Enjoy the Best Nature Has to Offer in Custer State Park

Custer State Park is a 71,000 acre wild life nature preserve and old west tourist playground that was named after General George Custer.

It's a shame, really, because Custer was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of men due to his arrogance and poor war strategy skills.

The park as well as the little town just outside of its Western gates would have done better to name themselves after someone more reputable, but that's a story for another day.

No matter the moniker, people who visit will see this park as stunningly beautiful and will feel that they have taken a step back into the old west.

This is because the park is so big and wild, and allows the wildlife living there to roam free.

It is, after all, their home. The rest of us are just people passing through!

Panorama of One Section of Custer State Park

Getting There

There are several ways to access the park, but since we always came from the East, we found the best was to drive along I 90 to Rapid City, SD then head south on Route 79. One of the park entrances is 17 miles south just beyond the small town of Hermosa.

However, if you are coming from the South you can mostly avoid the mountains by driving up Route 85 from Cheyenne and through Newcastle, WY. It's an easy trip that takes you right into the town of Custer.

Some people like to drive through Rapid City and hook up with Route 16, but this can be steep, slow and windy.

What's interesting about Route 16 is that it is a state owned road. Thus, anybody can drive on it. However, it goes right through the center of the park.

If you stop for any reason, you will be expected to buy a park pass. They are good for 7 days and cost $20 per carload and $10 for motorcycles.

You can pay $30 and buy a one year pass, but if you're not planning on staying for at least several weeks, there's no point to doing so.

Trying to avoid buying a pass will cause a park ranger to ticket you. Don't even think about it!

Location of Custer State Park
Cave and Karst Management Plan and EA
PDUSNPS via wikimedia commons

So Much to See, So Little Time to See It!

Custer is a huge active tourist venue.

There are more activities available than anybody can squeeze into a two week vacation, so if you're only going to be able to make one trip, I'm going to share some of the best sights and events with you so that you get to see the best of the best.

Before you go, you may want to buy this pictorial history of Custer State Park to give yourself a better overview so that you can decide for yourself what you want to see and also know something about it.

The Needles Highway

If you love wild and beautiful scenery, you can spend a day driving the Needles Highway, which consists of the Northernmost 14 miles of US 87.

It gets it's name from the craggy mountain peaks you'll see while driving.

The drive is steep and long, and you need to prepare yourself for the narrow, one way tunnels you'll have to pass through. Check with gatekeepers or the people at the Norbeck Visitor's Center to get directions and also to find out if your car will fit before you try to take this drive.

If you stop at the Norbeck Center, take a few minutes to enjoy the museum there. Don't be surprised, though, if you walk back to your car and find a Buffalo or two standing nearby.

As you drive the highway, you'll find several nice spots where you can pull over, have a picnic and enjoy the amazingly fresh air. One even has a magnificent view of Mt. Rushmore.

It will be a long, slow drive because the road is steep and relatively narrow, but it will be worthwhile for you to see.

Custer State Park Needles Highway Drive

The Mt. Coolidge Fire Tower

One of the most interesting places to visit is the Mt. Coolidge Fire Tower, which is located south of 16A as you head towards Bluebell Lodge.

It is the highest point in Custer State Park and visitors are welcome to climb up to the top of it so that they can see the breathtaking 360 views of the park.

Go by car because RVs will not be able to make it up the steep gravel drive that leads to it.

From the tower park workers keep watch for forest fires and sound the alarm when they see one.. There have been several bad ones over the years, and when one comes, every worker in the park is expected to fight it.

The workers love visitors and will be happy to show you how they do their jobs and the equipment they use. It's an extremely interesting experience.

The Wildlife Loop Road

As I mentioned earlier, Custer State Park is a wildlife preserve. There is an 18 mile drive through one section of the park where visitors, if they are lucky, get to see wild buffalo, deer, antelope, prairie dogs and other indigenous animals.

You can take a jeep tour if you like, but you very likely will see as much from your car for free as you will from an expensive tour. Just ask where the buffalo are at the visitor center. They'll know!

I have been there many times, but the one experience that stands out is the day my husband and I sat parked smack in the middle of a wild buffalo herd on the Fourth of July.

If you ever go, remember that although the animals in the park may seem docile, they are wild. It is not safe to approach or irritate them. Buffalo gore tourists every year who choose to ignore this warning, so always keep your car between you and them!

CSP Buffalo Roundup 2015

The Buffalo Roundup

Custer State Park houses the second largest buffalo herd in the US.

Every fall, park workers must round them up so that they can

  • check
  • cull
  • and vaccinate them.

This event occurs either in late September or early October every year and draws crowds of more than 15,000 people to what has become a three day weekend festival.

Getting to the corrals starts early and is a slow trip because there is only one way in, and it's a two lane road.

Visitors are directed to a viewing area where they can either sit on the grass or lawn chairs that they've brought with them.

It is the only event in the country where people can still see a real roundup, and especially if you have kids, it is wonderful to watch. In fact, it is a once in a lifetime experience for most people.

In 1987 my husband and I were park volunteers and got to actually ride in the roundup. At that time, only 250 people were involved. It's not the same as it was back then, but it is still an thrilling experience.

So, if you visit the park in the fall, make sure you go to see it. It's even free!

Visiting Custer State Park Is a Great Adventure

If you want to take a vacation that gives you a taste of the real West, Custer State Park will provide it.

What I have not mentioned is that this tourist haven is centrally located to many other attractions such as Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial and Deadwood.

If you go, I advise you to plan on spending as much time as possible visiting because there is just so much to do.

Custer State Park is one of my all time favorite places to visit because I have been there so often, spent two summers working there as a volunteer and even got married there.

What's not to love?

Skimlinks Test