 miles away. A weekly license to enter the park costs $20.00. Those who plan to stay longer than one week or visit additional South Dakota state parks can purchase an annual park entrance license valid through the following May at a cost of $36.00.

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3. Crazy Horse Memorial

What will be the largest mountain carving in the world upon its completion, the "blasting" of Crazy Horse has already been in progress for over 70 years. The over 87 foot tall face of the leader of the Oglala Lakota was completed in June 1998. Since then, the focus has been on the 263 foot long left arm as well the mane and 22 story tall head of the horse. In addition to distant views of the sculpture, those willing to supplement their admission fee have options to ride to either the base or top of the mountain for a more close-up view.


Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial

There's a lot more than the mountain carving to see and do at the Crazy Horse Memorial visitor's complex. Located less than 10 miles from Downtown Custer, the memorial honors "the living heritage of the North American Indians". Admission to the memorial is $7.00 for those arriving by motorcycle, bicycle or on foot. Visitors arriving by car pay based on the number of people in the vehicle ($12.00 for one person, $24.00 for 2 people or $30,00 for 3 or more).

A visit to the memorial can start with viewing the introductory video, Dynamite & Dreams, to get a better understanding of the memorial's vision and progress. The three wings of the onsite Indian Museum of North America are filled with donated North American Indian art and artifacts. There's outdoor art and even a gallery dedicated to telling the story of how the mountain has been and is being carved.


Fighting Stallions

Fighting Stallions

During peak season, American Indian dancers such as Hoop Dancer Starr Chief Eagle perform. Legends in Light, a multimedia laser light show is displayed on the mountainside each evening during summer months.


Hoop Dancer Starr Chief Eagle

Hoop Dancer Starr Chief Eagle

Legends in Light

Legends in Light

The Indian University of North America, a partnership between the University of South Dakota and Crazy Horse Memorial continues to grow. Each year the university moves closer toward its ultimate goal of having a medical training center.

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4. Jewel Cave National Monument

The only place on this list that we did not visit was Jewel Cave National Monument. At the time that we began planning our day trips from Custer, tours of Jewel Cave were paused due to elevator safety issues and COVID-19. Since we had read so many positive comments about the cave tours, we kept the monument in our plans hoping that the status of tours would change. Unfortunately, it did not.

Jewel Cave, the third longest cave in the world, is under 15 miles from downtown Custer. The cave gets its name from the colorful formations including calcite crystals that decorate the underground passageways. The Scenic Tour that we had hoped to join is an 80 minute ranger-led tour which requires walking approximately 1/2 mile (including climbing up and down over 700 stairs).

Tickets are available online beginning 90 days in advance of the tour date. Advance ticket sales close 72 hours prior to the tour and remaining tickets can be purchased at the monument on the day of the tour (first-come, first-served). All Scenic Tour tickets are priced at $12.00 for adults (age 17 and over) or $8.00 for youth (ages 6 - 16). There is no charge for children aged 5 and under.

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5. Mount Rushmore National Monument

The four granite faces that make up Mount Rushmore National Monument are located approximately 20 miles from downtown Custer. Seeing the likenesses of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln carved into the mountainside makes a day time visit worthwhile, but there is more to see and do.

Residents of a U. S. state or territory enjoy finding the flag that represents their home along the Avenue of Flags.


Viewing Mount Rushmore through the Avenue of Flags

Viewing Mount Rushmore through the Avenue of Flags

The 14-minute video shown in the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center and the Ranger Talks in the Sculptor's Studio tell the story of how over 400 people worked over the course of 14 years to carve the mountain. A walk along the Presidential Trail will enhance your visit by taking you even closer to the sculpture. Along the way, there are exhibits about each of the four presidents carved into the mountainside.


Walking Along the Presidential Trail

Walking Along the Presidential Trail

During peak season, the Evening Lighting Ceremony is a fun and patriotic way to cap off any visit to Mount Rushmore. Before the lighting of the monument, there is a brief ranger talk followed by a film. The ceremony concludes with an emotional folding of the flag with the assistance of current and former members of the military and their families.


Evening Lighting Ceremony

Evening Lighting Ceremony

There is no fee to enter the national monument, however there is a $10.00 fee (valid for one year) for parking a personal vehicle in the parking garage.

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6. Wind Cave National Park

Entrance into and tours of the cave at Wind Cave National Park have been cancelled since June 29, 2019 due to the need for major elevator repairs. With the park encompassing over 28,000 acres of land, hiking or driving through the park is a must - even with no chance of exploring a cave! (Although there are fees to join cave tours, there is no entrance fee for those wanting to explore above ground.)

While Custer State Park is popular for those hoping to see bison, it was actually at Wind Cave where we first spotted a large number of bison. Bison aren't the only species who call the park home. You may get lucky by also spotting coyote, deer, elk, pronghorn and even prairie dogs as you hike or drive through.


Bison Grazing in Wind Cave National Park

Bison Grazing in Wind Cave National Park

A Prairie Dog Family

A Prairie Dog Family

Wind Cave National Park was the first "national cave park" in the world! The park's Visitor Center is located just 20 miles from downtown Custer.

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7. 1880 Train

The Black Hills Central Railroad 1880 Train takes passengers between the South Dakota cities of Keystone and Hill City. Round trip rides aboard the train start at $32.00 for adults and $16.00 for children aged 3 - 12. In addition to the fun atmosphere of riding a diesel or steam powered train, it's pretty cool to realize that you are riding the tourist train that has been continuously operating longer than any other in the country.


1880 Train Arriving in Keystone, SD

1880 Train Arriving in Keystone, SD

The 10-mile journey between the two cities duplicates that of the 1880s era Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (CB&Q). Today's journey takes about one hour in each direction. The narration helps passengers see sites like Black Elk Peak, mines serviced by the CB&Q line and maybe even some wildlife.


Following the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Route

Following the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Route

The drive from downtown Custer to the Hill City train station is 14 miles and to the Keystone station is 22 miles. If you can work them into your available time, Hill City and Keystone, both tourist towns, deserve a visit as well.

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8. The Mammoth Site

Located about 40 miles from downtown Custer in Hot Springs, The Mammoth Site is home to the remains of more than 60 Columbian mammoths. While leveling ground for a planned housing project in 1974, a 7-foot long tusk and other bones were discovered. Land development was immediately put on hold in order to learn more. Excavation began at the site a year later when a complete skull (tusks and all) was discovered. At that point, the housing development was permanently halted and the site would eventually become a fully enclosed, climate controlled dig site.


Colombian Mammoth Nicknamed Sinbad

Colombian Mammoth Nicknamed Sinbad

After paying the $10.14 plus tax entrance fee, visitors are urged to watch an introductory video. After just 10-minutes, you walk away with background on the Ice Age and the watering hole (aka the sinkhole) which attracted the mammoths, ultimately causing their death as they could not climb out. A self-guided tour takes you on a walk around the edge of the sinkhole and eventually inside. Along the way, you'll see some of the 1,200+ fossils including pelvic, hip and leg bones, teeth, tusks and skulls. In addition to seeing the variety of tools used to safely unearth finds, there's also exhibits and replicas ... and even some footprints!


Fossil Footprints

Fossil Footprints

Leg Bones of a Mammoth surrounding Excavation Tools

Leg Bones of a Mammoth surrounding Excavation Tools

Preserved Bones of Mammoth Skeleton Nicknamed Napoleon

Preserved Bones of Mammoth Skeleton Nicknamed Napoleon

Posing on Lower Platform near Napoleon

Posing on Lower Platform near Napoleon

Colombian Mammoth Skull and Tusks

Colombian Mammoth Skull and Tusks

If you have young ones, they may be interested in the Junior Paleontologist Excavations. Available only during June, July and August, classes do typically fill up - so the early bird gets to dig!

If you have extra time, be sure to look for more fun in Hot Springs - maybe even soaking in a hot spring.

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Daily Itinerary

Here's a sample itinerary to help you plan your time exploring the area surrounding Custer. Although there is no right or wrong order to see the amazing sites, this five day itinerary worked well for us:

Day 1: Downtown Custer & Crazy Horse

After spending the morning and early afternoon at Crazy Horse Memorial, we devoted our remaining afternoon and early evening to downtown Custer. It's important to know that the bus to the base of Crazy Horse does not operate within 30 minutes of any lightning strike in the area. We returned in the evening for the laser light show, but also had to work in a return visit within three days for the ride to the base due to lightning.

Day 2: Mount Rushmore & 1880 Train

We sandwiched a round-trip ride from Keystone aboard the 1880 Train with both a daytime and evening visit to Mount Rushmore National Monument.

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Day 3: Custer State Park

Our primary objective was to drive the Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway within the state park while stopping for photos as frequently as possible.

Day 4: Hot Springs, Four Mile Old West Town, Jewel Cave & Custer State Park

After spending the morning touring The Mammoth Site and walking a part of the Freedom Trail in Hot Springs, we headed to Four Mile Old West Town. Had the cave tours been operating in Jewel Cave National Monument, we would have headed there rather than to our RV for an afternoon break. We wrapped up our day with an evening drive on the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park.

Day 5: Custer State Park & Wind Cave National Park

We started with a morning drive along the Wildlife Loop and into Wind Cave National Park. We used our remaining time to go to the Custer State Park Visitor Center, see historical sites in the park and do some hiking.

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Mount Rushmore National Park or Crazy Horse Memorial

We regularly see comparisons between Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore. On various social media platforms, people often comment about which sculpture they preferred. Look for our upcoming article which will include both the similarities and differences between these two tourist attractions. We'll also attempt to help those with limited time decide which to visit based on their personal interests.

Favorite Place in the Black Hills

If you were to recommend your favorite 2 - 3 sites in the Black Hills, what would be on your list?


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8 Must Sees Within 1 Hour of Custer, SD







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