Bison, Burros, And The Black Hills: The Best Things To Do In Custer State Park

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One of the first things we did when we got to the Black Hills in South Dakota was head to the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road, well, right after visiting Wind Cave National Park.  At first, I really didn’t get the hype, especially with tons of people saying it should be a national park.  It wasn’t bad, but I definitely didn’t get it.

After realizing how big it is though and how many things there are to do in Custer State Park, I realized I actually loved it.  I get a little more why it should be a national park, but I still don’t think that will happen.  Either way, it’s fantastic and I do know that I’ll definitely be back to do more, though!


We did the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road in early October so it wasn’t super busy, which was nice.  We saw some bison and a pack of donkeys on the road, but that was about it wildlife wise.  We got out of the car and climbed a little hill at one point and had a great view of the plains and rolling hills around us.

While it may have been a fast visit to that part, I certainly enjoyed it and would love to go back and see more of it on our next visit since I realized that a lot of the Black Hills are actually part of it.

We ended up doing a few other things in Custer State Park, like visiting Slyvan Lake, the Cathedral Spires trail, the Needles Highway, and the Iron Mountain Highway.  I loved all of them a lot but will be doing full posts on each of those, so stay tuned!


Where is Custer State Park?

Custer State Park is just north of Wind Cave National Park.  The scenic road in Wind Cave will take you right to the entrance of Custer State Park where you can find the Wildlife Loop Road.

Things to do in Custer State Park

There are so many things to do in Custer State Park, your schedule will be packed full of awesome activities your whole trip.  Like, for reals.  There are hikes and scenic drives for days.  There is also mountain biking, horseback riding, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and even scenic flights.  No matter what you like doing, there is definitely something for you.


Go hiking

There are so many amazing hikes in Custer State Park and the Black Hills.  We did the Sylvan Lake Loop and the Cathedral Spires trail and I loved both.  They’re close to each other and both easy-moderate.  Some of the best hiking trails in Custer State Park:

  • Sunday Gulch Trail
  • Sylvan Lake Loop
  • Cathedral Spires Trail
  • Lover’s Leap Trail
  • Little Devil’s Tower
  • Prairie Trail
  • Bear Gulch Trail

Look for wildlife

The Custer State Park Wildlife Loop road is a great place to look for burros, bison, and prairie dogs.  You can probably see tons of birds and deer and maybe elk here as well.  Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll spot one of the very rare mountain lions.  Outside of the loop, I don’t think we saw much wildlife, unless we were in Wind Cave or the Badlands.  Wherever you are, just keep your eyes peeled for those big brown blobs or tiny sandy colored blobs.


Go for a scenic drive

Custer State Park is jam packed with scenic drives.  Of course there is the Wildlife Loop Road, but there is also The Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Highway.  We did them seperately, but you can combine them into basically a figure 8 loop called the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway, which spans 70 miles through the Black Hills and Custer State Park.

The drives offer stellar views of the Cathedral Spires and Mount Rushmore as well as just some of the best scenery around.  The combined loop will take you to the Needles Eye Tunnel, Crazy Horse, Horsethief Lake, Sylvan Lake, Mount Rushmore, and so much more.  They are easy enough to fit into drives between places you probably already want to go.  If not, they’re totally worth doing on their own!

Go Rockclimbing

If you’re an experienced rock climber, there are plenty of opportunities for that in the Black Hills!  While it’s not all in Custer State Park, it all looks amazing.  Some of the places you can go are Devil’s Tower, Spearfish Canyon, The Needles area, and even around Mount Rushmore.

Custer State Park Camping

There are quite a few campgrounds in Custer State Park.  Most of them are open May-October, but some are open year round with limited facilities.  Some have electricity ($30 a night), some don’t ($15-$26 a night), some are mixed, and some have little cabins ($55ish a night), too.  It all varies by campground.  They all have varying amenities as well, so you’ll have to check with each campground.  You can find all the details about them here.  You can check availability and reservations here.

If camping isn’t your thing, fear not!  There are plenty of hotels in Keystone, which is a great place that’s pretty central to all attractions in the Black Hills.  We stayed at the Quality Inn and I liked it.  I’d stay there again.


What to bring camping in South Dakota

If you’re camping in October, you’ll want to make sure you pack warm clothes and sleeping gear.  It got pretty cold at night, especially in late October, so you’ll need to be prepared.

NatGeo National Parks Book – This is one of the best national park guidebooks and I take it on all my park trips.  Plus, it’s got the nice glossy pages.  Buy the book here.

Hiking poles – These will be helpful on longer hikes that are on the steeper side.  They’ll be good if you have bad knees for when you’re going downhill and will give you something to lean on going up the hills.

Snacks – These are more important for long hikes, but you never know when you’ll get hungry!  I like EPIC bars (kind of like beef jerky but different), Sahale nut mix things, and Moon Cheese.  There’s always the good old Clif Bars and trail mix, too.

Water bottle – Whether it’s hot or cold, you’ll need to stay nice and hydrated.  A Hydro Flask will keep your water ice cold all day long.

Sunscreen – If you plan on being outside, you’ll want sunscreen.  I like the Neutrogena a lot, but if you’ll be visiting a beach soon, you’ll want a reef-safe sunscreen.

Hat – You’ll want some kind of hat to keep the sun out of your eyes.  A baseball hat should be fine but a bucket hat or sun hat could help keep the sun off your neck.

Sunglasses – This is a must, especially with the strong desert sun.  Sunglasses are best paired with a hat on those really bright days.

Light Jacket – Because you just never know.  Weather can change quickly depending on where you are and time of year.  I usually use my rain jacket for this.

Headlamp – I tend to carry my headlamp around all the time when we’re hiking.  This isn’t the exact one I have, but it’s similar and if I needed to replace mine, I’d probably get this one.


Tent – I love the REI Passage 2 tent for one or two people.  It’s small and fairly light.  If you need a four-person tent, I’d go with this one, the REI Half DomeYou can check out my tent here.

Sleeping pad – Gotta make the tent comfy!  The one I have isn’t available anymore but this one is similar.  It’s self-inflating and just needs a little help filling all the way.  Buy the sleeping pad here.

Sleeping Bag – I have the Nemo Viola 35 and love it because it’s not as restrictive as the mummy bags.  It has ventilation slits for those warmer nights.  Check out my sleeping bag here.

Puffy quilt – If you’re a really warm sleeper and visiting in the summer, a puffy quilt might be a better option.  I prefer this for hotter nights.  Check out the Rumpl camp quilts here.

Pillow – If you’re just driving, I’d just bring a regular pillow, but if you’re flying then renting a car, you might want a smaller pillow.  This is a good non-inflatible option.  Here is a good inflatable option.

Camp chairs – If you plan on doing a lot of camping outside of this trip, and backpacking especially, the REI Flexlite chairs are great choices.  Check out the camp chairs here.

Lantern – I love having a lantern for in the tent at night, reading in the dark, or going to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  The LuminAID is my favorite and you can charge your phone on it.  Buy the LuminAID lantern here.


Hotels near Custer State Park

There are so many hotels in Keystone, right by Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park.  I’ve included a few, but you can find all of them and check prices here.  I like staying in this area, but there are also plenty of hotels in Custer if you would rather stay on that end of the road.  I haven’t stayed here but would consider it.  You can check prices and availability here.

Quality Inn – This is where we stayed and I liked it.  It’s right on the main road of Keystone and easy to walk around to shops and restaurants.  It’s not the fanciest, but it was nice and I’d definitely stay there again.  Check prices here.

K Bar S Lodge, Ascend Collection – The K Bar S Lodge is a few miles outside of Keystone, so if you want something out of the main part of town, this is a good option.  It’s also part of the Choice Hotels chain if you’re part of their rewards program.  It’s in the Peter Norbeck Wildlife preserve and offers a great profile view of Mount Rushmore.  Check prices here.

Buffalo Rock Lodge (and cabins) – This is about 12 miles from Mount Rushmore and Keystone, so it’s not quite as close, but it’s a bed and breakfast, so it’s probably worth it.  I would absolutely stay here because I love B&B’s.  Check prices here.

Under Canvas Mount Rushmore – A little closer to Keystone than Mount Rushmore, this is perfect if you want to stay somewhere fun and different.  Instead of a regular hotel, you’ll be glamping here.  I stayed at Moab Under Canvas and loved it!  I would definitely stay here.  Check prices here.


Other cool things to do near Custer State Park

  • Visit Badlands National Park
  • Do a Wind Cave tour
  • Visit Jewel Cave and do a tour
  • Go hiking in Wind Cave
  • Drive Iron Mountain Highway scenic drive
  • Visit Mount Rushmore
  • Drive The Needles Highway scenic drive
  • Hike the Cathedral Spires trail
  • Walk around Sylvan Lake

When to visit Custer State Park

I would have to say fall, but really any time in the spring, summer, or fall will be great.  Spring and fall will be a little bit cooler, temperature-wise, but less busy people-wise.  Summer will be hot, but nice.  In fall you might be able to catch some trees turning yellow, but we didn’t see as much color as I expected.  It was still really pretty though and I’d definitely go back in fall.

Have you been to Custer State Park?  What was your favorite thing you did there?  Do you think it should be a national park?  Do you want to go?

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