4 Can’t Miss Hikes in Custer State Park

Summit of Black Elk Peak
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Last Updated on October 18, 2022

Are you heading to Custer State Park and looking for a few things to do? Well, hiking in Custer State Park should be at the top of your list! From challenging and rewarding hikes to leisurely and peaceful strolls, there are some amazing hikes in Custer State Park for every skill level and outdoor enthusiast!

Custer State Park is beautiful. It’s rugged, wild, and oh-so-unique looking. So, it’s no wonder that Custer State Park hiking trails are among the best in South Dakota, if not the best! Hiking Custer State Park will take you to the top of South Dakota or along beautiful lakes. Whichever you choose, we have a list of some of the best hikes in Custer State Park just below!

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Best Hikes in Custer State Park

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1. Cathedral Spires

If you’re looking for a short hike, and to drive the Needles Highway, Cathedral Spires is for you. Ranked among the top 2 trails in Custer State Park, Cathedral Spires is a 1.6-mile out-and-back trail. Rated as moderate, hiking to Cathedral Spires can take anywhere from 1-1.5 hours depending on your fitness level and of course, how often you stop to take pictures 🙂

The trailhead is found off the Needles Highway, a scenic drive in Custer State Park. Parking is slim pickings here, so plan to get here early or around sunset to avoid the crowds.

The trail starts out weaving through a spruce and ponderosa pine forest and then the incline hits. Sections of the hike, while rated as moderate, are definitely more strenuous than other sections. You’ll traverse up and over rocky paths and small boulders until eventually, you reach the main event, the Cathedral Spires, a series of spire-like rock formations jutting from the ground that practically surround you.

There is no bathroom at the entrance of the trailhead or water stations, so come hike prepared. Also, see if you can spot any rock climbers scaling the face of the spires!

Stats: 1.6 miles | out and back | 488 ft elevation gain | difficulty level is moderate

Cathedral Spires hike in South Dakota

TIP: You can kill two birds with one stone and do Cathedral Spires and Black Elk Peak in one go! The Cathedral Spires trailhead is also a trailhead that allows you access to hike up to Black Elk Peak!

2. Black Elk Peak (Harney Peak Fire Tower)

Ready to hike to the tallest peak not only in South Dakota but to the tallest point east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyrenees in Europe?! Formerly known as Harney Peak Fire Tower, Black Elk Peak was our favorite hike in all of South Dakota!

To hike to the summit of Black Elk Peak, understand you have two trailhead options to choose from. Option 1, the Catherdral Spires Trailhead, and option 2, Black Elk Peak Trailhead by Sylvan Lake. We recommend going with option 1 and starting at Cathedral Spires so you can do two of the best hikes in Custer State Park in one go!

To get to Black Elk Peak, you’ll weave through forests and slowly make an ascent to the summit and to Harney’s Peak Fire Tower, which you can go into! The views get better and better as you near the summit. We hiked to Black Elk Peak to watch the sunset and it was spectacular! You get vast views of Black Elk Wilderness and Custer State Park. If you can only do one hike, do this one.

There is a bathroom near the trailhead by Sylvan Lake and a few vending machines, but it is still best to come prepared with snacks and plenty of water. If you’re hiking from Cathedral Spires, there is nothing to be found at that trailhead.

Black Elk Peak in South Dakota

Black Elk Peak via Cathedral Spires: 7.2 miles | out and back | 1,532 ft elevation gain | difficulty level is moderate

Black Elk Peak Loop: 7.1 miles | loop | 1,469 ft elevation gain | difficulty level is moderate

3. Sunday Gulch Trail

One of the more fun hikes in Custer State Park is the Sunday Gulch Trail. You’ll use handles and steps to help you get down and around large boulders. It’s kinda like a mini-jungle gym hike and we had a blast!

You’ll spend most of your time hiking in the forest and pass by a stream in a few sections until it’s time for you to ascend up the other side of the gulch. Once up and out of the gulch, you’ll have fantastic views of Custer State Park. You’ll end the hike at Sylvan Lake where you can walk along its lake shore to get back to your car.

This trailhead is found at Sylvan Lake, so you’ll have access to a bathroom and vending machine. But like all the other trails, please come prepared with ample snacks and water.

Stats: 3.9 miles | loop | 797 ft revelation gain | rated as hard

4. Sylvan Lake Shore Trail

The easiest hike in Custer State Park on our list is Sylvan Lake Shore. This 1.1-mile loop navigates you around Sylvan Lake. The ground is mostly a flat gravel trail with a few sections being a little rockier. You can take your time on the trail, watching folks fish and kayak the waters of the lake.

This place gets crowded so if you are looking to avoid the crowds, it’s best to get here early.

Sylvan Lake Shore Trail in Custer State Park

Stats: 1.1 miles | loop | 82 ft elevation gain | rated as easy

Hikes in Custer State Park – Honorable Mentions

We only got to spend a few days in Custer State Park, so reasonably, we did not get a chance to check out every trail. Below are some top-rated trails in Custer Park for you to consider adding to your “hikes in Custer State Park’ list.

  • Lovers’ Leap Trail: 4.2 miles | loop | 626 ft elevation gain | rated as moderate
  • Little Devils Tower: 3.8 miles | out and back | 757 ft elevation gain | rated as moderate
  • Prarie Trail: 2.1 miles | loop | 423 ft elevation gain | rated as easy
  • Legion Lake Loop: 0.7 miles | loop | 39 ft elevation gain | rated as easy

To get a list of some of the best things to do in Custer and Custer State Park check out our travel guide!

Hikes In Custer State Park Trail Map

Use the + and – buttons on the above map to zoom in and out and get a better sense of where trailheads are located within Custer State Park.

Tips For Visiting Custer State Park:

  • Hours: Open year-round, 24 hours a day
  • Entrance Fee: $20 per vehicle; valid for seven consecutive days
  • How Many Days: One full day in Custer, while short, is totally doable. Spending 2-3 days in Custer State Park is ideal and our recommendation.
  • Phone Reception: Intermittent, but available in certain areas
  • Gas Stations: None. You’ll need to fill up in the town of Custer.
  • Food: There are four restaurants within the park, Blue Bell Lodge, State Game Lodge, Sylvan Lake Lodge, and Legion Lake Lodge. For more dining options, head into the town of Custer.

Where To Stay In Near Custer State Park

The town of Custer has a handful of lodging and hotel options but if you are able, staying outside the town in Custer State Park, is our recommendation for your visit to Custer. The natural beauty of the area is something special, so do what you can to find a lodging that offers a little slice of paradise for you to enjoy.

Custer AccommodationsEO Bungalow | Bavarian Inn | Lefty’s Hideout | Comfort Inn & Suites

Summit of Black Elk Peak at Sunset

What To Pack For Hiking Custer State Park:

  • Headlamp: If you are planning to do any sunset or sunrise hikes, make sure you have a headlamp with you so you can see the trail with ease in the dark.
  • First Aid Kit: To fix any blisters or cuts.
  • Layers: You never know what the weather will be. We carry layers for warmth or windbreakers/rain jackets in our day packs when hiking.
  • Snacks: Always, always, remember to pack snacks. You’ll be burning some calories on your hike so help fuel your body up!
  • UV Protection: From hats to sunscreen or UV protective clothing, you’ll be out in the sun all day, so treat your body right! Also, don’t forget the tops of your ears! Make sure they get sunscreen.
  • Footwear: Have appropriate footwear with proper tread. Whether it’s books or trail runners, make sure you take care of your feet.
  • Day Pack: Make sure the pack you are hiking with fits you and is comfortable.
  • Reusable Water Bottle: Avoid single-use plastics and pack a reusable water bottle two to take with you on your hike.

As always, follow the leave-no-trace principles. When visiting any National Park, National Forest, or any outdoor space, leave it better than you found it. Always stay on hiking trails and marked paths, dispose of trash and waste appropriately, completely extinguish any campfire (embers included), leave what you find, and do not feed or approach wildlife.

Want More Information!?

One Day in Badlands National Park

7 Day South Dakota Itinerary: The Badlands To The Black Hills

Top 10 Things To in the Black Hills Near Mount Rushmore

Complete Travel Guide to Custer & Custer State Park

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For more travel tips, guides, and awesome travel shots, be sure to poke around our site, and follow us on Instagram @wanderingstusPinterest, and Facebook. Oh and if you have any questions, let us know in the comment section. We’re happy to answer. Or, just leave us a positive note!

Happy Travels,

– Lauren & Jesse Stuart (The Stüs)

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