Custer S.P. is over 100-square-miles of grassland prairies, pine-covered hills, and rocky peaks. The Black Hills region is home to National Parks and Monuments, stunning lakes and caves, and a rich gold mining history, and much of the action is in and around the C.S.P. As home to the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains and one of the largest herds of bison on earth, we found Custer State Park easily one of the best state parks in the USA to visit.
There are many beautiful things to do in Custer State Park, and it would take more than a day to experience all of them. If you’re into wildlife, beyond the ubiquitous bison it is common to spy deer, elk, antelope, mountain goats, prairie dogs, burros, coyotes, eagles, and wild turkeys all throughout the park. If you enjoy beautiful lakes, one of the most gorgeous in all the country is Sylvan Lake. Hiking enthusiasts will enjoy the Black Elk Peak, Cathedral Spires, and Sunday Gulch trails. Drivers and motorcyclists would be crazy to miss the Needles Highway.
We spent 3 months of our lives living near the park and we traveled here often. It is truly a special place, one that everyone should visit if given the chance. The following are what we found to be the most interesting and memorable things to do. Enjoy!
At 7400′, this is the highest peak in the state. In fact, it is the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains — that is, until you reach the Alps in Europe. Endlessly magnificent in it’s grandeur, the Black Elk Peak payoff offers stunning, 360-degree, mountaintop views.
Also known as Trail #9, and formerly called the Harney Peak trail (map), the Black Elk Peak trail is a moderate, seven-mile stroll into the heart of the Black Hills. While steep at the top, there is nothing terribly dynamic to dissuade those motivated enough to make the journey.
On the east side of Sylvan Lake is the trailhead. Admission to the State Park is $20 for a one week pass. Drive through the gate and approach the lake, then follow the road around the right side and park in the loop near the swimming/picnic area. Look for the trailhead sign near the small bathroom.
If there is a more perfect place to begin (and end) a hike, we haven’t found it. Sylvan Lake is a real gem. Placid yet rugged, with a breathtaking backdrop, the lake offers kayaking, cliff jumping, swiming, and other activities, which makes it a fine destination all on its own.
To learn more about Black Elk Peak and other amazing things to do in the area, check out The Black Hills of South Dakota: A Complete Guide.
Located on the Needles Highway, Sylvan Lake, South Dakota lives amidst the granite boulders that enunciate Custer State Park. CSP is one of the more beautiful parts of the United States and is an absolute must-do when you visit.
Theodore Reder damned the creek at Sunday Gulch in 1881 to form the lake. From the backside of the lake you can get a good look at the 30′ high dam, or if you like, you can walk out onto it via a small bridge. The average depth is 13 feet with a maximum depth of 30 feet. To help maintain the peace, no motorized boats are allowed on the water.
To take it all in, walk the circumlocutory path that ducks behind the boulders at the back of the lake. The path is one mile long and full of surprises. On the backside of the boulders is access to the Sunday Gulch Trail (more on that later). If walking isn’t your thing, you can swim, fish, rock climb, kayak, or picnic to your heart’s contentedness.
If you’ve come to the region, this is absolutely one of the most beautiful things to do in Custer State Park. Learn more about visiting the incredible Sylvan Lake here.
Bison are an amazing animal. The natives in these parts believe the Bison were once humans who dared to leave the caves for the earth’s surface a moment too soon. The lore in the Black Hills region is wonderful and adds an element to the natural beauty that should not be excluded.
If you want to interact with the magical beasts, Wildlife Loop Road is considered the place to be. Photos abound of bison herds stopping traffic. As you will see posted on signs everywhere, do not approach the magnificent ungulates. They are not cows. The run 30 miles per hour and can catapult you into the yonderverse if they decide to run you down. There are videos on YouTube of bison attacks — we suggest you watch some for a healthy dose of fear.
But if you want to know a secret… psst…. here it is: the best place to see the bison is Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave and Custer State Park are contiguous at the southern border of CSP, and the road seamlessly flows into the WCNP territory. There is no entrance fee, just drive right in.
The buffalo are there almost every morning in the summer, typically near where the 87 intersects the 385. They have a tendency to move around, so you could have to drive along the 385 highway, or north up the 87, but you’ll find at least a few.
The Rut, or mating season, begins in mid-July and runs well into September. And you thought frat boys were disgusting. This is a fantastic time to observe the fluffy cows at their grunting, fighting, galloping, dirt spraying best.
Central to Custer State Park, the Needles Highway is a quintessential scenic drive. All around you granite spires and ponderosa pine-covered hills create an irresistible American landscape. As far as we’re concerned, the only way you can go wrong is to drive too fast.
Well, we guess you could get your 5th wheel stuck in one of the tiny rock tunnels. We almost did.
The Needles Highway is 14-miles of winding road that dances between towers and trees, and all along the way you are entreated to vast panoramas of rocky hillside. The famed Cathedral Spires hike is along this route.
A significant point-of-interest is The Needle’s Eye. When you arrive at the first tunnel there will be room to park on the right side (a small amount on the left as well). The needle (pictured above left) is best viewed by hiking up the hillside fifty feet where you can stand atop a viewing area. If you continue to climb up the hillside the views open up even more.
Be sure to stop at the Cathedral Spires trailhead. There is a magnificent view of a cliffside that is understood to be the inspiration for Mt. Rushmore (pictured below).
Whether you get out of your car or not, the Needles Highway is one of the most beautiful things to do in Custer State Park. Of course we recommend getting out and hiking around as much as possible.
The Sunday Gulch Trail trailhead is found behind the large boulders on the north end of Sylvan Lake. The beginning and end of the trail are found only 50 yards apart.
One trailhead heads straight into the gulch. You will scale boulders and descend staircases with the help of handrails. The trail can be very steep in places, and in the springtime it can become submerged with the water from Sylvan Lake. This decent is about a half-mile long, and is the most enjoyable part of the trail.
On our adventure we crossed paths with two groups that brought very small children down into the gulch. They moved slowly and carefully. I cannot imagine these families knew that they had 2.5 miles of mostly uphill hiking once they reached the bottom, but they surely found out.
The other end of the trail is shown below center. Follow the footbridge past the large rock face and keep your eyes peeled for small blue arrows to direct you along the path.
This portion of the trail lends tremendous views of the valley where there are an abundance of needles that decorate the landscape. The first half-mile is absolutely incredible, the second best component of the entire trail. From there it becomes a rather ordinary hike until you reach the lowest point.
It would be conceivable that one could hike to the bottom of the gulch and back up, then head to the other trailhead and walk the first half-mile and back. This would eliminate the two miles of pleasant but unspectacular trail between the two big events, and even save a mile. We’re not saying we’d recommend it, but its an option.
Driving the Iron Mountain Road is a very cool thing to do in Custer State Park. It begins very close to Mt. Rushmore and winds southward toward the Needles Highway. Like the Needles Highway, it has several tunnels that have been blasted through the rock. It is crazy to think we once brought our 31′ Class-C Winnebago through these tunnels. We were total idiots! And we don’t recommend it.
The road is 17-miles long with 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 tunnels, and 3 pig-tails. A pig-tail is a curve that loops back over the road, which allows the road to ascend quickly. The curviness of the road is by design, as it keeps speeds to 35mph or slower.
Along the way you will see everything that defines the Black Hills region: Tree-covered hills, huge rocky prominences, curvy roads, and beautiful vistas.
One of the highlights of Iron Mountain Road is the Norbeck Overlook. This local gives a different vantage on Mt. Rushmore. It is easy to see why they chose that particular location for the monument when you take a step back and view the surrounding area. There are some short paths that lead to different viewpoints and the area is worth spending 30-60 minutes of your time, or more.
We recommend the moderate Cathedral Spires hike to everyone who can handle uneven ground with some scrambling. It’s about three miles total (out and back), and the setting at the top is special little valley surrounded with needle spires (like standing in the center of a granite crown).
This was the very first hike we took our children on and they didn’t complain. They enjoyed themselves! Perhaps a bit subjective, but that has to say something about the hike, right?
The trail is very popular and often the parking area is full. The earlier you arrive, the better. At the top you will find the trail connects to a network of trails that run to places like Little Devil’s Tower and Black Elk Peak.
It is a truly wonderland to wander the tops of these peaks. We haven’t found anywhere like it on earth.
If you only had one day in the Black Hills, what would you do?
We would go straight to the beating heart of the region and do the following four things:
1 Hike Black Elk Peak in the early morning.
2 Spend the afternoon at Sylvan Lake.
3 Drive the Needles highway and Iron Mountain Road.
4 Visit Mt. Rushmore before sunset.
This would be a very long, yet incredible day that would live in your memories forever.
What do you think? Feel free to tell us in the comments!
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