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Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota is a jewel – every square mile of prairie and pine is packed full of life and wonder. It’s an excellent place to visit with kids, but you’ll need to plan in advance, especially if you’ll travel during the busy summer months. Here’s TravelingMom’s planning guide, with wildlife viewing tips and lodging information to help you discover this true national treasure!
South Dakota’s Custer State Park at a Glance
Custer is a 71,000-acre, super accessible state park on the far southwestern edge of South Dakota. Rapid City is the nearest populous area at about an hour drive to the northeast. Many folks decide to stay there and make day trips to the Black Hills area and Custer State Park. With just a little logistical planning in advance, you’ll find you’re able to strategically plan all the trails, sights and recreational opportunities you want. Seeing wildlife is easy here – so for kids, that’s a real win.
Horseback riding, biking, boating and hiking trails are just a few of the activities you can expect to find access to quite easily within the boundaries of the park. You will have very limited access to Wi-Fi and data services in several parts of the park due to the terrain and remote nature of being, well, in nature! Embrace this time to be unplugged and do grab a Custer State Park map and guide — it’s a wonderful resource, especially when your GPS is not accessing signal.
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Entrance to the park at the time of writing this was $8.00 per day or $20.00 per week, per car. The annual pass is just $36.00 per car. There is a portion of the park which is a through-highway, so don’t get confused about the check stations through lane – if you’re exploring the park, you need a pass.
Custer State Park Dining
Dining in the park is something which you should try to squeeze in for at least one meal. It’s not quite like the crazy crunch of Disney dining, but you’ll want to make reservations for the popular places and specialty attractions like chuckwagon dinners. Blue Bell Lodge is a great place to enjoy a chuckwagon dinner – but you’ll need to plan several months in advance.
The Palmer Gulch KOA also has chuckwagons and horseback riding. Blue Bell Café is acclaimed for great food – not all park dining is created equal across the nation, but definitely take in this lodge menu or the State Game Lodge, simply to dine in historic opulence like US Presidents have in the past.
Custer State Park Trip Planning – Logistics and Timing
When you visit is as much a factor of how to plan your trip as where you’ll stay. Most of your plans will be dictated by the time of year. This area is largely tourist-driven, so the summer months when school is out is the time when you’ll find not only the most visitors in the park, but also the most amenities open and ready to greet you. It’s the hottest time of year, naturally, so you’ll also notice lots of large animals are a little lazier in the afternoon.
Fall is the time when the tourist scene changes from families to a more retired-folk focus, and is also when the park hosts the annual buffalo round-up. This is an iconic event and will be one of the busiest times the park sees due to the popularity of the activity. Over 14,000 people are attracted to the small area for the round up, so this is another time you’ll want to book everything early.
Spring in the park allows visitors precious views of baby buffalo calves and shy burro babies. The prairie dogs even have small pups scuttling around the dry mounds and dugouts which delight kids. It’s really magical to see new life in the park – BUT, do take an extra bit of caution as the mamas are protective and can be a little more aggressive because of this. View from a safe distance or in the car.
Custer is open year-round. If you can handle the cold, winter is a very quiet time to cruise through. Frosty buffalo and gorgeous valley views are unique this time of year and those resorts and lodgings which are open will be at the best prices you’ll find for the year. You won’t have to wait in lines or fight with crowds, and if you’re a snowmobile enthusiast, this is a beautiful playground.
Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road
Scenic drives just make a road trip more fun. When those drives are teeming with megafauna easy for the kids to spot and photograph, you’ve really found the jackpot! The Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road is the key to making the park a part of your South Dakota vacation you will not forget.
The real secret to feeling like you know this park and all which inhabit it, is to make the Wildlife Loop Road work for you. There are a few animals which are on EVERY visitor’s list – the burros and the bison — and it’s highly probable you’ll see both if you attack your day with a plan.
Get an Early Start
The way to do this, to avoid people and really get a jump on your day is to get into the park early. If you’re already staying in one of the in-park accommodations, all the better. If you’re staying in Custer proper or up toward Keystone and Mount Rushmore, you’ll need to get your coffee and get on the road. (This strategy is speaking to the non-winter months where sunrise is early and you have a lot of daylight to enjoy.)
The crowds here in the summer will rival some of the larger and more popular national parks — so if you don’t want to share the road with dozens of RVs and cars, an early start will allow you gorgeous photo opportunities with the vast landscape, solo time with prairie dogs and likely some unfettered bison backdrops for family photos. This sounds crazy, but if you want to maximize your experience, drive it once just after sunrise to see what you can see.
Custer State Park Animals
You’re likely to see burros come out to beg and bray somewhere between the Lame Johnny Road and the Red Valley Road. If you hit the Wildlife Information Station, you’ve gone too far and will need to zip back around and keep your eyes peeled. However, do stop for more than just a bathroom break at the station — there will be a helpful volunteer inside to tell you where the latest sightings of animals have occurred and answer some of the questions you might be pondering in regard to area flora and fauna. There is a wonderful parking lot and pull out which serves as a fantastic place to interact with the burros. If you keep persisting in your search, you will find them.
The wild begging burros are descendants from a small group of donkeys which would lead folks up to the top of Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak.) The visitors used the donkeys to get to the fire tower which is built of stone and is easily spotted from the road.
Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats
Bighorn sheep are a little more elusive, but if you scan the ditches you may see them munching grass blades by the side of the rocky outcroppings near the highways leading in and out of the park. Only the rams will have the large curls in their horns — female bighorn sheep have horns, too, just not the fancy ones. Don’t confuse them with the mountain goats — you could see those white specks dotting the spires and rock formations of the Needles Highway.
Mule Deer and Antelope
Mule deer and pronghorn (also known as antelope) are spotted easily and do not have a true “area” in which to see them. Bring binoculars and keep your eyes open for these prairie lovers. Mornings and twilight are great times to see most of the crepuscular ungulates (fancy name for hooved animals!) out and about.
Prairie dogs cannot pack up and move their colonies, so you WILL get to see them as well, as long as you aren’t taking the road at 75 miles per hour (which you shouldn’t do anyway. There are also opportunities to see more prairie dogs at Badlands National Park if you’re traveling east out of Rapid City, if for some reason you miss those dwelling in Custer State Park.
Herds of bison are accustomed to having visitors in their park and will likely keep doing whatever they please as you drive through. Bison jams are incredibly common. If you see a vehicle stopped in Custer State Park, a good rule is to go very slow and try to find what the other driver has spotted. Keep a safe distance when viewing the behemoth buffalo! They seem lumbering and slow until you see a pair get into a tussle. Their visits are often up close and very personal by their prerogative – we had bison tongue prints on our taillights from the curious critter taking a few licks before moving through the tangle of tourist cars with its fellows.
Iron Mountain Road and the Needles Highway are winding, scenic drives on either side of the park and are well-worth the time. Try to spy the needle’s eye — denoted on most park maps — and the famous cathedral spires. These short roads require speeds to be very low, at times near an idle, for navigating narrow tunnels and maneuvering safely around tight pigtail bridges and switchbacks.
Custer State Park Camping and Lodging
Just like dining opportunities, you should make your lodging reservations well in advance. This summer, South Dakota has been leading the U.S. tourism industry in recovery from the travel hiatus from the global pandemic – so you will have some healthy competition in getting those great sites with views.
There are ten campgrounds which the state of South Dakota manages in Custer State Park. These campgrounds offer vastly different experiences and can accommodate diverse styles of camping – from offering structures like cabins and lodge rooms in addition to a place under the pines for a tent, to those which can take large RVs and even folks who have brought horses along.
Prudent planning would start with a visit to the state website, where you can learn when the campgrounds are open, how you can camp at the site, how much it costs and other very important details to make the most of your base camp in Custer. The Blue Bell Lodge and Resort is one of many venues offering modern amenities and rooms for guests, part of the array of cabins and lodging options of the larger, overarching Custer State Park Resort. This is operated by a concessionaire, not by the state of South Dakota.
For camping options, all the available sites and campgrounds will be listed under the CampSD website. This area of the state is known for its abrupt weather events in the summer. The fluctuations in heat (very hot in the day and sometimes quite cool at night) and the frequent summer thunderstorms are all points to consider when you prepare for your camping adventure. The Black Hills have very few insects to contend with and offer many diverse options for camping, so it’s a great place to be under the stars as a family.
Game Lodge Campground / Grace Coolidge Campground
This area is notable because if you are road weary and looking for morning wildlife, the State Game Lodge restaurant is likely the place to find some much-needed coffee, before 9:00 a.m. when most of the other gift shops and resorts open their doors. You can rent lodge rooms here and there are camping sites in this general area, close to the road and with many amenities available. The campground is centrally located within Custer State Park and is also conveniently near the Visitor Center. The Grace Coolidge Campground has a swimming beach along the creek for visitors to enjoy in the summer sun. It’s also common to see a bison or two roaming this low, open prairie landscape. The campgrounds are right along the main roadway and easy to find.
Blue Bell Campground
The Blue Bell Campground can accommodate both large RVs and tent campers. The campground is near the Blue Bell Lodge, so you are very close to all the activities and amenities offered there. Lots of shade is available as this is a forested pine site.
Legion Lake Campground
This spot near Legion Lake proper and Legion Lake Lodge is another option for large RVs and tent campers. The area offers a fishing pier and access to hiking trails.
Stockade Lake North & South Campgrounds
The campgrounds together can support any camping vehicle or tent situation and are just minutes from the town of Custer with all the restaurants and amenities you might need. Also, the historic Gordon Stockade, the site where gold was discovered by the Custer Expedition in 1874, is a neat feature proximal to both campgrounds.
Sylvan Lake Campground
This area provides a great place for rock climbing and enjoying the Sylvan Lake Day-Use area. There is a resort with a general store for some basic sundries in this location as well. The water is calm and the lake is small, perfect for renting a kayak for a quick paddle about. This is also one of the filming sites for the movie National Treasure, so if you’re a film buff, it’s a fun time to take a quick hike around the lake. The trail is circular with the trailhead starting near pit toilets and a picnic area with vending machines and ample parking. This is a popular wedding venue, so it can get busy. Campsites here are rather tight and cannot accommodate RVs over 27 feet in length. This is a tent camper’s dream and is a higher elevation campground at 6,200 feet above sea level.
Center Lake Campground
This campground offers excellent swimming opportunities and a boat dock for fishing and boating activities. It is perfect for smaller RVs and tents.
French Creek Horse Camp
You must have horses in your party to utilize this spot, as the name suggests. Two corrals are provided with each campsite.
This family friendly gem is NOT in the park – it’s actually about a 15 minute drive, nestled along Hwy 244 sort of in the heart of the Hills. However, if you have a large contingent of children, or if you want some programmed activities other than campfires and your typical campground fun, this is the place to book. They have a lodge, RV sites and camping cabins (even a glamping option and a few deluxe cabins with modern amenities.) Swimming features like pools, hot tubs, a waterslide and a splash pad will keep everyone cool in the summer. Most of the programming is during the summer season. Rodeos, live entertainment, movies and other scheduled events are common.
Scenic Drives and Day Trips from Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota
If you still have gas in the tank and some energy in your entourage, make sure to visit nearby Hill City, Crazy Horse Memorial, Wind Cave National Park and, if you’re looking for a day trip out to Wyoming, Devils Tower National Monument is another delightfully unique adventure.
Making the drives in and out of the park, you’ll have myriad options including more opportunities to frequent past the granite spires, or if you’re looking for a faster commute, try US highway 16A. It’s really the main way to get to most of the sites and will be faster than the winding path.
The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs is a great place to bring curious minds — adult and child alike, and offers interactive learning at a real fossil site — the largest concentration of Woolly and Colombian Mammoths in one spot. While in Hot Springs, give Evans Plunge a try too — it’s a natural hot spring indoor pool and waterslide and it is really a pretty enjoyable way to seek solace from the South Dakota sun.