Roam alongside a herd of 1,300 grazing buffalo on the Wildlife Loop. Cruise a corkscrew with the top down along Needles Highway. Roast a marshmallow to toasty perfection at a campfire. Cast a perfect line into a shimmering lake teeming with trout. All of this and more is waiting for you in South Dakota’s mountain hideaway, Custer State Park.
Custer State Park in South Dakota’s Black Hills offers the recreation, wildlife viewing and facilities that rival any national park. On my first visit, I completely underestimated the time we would want to explore Custer. After several trips I still leave Custer State Park yearning for my next adventure, like the Buffalo Round-up in late September. An annual event where cowboys still drive the herd into the corral with a thundering fury and a cloud of dust.
Custer State Park
Founded in 1912, Custer State Park is South Dakota’s first and largest state park. It encompasses 71,000 acres. President Calvin Coolidge called it his summer home.
Custer State Park is named after Lt. Colonel George Custer, who was dispatched the Black Hills to chart an unknown territory. His troops found gold alongside the banks of the French River in 1874 and spurred a gold rush.
Reunion Cabin in Custer State Park
Custer State Park offers the most diverse selection of lodging and camping in the Black Hills. I suggest exploring Custer for a few days, then continuing to use it as a base for a Black Hills adventure. From luxuriously-appointed mountain homes to rustic camping cabins with bunk beds to camping sites with water and electricity, Custer has options for every family.
I had the opportunity to stay in the glamorous Reunion Cabin ($1,300 a night) located in the State Game Lodge area along Grace Coolidge Creek. With sleeping for 28 across four separate bedroom suites, a cute cousin’s loft and several sleeper sofas, this 4,200 square foot fully-furnished mountain home has everything a group needs for their stay. Two of the bedrooms feature working fireplaces, one has a library nook, one has an accessible shower and all feature luxurious linens.
The kitchen has everything like pots, plates and all appliances that make meals a snap. I found an extra-long table for the extended family to gather around. Outside on the back deck, the grill will give the guys a chance to make dinner.
The living area has cathedral ceilings with a stone fireplace perfect for families to gather. I took my coffee to the front porch swing for a moment of quiet with my favorite book. This area offers ample opportunity for wildlife watching as well.
Lodging and Camping in Custer State Park
If the Reunion Cabin is too large, Custer State Park offers smaller cabins like the Ponderosa Cabin and the Galena Cabin. In all, Custer offers 13 specialty cabins across the park.
Custer State Park offers four distinct historic lodges, like State Game Lodge, where presidents Coolidge and Eisenhower stayed. Built in 1920, State Game Lodge was the Summer White House for Coolidge. The State Game Lodge Restaurant offers local game and fish in the dining room that once hosted state dinners.
For families on a budget with kids who crave cabins, Custer State Park’s camping cabins ($50 a night) feature bunks beds and electricity. Cook outside on the fire pit or bring a camp stove; all camping cabins include a picnic table.
Activities in Custer State Park
Custer State Park had my family exploring the western charm of South Dakota for days. With scenic drives, wildlife excursions, chuck wagon dinners, trails and evening ranger programs, we needed more time.
With three scenic routes through Custer State Park, it’s hard to decide which way to go. I suggest them all.
Needles Highway offers spire-like granite peaks and tunnels bored through solid granite. It runs from Sylvan Lake to Blue Bell Lodge and includes corkscrews and S-curves.
Wildlife Loop Road from Blue Bell Lodge to Game Lodge traverses the southern prairies of Custer where the buffalo herd and the wild burros graze. This route is a must for kids. Iron Mountain Road from the Visitor Center at Highway 16A to Mount Rushmore offers a scenic route to drive to the American icon.
On my last trip to Custer State Park, I took a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour. The wind whipped my hair as the open-air Jeep rolled down a gravel road off the wildlife loop. Our tour guide found the buffalo herds and wild donkeys with ease and the animals seemed to ignore the vehicle and continue to graze.
Tours last 1 ½ to 2 hours and tickets are $50 for adults and $45 for kids under 12. Reservations are recommended.
Chuck Wagon Cook Out
Kids love a cookout and Custer State Park’s chuck wagon cookout has kids in mind. Kids get a complimentary cowboy hat and bandana along with a burger option for dinner. Hop on the hayride to enjoy dinner cowboy-style with sirloin steaks, beans, coleslaw and all the fixings including chuck wagon coffee. Dinner is $54 for adults, $47 for kids 3 to 12 and kids under 3 are free. Reservations are recommended.
More Outdoor Adventure
Custer State Park has several hiking trails throughout the park. Horseback riding departs from Blue Bell Stables and Custer State Park has lodging for visitors who bring their horses.
Mountain climbing is a popular activity in Custer State Park. Fishing is permitted in the lakes with a valid state fishing license. Swimming is permitted in Custer’s lakes though life guards are not present.
Kids at Custer State Park
Custer State Park offers a Junior Naturalist Program similar to the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program. Pick up booklets at the visitor center to complete for kids 7 to 12. For younger kids, Custer State Park offers a Pups Program with specially designed activities.
Getting to Custer State Park
Custer State Park is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, 32 miles from Rapid City, the closest regional airport. It’s located north of Wind Cave National Park and easy to drive to all the attractions of Black Hills.
South Dakota State Highway 87 and U.S. Route 16A are the main roads through Custer State Park.
Getting Around Custer State Park
Custer State Park offers a 7-day private vehicle pass for $20 or an annual pass for $30. The park is open 365 days a year and 24 hours a day.
Custer State Park has two visitor centers that are open every day except Thanksgiving, December 25 and Easter. The Custer State Park Visitor Center and the Wildlife Station Visitor Center are open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Memorial Day to Labor Day and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. The Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from the end of May until October 1, closing for the season after October 1.
Tips from a Traveling Mom:
- Give Custer State Park enough time. On my first trip I didn’t allot enough time to this park.
- The best time to see animals is dusk and dawn.
- Buffalo are wild animals, do not approach.
- Feeding the wild burros is prohibited.
- Take it slow on the scenic routes, like Needles Highway, that’s a favorite for bikers.
- Remember refillable water bottles; water stations are located at the visitor centers.