Custer State Park (Wildlife, Sylvan Lake, & The Needles Highway)

Custer State Park is found in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It covers about 70,000 acres and has opportunities for hiking, camping, boating, fishing, hunting, scenic drives, and so much more.

When you arrive at one of the entrances, you can pay for a 7 day pass that goes on the windshield for about $20 per car as of 2022. We purchased the pass and used it over two days to explore different parts of the park.

On the 12 Day Road Trip Teddy and I went on, Custer State Park was one of our favorite things we did.

Wildlife Loop

After we left Wind Cave National Park, we drove up to the Wildlife Loop at the Blue Bell Entrance and began our drive. I was really hoping to see wild burros, but we weren’t able to this time. We did see bison, big horned sheep, antelope, and prairie dogs. We passed a lot of jeep adventure tours along the route, so if you’re interested in exploring the area by something other than your own car, this is an option. Overall, we spent about an hour driving the route but could have stayed longer if we didn’t have to be somewhere later in the day.

Sylvan Lake

This was one of our favorite places of the entire trip. It is a beautiful lake with tall rock formations around it. We had initially planned to do the Sunday Gulch hike which goes around the lake and then back behind it for an epic hike. We ended up being exhausted from our previous few days of the trip so decided on just hiking around Sylvan Lake was enough for us. We got there very early in the morning and were so glad we did because we got to see the sun come up on the rocks and then reflect them in the water. It’s only about a mile around the lake but you get to walk along the lake, over boulders, back behind the boulders, and then along the lake again. It was so much better than we anticipated. Next time we’re in the area, we would both love to do a hike to Black Elk Peak as well as the Sunday Gulch Trail.

Needles Highway

After our morning at Sylvan Lake, we drove the Needles Highway over toward Badlands National Park. It wasn’t the most direct route, but we wanted to experience the Needles Highway drive and this was the best time for us to do it. It was still early in the morning when we drove so we barely saw any other cars along the highway. We got to drive through the Needles Eye Tunnel which was cool but not the most epic part of the drive. What we both really wish we would have planned for to hike the Cathedral Spires hike along the highway. We considered it, but with driving out to the Badlands 2 hours and then 2 hours back as well as exploring, we just weren’t sure that that made the most sense for us that day. Looking back, I wish we would have done it since we ended up leaving Badlands earlier than anticipated because it was so stinking hot and humid there.

Town of Custer

If you’re in the Custer State Park, you have to go into downtown Custer. It has midwest and historical vibes and I loved it. Teddy and I stopped here for dinner at The Begging Burro. It was incredible! We started out with chips and salsa and then Teddy got the Mezcal ribeye and I got the Asada tacos and they are the best Asada tacos I’ve ever had. The salsa verde, the steak, just all of it was so stinking good. Let’s talk about Teddy’s dish though. First, they brought out his sides and no steak and he kind of gave the waiter a look. The waiter was playing a joke on him and said, “looks good right”. Teddy laughed and then came out the showcase of the meal. A cart with a cut steak that the wait then lit on fire that was covered in Mezcal. I was not sure was to expect but the steak was one of the best steaks I’d ever had in my life. It was tender, flavorful, and just so delicious. Teddy asked if we could come back the next night for dinner and if we had happened to be in the area, we would have but we were headed further north the next day.

We really enjoyed our time in Custer State Park. I think it’s probably a lot to try to see all of in one day if you want to hike, but if you plan to just do the scenic drives and a few pull outs, it’s probably doable. The next time we come back (since we already decided we are), we will plan to spend a few more days in the area so we can do the hikes I mentioned above as well as more wildlife viewing and potentially one of the Jeep adventure tours. We’d take more of the backroads and try to pack a picnic to enjoy at one of the overlooks or lakes because there’s just something so peaceful about them. I hope that you enjoy your time in Custer State Park as much as we did!

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