Over the years, we have been able to explore some of the most iconic state parks in the United States. From Mount Tamalpais State Park in California, Ecola State Park in Oregon to Split Rock Light House State Park in Minnesota, each state park has it’s own beauty. However, one state park has captured our hearts- and we have created a family tradition to visit every summer! Here is your sign to plan a visit to Custer State Park, located in the rolling Black Hills of South Dakota.

Planning to a trip to the Black Hills? Check out our Black Hills Road Trip Itinerary and Hot Springs, SD Adventure!

1. Camp out in Custer

Is your summer getaway made up of mountain lakes, forests, wildflowers and an actually starry night (free of light pollution)? Custer State Park offers 9 campgrounds where you can have this exact experience! We stayed in cabins that were located less than a mile from the Custer State Park west entrance. Another great lodging experience is the Blue Bell Lodge resort, with private cabins and access to activities and dining.

2. Drive the Needle Highway Scenic Byway to Needle’s Eye

Our favorite part of Custer State Park is the iconic Needle Highway Scenic Byway Drive, which is also home to different views of the best sunsets! Needle Highway is a 14 mile stretch, but put aside extra time for your drive as there are a lot of curves, tunnels and overlooks. To be safe, make sure to drive less than 25 mph. You will want to anyways, to take in the spectacular views!

3. Hike Cathedral Spires

The trail head for Cathedral Spires is located off of Needle Highway. You will see a small parking lot and a sign with a map for Cathedral Spires. The hike is about 1.6 mile round trip and is considered moderate to challenging towards the end.

You can also keep hiking to meet up with the trail that leads to Black Elk Trail. Black Elk Trail is also iconic because it is the highest point in the Black Hills. You can also start your hike to Black Elk Peak at Trail 9 near Sylvan Lake or near Little Devil’s Tower. If you have a little more time, this should also be on your itinerary. Be prepared to see the gorgeous granite needle formations up close and personal!

Check out other trails to add to your Custer State Park adventure!

4. Experience Wildlife on Wildlife Loop Scenic Drive

Wildlife Loop is 18 miles of rolling hills, grassland, prairie dogs, bison and other wild life. This drive keeps you on your toes as you never know what you will encounter! The best time to explore is around sunset and sunrise. If you explore late spring/early summer, you also get to experience the wildflowers decorating the hillside. If you are feeling extra adventurous, consider booking a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour!

5. Watch a Sunset Near Sylvan Lake

Custer State Park is adorned with 5 lakes, but Sylvan Lake is iconic! Located off Needle Highway, it’s a perfect place for swimming, there is a nearby campground, a great spot for fishing and water sport activities and home to a general store in the middle of the park. Not to mention, there are countless nearby trails that are an easy to moderate hike. Watching the sunset from here is one of my favorite memories of Custer State Park.

6. Picnic in the Meadows off Blue Bell Drive

If you take the Blue Bell entrance to Custer State Park off Blue Bell Drive, you will come across countless picnic areas enamored with wildflowers in the summer time, forests and clear springs and streams. We had a little picnic area all to ourselves and it was quiet with a family of deer nearby. My kids had a lot of fun running free and exploring in this area!

7. Cruise Iron Mountain Road to Mount Rushmore

Iron Mountain Road is a 70 mile (at least a 45 minute) drive that winds through Custer State Park and leads to Mount Rushmore in Keystone. The drive consists of granite tunnels, curves, (pigtail) bridges and the Black Elk National Wilderness Area. Highways 16A, 244, 87 and 89 combine to form this scenic byway. If you are wanting to see the Black Hills & you are limited on time- this may be the best drive to showcase it the scenery!

8. Check Out Custer State Park Visitor’s Center

The Custer State Park visitor center is located off Wildlife Loop and Highway 16A. It’s open year round 7 days a week (except for holidays), and is a great place to start if you are new to Custer State Park. Not far, located off Wildlife Loop, is the Bison Center, with interactive display and bison nearby.

9. Road Trip to Horse Thief Lake

Are you looking for a great swimming hole not far from Custer State Park? Look no further than Horse Thief Lake, located 2 miles from Mount Rushmore, not far off Iron Mountain Road. This pristine lake is surrounded by mountains and granite needle formations. There is also a nearby campground for those seeking peace and relaxation. This gem is often overlooked thanks to the nearby Mount Rushmore, but it’s well worth the visit! There are also numerous hiking trails and a boarded trail that goes alongside the lake for the best view!

10. Pay a Visit to Nearby Wind Cave National Park

Nine minutes from Custer State Park is Wind Cave National Park. This National Park is famous for it’s cave systems (I suggest booking a tour before your visit!), but it also offers gorgeous views of the Black Hills, a drive through prairie dog towns, not to mention home to countless wildlife. If you have enough time, this National Park visit pairs well with Custer State Park!

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