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10 Things to See and Do at Custer State Park

10 Things to See and Do at Custer State Park


avatar   Stacy
Trip Date 08/02/2020
Posted On 10/26/2020 09:09:09

Destinations | Camping | Hiking | South Dakota | Custer State Park | Scenic Drives | Iron Mountain Road | Needles Highway | Wildlife Loop | Legion Lake | Sylvan Lake | Historic Sites



When your destination is South Dakota, the state's largest state park is a must visit. Whether you prefer amazing scenery, watching wildlife or historic sites, relaxing by a lake or more active water sports, camping and hiking or more luxurious accommodations, Custer State Park will not disappoint.

Located near the southwest corner of the state, the park is home to tall granite peaks towering over a wide expanse of rolling plains. Free roaming buffalo and other wildlife wander across the open range. The clear blue lake waters of Legion Lake, Sylvan Lake or one of the other three lakes will lure you over.

One of the best ways to begin exploring Custer State Park is to pack a picnic and slowly drive along one of the three scenic drives. If you are a mountain lover, start on either Needles Highway or Iron Mountain Road. If you hope to see some of the park's four legged friends, then the Wildlife Loop is a good place to begin. Whichever you choose, you'll be able to find the perfect place to get out that picnic basket surrounded by nature!

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Custer State Park: Fun Facts and Helpful Information

With over 71,000 acres, Custer State Park is one of the nation's largest state parks and South Dakota's largest (and first) state park. Less than 10 years after the park opened, President Calvin Coolidge stayed in the State Game Lodge for several months in mid 1927 and declared it his "Summer White House". The park officially celebrated its 100th birthday on July 1, 2019.


East Gate Entrance to Custer State Park

East Gate Entrance to Custer State Park

The highest peak in both the park and the state, Black Elk Peak is also often recognized as the highest point in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. Custer State Park is the most crowded during the summer months, but winter months can be a great time to see more unique scenery. You can even snowshoe in January, February or March for no charge (snowshoes included) - other than the standard park entrance fee. (A temporary entrance license valid for up to 7 days costs $20.00 per vehicle. Those planning to visit multiple times throughout the year or visit other South Dakota state parks can purchase an annual park entrance license for $36.00 which is valid through May of the following year.)

The park is probably best known for its herd of free roaming buffalo. Since their diet is not supplemented, in a typical year about 1,400 bison can survive by living on the park's land. In addition to being an excellent opportunity to vaccinate and brand the bison, a Buffalo Roundup is used to help manage the herd size. Held annually in late September, those who have had the opportunity to observe the round-up compare it to days from the Wild West! Following the Roundup, a sale is typically held in mid-autumn in an effort to reduce the bison count to the appropriate number.

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Now that you know a little bit about the park's history, here's our list of the 10 things that no guest should miss during a visit to Custer State Park:

1. Get an Introduction at the Custer State Park Visitor Center

Custer State Park has two Visitor Centers plus the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center (closed during our visit due to COVID-19). The Custer State Park Visitor Center, the newest of the three, should be a part of any visit to the park.


Custer State Park Visitor Center

Custer State Park Visitor Center

Don't miss seeing the 20 minute movie, Spirit of Tatanka. Narrated by Kevin Costner with commentary by one of the park's former herd managers, the movie provides great background information for all park visitors. The volunteers inside the Visitor Center are also very helpful in answering questions. (They may even be able to give you some tips on where to spot your favorite wildlife.)

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Soak in the Scenery on 3 Diverse Drives

The 68-mile long Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway is regularly recognized as one of America's most scenic drives. Norbeck, the first governor of South Dakota, is considered the father of Custer State Park. In addition to two of the lodges within the park, his inspiration is credited for the building of the byway.

The scenic byway includes roads both in and outside of the park. Along with the northern part of the Wildlife Loop, the entire Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway make up most of the scenic byway. Outside of Custer State Park, drivers along the byway pass Mount Rushmore and have opportunities for views of the mountain range and the Black Hills National Forest.

A quote from Norbeck himself is a great reminder for anyone planning to drive the road: "You're not supposed to drive here at 60 miles an hour. To do the scenery half justice, people should drive 20 or under, to do it full justice, they should get out and walk."

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2. Iron Mountain Road

An 18-mile stretch of US 16A between the intersection of SD 36 and Mount Rushmore National Memorial is known as the Iron Mountain Road. The southern portion of the road is the only section that falls within Custer State Park, but the entire drive is not to be missed.

Engineers originally balked at the plans saying that building the road was impossible. Norbeck convinced them otherwise, and the Iron Mountain Road was built in 1933. The road passes through three single lane tunnels - one as narrow as 10' 9" and another whose roof is only 10' 9" above ground.

Each of the tunnels (outside of the park) frame an awesome distant view of Mount Rushmore. Although the pigtail bridges (bridges which loop back over the same road) help you change altitude more quickly, driving slowly is a must so that you don't miss out on any view. Between the first and second tunnel, a stop at the Norbeck Overlook provides good insight into the park's father.


The Scenic Black Hills

The Scenic Black Hills

Lakota Lake

Lakota Lake

Scovel Johnson Tunnel

Scovel Johnson Tunnel

Mount Rushmore from the Norbeck Overlook

Mount Rushmore from the Norbeck Overlook

Pigtail Bridge at the C. C. Gideon Tunnel

Pigtail Bridge at the C. C. Gideon Tunnel

Doane Robinson Tunnel

Doane Robinson Tunnel

Plan to devote at least one hour for driving the entire length of the Iron Mountain Road. (US 16A is the only road on which drivers can pass through the state park without paying the park entrance fee as long as they do not stop in the park.)

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To get from the Iron Mountain Road to Needles Highway, go west (left) on SD 244 (a part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway). Just past the entrance to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, there's an overlook often referred to as the profile turnout. It's worth making a stop to snap a photo of the man referred to as the father of the United States!


Washington Profile Overlook

Washington Profile Overlook

Continuing west, you'll pass Horsethief Lake known for rainbow trout fishing. The lake is the result of the Civilian Conservation Corps' building of Pine Creek Dam in the 1930's.


Horsethief Lake on SD 244

Horsethief Lake on SD 244

3. Needles Highway

SD 87, also known as the Needles Highway, is a 14-mile section of road in the northwestern area of the state park. The tunnels on this highway have even lower roofs and are narrower than those on the Iron Mountain Road. (The Needles Eye Tunnel is only 8' wide and the roof of the Hood Tunnel measures only 9' 8" from the ground.)


Traveling South on Needles Highway

Traveling South on Needles Highway

Needles along Needles Highway

Needles along Needles Highway

Towering Granite Peaks

Towering Granite Peaks

As Norbeck was mapping out the route for Needles Highway, it is said that his goal was to incorporate "the grandest of views". Based on the crowds along the highway, especially lining up to pass through the Needles Eye Tunnel, he was successful!


Needles Eye Tunnel

Needles Eye Tunnel

So Many Granite Peaks Lined Up

So Many Granite Peaks Lined Up

Building the road required 150,000 pounds of dynamite and two years of time. Completed in 1922, the highway twists and turns as it winds past forests of pine and spruce, meadows and the namesake towering granite peaks that resemble needles. Even if you don't have time for or are not interested in doing a hike, try to score one of the coveted parking spaces near the Cathedral Spires Trail. Walk to the trailhead and hike a short distance to look up and get a feel for the maze of huge granite spires - you'll be glad you did!


Trailhead of Cathedral Spires

Trailhead of Cathedral Spires

Did you know that the original inspiration for a carving the likes of Mount Rushmore came from the Cathedral Spires on Needles Highway? While stopped on the highway due to car trouble back in 1923, a South Dakota Historian had the vision that he thought would bring tourists to the state. After working with others including Norbeck and the eventual Mount Rushmore sculptor, it was determined that other minerals mixed with the granite made it unsuitable for carving.

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4. Wildlife Loop Road

The road within the state park where your travel time is most dependent on whether or not you encounter a "bison jam", "burro jam" or some other "wildlife jam" is the Wildlife Loop Road. At 18 miles around, it is recommended that you travel the loop either right after sunrise or just before sunset to increase your odds of seeing some of the animal species that call the park home.

As you approach the Blue Bell Entrance on SD 87, you also have the option of taking a side trip to Wind Cave National Park. There's no entrance fee to drive (or hike) through the park hoping to see wildlife out and about there as well. (When offered, fees are charged for joining cave tours in the national park.)


Could this be the End of a Bison Jam?

Could this be the End of a Bison Jam?

You'd think that, with a herd of about 1,400 free-roaming buffalo, they would be easy to find. But, with over 70,000 acres in the park, it wasn't until our last of five days that we actually saw bison. When we did spot bison, they were often grazing - after all, they do eat for 9 to 11 hours each day!


Just a Walkin' . . .

Just a Walkin' . . .

Let's All Eat Together!

Let's All Eat Together!

It's Breakfast Time for this Baby Bison!

It's Breakfast Time for this Baby Bison!

Just a Small Fraction of the Custer State Park Buffalo Herd

Just a Small Fraction of the Custer State Park Buffalo Herd

It's About Time for My Afternoon Lunch!!

It's About Time for My Afternoon Lunch!!

Pronghorn, white-tailed deer and mule deer are usually some of the easiest to spot as you navigate the winding road through the prairie. Did you know that pronghorn are the fastest land animal found anywhere in North America?


Break Time for this Pronghorn

Break Time for this Pronghorn

The Better Side of a Pronghorn

The Better Side of a Pronghorn

Pronghorn Chase!

Pronghorn Chase!

We loved making stops to spend time with the burros and also taking time to watch the prairie dogs scurrying about.


Momma and Baby Burro

Momma and Baby Burro

The Approach of a Custer State Park Burro

The Approach of a Custer State Park Burro

Cute Little Baby Burro

Cute Little Baby Burro

Am I Supposed to Be Facing the Other Way?

Am I Supposed to Be Facing the Other Way?

Do keep your eyes peeled for the harder to spot wildlife. You may get luckier than we did and see elk, coyotes, mountain goats, bighorn sheep or even mountain lions on a hillside or hiding among the ponderosa pines.

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It goes without saying that you should always keep your distance from wildlife, and the same is true at Custer State Park. As the term "wildlife" indicates, the animals within the park are wild. The park is their home, and we should feel lucky to have the opportunity to stop by. Always maintain a safe distance (100 yards or more) from wildlife and never offer them any food. If you ever notice that an animal's behavior changes as you approach, you are too close and are invading their animal space.

Be Active or Recuperate at 2 Lovely Lakes

Of the five lakes within Custer State Park, you'll pass 2 of them as you check off the 3 scenic drives. At a minimum, make sure to incorporate visits to Legion Lake and Sylvan Lake into your day(s).

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5. Legion Lake

Built by the American Legion in the early 1930's, Legion Lake became a part of the state park in 1937. The lake is located on US 16A (the Wildlife Loop) just under 4 miles east of the park's West Entrance.


Legion Lake

Legion Lake

In addition to enjoying a variety of water sports (boating, fishing, personal watercraft, swimming, etc.) during day visits, the area is perfect for overnight stays as well. The Legion Lake Lodge fronts up to the lake and the nearby Legion Lake Campground has sites for tents and RVs (electric only).


Legion Lake Lodge

Legion Lake Lodge

6. Sylvan Lake

The most popular (i.e. most crowded) of the park's lakes is Sylvan Lake. While there is a large area for parking plus some overflow parking, it can still be difficult at times to find a parking space.


Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake

Located on Needles Highway, people flock to the lake during the summer to either relax on the beach or participate in more active water sports. You'll see swimmers, fisherfolk (for brown and rainbow trout), kayakers and even people who ignore the rules and jump into the water from the rocks.


Enjoying Sylvan Lake

Enjoying Sylvan Lake

The Sylvan Lake Shore Trail is a 1-mile loop rated easy to moderate. You'll pass people of all skill levels on the trail as it is both accessible and also popular with rock climbers! (Parts of National Treasure: Book of Secrets starring Nicholas Cage were actually filmed near the lake and on the trail.)

The park's newest and nicest lodge, Sylvan Lake Lodge, as well as the Sylvan Lake Campground, are nearby. (The campground will accommodate tent campers and those with smaller RVs - 27' and shorter.)

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Get a Feel For Years Gone Bye at 3 Historic Sites

Learning more about the area's history can actually be fun while exploring Custer State Park. These 3 historic sites are nearest the West Entrance and are easily accessible from the Wildlife Loop Road.

7. Mount Coolidge Fire Tower

Located on SD 87 about three miles south of US 16A, Mount Coolidge Fire Tower stands at the crest of a narrow gravel road. Originally built in 1923 as a log tower and caretaker's accommodations, the buildings were replaced with stone structures by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1939.


Mount Coolidge Fire Tower

Mount Coolidge Fire Tower

Because of their mountain top locations, lookouts help with spotting smoke, fire, lightning and even changing weather conditions. The tower atop Mount Coolidge continues to be manned as a fire lookout as well as a dispatch center for the state park. When the gates are open during the summer months, tourists are invited to enjoy panoramic views of the Black Hills from one of the highest points within the park. Although it can be difficult to get a clear picture without the best of cameras, you might even be able to see Crazy Horse or Mount Rushmore!


Panoramic View from Mount Coolidge

Panoramic View from Mount Coolidge

8. The Badger Hole

Charles Badger Clark lived in the cabin that he built near Legion Lake for his final 30 years until his 1957 death. Clark, the state's first Poet Laureate, wrote poetry from the simple cabin that is said to look today much like it did over 60 years ago. Typically open between Memorial and Labor Days, we were only able to see the outside due to COVID-19.


The Badger Hole

The Badger Hole

Some of his poetry can even be found along the easy to moderate 1.2 mile hiking trail which starts behind the home. Parts of the Badger Clark Trail were actually built by the poet himself.

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9. Gordon Stockade

Just inside the West Entrance of Custer State Park is the third replica of the Gordon Stockade. Once gold was discovered during the 1874 expedition led by General Custer, others illegally came to the Black Hills in search of their fortune. (The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie prohibited white settlement of the region which belonged to the Plains Indians.)

It was gold prospectors from Sioux City, Iowa led by John Gordon that built the original stockade in December 1874 in defiance of the treaty. While they may have avoided an attack by the Lakota, they were forced out a mere five months later by the US Cavalry.


Gordon Stockade

Gordon Stockade

Close-up of Workmanship on Stockade's Third Replica

Close-up of Workmanship on Stockade's Third Replica

10. See More of Nature on a Hike . . . or 2 or 3 or More!

No visit to a park of the caliber of Custer State Park can really be considered complete without checking off at least one hike. With miles and miles of options, selecting your hike(s) may seem daunting at first. Browsing the Custer State Park Trail Guide is a great place to start. You'll find trail distances, approximate duration and level of difficulty ratings (based on elevation gain and terrain).

To whet your hiking appetite, here's a brief overview of the two hikes that we completed during our visit:

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Prairie Trail

The three mile long Prairie Trail is rated moderate in difficulty. We chose the trail for the summer wildflowers and the possibility of buffalo sightings. Most of the trail crosses the mixed grass prairie, although there is one rather steep hill near the half-way point. Depending on the season and how much rain has recently fallen, you'll also cross one or more streams.


Crossing a Stream on the Prairie Trail

Crossing a Stream on the Prairie Trail

Scott and his Stacked Rocks

Scott and his Stacked Rocks

Another Stream Crossing

Another Stream Crossing

Still Crossing the Prairie

Still Crossing the Prairie

View over the Prairie from the Prairie Trail

View over the Prairie from the Prairie Trail

Zooming in on the Bison!

Zooming in on the Bison!

Wildflowers Along Prairie Trail

Wildflowers Along Prairie Trail

Completing the entire loop took us about 1 1/2 hours. If you choose this hike, do be on the lookout for poison ivy - we saw plenty.

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Lover's Leap Trail

There's no starting off easy on the three mile long Lover's Leap Trail. The loop trail, rated moderate to strenuous and also full of poison ivy, begins with an uphill climb. For the most part, it's uphill all of the way to the panoramic view from the rock formation affectionately called Lover's Leap. From there, it's all downhill back to the trailhead! The hike took us about two hours - including time for photos at the top.

We chose the hike as it is one of the park's most popular (and also because I read somewhere that there are often bighorn sheep in the area). We were fortunate that there were several other hikers who were a short distance ahead of us. Had it not been for them, we might have stopped at the point where the Badger Clark quote was posted. We would have missed the final scramble to the top - where legend has it was the point from which two Native American lovers leapt to their death.


Uphill Climb Surrounded by Tall Trees

Uphill Climb Surrounded by Tall Trees

Distant View from Lover's Leap Trail

Distant View from Lover's Leap Trail

Lover's Leap Hiking Trail

Lover's Leap Hiking Trail

Badger Clark Quote on Lover's Leap Trail

Badger Clark Quote on Lover's Leap Trail

No ... This is Not the Lover's Leap High Point!

No ... This is Not the Lover's Leap High Point!

Sitting on the Rock Outcrop at the High Point

Sitting on the Rock Outcrop at the High Point

Custer State Park has a Summer Trail Challenge each year. During 2020, fulfilling the challenge required the completion of 8 specific hikes between May 1 and September 14. To prove completion, an official form must be completed and submitted. The form includes spaces for a rubbing of the bronze medallion found at the approximate midway point of each hike. Both of the two hikes that we completed happened to be included in the 2020 challenge!


2 Hikes on the Custer State Park 2020 Summer Trail Challenge

2 Hikes on the Custer State Park 2020 Summer Trail Challenge

There's So Much More to Custer

Although our list of 10 things to be sure to experience in Custer State Park has come to an end, we've got more for you! While you are in the area, make sure to wander through downtown Custer City - not far from the park's West Entrance. It's a great town to find a souvenir, grab a bite to eat or even just walk up and down Mt. Rushmore Rd., the city's main street. Check out our article, "8 Must Sees Within 1 Hour of Custer, SD for seven more sites to include in any southwest South Dakota itinerary.

Custer State Park

What would you add to this list to make sure that all of your Custer State Park favorites are included?




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10 Things to See and Do at Custer State Park







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Comments    
Custer State Park
avatar   Lauren & Lottie
https://www.twinsgoneroaming.com
11/28/2020 20:49:16

Need to add Custer State Park to our list. Thanks for sharing this great post!
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Custer State Park
avatar   Stacy
arewethere-yet.com/wordyexplorers
11/29/2020 09:58:39

Thanks for reading! If you both enjoy wildlife and/or nature, Custer State Park should definitely be on your list. You'll love it. Happy exploring!
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