Introduction to Custer State Park

posted in: Midwest, South Dakota, Travel, United States | 13


Custer State Park in South Dakota

Custer State Park is the first and largest state park in South Dakota (one of the largest in the country actually). It encompasses 70,000 acres of lakes, prairie, pine forests and granite rock formations.

We chose the park as our base because it is close to most of the sights we plan to visit: Crazy Horse, Mount Rushmore, Jewel Cave National Monument, Harney’s Peak, Deadwood, Sturgis and Spearfish Canyon.


Camping Update – We survived the first set up!

We set up the pop up for the first time last night and we found out we definitely have some things to learn!

The campsite is uneven so we found it a bit difficult to initially get it level. Once that was figured out, we only had a few hiccups and managed to argue only a few times! Hopefully the more times we set up, the better we will get at it.

062016_1419_SummerRoadT1.jpg 062016_1419_SummerRoadT2.jpg

Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road

We started our day at the new visitor center on the east side of the park. It just opened in May and is a great stop at the beginning of your stay in Custer. We picked up maps, used the restrooms, filled our water bottles, learned about the buffalo we were hoping to see in the near future, and talked to the rangers.

There were two on staff that answered any of our questions and they even had a table map display with miniature buffalo to identify where they were most recently spotted. Yay, some are on the wildlife loop!

Custer State Park Wildlife Loop

The Wildlife Loop is an 18-mile road in the southern section of the park. We assumed the best time of day would be the first thing in the morning or at dusk so we weren’t expecting to see many animals when we decided to take the drive mid-morning.

Boy, were we wrong! As we started the loop from the east end, we were surprised to see a group of pronghorns (I only know what they are because of our handy pamphlets we picked up, otherwise I would have thought they were antelopes). And then it happened!

We found ourselves in a small traffic jam due to a herd of about 25 bison. Moms, dads and babies were trotting alongside the cars, weaving in between and walking in front of the cars as well. They didn’t have a care in the world and paid no attention to us whatsoever. It was incredible being so close to such an enormous animal.

Did you know they can grow up to 6 feet tall, weigh up to 2,000 pounds and are faster than horses as they can run up to 35 miles per hour?

They seem sluggish and overweight to me. It wasn’t until we saw two of them get into a little tiff that their true colors came through. I couldn’t help but remember a video I saw of an unwise woman petting one once! Ah, tourists… aren’t we the best?

Custer State Park Wildlife Loop

Once upon a time, North America was populated with millions of bison running wild, but by 1900 it is estimated that less than 1,000 were left. In 1914, a man named Peter Norbeck, realized the mammals were in fast decline and decided to do something about it. So was the beginning of Custer State Park.

Today, the park has roughly 1,500 bison roaming in the area.

Custer State Park Wildlife Loop

After a million videos and pictures (slight exaggeration), we made our way to Prairie Dog Town (still on the Wildlife Loop). We saw thousands of them in the Badlands, but we cannot get enough of these cute little guys. They are so entertaining to watch.

Our last animal encounter on the loop was with the ever-friendly burros. They are hilarious, walking up to anyone willing to put up with them and even sticking their heads into car windows. All we had to do was cup our hands out like we had food (we are so tricky) and they would come right up.

Custer State Park Burrows (Copy)




On the western end, heading out of the Wildlife Loop area is the turn off for the Mt. Coolidge Lookout. It is 6,023 feet high and provides distant views of George Washington’s profile on Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse and Harney’s Peak (the highest point in the park and east of the Rockies). We are hiking up to that tomorrow!

Mt Coolidge Custer State Park (Copy)

A Scenic Drive on Needles Highway

Needles Highway is roughly 14 miles of hairpin turns, one-lane tunnels, and spectacular rock creations. From Legion Lake area, the drive begins with pine and spruce forests and leads up to needle-like granite outcroppings.

Needles Hwy 3 (Copy)

Near the end of the drive, we approached an area called Needle’s Eye, a formation created by the elements: wind, rain, freezing and thawing. The informative sign at the stop stated that the region is home to some of the oldest rocks in North America, dating over 2 billion years in age!

Needles Hwy

As we were enjoying the views, we noticed sparkling crystals within the granite. A friendly man from the area noticed we were looking and came up to tell us that it is a rock called mica that was once used in ovens and spaceships due to its heat resistance. Interesting… it’s hard to grasp the twinkle with the camera, but we tried.

Needles Eye Rock (Copy)

Crazy Horse Memorial

As if our day wasn’t long enough, after driving the Wildlife Loop and Needles Highway, we visited the Crazy Horse Memorial. My uncle once told me it was his favorite stop in South Dakota and I remember being surprised.

I didn’t know about the history or the current undertaking, I just knew it was a sculpture on a mountain and didn’t really give it much thought. I now understand his sentiment as we spent a few hours learning about the sculptor, the man on the mountain and the Native American heritage.

I will be writing a separate post on our experience, but wanted to add a few pictures from our visit here.

Read our post about Crazy Horse here.

Crazy Horse Dang Travelers

Crazy Horse Head

Custer State Park Details

  • State Park Entrance License: $20 per vehicle ($10 for motorcycle) for 1-7 days, annual pass $30
  • 400 campsites and cabins.
  • 4 Lodges: State Game Lodge, Blue Bell Lodge, Legion Lake Lodge and Sylvan Lake Lodge with a variety of accommodations.

Miles Driven Today: 110, Total Miles Driven: 1,133, Average Gas Price per Gallon: $2.29, States: South Dakota
And so our epic 80 day summer road trip continues – 13 U.S. states, 2 Canadian provinces and 13 national parks. For the upcoming months, Follow our journey via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. If you would like to see our full itinerary, start at the beginning here. And Day 1 here.

Up next: Hiking in Custer State Park

Intro Custer State Park Pin



Follow Angela:

Angela E. is a travel writer from the Chicagoland area who has visited all 50 states in the US and has traveled extensively around the world. She is passionate about exploring the great outdoors and hiking in particular. Her love for nature has taken her to some of the most beautiful locations on the planet. She has written extensively about her travels on her own website, Dang Travelers, and has been published in collaboration with other travel websites and multiple visitor bureaus around the country.

13 Responses

  1. Wendy

    Love the pics. Can’t wait! I will be doing a once in a lifetime road trip in less than 30 days to most of your US loop up to glacier then Yellowstone and Colorado starting in East Tennessee. I will also be in a popup with 5 kids between 10 and 18🙂. So keep the tips coming. My kids are so excited about the animals.

    • Dang Travelers

      Wow, Wendy!! 5 kids too?!? You are awesome! They are going to have the time of their life! So excited for you and your family. Oh, the animals are a huge highlight for us too. Just love seeing them all over. We will keep the tips coming!

  2. Angela Gardiner

    Loving following along. Your writing style is exactly what I enjoy most . All the important details without droning on and fantastic pics.
    Living vicariously as I dream about our national parks and historic sites trip in a few years.
    Thanks for brining us along for the ride 🙂

  3. Angela Gardiner

    Oh…forgot to mention. Everyone has trouble setting up the first couple times. And everyone argues…and everyone else can relate lol
    You will be pros soon and it will get faster and faster to set up and tear down. …and the arguments will get to be less as well. Though…they may not entirely disappear 😉

    • Dang Travelers

      LOL Oh yea, they will definitely not disappear!! But I agree, the more we do it, the better we will be. We keep saying, “we only have each other, we better get along!” ahahahaha

  4. Ron R

    Everything you posted thats what we saw when we went to SD it was so nice hope you enjoy Jewel Cave when you go

    • Dang Travelers

      Can’t believe how much there is to do in the area. Yes, we visited Jewel Cave and loved it! We will hopefully be posting about it in a few days. We are heading to Yellowstone soon and won’t have a great connection so we may have to wait a bit to publish it. Thanks for following along!

  5. Kim B

    Hey Dang!
    Love the pics, Angela, your expressions are a riot! I have enjoyed Custer several times but I still want to go back as there are hikes I haven’t done & I think hubby would enjoy the area. I agree the area is nice for staging from.
    The Needles drive is wonderful & I hope to be alive to see Crazy Horse finished but, I don’t think it’s like.
    Kim B

    • Dang Travelers

      Thanks, I was having a blast! At the rate they are going building the sculpture I don’t think we will be alive either, but it was so cool to see what they’ve accomplished so far. Custer was one of the highlights of our trip and I would love to get back with my nephews if possible. Hopefully you can fit it in another trip and knock out some hiking trails!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.