Custer State Park
Custer State Park is a 71,000-acre vacation paradise with abundant adventure and scenic landscapes. The park is home to a diverse range of wildlife including bighorn sheep, antelope, deer, elk, coyote, prairie dogs and "begging" burros. The park also contains one of the nation's largest free roaming buffalo herds, making it common to encounter a "Buffalo Jam" while driving in the park. Custer State Park and South Dakota have been named one of the World's Top 10 Wildlife Destinations.
The park is also home to a wide variety of historic sites including French Creek, made famous when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and President Calvin Coolidge’s Summer White House, the historic State Game Lodge.
Located along US Highway 16A near the Historic State Game Lodge & Resort, the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center is named after the South Dakota Governor and conservationist who helped establish the park back in 1912. Visitors can browse displays and exhibits about the park’s wildlife, geology and history. There is also a gift shop and park staff available.
The Wildlife Station Visitor Center is located on the Wildlife Loop Road. Travelers can stop here to learn more about the park’s wildlife and to locate the roaming buffalo herd. The center also features 20-foot-tall scale models of the Cathedral Spires, interactive displays and a 100-seat theater featuring the park film narrated by Kevin Costner.
The Gordon Stockade
Discover the history of the American frontier as you explore Custer State Park’s Gordon Stockade. Built on its original, historic site, this expertly replicated, historically exact log fortress offers visitors a unique glimpse into life on the American frontier and the struggle for survival during the height of the American gold rush.
Custer State Park Events And Programs
Each fall, Custer State Park hosts the Buffalo Roundup & its Arts Festival, while during the summer, the Black Hills Playhouse offers professional theater performances surrounded by the beauty of the hills. The park also offers a variety of Summer Interpretive Programs to guests seeking an in-depth exploration of the region’s natural and cultural history. Programs include hands-on activities such as gold panning, geocaching, a variety of naturalist programs and interactive living history demonstrations.
Outdoor enthusiasts will find a variety of adventures in Custer State Park including kayaking, canoeing, rock climbing, mountain biking and hiking. Trail guides, horseback riding and rentals and are also available. Custer State Park also offers a variety of unique on-site activities, including Jeep Safari rides through the buffalo herds, horseback riding, guided fly-fishing and chuckwagon suppers. For a full itinerary, check out The Go-Getters Guide to Custer State Park.
CUSTER STATE PARK HIKING TRAILS
Little Devils Tower Trailhead
Spanning just over three miles along one of the many small streams within Custer State Park, hiking the Little Devils Tower Trailhead promises some of the most spectacular views the area has to offer. Named for the unique rock formation at its summit, the Little Devils Tower trail invites visitors to enjoy vast, panoramic, otherworldly views of the Black Hills, Black Elk Peak’s fire lookout tower and the Cathedral Spires.
Sunday Gulch Trailhead
Perhaps one of Custer State Park’s most demanding hikes, the short-but-serious Sunday Gulch Trailhead, is also one of the most overlooked. The trail is just under three miles and begins at Sylvan Lake, descending into the gulch along a series of large boulders— so be sure to hug the handrails. Within the gulch, towering, moss covered granite walls line the trail and a collection of small footbridges and steppingstones travel back and forth across a quiet stream. The trail is cool, green and quiet, offering a peaceful escape to nature and access to one of the most scenic spots in the Black Hills.
Celebrating the 100th anniversary of South Dakota’s statehood, the Centennial Trail spans 111 miles across the breathtaking and diverse range of South Dakotan natural landscapes. From prairie grasslands to hot springs and caves, the Centennial Trail promises an all-encompassing adventure across the various environments and cultures of America’s frontier. Roughly 22 miles of the Centennial Trail are located within Custer State Park, inviting visitors to explore the variety of natural and cultural resources within the Black Hills.
Black Elk Peak (Harney Peak) Hiking Trail
Towering over seven thousand feet above the surrounding landscape, Black Elk Peak remains the tallest point amongst South Dakota’s Black Hills. Beginning at Sylvan Lake, the Black Elk Peak (Harney Peak) Hiking Trail takes visitors on a strenuous, 3.5-mile journey through the scenic Black Elk wilderness and offers a glimpse into the curious and scattered history of the structure at its summit and the peak itself. An old, stone fire tower rests at the top of the trail, offering stunning views of the scenery below. The summit and surrounding area is also sacred ground, named for Nicholas Black Elk, a prominent spiritual and social leader within the Native American community.
CUSTER STATE PARK ROCK CLIMBING SITES
The Cathedral Spires
While Custer State Park offers a range of scenic hikes through the Black Hills wilderness, the area is also home to a variety of rock climbing routes, inviting climbers and thrill-seekers to enjoy some of the best ascents in the country. Nestled just east of Sylvan Lake are The Cathedral Spires; a striking collection of sky-scraping granite pillars and one of the last traditional climbing locations in the United States. Home to some of the country’s most coveted climbs such as God’s Own Drunk, Eyetooth and Spire Four, an adventure through the Cathedral Spires promises a rare and unforgettable experience.
ON THE WATER AT CUSTER STATE PARK
With a collection of four incredible lakes, Custer State Park offers a number of on-the-water adventures for visitors to enjoy. Whether you’re boating, fishing, or taking a scenic swim, make sure to stop by the shores of these beautiful Black Hills lakes.
Known as the “crown jewel” of Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake is the most popular of the park’s four lakes. A favorite for photographers, artists, wedding parties and scenery-seekers alike, Sylvan Lake’s pristine, sparkling environment is full of impeccable, immersive natural beauty. In addition to being one of the park’s primary hiking destinations, visitors can explore the lake on the selection paddleboats, kayaks, canoes and hydrobikes available to rent onsite. Or for a refreshing post-hike cool down, guests can enjoy some relaxation on the Sylvan Lake swimming beach. Fishing is also a popular activity available throughout Custer State Park with the purchase of a valid South Dakota fishing license.
Just as popular with visitors as it is with the local wildlife, Legion Lake is a peaceful retreat, resting along the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway. Pine forests and rocky hills surround Legion Lake’s tranquil shoreline and clear, reflective waters, creating a picturesque experience of the park’s abundant natural beauty. Visitors can enjoy fishing from the lake’s dock, taking a swim, or browsing the site’s diverse selection of watercraft and bicycles available to rent.
Though each of Custer State Park’s lakes includes various amenities outdoor-adventurers, the park’s largest lake, Stockade Lake, offers the greatest selection of amenities and outdoor-accommodation options. Home to three campgrounds, a collection of available cabins, a playground and a group reception area, those seeking an extended stay in Custer State Park can enjoy the prime vantage point of Stockade Lake. The site also offers direct trail access, a swimming beach and fishing areas— and is the only lake in Custer State Park that allows all boat types (including motorized).
Those seeking a serene, untouched, sparkling mountain shoreline can enjoy the quiet beauty of Custer State Park’s seemingly private Center Lake. With much of the focus directed towards Sylvan and Stockade Lakes, Center Lake is a secluded, mountain-lake oasis that is often overlooked, creating that all-to-yourself feeling for those who choose to explore its shores. Like the park’s other lakes, Center Lake is a great spot for swimming, fishing and boating in Custer State Park’s incredible outdoors.
Custer State Park offers some of the most breathtaking scenic drives in the Black Hills. Wildlife Loop Scenic Byway is perhaps the most popular cruise in Custer State Park, offering rare close encounters with a diverse range of local wildlife. In addition to the unforgettable natural landscape, buffalo, burros, bighorn sheep, elk, coyote and various bird species are all common sightings along the Wildlife Loop. Along the way, visitors will also pass numerous Prairie Dog Towns and can enjoy multiple appearances made by their playful inhabitants.
For more behind-the-wheel adventure, take in incredible views of the Cathedral Spires on the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway. The route includes Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road, beginning within the park and guiding drivers alongside the slender, towering granite needles, through rock tunnels and across pigtail bridges on the way to Mount Rushmore.