I hadn’t heard of Custer State Park until I started planning the itinerary for our Midwest road trip. I knew there had to be more to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota than Mount Rushmore. With over 71,000 acres of trails, scenic roads, and wildlife areas, there’s a ton to do in Custer State Park. While you could easily spend more time exploring the park, we found one day to be the perfect amount. Here’s how to spend one day in Custer State Park.
Getting to Custer State Park
Custer State Park is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota which is in the western part of the state. The nearest airport is Rapid City Regional Airport which is convenient to Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, and other points of interest like Badlands National Park. If you fly, you’ll need a rental car for visiting Custer State Park.
Where to Stay When Visiting Custer State Park
Keystone, South Dakota is the perfect home base for visiting Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore. It’s less than a 15-minute drive from Keystone to Mount Rushmore and 45 minutes to Custer State Park’s East Entrance. We chose the Holiday Inn Express Mount Rushmore/Keystone since it is bookable with IHG points. However, there are plenty of hotel choices in Keystone.
Another option is to stay in Rapid City. While still convenient, it’s less scenic than Keystone as it’s located outside of the Black Hills National Forest. Rapid City may be more convenient if you plan to visit other towns like Deadwood or Spearfish.
What to Do in Custer State Park
To start, here’s a map of the park to help orient you.
You can follow this one day itinerary to see the best Custer State Park has to offer.
Wildlife Loop Road
Enter the park through the East Entrance and start by driving Wildlife Loop Road. This 18-mile loop takes about 45 minutes to drive. It takes you through the grasslands and hills where most of the park’s wildlife live.
If you’re lucky, you may see some of the following: elk, coyotes, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, mountain goats, mule deer, pronghorns, and bison.
While we didn’t see too much wildlife on our drive, we did get up close and personal with a few burros. These burros are descendants from a herd that brought visitors to the top of Black Elk Peak. Once rides were discontinued, the burros were released into the park.
After finishing the Wildlife Loop, head towards Needles Highway. Needles Highway is the highlight of Custer State Park. The road is named for the needle-like granite formations that you’ll see along the drive.
This 14-mile road takes about an hour to drive. It may take longer since there are lots of places to stop along the way.
A highlight of Needles Highway is driving through the one-way tunnels.
You’ll pass through two: Iron Creek Tunnel and Needles Eye Tunnel.
Cathedrals Spires Trail
While driving on Needles Highway, you’ll see the trailhead for the Cathedral Spires hike.
This hike is 3 miles out and back. It doesn’t have a great view at the end, but the hike itself is beautiful.
The hike is rated “moderate to strenuous” but we didn’t find it to be too difficult.
After completing Needles Highway, you’ll end up at Sylvan Lake. Here you can layout in the sun, rent a boat, or go for a swim. I also recommend the one mile loop around the lake called Sylvan Lakeshore Trail.
Tips for Visiting Custer State Park
- Visit more than once: It costs $20 to enter the park, but your pass is good for seven days. If you are in the area longer, you can return to the park to swim at one of the park’s five lakes or hike one of the other trails.
- Go fishing: Fishing is allowed anywhere in the park but requires a valid South Dakota fishing license that can be purchased online here.
- Plenty of bathrooms: The park has lots of visitors centers and general stores with bathrooms and snacks.
- Beware of height restrictions: If you are driving an RV, you won’t be able to drive on certain roads like Needles Highway due to height restrictions. Read more about it here.
- Come early to see wildlife: Your best bet for seeing wildlife is in the early morning. I recommend starting the Wildlife Loop as early as possible for the best chance of seeing bison.
- Take a trip to the Crazy Horse Memorial: From Sylvan Lake, it’s a 30-minute drive to the Crazy Horse Memorial. You can see the sculpture from afar and learn more about the Native Americans of South Dakota.
Custer State Park is impressive. I never realized South Dakota was so beautiful! You can certainly see a lot with one day in Custer State Park. This one day itinerary includes two scenic drives, two hikes, and a stop at a lake for swimming…talk about a perfect summer day!