Abundant wildlife persuaded me to choose Custer State Park over other landmarks nearby while spending our first full day in South Dakota.
Custer State Park – One of the Best Safari Parks in the USA
Nestled in the southern Black Hills, the 71,000-acre Custer State Park allures with its scenic overlooks, towering peaks, roadside lakes, and a variety of wild animals.
The prime destination for wildlife viewing and outdoor adventures, this South Dakota region first opened its doors as a park in 1912. Two years later, the first herd of 36 bison was purchased and moved into the area. More than 10 pronghorn joined Custer’s wildlife family a couple of years later.
With the increasing wildlife population, on July 1, 1919, the place officially became the first South Dakota state park. Influential people and presidents visited the park. More animals were added. And in 1961, visitation reached 1 million people. Today this number is close to 2 million.
But wildlife is just one part that draws visitors to this remarkable jewel of South Dakota. Pristine lakes, granite peaks, bubbling streams, and astounding vistas inspire people over the world to add Custer State Park to their travel itineraries.
If it’s your first time in the region, here are the best things you can do in Custer State Park in one day.
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN CUSTER STATE PARK: ONE DAY ITINERARY
1. Watch Animals along Wildlife Loop Road
I must admit I questioned Roshan’s (who had planned the whole trip) choice of adding Custer State Park to our first day itinerary. I believed there were better places to see nearby, such as Wind Cave National Park or even Jewel Cave National Monument.
My puzzlement evaporated as soon as I started dissecting the area and narrowing down our choices, selecting places and things we wanted to see and do this time and leaving the rest for some other trips in the future.
Wildlife Loop Road won me over at once. Regardless of how many times I saw bison, deer, or elk, I still find them as fascinating as the first time I laid my eyes on these amazing wild creatures. Wildlife Loop Road was a dream come true. Apart from the bison and antlered animals, it promised to give us a sneak peek at pronghorn, coyotes, prairie dogs, and burros.
The loop is 18 miles long and is one of the favorite places to spend a day in Custer State Park. It runs from the East entrance near the Visitor Center to the Blue Bell entrance, creating a “U”-shaped route.
1.5-2 hours should be enough to explore the area. Not rarely, you may spend hours and even up to half a day admiring and photographing the wild inhabitants of this part of Custer Park from a distance.
2. Befriend Begging Burros
While the majority of the wild animals in Custer State Park leave their hideouts early in the morning and late in the afternoon, burros can be seen grazing on the grassland at any time of the day.
Burros or wild donkeys are not indigenous to Custer State Park. The animals that look like ponies with large ears were brought to the area by miners and other laborers in the mid-1870s. In the 1930’s, the burros were used for treks to Harney Peak (now Black Elk Peak), the highest point in the country east of the Rockies.
When the tours ended, the working donkeys were released into the wild. With time they reverted to their wild state. Yet even today, the feral animals still beg for some treats, such as carrots or apples. This is where the name “begging burros” comes from.
During our day trip to Custer State Park, the wild donkeys were anything but begging. Quite the opposite, our curious 6-year-old sunshine “begged” the burros, in particular one white rascal, to eat a carrot in exchange of patting his back.
TIP: Feeding and disturbing wildlife in Custer State Park is not encouraged. But it looks like this rule gets stretched when it comes to feeding the local burros. I guess the feral nature of the animals is somehow taken into consideration. So if you can’t resist feeding and patting the burros, make sure to give them food that they are accustomed to and can find in the wild. No sandwiches or crackers, please.
3. Visit Custer State Park Bison Center
The newest attraction in the park, the Custer State Park Bison Center is dedicated to educating its visitors about one of the world’s largest publicly owned bison herds. Numerous interpretive installations, photographic displays, and video footage provide an insider’s look at history and natural habitat of the local bovines.
The Bison Center opened just a year ago, in 2022, and gathered more than 100,000 visitors in its first season. Seeing how Dylan was enthusiastically running from one display to another, I can confirm that the center is a big success even among the kids.
4. Drive along Needles Highway
Stretching for 14 miles, Needles Highway is one of the favorite routes to see different terrains of Custer State Park. Dotted with pine and spruce forests and rugged granite mountains, the area provides a stunning contrast to the plain prairie that Wildlife Loop Road runs through.
The untamed beauty of Needles Highway is indeed irresistible. One can spend the entire day exploring this part of Custer Park at her own pace. There are majestic peaks stealing your attention and scenic lakes luring you to wander around.
A plethora of panoramic overlooks open the views down into the forest. If you want to get up-close and personal with those granite “guards”, hit one or two hiking trails. With a wide variety of the paths, you can choose the length and difficulty that suits you best.
People’s itineraries for this section of the park can vary drastically. Most day visitors, however, flock to Custer State Park to see one particular attraction: the Needle’s Eye. This needle-like formation towers over its granite neighbors nestled right along the highway and is responsible for the name of the road.
5. Drive through Needles Eye Tunnel
Beware, though, Needles Highway can become congested especially on both sides of the Needles Eye Tunnel. The tunnel is a narrow, one-lane passage carved through the granite outcroppings.
The Best Time to Visit: Needles Highway and the Needles Eye Tunnel are closed during the winter season. The best time to visit them is from April until October.
6. Stop at Sylvan Lake to Fill Your Day with Custer State Park’s Beauty and Serenity
Sylvan Lake is one of the five lakes located within Custer State Park. It was created in 1891 when businessman Theodore Reder built a dam at the gap he found northeast of Custer.
With an adjacent parking lot and towering mountains reflecting off the lake, the area attracts many locals and travelers. At the day visitors service are Sylvan Lake Campground, the 1.1-mile Sylvan Lake Shore Loop Trail, and Custer State Park’s excellent fishing spots.
TIP: Dogs are also welcome, but must be on leash.
7. Hike Cathedral Spires Trail
South of Sylvan Lake along Needles Highway, the day visitors find the Cathedral Spires Trail, one of the prime hiking destinations in Custer State Park. The moderate to strenuous trail runs for 1.5 miles one way and allows you to see more of the area’s wildlife and granite formations.
Other trails you may want to explore during your day adventures near Custer include the following:
- Badger Clark Trail. It’s a moderate, 1.2-mile loop trail.
- Black Elk Peak Trail #4. The trail is one of the most coveted areas in the park. The strenuous 3.25-mile, one-way path runs up and down the hill. It starts south of Sylvan Lake along Needles Highway and shares its trailhead with Little Devils Tower Trail.
- Black Elk Peak Trail #9. The 3.3-mile, one-way trail is strenuous. Its trailhead sits east of Sylvan Lake Day Use Area.
- Little Devils Tower. The 1.5-mile, one-way trail is also strenuous. It requires the hikers to conquer a steep incline and scramble over large granite boulders. The trailhead, visible from the road, is nestled less than a mile south of Sylvan Lake General Store.
- Cairn Trail. The easy, just 0.3-mile, one-way trail sits at the south end of the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center parking lot.
8. Take Iron Mountain Road on Your Way to Mount Rushmore
Only a portion of the scenic 18-mile Iron Mountain Road lies within the park. Nevertheless it’s a place you should see especially if you plan to visit both the state park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial on the same day.
The drive was constructed in 1933, supported and directed by Senator Peter Norbeck, a zealous advocate of preserving the raw natural beauty of South Dakota. The highway runs through the Black Hills area between Mount Rushmore and the junction of US 16A and SD 36. It features pigtail bridges, framed granite tunnels, and subtle natural splendor of the state.
9. Admire South Dakota’s Scenery along Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway
Get ready for some day adventures outside Custer State Park. Rated as one of the top 10 byways in North America, Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway encompassed some of the most stunning natural and historic landmarks of the Black Hills.
The Scenic Loop includes both Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road along with two other highways, SD 89 and SD 244. Among its most popular sites are the Needles and Mount Rushmore.
10. Buffalo Roundup
Save a day and visit Custer State Park in late September when the area is free to enter and offers Buffalo Roundup viewing. This is when South Dakota revives its old western traditions. Custer’s cowboys and cowgirls on horseback rumble the buffalo herd across the grassland to determine and later manage its size.
The plains of Custer State Park can support approximately 1,400 bison. The rest of the bovines must be sold to ensure adequate food supply to the remaining inhabitants.
Custer State Park has been gathering its buffalo herd since the 1960s. The event is free and open to the public. After the roundup, the Custer’s guests enjoy the Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival that lasts three days.
Things to Know before Visiting Custer State Park in South Dakota
A temporary/day entrance license to Custer State Park costs $20. The ticket is valid for seven consecutive days.
Pets are allowed on a leash no longer than 10 feet. Additionally, dog owners must keep their four-legged friends, except for service animals, away from park buildings and designated swimming beaches.
No Jumping into Lakes
Jumping from bridges or cliffs into any lakes within Custer State Park is not allowed.
Keep a Safe Distance from Wild Animals
Feeding or disturbing the wildlife in Custer State Park is prohibited. Park’s rangers also insist on not approaching large animals, such as buffalo or elk, for your own safety. If the animals show visible changes in their behavior while you are observing them, you are too close. Move farther away from the wildlife.
Custer’s visitors can use drones in the state park, but must follow local rules and Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
Is One Day Enough for Custer State Park?
Short answer, yes. If you plan your arrival in the morning, you can see most of the features and some of the wildlife of Custer State Park in one day. Drive Wildlife Loop Road early in the morning or late in the evening when the animals are most active.
Additionally, pack your day itinerary with shorter trails to see the beauty of the park beyond the areas that the scenic drives showcase. If you long for longer hikes or intent to participate in Custer State Park Trail Challenge, extend your visit to at least two days.
Other Places to Visit Near Custer State Park
- Wind Cave National Park (35 minutes from Custer Park)
- Crazy Horse Memorial (40 minutes from Custer)
- Jewel Cave National Monument (40 minutes from Custer Park)
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial (50 minutes from Custer Park)
- The Mammoth Site (55 minutes from Custer)
- Badlands National Park (1 hour 35 minutes from Custer)