It was Day 4 of our South Dakota road trip. After a couple of hours visiting Mt. Rushmore, we traveled to Custer State Park.
After an incredible afternoon, Buddy and I are sharing our Dos and Don’ts for driving the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway and the Wildlife Loop Road at Custer State Park, SD.
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DO: Take your time to get there
When driving in from Keystone, Hill City or Mt. Rushmore, consider taking the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway to the east entrance of Custer State Park. On your way there, you will pass through the Doane Robinson Tunnel, the C.C. Gideon Tunnel, and the Scovel Johnson Tunnel. The drive also features pigtail bridges and hairpin turns.
There are also picnic areas and overlooks along the way. We stopped at the Norbeck Overlook where we ate our sack lunches and filmed a Movement Postcard. The views of Mount Rushmore from the overlook are spectacular!
Continue down Iron Mountain Road towards the east entrance of the park. If scenic driving is your thing, this is for you!
DO: Remember your multiday entrance pass
The entrance fee to Custer State Park is $20 for 1-7 days per vehicle. Passes can be purchased at any of the five entrance stations. After purchase, you will be instructed to place the pass on the lower right side of your windshield. This is especially important if you are visiting for multiple days and will be entering and exiting the park, as we were. With the pass on your windshield, the next time you arrive at an entrance station, you will be waved through.
DO: Stop at the Visitor’s Center
I was eager to begin our drive on Wildlife Loop Road and as such, I was not as jazzed as Buddy was to stop at the Visitor Center. Was I wrong!
Highlights from the visitor center include:
- The film –it was fantastic! At the Visitor’s Center, the 20-minute film that plays every 30 minutes. We arrived just in time to catch a showing.
- The staff at the Visitor’s Center were friendly and approachable. When asked if they could help us with anything, we mentioned that we were interested in hiking. They then shared a copy of Custer State Park’s Trail Mix (love the title!), a booklet highlighting each of the trails in the park. They also recommended a couple of day hikes along the roads that we were to travel that day. But most importantly, the staff let us know where the buffalo had been spotted that day and gave us recommendations for our drive.
- Also, Buddy liked the exhibitions in the Visitor Center.
DO: Respect the wildlife
Custer State Park is an adventure! You get up close and personal with the wildlife. Do remember to give the buffalo their space, even from your vehicle. Be prepared to stop for buffalo crossing the road
When we were there, from the safety of our car, we did get up to see the buffalo up close and personal while driving by.
Buddy says his favorite quote from the trip was “Don’t pet the fluffy cows.” He saw the phrase on a few souvenirs in South Dakota.
DON’T: Forget to check the height of your vehicle
The smallest tunnel on the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway is Needles Eye Tunnel 8 ft wide x 9 ft 9 in tall. Doane Robinson Tunnel is the largest tunnel at 12 ft wide and 11 ft 4 in tall. Not all vehicles will fit in these tight spaces. If you are travelling in a larger vehicle, please check the height and width before heading out to do your scenic driving.
We drive an older Toyota Highlander and some of the tunnels did feel a bit cozier than others.
DON’T: Forget to bring carrots
Park rangers say that it is acceptable for the burros to be fed by tourists. That said, watch out for the hands and fingers of little ones. The Begging Burros are so used to visitors handing them treats that they will nibble on your hands and fingers looking for food.
Only feed the burros! Do not share your carrots with any other wildlife in the park!
We encountered the Begging Burros while driving near the Buffalo Corrals on Wildlife Loop Road. After noticing cars parked on both sides of the road, we saw the burros surrounded by fellow tourists on the east side of Wildlife Loop Road. We walked to the burros and we are glad that we did. There were a few foals among the group that were so cute. Buddy especially liked the foals. It was hard to snap a photo of them as they were constantly moving.
DON’T: Be afraid to drive off the beaten path
There are dirt roads that make mini loops within the larger Wildlife Loop Road. If you are open to getting a little dirt on your car, Fisherman Flats Road, Swint Road, North Lame Johnny Road, and Oak Draw Road make a nice loop within a loop. North Lame Johnny Road will also take you to French Creek Horse Camp and the Blue Bell Campground.
In order to see the buffalo, we traveled down Fisherman Flats Road which led us on the path of the dirt roads. There we saw pronghorn antelope and some beautiful views.
DON’T: Forget to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial at the end of your drive
If you are staying in Hill City or Rapid City, you can take Wildlife Loop Road to Road 16A and then make a right on highway 385 to visit Crazy Horse Memorial. The memorial is open late in the summer months, and they offer a laser light show in the evenings.
After we finished our drive on Wildlife Loop Road, we continued down Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway to Highway 385 and stopped at Crazy Horse Memorial for a few hours. Tired, we did not stay to see the evening light show and opted to return to our cabin for dinner.
What to bring
- Carrots to feed the Begging Burros!
- Sunscreen. I recommend Blue Lizard Sunscreen for the family. I also use this MDSolarSciences Mineral Tinted Creme SPF 30 sunscreen instead of foundation for tent camping trips and when I am out in nature.
- Lunch in a cooler. There are so many beautiful places to stop for a picnic along the byway!
- Water bottles to keep hydrated. We refilled at the Visitor’s Center. My favorite water is my blue 32 oz Hydroflask!
- Close toed shoes. If the burros are not near the road, which they weren’t when we visited, you may need to walk into the prairie to see them. In that case, I highly recommend closed toed shoes. There is tall grass that mask some hazards along the way. As Arizonans, we were delighted to see this baby cactus on the prairie. My Merrell Sirens are my go to shoes for hiking!
- A full tank of gas. This is so you can enjoy the drive at ease.
Are you planning a trip to Custer State Park? Let us know in the comments below!
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