When visiting South Dakota, one of the places you can’t miss is the town of Custer and the nearby Custer State Park. From hiking trails and scenic drives to great restaurants and outdoor fun, there are amazing things to do in Custer South Dakota. So whether you just have one day or are in town for a few, one thing is for sure, Custer is a place that should be on everyone’s South Dakota road trip.
Custer South Dakota & Custer State Park
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How To Get To Custer South Dakota?
If you are road-tripping through South Dakota, set your GPS to Custer and enjoy the ride! If you are flying into South Dakota, you’ll want to book your roundtrip in and out of Rapid City, the closest airport to Custer. Once you land in Rapid City, you’ll need to rent a rental car to get you the rest of the way to Custer.
The town of Custer is located on the west side of South Dakota, about an hour south of Rapid City. From Custer, Custer State Park is a short 6-minute drive to the West Gate Entrance and an easy 15-minute drive to Sylvan Lake Entrance Station.
How Many Days Do You Need in Custer?
One full day in Custer, while short, is totally doable. If you only have one day, make it a full one and start as early as you can with a sunrise hike or a little fishing on Sylvan Lake. Spending 2-3 days in Custer and Custer State Park is ideal and our recommendation.
We loved this little town nestled in the Black Hills so if you can allocate a few days here, you’ll be able to enjoy much of what the area has to offer. And trust us, this place has a lot to offer!
Check out our 7-day South Dakota Itinerary to help plan your South Dakota vacation!
Best Time To Visit Custer South Dakota
The summer months, June through August, are the busiest months to visit Custer. The crowds will be at their most, but the weather while hot, is great. If you are looking to visit when the crowds are fewer, April – May, and September – October are other options to consider too!
We were here in mid-September and the weather was great and the crowds were by no means overwhelming.
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.
We stayed in Custer State Park at Bismark Lake Campground and absolutely loved it! The scenery was beautiful and the location was great.
Things To Do In Custer South Dakota
1. Hit The Hiking Trails in Custer State Park
Custer State Park is home to AMAZING hiking trails. So if you’re a hiker, you are in for a real treat! Whether you’re looking for something simple and easy or want to hike to the tallest point in South Dakota, you’ll find all that and more in Custer State Park.
Some of our absolute favorite hiking trails in Custer State Park are:
- Cathedral Spires: 1.6 miles | rated as moderate
- Black Elk Peak (TALLEST POINT IN SOUTH DAKOTA!): 7.2 miles | rated as moderate
- Sunday Gulch: 3.9-mile | rated as easy
- Sylvan Lake Shore Trail: 1.1 miles | rated as easy
Check out our complete hiking guide to Custer State Park right here!
However, before you arrive at the park, you’ll need to know a few things first!
How Much Does it Cost To Go Through Custer State Park?
Unlike other State Parks in the United States, you’ll need to pay an entrance fee to access Custer State Park. Valid for 7 days, visitors to Custer State Park will need to pay $20 per vehicle to enter the park. If you plan to visit Custer State Park more than once a year, you can buy an annual park pass for $36 to save a little money on your future visits.
And for those park hours, well Custer State park is open year-round, 24 hours a day. Making it great to catch a sunrise, see the stars or even do a sunset hike.
Get our complete guide to everything to see and do in the Black Hills of South Dakota!
Do You Need A Reservation For Custer State Park?
While some National Parks in the United States require reservations to visit, Custer State Park does not. However, if you are wanting to stay within the park, we highly recommend making campsite or lodging reservations as soon as possible, as the park does book up!
2. Take a Hot Air Ballon Ride
Next up on the list of things to do in Custer is a fun one! How does taking a hot air balloon ride over the beautiful Black Hills sound? At sunrise, you’ll soar over the Black Hills with a glass of champagne in hand. Take in the gorgeous aerial views of the majestic Black Hills and land with plenty of time in the day to still enjoy all those things to do in Custer! A win, win if you ask us!
3. Kayak or Go Fishing On Sylvan Lake
If you’re looking to get out and enjoy the water, Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park is a great place to do so! Grab your kayak and paddle around the lake or grab your line and drop it in the water to see what you’ll catch. Fish like Rainbow trout, Brown trout, and Spotted seatrout are what you can expect to find in Sylvan Lake.
Tip: If you don’t have a kayak, no worries! You can rent one. And if you’re looking to fish, make sure you secure a fishing license
4. Grab a Cinnamon Roll from Baker’s Bakery
Located on Main Street in downtown Custer, you’ll find Baker’s Bakery, a mom-and-pop café, and home to amazing pastries! Be prepared for one of the best cinnamon rolls of your life. You have two options – caramel or iced. If you were going to listen to us, go the caramel route! It’s unbelievably good. Hot, fresh, baked to perfection, and made daily.
5. Drive The Needles Highway & Squeeze Through Needles Eye Tunnel
One of the best drives in all of South Dakota (in our opinion) is The Needles Highway. It’s a small two-lane road that weaves through the pine-forested Black Hills of Custer State Park. Offering several places to pull off and park your car, you’ll be treated to great views of the rolling hills of South Dakota.
The highlight of the Needles Highway is the Needles Eye Tunnel. A narrow, one-lane path through a rock tunnel. It’s a tight squeeze but if you want to continue on The Needles Highway, you’ll need to wiggle through Needles Eye to do so!
TIP: Make sure you check the clearance requirements before driving the Needles Highway, especially if you’re in a van or RV!
6. Listen to Live Music at Custer Beacon & Have a Beer at Pounding Fathers
If you are looking for nightlife in Custer, you’ll find it at either Custer’s Beacon or at the local brewery, Pounding Fathers. Both serve up a great menu of food and offer plenty of beer for you to choose from. Whichever restaurant you choose, either eatery is a great place the end your day and relax after a full day of adventuring in Custer.
7. Drive The Wildlife Loop Road
If you’ve been to other places in South Dakota, like Badlands National Park, and lucked out on seeing any bison or big horn sheep, well, here’s your second chance! Located a little south of the town of Custer, you’ll find an 18-mile wildlife loop road.
The loop travels through open grasslands that much of the park’s wildlife call home. The best time to see wildlife is early in the morning, around dawn, or just after or close to sunset. So be sure to plan accordingly!
When driving the wildlife loop, don’t be confused if you see a few donkeys approaching your car. These are the begging burro’s, a highlight of the loop! Make sure to bring some carrots and feed a burro or two! We should mention that the begging burros are the only animals you should feed and approach.
8. Take a Cave Tour at Wind Cave or Jewel Cave
Two of the largest caves in the U.S. are located near Custer and conveniently, only 30 minutes away from each other. You can visit each in a day or choose only one, up to you! Wind Cave is the third largest cave in the US and home to the largest collection of boxwork, honeycomb-like sediment structures, in the world. Whereas Jewel Cave is the second longest cave in the world and is known for its jewel-like crystals.
9. Visit Crazy Horse Memorial
Located 15 minutes north of Custer, you’ll find the Crazy Horse Memorial. Dedicated to the Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, the memorial is a symbol for those who fought against the US Government to defend Lakota land and culture. The monument is still very much in development, with the head being really the only thing close to complete.
Work in progress aside, the memorial is still very impressive and well worth a visit if you are looking for things to do in Custer. The cost to enter is $15/per person in a vehicle and $10/per person on a motorcycle. Your entrance fee dollars go to help the completion of the monument.
Tip: You can combine a visit to Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore in a half day or even one day!
10. Go Rock Climbing or ATV’ing
For those looking to experience more of the great outdoors, renting an ATV from Adventure Rentals or booking a rock climbing session with Sylvan Rocks Climbing School and Guide Service is a great way to spend a few hours or one day in Custer!
Bonus – Mount Rushmore
Technically, Mount Rushmore falls out of the county limits of Custer and can be found 25-30 minutes north in Keystone. But it’s so close and such a major South Dakota attraction, we had to include it in this list of things to do in Custer!
When visiting Mount Rushmore, plan to arrive well before 9 am to beat the crowds and knab your photo of the four presidents on the hillside. You can explore the onsite museum and walk the Presidential Loop to see Mount Rushmore from different vantage points.
Where To Eat – Restaurants in Custer South Dakota
While Custer is small, it is home to a handful of fun bars and tasty eateries. From breakfast to lunch and dinner, below are some of our favorite places (Skogan being the top!) as well as top-rated places like Burger and Bun Co!
- Black Hills Burger and Bun Co
- Baker’s Bakery and Cafe
- Skogan Kitchen
- Custer Beacon
- Pounding Fathers
- The Custer Wolf
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– Lauren & Jesse Stuart (The Stüs)