You may recall last summer I fell so deeply in love with South Dakota I hightailed it there twice in two months. I fully believe it’s the most underrated state in the country and despite being home to one of the most visited national landmarks (Mount Rushmore), not much else is known about its wonders.

The Badlands were a colorful treasure trove that looked like they leapt straight off the pages of Dr. Seuss book with each sunset was more brilliant than the last. We camped right next to herds of wild roaming buffalo (my spirit animal and college mascot), and photographed the wide open spaces.

Custer State Park

While the Badlands may not be the first national park that springs to mind, it is still a nationally protected treasure. That being said, state parks can be just as incredible and even more of a hidden gem. Thus is the case with Custer State Park (a 10-15 minute drive from that famous monument).

About a five-hour drive from Denver, Custer State Park is in the southwest corner of the state in an area called the Black Hills. The park encompasses over 71,000 acres, making it one of the largest state parks in the country. It was named one of the top wildlife destinations in the world and is a treasure trove for outdoor enthusiasts. Here are just a few of the amazing things you should do there:

Drive One of the Best Scenic Byways in America

The segments of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway are all equally impressive for different reasons. The Needles Highway features hairpin turns with towering jagged rock formations (lookup and you just may see a climber trying to scale), while the Wildlife Loop Road is known for it’s traffic jams of creatures. You just may spot bison, pronghorn, whitetail and mule deer, elk, coyotes, burros, and prairie dogs. (Pro Tip: The animals are most active at night but there are safari jeep tours available all day).

Hike, Bike, Climb or Horseback Ride

The area’s wooded wilderness offers a host of recreational opportunities and plenty of ways to explore. The Cathedral Spirals are one of the more famous trails, while Little Devil’s Tower Trail is a bit shorter with equally amazing views. Black Elk Peak (formerly called Harney Peak) is the highest summit in South Dakota, and on a good day, you can see all the way to the neighboring states.

Make it a Lake Day

There are five lakes in the park with Sylvan being the most recognizable. If it looks familiar, you may have seen it in the Nicolas Cage movie “National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets.” Grab a fishing rod or rent a kayak or paddleboat. If you want to camp by the water, Stockade Lake is the biggest of the waterways with the most options to setup your tent.

Where the Buffalo Roam

While 1,300 bison regularly roam freely throughout the park (it’s one of the largest publicly owned herds in the world!), if you really want an experience, come in September for the annual Buffalo Roundup. Thousands of people come to watch the cowboys and cowgirls corral the magnificent beasts. 

Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay Near Custer State Park

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What to do in Custer State Park, South Dakota. Everything to do in SD, attractions in the Badlands, Black Hills and beyond.
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4 replies
  1. Kristin @ Camels & Chocolate
    Kristin @ Camels & Chocolate says:

    This is one of my very favorite state parks across the US! Scott, Ella and I stumbled upon it in 2011 on our way to the Badlands, but then when the area flooded and we couldn’t actually get into the NP, we stayed in Rapid City and explored Custer for the better part of four days instead!

  2. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    What a gorgeous piece of America! There’s so much to see and do in this great country of our’s. You’ve definitely inspired me to put South Dakota on my travel list!

  3. Murissa
    Murissa says:

    That looks like an awesome place to road trip to or through!
    I really need to add a state park to my to-do list next time I travel to the US.
    This looks like the ultimate park though. I could photograph it for days with the wildlife and all the outdoor activities set against the gorgeous backdrop of South Dakota.


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