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Custer State Park in South Dakota is one of the must-see parks in the state! While Custer is just a state park, it rivals many national parks, like Badlands, Theodore Roosevelt, and Devil’s Tower, in the area. With all these incredible parks in such a small area, most people try to visit all of them leaving just a small amount of time in each, so this Custer State Park One Day Itinerary will help you maximize your time here!
Remember that if you are visiting other national parks in the area, your US National Parks Pass won’t work at Custer State Park. You will have to buy a separate pass here. It’s $20 for 7 days or $36 for an annual pass. You can buy it when entering the park.
During your one day in Custer State Park, there will be 3 main things to see: Wildlife Loop, Needles Highway, and Sylvan Lake.
While the park offers so much more and you could spend a lot more time there, these are the highlights for just one day in Custer State Park.
Depending on when you arrive will determine your itinerary. The best time to see wildlife, like bison, burros, elk, bighorn sheep, antelope, and prairie dogs, is at dawn or dusk. However, you will probably be able to spot some animals in Custer throughout the day too.
The Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park is the best place to see wildlife if you are driving. This road makes a complete loop around the park and driving it almost guarantees that you will see some wildlife.
Bison are prevalent on the eastern side of the loop in the valleys and are known to even stop traffic by being right in the road!
Make sure you save enough time to drive the Wildlife Loop in Custer because you will definitely want to stop and take pictures or even do small side hikes. Even without the animals, the views are incredible!
One of the most defining features of Custer State Park is the Needles, and the Needles Highway winds up and down the Black Hills to bring you right up next to the Needles!
The Needles are eroded granite spires that stick up from the Black Hills is an otherworldly like way. They almost look like works of art or architecture rather than a natural feature. They are definitely a can’t miss thing to see in Custer State Park.
The Needles Highway that leads up to the Needles and back down isn’t too dangerous. There are a few one way tunnels and tight curves, but it is well maintained—in summer at least—and there are plenty of places to pull off and relax, take a break, or take some photos!
If you are feeling up for it and have some time, there are also a few hikes you can do that will bring you closer to the Needles themselves. One of the most popular ones is the Cathedral Spirals Trail. It’s only 1.6 miles out and back, but it climbs up about 500 feet in elevation.
If you are going to do some day hikes during your one day in Custer State Park, take a look at our Complete Day Hike Packing List to be totally prepared for whatever mother nature has in store for you!
On one end of the Needles Highway you will pass by Sylvan Lake, which is worth a stop, especially if you are traveling with kids!
Sylvan Lake is a man-made lake that sits right in Custer State Park. It was created by a dam in 1881 that blocked the Sunday Gulch Creek.
While Sylvan Lake is man-made it looks spectacular with how the rocks surrounding the lake jut up right from the water. It makes for marvelous photos and is quite stunning. You can also rent a kayak or go swimming in the lake if you want. It’s also a fairly easy hike around the lake.
There are bathrooms and a general store right at Sylvan Lake too if you want to make a pit stop. It’s a great place to have a relaxing lunch, but keep in mind that there will be lots of other people around too.
Custer State Park has more to offer than just the Wildlife Loop, Needles Highway, and Sylvan Lake, but if you only have one day in Custer State Park, these are things you must do.
Since you might only be in Custer State Park for one day, you might not be spending the night there, but if you are, you can either camp in the state park or stay at a campground outside of the park, like KOA or Broken Arrow Campground.
Be sure to make your reservations in advance though, especially if you are visiting during summer!
After your one day in Custer State Park, visit the other parks and monuments in the area, like Crazy Horse, Mt. Rushmore, Black Hills, and Devil’s Tower!