Haven’t been to Custer State Park? Get ready to be impressed! This state park encompasses 71,000 acres, making it larger than some national parks. In fact, some argue that Custer should be a national park, and after visiting, I agree! Plan to stay at least two nights to see the majority of what this park has to offer, or at least one full day to see some highlights. Here’s how to tackle Custer State Park with kids:
Start with the Needles Highway Scenic Drive:
It’s not often I recommend driving through a park with kids, but Custer’s Needles Highway is breathtaking, and easy to access from the western park entrance at Custer. Plus, it concludes at a great lake and hiking option (more on that later).
After driving past the stockade area and coming into the center of the park, the Needles Highway will head north, winding first through meadows and grassland where you’ll want to keep an eye out for bison. Then, it climbs into the more dramatic, rocky part of the park, taking you through several narrow stone tunnels and opening up on incredible vistas of the Cathedral Spires, Needles Eye, and Little Devil’s Tower. Definitely stop a few times along the way to snap photos (you won’t be able to help yourself), especially after the tunnel that delivers you to Needles Eye. This natural wonder is indeed a rock formation in the shape of a needle’s eye. Hint: mountain goats can often be spotted on the craggy peaks beyond.
Take a hike (or two or three):
Custer State Park is filled with kid-friendly hikes of various mileage and degree of difficulty. We’ll start with what may be the most spectacular:
Harney Peak: Harney Peak has the distinction of being the highest point east of the Rockies (at over 7000 feet elevation). There are several trails that will get you there, marked Trail 9, Trail 4 East, and Trail 4 West. The shortest route to the top of the peak is Trail 9, which is a 3.1 mile (one-way) trail starting at the Sylvan Lake.
The trail is well-maintained, and moderate in difficulty for the first two miles, then gets quite rocky and steep for the final mile. Young kids can absolutely do this hike with the right shoes and the right attitude, and teens will definitely be able to handle it. Most of the way is fairly shaded, but because the final stint is in the open, and because the trail gets very crowded as the day goes on, I highly recommend hitting this trail early in the morning. Pack a picnic lunch to eat at the top, which rewards you with a wonderfully constructed fire tower lookout built by the CCC in the 1930s.
Cathedral Spires: This trail is also a one-way (out and back) deal, and families will see the trailhead right off the Needles Highway. It’s only 1.5 miles long, but strenuous and mostly open. Another to tackle in the first half of the day, the Spires rewards with amazing views and cool rock formations.
Centennial Trail: If you want to try the Centennial Trail, which actually winds 111 miles through the Black Hills from Bear Butte State Park in the north to Wind Cave National Park in the South, 22 miles of it is available within Custer State Park. The French Creek portion is 10 miles one-way, and moderate. It takes hikers through the Narrows, which requires either climbing a 60-foot embankment or wading 100 feet through the creek (way more fun). I recommend doing this trail with kids who are well-adapted to longer hikes and if you have two cars (so you can shuttle). You can do a shorter section of the trail at Badger Hole (approximately 4 miles, but it’s more strenuous).
Badger Clark Historic Trail: For those looking to get out of the car and stretch the legs with an easy loop, this one mile loop offers fun historical background in a pretty setting. The trail is located behind Badger Hole, home of Charles Badger Clark, South Dakota’s first Poet Laureate, and is mostly level, with some short climbs on an even trail.
Go jump in a lake:
Custer State Park is dotted with lovely lakes, all of which offer swimming, canoeing, kayaking, and picnicking.
Sylvan Lake: Sylvan is located near the trailhead for Harney Peak, and has a small marina and a trail circling the lake. There’s a general store and lodging, and while it gets crowded in summer, it can be a great place to spend a warm afternoon after hiking. If Sylvan looks familiar, that may be because it was featured (along with Mt. Rushmore) in National Treasure 2.
Legion Lake: Located toward the center of the park, Legion Lake also has swimming, fishing, and picnicking, plus dining at the lodge. If it’s crowded, try Center Lake, to the north up Needles Highway (turn on South Playhouse Road).
You may see bison just while driving around the park (in fact, it’s very likely), but there’s also the Buffalo Corrals in the south end of the park to visit, and the Prairie Dog Town. Take the Wildlife Loop Road to easily hit both spots, and whenever you stop to get out of your car to snap photos, keep your eye trained on the rocks for mountain goats. We saw several, thanks to some eagle eyes.
Where to stay:
Custer State Park Resort, privately operated within the park, offers five lodges plus specialty cabins within the park. You can check them all out here, but they generally range from stately and elegant (yet still casual) Sylvan Lake to historic State Game Lodge, ranch-like Blue Bell, modern Creekside, and lake house Legion. All have the convenience of services like stores and casual dining.
If you plan to stay outside the park, I suggest staying in the town of Custer, near the west entrance to the park. I was very comfortable at Rock Crest Lodge. It was located on the highway, but close to town dining and had a nice playground and pool.
Have you been to Custer State Park? What do you recommend?