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The 4 Best Things To Do In Custer State Park, South Dakota

The 4 Best Things To Do In Custer State Park, South Dakota

Custer State Park is a beautiful gem nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota. From hiking to the tops of picturesque peaks to driving scenic routes filled with wildlife, there is truly something for every type of adventurer. In our time at Custer State Park, we:

  1. Climbed Black Elk Peak (accessible via Sylvan Lake within Custer State Park)
  2. Drove the Wildlife Loop
  3. Drove on Needles Highway
  4. Stayed at the Sylvan Lake Lodge

Black Elk Peak

To begin our adventure in Custer State Park, we decided to hike to the top of Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak). Black Elk Peak is the highest summit east of the Rocky Mountains, so we wanted to give the climb a try. We started at the Sylvan Lake trailhead, which is a seven-mile round-trip hike. When we were in the planning process for our trip, we made sure to keep this day reserved for hiking Black Elk Peak and driving through Custer State Park, as we anticipated needing some time to climb the peak and then recover. We also chose to stay at the Sylvan Lake Lodge that evening so once we had completed our hike and drive we wouldn’t have too far to go before arriving at our resting point.

We were fortunate – the weather couldn’t have been better throughout our hike. The scenery was stunning, and as we climbed higher and higher it only got better. My favorite thing about this climb is that it’s relatively easy – just be aware of uneven surfaces to avoid tripping. In my opinion, anyone in moderate shape could complete this hike with relative ease. Items to make sure you bring with you:

  1. Hiking shoes/boots and socks (to avoid blisters)
  2. Comfortable backpack for hiking
  3. Plenty of water bottles
  4. Snacks to stop and enjoy along the way (please remember to take all of your trash with you – let’s help keep our parks clean)
  5. First aid kit (let’s hope you don’t need it, but you’ll want to have it if you do)
  6. Wind jacket (it gets windy at the summit, and to stay comfortable you may want a jacket)
A tree with a mountain in the background

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View from the beginning of the hike.
A tree with a mountain in the background

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View from the mid-point of the hike.
A person standing in front of a mountain

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View from the summit of Black Elk Peak.

Wildlife Loop

After summiting and descending Black Elk Peak, we got in the car and began the first of our two drives. The first scenic route we drove was the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop, a fantastic way to view animals native to the area. We saw prairie dogs, bison, and were even able to feed the infamous begging burros along the drive (be sure to bring whole carrots with you – we were fortunate that another family donated a couple of carrots to us so we could satisfy the burros). While you should never feed wild animals in the park, the burros are generally considered a special exception. This 18-mile loop takes up to 2 hours to complete (depending on how much stopping and watching you do) but is absolutely worth the drive.

Make sure you bring fresh whole carrots!

Needles Highway

The second route we drove was the Needles Highway, where we saw breathtaking granite formations, including the rock formation called the “Needle’s Eye Tunnel.” It’s a roughly one hour drive that was specifically designed to showcase the scenery that makes Custer State Park so special. The granite formations combined with the pine forests in the area made this route a beautiful way to end the day. Following this drive, we headed to the Sylvan Lake Lodge to rest and recharge for the remainder of the evening.

Entering the Needle’s Eye Tunnel on the Needles Highway.

Sylvan Lake Lodge

By the time we arrived at Sylvan Lake Lodge, we were more than ready to check in and relax. Sylvan Lake is a beautiful lake tucked into the Black Hills that was created from a man-made dam. It’s a popular recreation spot and the adjacent historic Sylvan Lake Lodge offers lodging for travelers, including rooms within the lodge itself and more rustic external cabins (camping is available as well). Around sunset we took a walk around the lake before heading back to the lodge to prepare for our next day. Unfortunately we arrived too late for dinner that night, but we enjoyed a tasty breakfast at the Lodge’s restaurant the next morning before departing. We would highly recommend checking it out, if only to simply have a meal there and enjoy the scenery.

Sylvan Lake at sunset.

These are our favorite places to check out in Custer State Park! I think you’ll find that this park has quite a lot to offer for everyone from families to the more adventurous. Have you been there? What are your favorite activities in the park? Let us know!

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