Custer State Park: 1 Day Adventure

Custer State Park is South Dakota’s first and largest state park at over 70,000 acres, and shares its southern border with Wind Cave National Park. We absolutely loved this park (possibly more than some of the national parks we have visited), and it is definitely a must stop if you are in the area seeing the many other impressive sights the Black Hills and South Dakota have to offer. This park has hiking, biking, boating, swimming, horseback riding, and fishing, not to mention an abundance of beautiful scenery and wildlife. This park also has two visitor centers and an education center.

Entrance Fee: $20 per vehicle for 7 consecutive days

Lodging: Custer State Park has 9 different campgrounds with reservations available here- Camp at Custer. This park also has 4 beautiful lodges, that have both rooms and cabin options available. Reservations for any of the lodges can be made on the same site- Custer State Park Resort. Custer, Hill City, and Rapid City are also all lovely places to stay if you prefer outside the park accommodations. Custer, SD is the closest at 14 miles from the park entrance.

Dining: 4 of the lodges each have their our dining options, hours and meus which can all be found at Custer State Park Dining. There are also many picnic areas and shelters to eat near the trail if you brought your own food into the park.

Must Know Before You Go:

1. Without cell service, make sure you have a map and compass available before heading out to the trails.

2. As with any park, hiking is at your own risk. We always review wildlife safety with our kiddos before we visit! Wildlife Safety.

Cell Service: We had no service throughout most of the park.

One Day Itinerary

Wildlife Loop Road– This road is an 18-mile scenic drive, and while the scenery is beautiful with the endless rolling hills, the wildlife is why you can’t miss it. If you are staying to the east, south or west of the park this is where I would start your day. If you are staying to the north, toward Rapid City or Hill City then I would switch the Wildlife and Iron Mountain scenic drives in this itinerary. You will want this drive to be either at the very beginning of your day or at the very end so you have the most opportunities to see animals. Depending on the wildlife, this drive took us about 45 min to complete.

Needles Highway (SD 87)- This 14-mile scenic drive was our favorite of the three scenic drives at Custer State Park. The winding road has you stopping at spectacular overlooks, driving through beautiful mountains, and our kiddos, of course, loved the tunnels😊 *This road is closed in the winter.

Cathedral Spires Trail- This is a 3-mile roundtrip trail. At the turnaround point (1.5 miles in) you can jump on several other trails to make it a longer hike, but we just did out and back because we had so much else we wanted to see in a short period of time. The trail is rated moderate to strenuous but all three of our kiddos had no problem completing it. There are some rocky parts but it is still very doable, and the views are wonderful! *Parking at this trailhead is not great so the earlier in the day you get here, the better.

Sylvan Lake– This lake is stunning. And a great place to swim, fish, hike, or just enjoy the scenery. Needles Highway will take you right to Sylvan Lake. There is plenty of parking here so that your car can stay put for the next three stops on the itinerary. There is also dining, lodging and restrooms at Sylvan Lake.

Black Elk Peak Trail #9 – There are several ways to get to Black Elk Peak, but we chose this one mostly because both the route and parking is easiest from here with 3 small children in tow. You can also pick up Trail #4 from here to get you to the same peak, but I would recommend Trail #9 because either trail is around 7 miles roundtrip but the elevation changes on #4 are more significant. Do not let the almost 7 miles round trip scare you from doing this hike. Our kids LOVED it. The end (turn around point) lands you at Harvey Peak Fire Tower which my kids kept calling a “castle on the top of the world”. There are plenty of places to stop along the way to rest and we took our lunch with us so we could stop to eat at the top. Even our 5-year-old walked most of this trail herself. You are walking through a forest, but the mountain views and overlooks are spectacular the whole way up the mountain. Every mile of this trail was worth it and if you do no other hiking here- this hike is a must! We also saw quite a bit of wildlife the first mile in/out so keep your eyes on the grassy fields😊

Swimming beach- My kiddos love water, so this beach was an excellent motivator when we were dragging a little bit at the end of that last hike. We walked straight from the trailhead to the water. We went on a chilly day, but the water was still warm and plenty of people (including this crew) were still swimming.

Sylvan Lake Trail- After we were done swimming, we dried off on this easy 1-mile loop trail around Sylvan Lake. This trail has plenty of large rocks to climb on which the kids loved and gorgeous views of the lake.

Iron Mountain Road- When you are done at Sylvan Lake, head north on SD 87, east on 244, and then south on US 16A to begin the Iron Mountain Road scenic drive. This 18-mile drive will take you past Mount Rushmore, through three tunnels and endless amounts of incredible scenery. We even got stopped by several bison near the end of this road. This took us about 1 hour to complete. We stayed in Custer, so we took US 16A back through the middle of the park to head back for the night.


Hope you have a wonderful adventure!

family photo for Always Exploring

Meet the Johnsons

Welcome to Always Exploring! We are the Johnsons. We would love to have you follow along as we explore the world one adventure at a time! Here you will find itineraries to all of our explorations that will hopefully be helpful in your own adventure planning!

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