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Spectacular vistas, beautiful lakes, stunning scenic drives and incredible wildlife - Custer State Park has it all

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 surroundings you might be lucky enough to encounter the 1500 bison (or buffalo) that call this place home.

The wide open pastrues of Custer State Park

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!

A large bison crosses the plains
A herd of bison in Custer State Park
The bison move purposefully around our car

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

The playful wild burros in Custer State

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!

Planning your visit

Location:13400 US, US-16A, Custer, SD 57730
Website:https://gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/custer-state-park/
Hours:The park is open all day, every day.
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.

The best time to visit Custer State Park

Summer is a great time to visit Custer State Park. On average, daily highs hit 80°F with cooler temperatures at night.

Spring and fall also make great times to visit Custer State Park. Daily highs range from the 50’s to the 70s. Rainfall is more likely in the spring and summer months, so if you want to visit Custer State Park with cool, drier weather, go in autumn.

Winters in Custer State Park can be very cold.

Other places close by worth visiting

1. WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK (11 miles)

Regarded as sacred by American Indians, exploration of the the area known a Wind Cave did not begin until 1881, when the entrance was noticed by two brothers, Jesse and Tom Bingham. They heard a loud whistling noise, which led them to a small hole in the ground, the cave’s only natural opening.

Today, you can visit the caves and the beautiful plains on the surface above.

2. MOUNT RUSHMORE (20 miles)

Mount Rushmore is a relatively recent creation and started as a concept by state historian Doane Robinson in 1923. The choice of artist was Gutzon Borglum, a radical sculptor with a sense of scale and outlandish ambition.

3. THE MAMMOTH SITE (37 miles)

The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, SD is a truly incredible place to visit. We call in every time we are in the area as it is always changing.

Accidently, discovered during a construction project, The dig site is uncommon as the mammoth bones that the excavation has exposed have been left in situ and can be viewed by visitors from raised walkways. It is a most unusual exhibit.

The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs

4. CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL (21 miles)

Brule Lakota Henry Standing Bear was born near Pierre, South Dakota, along the Missouri River around 1874. In 1933 he heard that there were plans to build a monument to his cousin Crazy Horse at Fort Robinson where he had met his end. Standing Bear and the Lakota Sioux were determined that any such monument should be built in the Black Hill mountains of South Dakota which had a spiritual significance to his Nation.

The monument is being carved out of Thunderhead Mountain, on land considered sacred by some Oglala Lakota, roughly 17 miles (27 km) from Mount Rushmore. When, and if, it gets finished it will dwarf Mount Rushmore.

5. SOUTH DAKOTA AIR & SPACE MUSEUM (38 miles)

I still get excited when I get the chance to visit a new museum dedicated to air and space, so when I discovered on our journey through South Dakota the South Dakota Air & Space Museum at Ellsworth Airforce Base I jumped at the chance to visit. Like many such aerospace museums, there was plenty of interesting aircraft on display. There are over 30 vintage military aircraft ranging from World War II bombers to the modern-day B-1.

6. MINUTEMAN MISSILE HISTORIC SITE  (102 miles)

If you are looking for another opportunity to catch up on cold-war history and nuclear proliferation then check out the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

The Minuteman Missile field covered the far western portion of South Dakota from 1963 through the early 1990s. There were 15 Launch Control Facilities that commanded and controlled 150 Launch Facilities (Missile Silos) holding Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. The missile field was operational, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for thirty years.

You can visit the new visitor centre and take tours of the sites themselves.

7. WALL DRUG STORE  (81 miles)

As you travel around America, especially the mid-west you’ll come across billboards advertising the Wall Drug Store. These billboards are located, in some cases, hundreds of miles from the store itself mostly along a 650 mile stretch of I-90. Apparently, there are more than 300 paid for billboards, some located internationally, and a whole load more unofficial billboards.

The store itself has become a popular stop-off point for people travelling through South Dakota or visiting the local attractions such as Badlands National Park or en route to Mount Rushmore.

8. BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK (88 miles)

The Lakota gave this land its name, “Mako Sica,” meaning “land bad.” Extreme temperatures, lack of water, and the exposed rugged terrain led to this name. In the early 1900s, French-Canadian fur trappers called it “les mauvais terres pour traverse,” or “bad lands to travel through.”

Located in southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park consists of 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires blended with the largest protected mixed-grass prairie in the United States.

Where to stay?

1. SUMMER CREEK INN & SPA

Located in Rapid City in the Black Hills region, 18 mi from Mount Rushmore National Monument, Summer Creek Inn & Spa features a spa centre and hot tub. The bed and breakfast has a sun terrace and views of a waterfall and a garden, and guests can enjoy a drink at the bar. Free private parking is available on site.

Certain rooms feature a seating area where you can relax. A terrace or balcony are featured in certain rooms. Superior rooms include a spa bath or a hot tub. 

2. SWEETGRASS INN BED & BREAKFAST

Located in Rapid City, Sweetgrass Inn Bed & Breakfast offers accommodations with a restaurant, free private parking, a bar and a garden. This 3-star inn offers a shared kitchen, room service and free WiFi. The accommodations provides evening entertainment and an ATM.

Journey Museum is 8.1 mi from Sweetgrass Inn Bed & Breakfast, while Rushmore Mall is 9.9 mi from the property. The nearest airport is Rapid City Regional Airport, 11 mi from the inn.

3. UNDER CANVAS MOUNT RUSHMORE

If you are looking for something more adventurous than the typical hotel experience then you might want to consider Under Canvas Mount Rushmore.

Fancy a glamping experience in safari-style tents then this may be the place for you. Canvas Mount Rushmore is tucked within Ponderosa Pines and Common Juniper, located on an original gold mining settlement less than 4 miles from Mount Rushmore National Monument. Offering upscale accommodations and majestic views of Mount Rushmore and the surrounding Black Hills

4. STATE PARK CAMPGROUNDS

Custer State Park offers 9 campgrounds all with a variety of scenic sites. 

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