Travel Made Easy: Visiting Custer State Park

Located in the stunning Black Hills region of South Dakota, Custer State Park is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. With its rolling prairies, rugged black hills, plentiful wildlife, and sprawling open spaces, it’s no wonder the park is a wonder to behold! After a fun adventure, Buddy and I are sharing our dos and don’ts for visiting Custer State Park.

We visited Custer State Park on day 4 of our Arizona to South Dakota road trip. We spent two days visiting the park. Day 1 included a stop at the Visitor’s Center and an afternoon drive on the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway and the Wildlife Loop Road. Earlier in the day, we visited Mt. Rushmore and came directly to Custer State Park from there. Day 2 at Custer State Park was only Custer State Park and it included two hikes in the black hills on the lovely Sunday Gulch and Cathedral Spires trails. We even saw some big horn sheep on the trail! Later, we also indulged in a picnic lunch and spent some time kayaking at Sylvan Lake and drove the scenic Needles Highway.

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Buffalo at Custer State Park in South Dakota Black Hills. MPA Project Travels.
Buffalo at Custer State Park

Our visit to Custer State Park

Although we could have because there are ample camping opportunities, we did not stay in the park. Rather, we stayed at Hill City which was a short 10-mile, 20 minute drive from Custer State Park. There are also some great food in the area. Foodie travelers, for Hill City restaurant recommendations visit our Restaurant Round Up.

Where to stay in Hill City?

We stayed at the at the Pine Rest Cabins, which we found adorable. I loved the fact that they had a fully stocked kitchen. It was so helpful for making dinner and packing our lunches for the daily adventures!

Buddy standing on top of an arch made of rock at the Norbeck Overlook at Custer State Park. MPA Project Travels. Black Hills South Dakota
Buddy at the Norbeck Overlook

The Dos and Don’ts of Visiting Custer State Park

DO: Take your time to getting to Custer State Park

Norbeck National Scenic Byway map. Also shows Needles Highway. Custer State Park. Black Hills South Dakota. MPA Project Travels.

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. The views of Mount Rushmore from the overlook are spectacular! From there, you can continue down Iron Mountain Road towards the east entrance of the park. If scenic driving is your thing, this is for you!

During our trip to Custer State Park, on day 1 we left Mt. Rushmore and stopped at the Norbeck Overlook where we ate our sack lunches and filmed a Movement Postcard. After that we continued the scenic drive to the Visitor’s Center.

How far is Custer State Park from mount Rushmore on Norbeck Highway?

 It is approximately 19 miles from Mt. Rushmore to the Custer State Park Welcome Sign via Highway 16A or the Norbeck Highway. If you drive nonstop between the two locations, it should take approximately 45 minutes. But of course, you should stop along the way and take in the sites on the scenic highway!

Needles Eye At Custer State Park. Needles Highway. Custer State Park. MPA Project Travels.
Needles Eye on Needles Highway at Custer State Park

DON’T: Forget to check the height of your vehicle before doing the scenic drives at Custer State Park

For all the family travelers and road trippers traveling in recreational vehicles- this one is for you!

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. Make sure to check the clearance before entering. You don’t not want to lose a mirror or get stuck!

When we embarked upon the scenic drives in Custer State Park, we took our older Toyota Highlander. Although we fit in all the tunnels, some of the tunnels did feel a bit cozier than others.

DO: Remember your multiday entrance pass

The entrance fee to Custer State Park is good for 1-7 days per vehicle. If you are visiting for multiple days but not staying in the park, make sure that you hold on to your pass! Passes can be purchased at any of the five entrance stations.

After you get your pass, 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 on different days – like we did! With the pass on your windshield, the next time you arrive at an entrance station, you will be waved through. For the most up-to-date information about entrance fees to Custer State Park, including price, visit the website.

DO: Stop at the Visitor Center

The Visitor Center at Custer State Park is really nice. There are a lot of fun and interesting things for visitors of all ages to experience. These are some of the things we think you and your family will love.  

  • The film –it was fantastic! At the Visitor’s Center, the 20-minute film that plays every 30 minutes.
  • The staff at the Visitor’s Center were friendly and approachable.
  • There are kid friendly exhibitions at the Visitor’s Center.
  • And there are nice bathrooms and water fountains.

When we visited Custer State Park, I did not want to stop at the Visitor Center. Because I was eager to begin our drive on Wildlife Loop Road and as such, I was not as jazzed about a visit as Buddy and Sal. I was wrong!

The Visitor Center staff 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 scenic drive. It was so very helpful! I am glad we stopped.

We arrived just in time to catch a showing of the film, which we enjoyed. Then, we had a lovely interaction with the very friendly park staff. They asked if they could help us with anything and we mentioned that we were interested in hiking. The park staff  then shared a copy of Custer State Park’s Trail Mix (love the title!), a booklet highlighting each of the trails in the park.

A dirt road cuts through a green grassland prairie in South Dakota. Custer State Park MPA Project Travels
Fisherman Flats road as seen through out dirty windsheild!

DON’T: Be afraid to drive off the beaten path

At Custer State Park, 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, you can take the following roads to make a make a nice scenic loop within a loop.

  • Fisherman Flats Road
  • Swint Road
  • North Lame Johnny Road
  • Oak Draw Road

Also, North Lame Johnny Road can take you to French Creek Horse Camp and the Blue Bell Campground.

During our scenic drive at Custer State Park, we traveled down Fisherman Flats Road. We followed this road to see the buffalo. Fisherman Flats Road led us on the path of the dirt roads. There we saw pronghorn antelope and some beautiful views. We highly recommend the dirt roads in Custer State Park. Best of all, they are passable in a sedan, and you do not need four wheel drive!

Off of Wild Life Loop Road in Custer State Park, a buffalo is facing the center of the photo and is accompanied by a buffalo to the right of the photo. Behind the two buffalo are rolling green hills dotted with many other buffalo and a blue sky. Custer State Park. MPA Project Travels. Black Hills. South Dakota.
Buffalo on Fisherman Flats Road at Custer State Park, SD

DO: Respect the wildlife

Custer State Park is an adventure! Custer State Park visitors can get up close and personal with the wildlife. But don’t get too close! Please remember to give the buffalo their space, even when you are admiring them from your vehicle. And be prepared to stop for buffalo crossing the road!

When we visited Custer State Park, we happily admired buffalo from the safety of our car. We did get up to see the buffalo up close while respectfully driving by and not lingering for selfies!

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.

Buddy’s favorite quote from the trip

Don’t pet the fluffy cows.

DON’T: Forget to bring carrots to Custer State Park

Bring carrots to Custer State Park? Why might you ask. Because you can feed the Begging Burros!

Feeding the wildlife? Yes! You can feed the burros!

At Custer State Park, the park rangers say that it is acceptable for the burros to be fed by tourists. Healthy foods of course, like carrots. This is a fun activity to do with the family if you happen to find the burros during your drive on Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park.

That said, watch out for the hands and fingers of little ones. The burros are so used to visitors handing them treats that they will nibble on your hands and fingers looking for food.

Pro Tip: Only feed the burros! Do not share your carrots with any other wildlife in the park!

Buddy says, “”The donkeys were cute. Just be careful… “

Buddy says, “”The donkeys were cute. Just be careful… “

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.

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.

Unfortunately, we did not know to bring carrots for the burros! We did see a family with a large bag of carrots, and they had a great time feeding the foals. Next time we will be sure to bring carrots!

Buddy & Sal walking to see the Begging Burros at Custer State Park. Custer State Park. Black Hills. South Dakota. MPA Project Travels.

Bonus Tip!

Visit the Crazy Horse Memorial after a day at Custer State Park

Crazy Horse Memorial is really close to Custer State Park! So close in fact, , it is easy to stop by the memorial after a day of exploring Custer State Park.

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.

A photo of Crazy Horse Memorial. Green pine trees are on the bottom of the photo. The mountain with the carving of Crazy Horse appears in the distance. It is beige against a blue sky. Custer State Park. Black Hills. MPA Project Travels..
Crazy Horse Memorial

What to bring for an adventure at Custer State Park

These suggestions come from our own experience traveling to Custer State Park. We include items that we brought with us on our trip, as well as some of the items we wish we would have brought with us. Please note that these are just a few recommended items. Feel free to personalize this list, adding to it what you see fit and what makes the most sense for you and your family or traveling buddies.

And we did not camp during our time at Custer State Park, which if we would have, this list would be a lot longer.

  • 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 grasslands 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.
A mom and calf buffalo relax in the green grasslands of a prairie. Custer State Park South Dakota. MPA Project Travels.

Heading to Custer State Park?

Custer State Park has something for everyone—from families looking for a fun outdoor getaway to adventurers seeking an unforgettable experience in nature’s wonders. Whether you’re staying overnight at one of the campgrounds or just passing through on an afternoon hike, following these simple dos-and-don’ts will help ensure that your time spent at the park is both enjoyable and safe! Happy Travels!

We had such a great time at Custer State Park in the Black Hills that we filmed multiple Movement Postcards! We are sure you will love your visit too!

Are you planning a trip to Custer State Park or South Dakota? Let us know in the comments below!

Do you have questions about family travel or traveling with teens? Feel free to reach out! We are happy to chat and share our experiences! We look forward to connecting with you.

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Hello! We are Yvonne & Buddy and we create family travel blogs based on firsthand knowledge and experiences of a destination. Our goal is to inspire teens, parents, and families to share time together engaging in new experiences whether the destination is near or far from home. Come join us on our travels!

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6 thoughts on “Travel Made Easy: Visiting Custer State Park

  1. So incredible that you saw so many buffalo at Custer State Park! We were able to see Bison in Yellowstone National Park. It’s so amazing to see wildlife in their natural habitat.

  2. When we did a road trip across the country, we spent far too little time in South Dakota with only a detour for Mt Rushmore. I can now see we need to plan a longer stay the next time we are in that area. Custer State Park looks like a good spot to visit. But a good warning for people visiting with high vehicles. We would definitely follow those dirt roads. One of the reasons we upgraded our vehicle to a SUV. Definitely a fun adventure.

  3. I’m heading to South Dakota in August, this post was very helpful, lots of great tips. I’ll definitely be bringing carrots to feed the burros!

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