Custer State Park entrance sign with field and forest in background

Where is Custer State Park

Custer State Park is located in the Black Hills, in the southwest corner of South Dakota. This State Park is one of the nation’s largest state parks, it is only 15 miles from the city of Custer, and around 30 miles from Rapid City. Custer is connected to Mount Rushmore National Park via the Needles Highway. Additionally, it is easily accessible from a few different highways depending on where you are traveling from.

Black Elk Peak Black Hills area at Custer State Park in South Dakota

How Big is Custer State Park

Custer State Park is one of the largest state parks in all of America. It stretches for about 71,000 acres, or 114 square miles. It is contained entirely in South Dakota and is part of the broader Black Hills Range. The highest point in the US State Park is Black Elk Peak, which rises to 7,242 feet, which is also the highest point in South Dakota. The overall average elevation of Custer is 4,721 feet.

Custer State Park Weather

The weather varies greatly from season to season in Custer State Park. In the summertime it is common to have warm, to hot daytime temperatures, followed by cool evenings. July and August are the hottest months to visit. Thunderstorms with lighting, hail, and strong winds are not uncommon late in the afternoon. You can expect to see snow as early as September, and it could last well into May. 

Wildlife is abundant in the park year-round. The majority of visitors come in the summer months to see the giant herds of North American Bison who roam freely throughout the park. In addition, you can spot whitetail deer, big horn sheep, elk, antelope, pronghorn, mountain goats, prairie dogs, and bald eagles.

When did Custer become a State Park

Named after George Armstrong Custer, who discovered gold along the French Creek in 1874, Custer State Park was first turned into a game preserve in 1913, and finally a state park in 1919. It is one of the biggest state parks in the United States, stretching on for 114 square miles.

Things to do in Custer State Park

No matter what your interests are, there is no shortage of things to do In Custer Sate Park. Below List of Parks listed some of the top sites and activities to help you plan your trip.

Buffalo Traffic Jam

Home to around 1,300 North American Bison, one of the most amazing things to do In Custer State Park is to find yourself stuck in a traffic jam, as buffalos wander across the road. Be sure to take lots of photos but stay in the safety of your car.

Needles Highway

This winding, curvy, spiraling road creeps by incredible rock formations and through tunnels carved out of the mountains. It also connects the park to Mount Rushmore, and you can catch glimpses of the giant carved faces from parts of the highway.

Wildlife Loop

With 18 miles of road throughout the park’s grasslands, this easy scenic drive offers you incredible wildlife viewing opportunities. Keep your binoculars and your camera handy, you can spot bison, elk, deer, coyotes and lots of other creatures.


Equally as diverse as the landscape is the variety of birds throughout the park. Bald eagles, kingfishers, woodpeckers, swallows, and kestrels are abundant. Serious birdwatchers and nature lovers can spend days admiring the local populations.


Custer State Park has no shortage of breathtaking hiking trails to choose from. They vary from the strenuous backcountry, to easy walks along well marked paths. You can experience the beautiful ponderosa pines at your own pace, breaking as much or as little of a sweat as you like.

Rock Climbing

If you’re an adrenaline junky, Custer State Park has lots of world class rock climbing. Some of the most popular spots can be found off of the Needles Highway. Known for both its technical challenges and natural beauty, this is a bucket list item for any serious climbers.

Needles Eye Tunnel

Located on the Needles Highway, this tunnel is a one of a kind feat of engineering. The 8’4” wide and 12’ high tunnel is carved through a giant chunk of solid granite. Named after the giant stone spires nearby, it really feels like you are driving through the eye of a needle.

Begging Burros along the wildlife loop road at Custer State Park

Meet the Local Burros

An unexpected surprise on the southeastern tip of Wildlife Loop Road is a pack of local resident donkeys. These friendly fellows will likely venture out into the road to inspect your vehicle for snacks.

Sylvan Lake landscape in Custer State Park South Dakota

Sylvan Lake

Don’t let its spot on this list fool you. Sylvan Lake is one of the most popular destinations of the park. You can pull off the Needles highway and spend an entire day swimming in the crystal-clear waters of this man-made lake surrounded by impressive rock faces.

Harney Peak Fire Lookout Tower in Custer State Park of South Dakota

Harney Peak Fire Tower

Standing at the highest point east of the Rockies, this lookout tower gives you breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape. Originally built in 1938, views from this stone tower are a great reward after hiking the Black Elk Peak Trail.

When to go to Custer State Park

Although Custer State Park is open year-round, each season offers totally different experiences. The summer months are of course the most popular and draw the biggest crowds. With the warm weather, you can take advantage of the many lakes for a cooling swim during the day.

Winter and fall offer unique opportunities to explore the park as it transforms into a winter wonderland. The weather can be harsh, sometimes dipping below zero, but you are rewarded for your bravery with a peaceful, quiet park almost to yourself.

Wildlife roams the park all year, and each season has different animal behavior on display.

One thing to note is that from October 1 to April 30, facilities like showers and flush toilets are shut down to avoid frozen pipes. This means your camping may be a bit more rugged.

Kayaking calm waters of Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park South Dakota

Must-Have things to bring to Custer State Park

Using a little common sense will take you a long way in Custer State Park. Here are a few items Our National Park Visitors Guide suggests you plan on bringing along to get the most out of your trip.


Although there are taps to fill up your water throughout most of the campgrounds, it is always a good idea to carry a water cooler, or at least some extra bottles in your car. The summer months can get very hot, and some taps may be shut down in winter.


It is important to keep your energy levels up while you are out enjoying all the park has to offer. Pack lots of healthy snacks and enough food to prepare fresh meals to keep yourself fueled up.

Park Maps in physical and on phone

Depending on your planned activities, you should purchase, print out, or download some maps ahead of time. If you are hiking, make sure you have a good topographical map, and for scenic drives, a simple roadmap will suffice.

Proper Hiking Boots

Again, whatever activities you are planning will dictate your footwear, but it is always a good idea to have a pair of sturdy hiking boots with you. The terrain is pretty rugged, and regular sneakers might not offer enough arch or ankle support for you.

Jacket for Rain and cold weather Attire

The weather can change quickly in Custer State Park. Summer is known for intense afternoon rainstorms and hail. Nothing is worse than getting drenched while out on a hike. Similarly, in the winter months it gets really chilly. Be sure to bring gear that is warm enough to protect yourself from the elements.

Sunglasses, Sunscreen and warm weather attire

July and August bring the heat to Custer. Protect your eyeballs with a pair of sunglasses and be sure to wear plenty of sunscreen throughout the day. Wearing breathable clothing and drinking plenty of water will help keep you cool.


By now you know that Custer is a wildlife hub. From bison to prairie dogs, you can spend whole days observing the wide range of animals throughout the park. A decent pair of binoculars lets you get in on the action while keeping a safe distance.


Whether you are an avid wildlife photographer, a budding landscape enthusiast, or just like snapping photos on your phone, Custer has so many unique photography opportunities. Bring along a camera to capture the great memories you will make along the way.

Bug Spray

Keep the mosquitos at bay while you enjoy an evening by the fire pit. Apply a bit of bug spray to keep that annoying buzz away from your ears.

Toilet Paper and Plastic Bags

Although it is usually available in the toilets, you can never go wrong with bringing your own roll or two. This is especially true if you plan on doing any backcountry hiking or camping. Remember to pack out everything you pack in and bring some extra plastic bags to collect your trash.

Where to stay in Custer State Park

Custer State Park offers 9 different campgrounds to choose from. For the more adventurous, there are backcountry hike in only sites and campgrounds only accessible by horseback. For more creature comforts you can opt to stay in one of the many front country sites with tent camping or RV sites with full electric hookups and shower facilities. If camping is not really what you have in mind, Custer State Park also offers cabins which are available to rent, and rooms at the resort.

Food Nearby Custer State Park

Inside of Custer State Park is the Custer Resort. Here you can find two different restaurants, the Blue Bell Lodge, and the State Game Lodge. They serve up a variety of western flavors from bison burgers to rattlesnake sausages. If you are planning on camping, it is a good idea to stock up on all your supplies ahead of time at a grocery store before entering the park.

Airports near Custer State park

The closest airport to Custer State Park is Rapid City Regional Airport, located in Rapid City, South Dakota. It is around 40 miles away and offers car rental opportunities to make exploring the park easier. Depending on where you are coming from, you may need to catch a connecting flight, as it is a smaller airport.

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