Mini guide for Custer State Park & Black Hills National Forest
In the West of South Dakota is a wonderfully hidden place called Custer State Park. Well, maybe a lot of people already heard about it, but we haven’t until we visited the Badlands National Park. A man told us about this place and it was conveniently located on our route to the Yellowstone National Park. The man talked about beautiful landscapes and huge bison herds. He totally convinced us to stop at Custer State Park and in the end, we stayed for a whole week.
What to see in Custer State Park
You will definitely end up driving the Wildlife Circle in the Custer State Park because it’s the main route you can take. It will lead you to wonderful scenic spots and you might get stuck, because of a bison herd.
The second most popular route is the Needles Highway. It is such a scenic drive with lots of viewpoints that you will forget about the time. It’s really stunning!
When you are already in Custer State Park, you have to visit its namesake city as well. Custer is a small town with many cute and charming shops. The architecture invites you for a stroll through the streets of Custer.
This was one of our favorite activities for the evening. Well, we also combined it with playing Pokemon Go – our favorite road trip game.
Usually, people come to this area to see the world famous Mount Rushmore. However, it didn’t really mean a lot to me. It’s just some faces in a rock and I had to pay for parking, so I didn’t exactly like it. However, some people may have waited to see them for years and always wanted to see them in person.
Same thing goes for the Crazy Horse, but you can at least see it from the road (actually from the road of our campground). Crazy Horse is also a sculpture, which is chiseled in stone. This one, however, doesn’t show U.S. presidents. It shows a leader of a Native American tribe and it’s still not finished. It was planned to be a whole sculpture with a body. So far there is only a head.
What to do in Custer State Park
One thing you will surely do: Chasing the bison herd. It may sound stupid for some people, but the visitors of Custer are actually looking for bison herds. The first day we got stuck in a traffic jam because a herd blocked the street. We figured that we are too far away from this blockade, so we turned around and drove the circle the other way around.
We went all the way South to the Wind Cave National Park. On our way back through the Custer State Park, we encountered a bison herd right on our street. They all walked past us. It was truly intimidating how the bull of the herd gave directions. However, I felt pretty safe in our car. It was an amazing experience!
After chasing bison around all day, you can also go for a swim. There are many lakes in this area, which are very inviting for a cool-down session. Lots of the lakes also have camping grounds.
If you are looking for more active things to do: Go hiking! The Custer State Park and Black Hills National Forest also offer numerous hiking trails. At the entrance, you can get a map of them. There are short and long hikes available.
We did one short hike inside Custer and a long hike in the Black Hills.
The Harney Peak is one of the most famous hiking routes. It starts at the Sylvan Lake and leads to the highest peak between the Rockies and the European Pyrenees. The trail is exhausting as it elevates over some hundred feet, but standing at the top of the peak is amazing! So it is definitely worth it!
Where to stay
The campgrounds inside Custer State Park can fill up very quickly during the summer.
Some have a reservation system and some have a first-come, first-serve system or same-day reservation.
However, we had no luck inside the state park, so we had to stay outside.
There are many available outside the park. We decided for the Echo Valley Park Campground and it was lovely! It’s a wonderful campground with a super caring owner. He and his wife take care of everything and will make sure that you feel comfortable. There are spacious campsites in the shade of the pine trees, hot showers, washing machines and dryers. The area in the back of the campground is gorgeous! He will actually encourage you to go for a walk and check it out. You will find fool’s gold everywhere on the ground, which makes the ground sparkling in the sun.
If you don’t like camping you can, of course, stay in a hotel in Custer.
The Wind Cave National Park is in the South of Custer. You can take tours to explore the cave system or walk around the prairie above.
The Jewel Cave National Monument is another cave system in the West of Custer. You might think there are jewels inside because of the name – I have to disappoint you. No jewels. No treasure. Just a beautiful cave.