Spectacular vistas, beautiful lakes, stunning scenic drives and incredible wildlife – Custer State Park has it all
|Location:||13400 US, US-16A, Custer, SD 57730|
|Hours:||The park is open all day, every day.|
|Where to Stay||The Park is close to Rapid City, but there is also plenty of places to stay in nearby Keystone and Custer. There are also 9 campgrounds inside the Park itself.|
|Fees:||A temporary 1 to 7-day license costs $20 per vehicle. If you plan to come more ofter you can get an annual license for $36.|
Custer State Park is set in the beautiful Black Hills. At 71,000 acres it is the largest State Park in South Dakota and was the State’s first, named after Lt Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Custer is one of the best known military commanders from the Civil War, but it is his exploits in the battles and ruthless killing of native Americans that have somewhat tainted his legacy.
Custer State Park is only a short drive from Rapid City and is close to the monument at Mount Rushmore. It also sits adjacent to the equally enjoyable Wind Caves National Park.
Anyway, back to the park! It is famous for its bison herds, wildlife in general, scenic drives and fishing lakes. It has been named one of the top 10 wildlife destinations in the World. As well as spotting the massive bison you might be lucky enough to encounter whitetail and mule deer, elk, mountain goats, coyotes and bighorn sheep. You will almost certainly see the prairie dogs in their “towns” that are scattered throughout the park.
Much of the park is set in beautiful plains of grassland, with a backdrop of rolling green hills interspersed with copses of trees. It is in these surrounds you might be lucky enough to encounter the 1500 bison (or buffalo) that call this place home.
We decided to take the Wildlife Loop scenic drive, an 18-mile meandering route that takes you through pine-covered hills, rolling prairies and red-walled canyons. The bison are the stars of the wildlife in the Park and we were lucky enough to get some very close encounters as we travelled along the Wildlife Loop – indeed we got caught up in a traffic jam as they decided to share the road with the cars – who is going to argue with a 2000-pound bull bison!
Sadly, we didn’t get to see any elk or bighorn sheep but we did come across a small group of burros, which are in fact small donkeys. These cuties have roamed the prairies of Custer State Park for over a century. The original burros were used as pack animals to transport visitors and their belongings to Sylvan Lake Lodge up the steep path to the summit of Black Elk Peak. When these tourist trips ended the burros were released in the wild and ever since a feral herd of burros has shared the Park with the indigenous wildlife.
These burros are super-friendly, mainly driven by a motivation for food. They are often found close to the road sideling up to passing vehicles in search of a tasty snack (they are not at all fussy). Even if you don’t wind down your windows to say “hi” they are likely to rub their faces against the window leaving a slobbery mess. From the behaviour, you might think that it might have been some time since their last meal – but they do get most of their dietary needs from feeding on the prairie grass. The Park Service discourages visitors from feedings these ever so friendly and gentle beasties but as you will see for yourself if you visit this advice is not heeded. So, the pestering of visitors for snacks will undoubtedly continue.
Sadly, our visit was all too short. As we visited during the COVID-19 pandemic the visitor centres and lodges were closed so we missed finding out more about the Park and its ecology. Next time we’ll make sure to stay and explore for longer!