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Custer State Park and the Amazing Needles Highway (South Dakota)

Mountain Goat, Needles Highway, Custer State Park

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

View from Needles Highway

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.

Cathedral Spires, part of the Needles along Needles Highway, Custer State Park, South Dakota
The Cathedral Spires are part of “The Needles” – the tall granite formations along Needles Highway.

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.

Sylvan Lake, Needles Highway, Custer State Park, South Dakota, Sunset, HappierPlace
Sunset at Sylvan Lake along Needles Highway, in Custer State Park

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.

Chipmunk in South Dakota, Custer State Park, Happier Place
Small wildlife: chipmunk just off Needles Highway.

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.

Mountain Goat, Custer State Park, Black Hills, South Dakota
Mountain Goat just off the road in Custer State Park, South Dakota.

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.

Needles Highway, tunnel, Custer State Park
Tunnel along Needles Highway.

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.

Bison, Buffalo, Custer State Park, South Dakota
Buffalo, or better American bison, chilling along the highway in Custer State Park.

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.

granite pillars, towers, spires, The Needles, South Dakota, Black Hills
The natural granite mountain carvings made by wind, water and temperature in the elevated section of Custer State Park.

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.

Needles Eye Tunnel, Needles Highway, Custer State Park, South Dakota, Golden Hour, Happier Place
Needles Highway passes through the infamous Needles Eye Tunnel. Yes, our car fit through there.

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”.

Needles Eye rock formation, Needles Highway, Custer State Park, South Dakota, Black Hills
To grasp the size of Needles Eye, please note that at the bottom right there is a tree, albeit a small one.

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!

Sylvan Lake rock wall, sunset, Custer State Park, South Dakota
The Sylvan Lake rock wall against the sunset sky and nothing else.

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.

Trail to Cathedral Spires, Custer State Park
Trail into the Cathedral Spires and Limber Pine Natural Area – a registered Natural Landmark since 1977.

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.

Granite pillars are called The Needles for a reason, amazing Needles Highway
The granite rock formations are called “The Needles” for a reason.

For overnight stays, the park features 9 campgrounds (some with cabins), one horse camp, and the Custer State Park Resort with several lodges and a restaurant.

Contact: Custer State Park – phone: 605.255.4515 – email:
Park Office (inside the park) : 13329 US Highway 16A Custer, SD 57730

GPS is not always available or reliable in the Black Hills. If you want to get off the road, bring a paper map, download the general Custer State Park map or any of the park’s trail maps.

Pets are allowed in the park, but have to be kept on a leash.

Whiskey dog at lake, Custer State park allows dogs, South Dakota, travel with dog
Whiskey Dog at a Custer State Park campground with a whole lake to herself.

Nearby Attractions

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.

Crazy Horse Memorial, largest mountain carving, just outside Custer State Park, South Dakota
Crazy Horse Memorial, just outside Custer State Park, South Dakota.

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.

Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota, valley view from Custer State Park
Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota.

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

Rock and trees reflection in lake, Custer State Park, Happier Place
Rocks and trees reflected in a lake just off Highway 16A in Custer State Park.
Boulders and trees, south dakota, custer state park
Trees give scale to the boulders in the South Dakota state park.
Rocks hugging and kissing during romantic Golden Hour at Sylvan Lake, South Dakota.
Rocks hugging and kissing during romantic Golden Hour at Sylvan Lake, South Dakota.
Trail around Sylvan Lake, sunset, South Dakota, Happier Place
One more walk around Sylvan Lake before dark.
Dramatic sunset highlights rock formation wall of Sylvan Lake, Needles Highway, Custer State Park, South Dakota.
During sunset at Sylvan Lake you can forget about the rest of the world. A Happier Place indeed.

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?

Please leave a reply in the comment section below.

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Custer State Park and the amazing Needles Highway, Needle Eye Tunnel, South Dakota, USA

All photos taken by Luci Westphal. Click on any image to see a larger, higher resolution version.

14 thoughts on “Custer State Park and the Amazing Needles Highway (South Dakota)

  1. Wow how incredible! I’ve never seen a state park as beautiful as this one…looks like a great place to check out.

  2. Stunning landscapes. Perfect glimpse of wilderness

  3. Custer State Park and in particular the Black Hills looks absolutely amazing! I love that it is so natural, scenic and full of natural wildlife. The hugging rocks in particular caught my eyes.

  4. I would love to take my kids to Custer State Park one day. It would be cool to see the wildlife there in addition to the amazing rock formations!

  5. Wow! So much natural beauty and so many picturesque sites to see, thanks for sharing

  6. I’ve heard so many great things about Utah! I can’t wait to take my family. We would love to visit Custer State Park too!

  7. This looks beautiful. I eventuallt want to see all 50 states. I bet your dog had a blast!

    1. Thank you, Ashley. She did have a great time – especially at the lake. I also want to see all 50 states. Always figured that the Dakotas would be kind of later on the list. Now I think, at least S. Dakota, should be high on everyone’s list. Now we need to visit North Dakota… in summer though 😉

  8. Custer State Parks looks like a wonderful place. The mountain goats remind me of the goats I saw when I was driving along the mountains in Colorado!

    1. It’s such a stunning place – really didn’t expect it. Basically, we ran out of time to see Badlands. Now I think that was the luckiest “detour” ever. And I’d call you lucky – because in 5 years of living in Colorado I never saw mountain goats or big horn sheep there, but only in other states. Maybe they all only come out for travelers 😀

  9. Custer State Park is an amazing park. I went there with the family a few years ago. The mountain goat looks pretty cool. I didn’t see one of them last time I was there.

    1. Always thrilled to hear from other people who’ve been to the park as well. It’s a bit off the beaten path. And the mountain goats were not right on the street either. We had pulled over at an overview and a guy came from out behind some boulders and told us there were two goats hanging out. We were lucky and someone else was kind – or we wouldn’t have seen them either.

  10. Custer State Park looks like an amazing place to get back to nature with the family. I love the rock formations and all the animals. It’s just such beautiful wilderness.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Stacie. Yeah, it’s a great place for exactly that.

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