Custer State Park
Discover the Black Hills and sacred bison along stunning scenic drives and miles of trails.
Hiking boots, cycling gear, paddles or a camera? Choosing what to grab first is a common dilemma when visiting Custer State Park in South Dakota. The choice is never wrong—there’s something for everyone here (and deciding where to start is best done over a crackling campfire).
Located in the heart of the Black Hills, this park is a gem, albeit one often overshadowed by its more famous neighbors: Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Badlands National Park, Crazy Horse Memorial and Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. South Dakota’s first and largest state park, Custer is a place held sacred by Plains Indians and is an invariably compelling destination for travelers with a variety of interests.
The park has over 71,000 acres containing forested hills accented with small lakes and dramatic rock formations linked by the scenic Needles Highway (also called South Dakota Highway 87). Completed in 1922, this thrilling 14-mile road twists and turns sharply through a forest of ponderosa pine and spruce. Drivers can expect to travel through several tunnels and emerge to encounter narrow granite spires—including the famed Needle’s Eye, which juts skyward in dramatic fashion.
Iron Mountain Road connects the park with Mount Rushmore and features a series of pigtail (spiral) bridges that allow travelers to gain and drop altitude quickly. When the road was being planned, critics said it couldn’t be done. But construction teams led by Owen Mann, then the superintendent of Custer State Park, proved them wrong when the highway was completed in the 1930s. The route was never intended to be a superhighway. In fact, then-Gov. Peter Norbeck famously said, “To do the scenery half justice, people should drive 20 or under; to do it full justice; they should get out and walk.”
But my favorite scenic drive is Wildlife Loop Road—18 glorious miles along which the Black Hills transition to open prairie. I like to drive here slowly at sunrise and then stop to listen to a variety of colorful and lovely songbirds ranging from meadowlarks to mountain bluebirds. Often I will spot them perched on fence posts.
For the keen observer, animal sightings are plentiful along the Wildlife Loop. Bring your camera and patience. Prepare to see prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, bison, elk, coyotes, deer and wild burros. In late spring, the animal population surges with newborns.
There are nine campgrounds in the park, and most provide easy access to small lakes where fishing and canoeing are popular activities. I like to lace up my hiking boots and wander along wildflower-strewn meadows, then head upward for amazing views like the one from the 7,242-foot-high Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak). It’s the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains, with a full view of the Black Hills and the prairie lands below.
Begin the hike at Sylvan Lake. Take Trail 9 through the Black Elk Wilderness, gaining 1,100 feet in 3.5 miles. For an easier option, stick near the trailhead and walk the flat loop around the lovely lake where massive granite boulders meet the shoreline.
Another favorite place to explore is French Creek as it gently flows through the park. The colorful canyon gorge area is particularly scenic. The banks explode with bright yellow clover in the summer, and the area is known for diverse wildlife and abundant vegetation. Bring your fishing gear and try your luck catching rainbow or brown trout.
Cycling is another popular pastime in the park. I bring my bicycle along, as the George S. Mickelson Trail travels over 100 miles through the Black Hills at an easy grade—a wonderful way to take in scenery and small towns such as Custer and Hill City.
Bison are sacred in these lands, but the massive herds were nearly wiped out a century ago by settlers. Today, many of the nine tribes in South Dakota keep bison herds, as do several parks, including Custer. Every September, the park hosts a roundup. Locals drive over 1,300 head of bison into corrals for vaccinations and herd management (some are auctioned off). Bring a pair of binoculars and come early to reserve your spot for the best view of this event. To most fully enjoy all of the options, first visit the Custer State Park Visitor Center where you can watch a short film that highlights the park’s history and its geological features. Later, you can discover as I have what a joy it is to experience this grand park firsthand, whether it be on a trail, on the water or from the seat of a car.