This hidden gem of the Black Hills is the reason you should visit South Dakota: Custer State Park and Needles Highway. Of course, you could also check out Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse while you’re there.
We hadn’t planned to visit Custer State Park. Honestly, we hadn’t even heard about it until the moment on our Black Hills road trip when we tried to find one more place worth seeing before driving back to Colorado. It turned out to be what impressed us most in South Dakota, and the reason we can’t stop recommending the Black Hills as a summer destination.
Ever since then, we’ve wondered: why don’t more people talk about this spectacular state park? Are they purposefully trying to keep it a secret?
Custer State Park Overview
Custer State Park is a 71,000 acre state park and wildlife reserve in the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota. The park features mountainous terrain and prairie with lakes, creeks, meadows, astonishing rock formations, cool tunnels, and lots of trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding or snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Fishing and hunting are also options. Licenses are required. And of course, there are the granite pillars, towers and spires known as The Needles that are popular with rock climbers.
Opening in 1912, it’s South Dakota’s largest state park is also it’s oldest. Situated in Custer County, both were named after George Armstrong Custer, who was a commander in the Civil War and the American Indian War aka First Nations Wars during the 1800s. A less controversial name would be nice.
While Highway 16A cuts right through Custer State Park east-west and is toll-free, the way to experience the park is to either take Needles Highway or the Wildlife Loop – or ideally both. Well, of course, to truly experience all South Dakota state park, you shouldn’t just drive those roads but get out of the car and stay awhile.
The state park features an astonishing amount of wildlife, which can usually be seen right from the road or after a short walk. Namely, there are mountain goats, bison (aka buffalo), elk, deer, pronghorns (aka antelope), mountain lions, wild turkeys, prairie dogs, chipmunks, and the locally famous “Begging Burros”. The “Begging Burros” are feral burros (aka wild donkeys) that walk on the road, in a certain stretch of the Wildlife Loop, expecting you to feed them right out of your car window.
The Wildlife Loop Road is an 18-mile loop within the park that offers the best chances to see animals from a vehicle, especially in the early morning and late afternoon. Depending on “animal traffic jams” just driving the loop takes about 90 minutes.
There’s also 17-mile long Iron Mountain Road, which connects Mt. Rushmore National Memorial to Custer State Park with several intense turns to gain elevation quickly.
And of course, there’s Needles Highway, which deserves its own section.
The most unique events at the park are the annual Buffalo Roundup in September and the Buffalo Auction in November. At the roundup, cowboys and cowgirls drive the herd of about 1,300 animals. The event gives the public the opportunity to see the entire herd and allows the rangers to sort the herd and keep it healthy.
Then in November, Custer State Park auctions off some of its buffaloes. At next week’s 2019 Custer State Park Buffalo Auction on November 18, there will be about 430 animals for sale! The auction takes place at the park’s Visitor Center – and also accepts online bidding.
Random pedantic side note: what is often referred to in the USA as a buffalo is technically actually a bison. Buffalo is the bovine that exist in Africa and Asia. The big bovine of the Americas is the bison. However, people have been using the word “buffalo” when talking about the American bison for so long, it seems culturally accepted to do so.
The Amazing Needles Highway
Needles Highway is a magnificent 14-mile (23 km) stretch of SD Highway 87 in the northwestern corner of Custer State Park. The skinny road winds around large pillar-shaped granite rock formations (appropriately called needles) and through narrow and low tunnels.
The astonishing rock formations, the thrill of the tunnels, the views of the valleys below, and more opportunities to see wildlife make this part of the park especially worth a visit. The sole reason we decided to check out Custer State Park in the first place was because in our old Lonely Planet guide to the ENTIRE United States of America, the editor dedicated a half sentence to this 14-mile stretch of road – calling it “the amazing Needles Highway”.
And then after those 14 miles and passing through Hood Tunnel, we got a special surprise: Sylvan Lake, which appears to sit on the top of the world. One of these days, we must return!
The drive takes about 60 minutes if you don’t stop. But surely you’ll want to “Stop. Look. Appreciate.” The road is closed for vehicles from the first snowfall until at least April 1st. However, during those months, it remains open to hikers, skiers and bikers. So cool!
The scenic road opened in 1922. Former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck had planned this highway and marked the entire course on foot and by horseback.
Hours, Fees, Contact, and Other Custer State Park Visitor Facts
In theory, Custer State Park is open year-round, 24 hours a day. However, from fall to spring some roads may be closed due to inclement weather. Check with the park office during the colder months.
Fees: For vehicles just passing through the park without stopping on Highway 16A, there is no fee. Everyone else planning on stopping or traveling along Needles Highway or Wildlife Loop Road should acquire a license. In lieu of a day pass, there is a weekly license for $20 (car) or $10 (motorcycle). The annual license is $30.
Contact: Custer State Park – phone: 605.255.4515 – email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Park Office (inside the park) : 13329 US Highway 16A Custer, SD 57730
Pets are allowed in the park, but have to be kept on a leash.
There are quite a few impressive, natural, man-made, historic, and activity-driven attractions near Custer State Park. Depending on how far you’re willing to drive and how much time you have, you can combine visiting all of these South Dakota attractions into one memorable road trip.
Less than ten miles outside Custer State Park, the Crazy Horse Memorial can’t be missed. Privately-funded, the world’s largest mountain carving, featuring the Lakota leader on a horse, has been a work-in-progress since the late 1940s. And it won’t be finished for a few more decades. The fact that you can see it in unique stages of completion makes it especially thrilling to visit.
Just a tad further north, you’ll reach Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The more famous mountain carving of four US presidents was conceived as a tourist attraction to bring more people and money to South Dakota.
In the opposite direction, heading south, and just outside Custer State Park you can check out the natural limestone creations of Wind Cave National Park – featuring one of the world’s longest caves.
Want to see a more well-known National Park? Badlands National Park, about 90 minutes east of Custer State Park, features vast views of a unique landscape that, depending on the season, reminds more of the Moon than Earth.
A little over an hour north of Custer State Park, at the northern end of the Black Hills National Forest there are two towns especially famous among certain enthusiasts. Deadwood, known for its Wild West history, offers charming old architecture, plenty of gambling opportunities, and the graves of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill. Yes, this is the Deadwood from the TV show. Sturgis became famous in more modern times for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. It’s kind of like the Daytona of the North. Or is Daytona the Sturgis of the South?
In the vicinity of Deadwood and Sturgis, meanders Spearfish Canyon, which is even older than the Grand Canyon. Driving along Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway through the Black Hills offers views of tree-covered hills, limestone palisades, and the waterfalls and rapids of Spearfish Creek.
If you’ve already made it this far, you might want to head into Wyoming to be amazed by Devils Tower (aka Bear Lodge). Maybe you can even keep going west towards Montana and explore Yellowstone National Park. You’re so lucky!
More Photos of Custer State Park
Let’s Inspire Each Other!
Have you been to Custer State Park or anywhere else in South Dakota? Tell us about it. What was your favorite part? What places or activities would you recommend? Or tell us about a place that took you by pleasant surprise? Maybe you discovered a Happier Place by accident as well?
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All photos taken by Luci Westphal. Click on any image to see a larger, higher resolution version.