Just minutes from Rapid City, South Dakota, Custer State Park is a national treasure. The park provides nature lovers with a well-rounded opportunity to explore wildlife, different types of terrain and the natural state flora. Visitor centers located throughout the park provide you with maps, guidance and general information about the park. No matter what else you do while at Custer State Park, consider these five things for the top of your to-do list.
A pack of wild burros roam Custer State Park, and while not native to the Black Hills, they’ve become a major attraction. Descendants of burros that used to carry visitors through the mountains and up to Harney Peak, the burros have become a mainstay of the park. They are curious and often allow visitors to pet them. Many of the burros are friendly; peeking into vehicle windows to look for a petting is common, and a fun experience for kids and adults alike.
The burros are often found directly on the roadways that run through the park, especially if the park is well traveled that day. If taking a twilight drive, you may find the burros near the hills or the forests. The park encourages interaction with the burros; however, remember that these animals are free-roaming and may be aggressive at times, especially if they feel their young are threatened. Take precautions as you would when approaching any animal, or for further safety, enjoy the burros from your vehicle.
The park plays host to amazing scenery. The Needles Highway is a fourteen-mile drive through pine forests, rugged granite mountains and stretches of beautiful plains. Along the way, you’ll see amazing needle-like formations that tower above the trees. The road twists and turns, bringing you through beautiful rock formations, cliffs and granite spires until you come to the ‘eye of the needle.’ This tall spire has an opening created by wind, which looks just like the eye of a sewing needle. This stop offers cliffs for climbing and exploring, paths to walk, and an amazing view.
Additional scenic roads accessible through the park include the Iron Mountain Road, which takes you through deep wildlife areas, past bridges and through tunnels carved through the mountain. The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway takes you by the Needles spires and provides incredible views of mountain peaks and the Black Hills National Forest. Each of these drives takes about sixty-minutes—perhaps a bit longer in heavy tourist seasons.
The Fire Tower
The Mount Coolidge Lookout and Fire Tower is a breath-taking stop. A one-mile road takes you on a twisty, narrow journey up the mountain until you reach the Tower at the top. Sitting atop a six-thousand foot peak, the stone Fire Tower puts you higher than the mountaintops and higher than the trees. From the lookout deck, you can see eagles flying well below you. Viewing binoculars allow you to see parts of Mount Rushmore and the Badlands.
Because the road to the Tower is narrow and winding, large vehicles and motor homes should not attempt to travel up it. The adventurous may choose to walk the road to reach the top, as well.
The Wildlife Loop
Custer State Park offers a great drive that takes you through the major wildlife areas of the park. The Wildlife Loop Road is about eighteen miles longs, and carves through grassland and hills. In either the early morning or early evening, it’s not uncommon to encounter buffalo, mule deer, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and coyotes. Other animals reside in the park, like bighorn sheep, mountain lions, Elk and mountain goats, though they tend to be more reclusive and harder to spot.
It’s common to find the park’s herd of thirteen-hundred buffalo grazing in the plains along the Loop, or crossing the roadway. You may pull over to watch the herd as they migrate through the park. Used to vehicles and humans, the bison often travel close to parked cars. Be sure to keep your doors closed and snap photo opportunities from the safety of your vehicle.
Custer State Park is full of unlimited opportunities for adventure and to experience living history. Many little streams and rivers run through the park, offering the luxury of dipping your feet in after a hot drive through the Park or a hike. Visitors have reported finding artifacts along the riverbanks, from arrowheads to broken pottery. If you find artifacts, use them as a photo opportunity and replace them, as the Park doesn’t allow removal of artifacts from the property. Additionally, other natural souvenirs may be found near these waterbeds, and throughout the park, including buffalo and pronghorn tracks in the mud, native flowers, and occasionally, deer antlers that have been shed.
Custer State Park is truly a gem of the United States Park system. You can easily take a day or two, to explore all the park has to offer! Remember extra batteries for your camera and allot plenty of time to drive slowly through the scenery, and make frequent stops to get out and enjoy the beauty. Visiting the park is one trip you’ll remember for a long time to come.