Custer State Park
Guide

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Introduction

If you are looking for an unforgettable RV adventure into one of the world’s top ten wildlife destinations, Custer State Park has to be on your bucket list. Located in the majestic Black Hills of South Dakota, encompassing over 71,000 acres of rustic wilderness, this state park features herds of wild buffalo, mesmerizing cliffs, and glistening lakes. You’ll be captivated by rolling plains and rocky granite peaks that spill across these magical lands. Settled in the early 1900s, this park features a wide range of diverse wildlife from pronghorn and elk to bighorn sheep and coyotes. Not far from Rapid City and Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park is a perfect place to explore on your next motorhome road trip.

You can start your RV journey to Custer State Park by learning all about the native wildlife and natural history of the area at the Visitor Center or Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center. The peak season during the summer features daytime temperatures in the 70s and 80s, providing a pleasant atmosphere for hiking, boating, and biking. You can explore historical sites like the Mount Coolidge Fire Tower or the Badger Hole cabin.

Hiking through the magical setting of the French Creek area allows you to experience the incredible idyllic backdrop of calming waters and beautiful wildflower-covered grassy knolls of the French Creek gorge. You don’t want to miss a chance to see the Needles, a unique geological wonder of towering granite spires and pillars. Some areas of the park give you the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the spectacular Mount Rushmore. Sylvan Lake and Stockade Lake are must-sees where you can take pictures or picnic next to majestic clear waters under the backdrop of towering rocky cliffs.

Pets are welcome at all Custer State Park campgrounds, but they must be on a ten-foot or shorter leash in developed areas and under the owner's immediate control in other areas. They are prohibited on designated swimming beaches and in any of the park buildings.

If you’re in the area in September you can experience a taste of the Old West at the Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival and the Buffalo Roundup, where you can watch cowgirls and cowboys round up thousands of buffalo. During the off-season temperatures can be in the 30s to 50s, offering a prime opportunity for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. No matter what time of year you take your RV excursion to Custer State Park, you’ll be in for an unforgettable adventure in a tranquil environment unlike anywhere else in the country.

RV Rentals in Custer State Park

Transportation in Custer State Park

Driving

Custer State Park is located off Highways 36 and 87, making it easily accessible from nearby towns including Rapid City and Custer. While navigating within the park is easy, you’ll want to take caution driving on some roads within the park such as Needles Highway, which has narrow and windy turns. There are some tunnels on this route that only allow a maximum height of 11 feet and a width of ten feet, so know your vehicle's dimensions before you go.

Some areas of the park are not accessible by large RVs and trailers due to narrow roads and tunnels. Check out the park map before driving within the park to assess the best route for your motorhome or travel trailer.

Parking

Parking lots are dotted around the park such as the Visitor Center and major attractions like Sylvan Lake and Stockade Lake. Some of the campgrounds offer overnight parking for RVs as well. If you are in a large RV or traveling with a large trailer you’ll want to assess the best route to access parking due to narrow or windy road conditions. The park is easy to get around on foot or by bike.

Public Transport

Campgrounds and parking in Custer State Park

Campsites in Custer State Park

Reservations camping

Game Lodge Campground

Game Lodge Campground, located on the eastern edge of this state park, is one of the best campgrounds for those who enjoy viewing wildlife. Herds of bison, elk, deer, and antelope are known to frequent the area. The campgrounds themselves feature nearly 60 campsites available for reservation that can accommodate RVs or trailers anywhere from 35 feet in length to over 50 feet. Many of the spacious campsites sit right on the banks of Grace Coolidge creek, and each comes equipped with an electrical hookup, a fire ring, a grill, and a picnic table.

There are two bathhouses with running water for showers and flush toilets, as well as several faucets with potable water and a few vault toilets scattered throughout the campground. Campers who visit here can relax by Grace Coolidge Creek, swim at the designated swimming beach, and have fun at the playground. Game Lodge Campground is open year-round but only provides full facilities from March to November. This campsite is also an easy walk of less than a mile from the State Game Lodge, which has additional amenities, including a full restaurant and bar.

Grace Coolidge Campground

The majestic Grace Coolidge Creek Campground is typically open from around April to October each year. It is located in the northwestern portion of Custer State Park, with the clear, cool allure of Grace Coolidge Creek beaconing nearby. While this campground is around 15 miles west of the nearest town, Hermosa, SD, it is only a little over a mile from the Coolidge General Store as well as a restaurant and laundromat.

The campground is comprised of 26 spacious, level campsites. Six are tent-only sites, with the remaining 20 able to accommodate RVs from 25 to 40 feet in length. If you are driving a larger rig, be certain to check the details of your campsite to ensure you are choosing one of the larger spots. Although there are no water or sewer hookups, each of the campsites comes equipped with an electrical hookup, a campfire ring, a grill, and a picnic table. There are several faucets with potable water as well as two bathhouses with flush toilets, one centrally located near the lower, tent-only loop, and one located in the upper loop. Only the bathhouse in the upper loop has a shower.

French Creek Horse Camp

If you are an avid equestrian and want to camp with your horses you can do so at the French Creek Horse Camp, which is reserved just for campers with horses. It is situated just a few miles west of the French Creek Nature Area which sits at the heart of Custer State Park. The 28 campsites available for reservation at French Creek Horse Camp are spacious, with plenty of room for both your RV and your horse trailer. Each is equipped with an electrical hookup, a campfire ring, a picnic table, and two 12x12 corrals for your horses.

If you need more than two corrals, there are additional corrals in the campgrounds that are available for a small fee. There is a centrally located bathhouse with showers, flush toilets, and a faucet with potable water, as well as a few conveniently located vault toilets. While this campground is open year-round, electricity and water are only available from May until October.

Blue Bell Campground

If you want to get a taste of a ranch-like feel of the Old West, Blue Bell Campground, on the western edge of the state park, is a great option. Open from April to October, this campground is nestled in a pine forest near the idyllic French Creek, just a little over ten miles west of the nearest town, Custer, SD.

Around 35 campsites that can accommodate trailers or RVs from 20 to 35 feet in length are available for reservation, several of which have electrical hookups. Generators are allowed in this park as well, although they are limited to two hours at a time between the hours of 8 AM and 8 PM. Fire rings, grills, and picnic tables are provided at each of the campsites.

There are two centrally located bathhouses with running showers and flush toilets as well as several additional potable water faucets and vault toilets scattered throughout the campgrounds. If you have a larger rig, be sure to check your reservations carefully when you are making them as the parking pads in this campground have varying lengths. You’ll also have easy access to great fishing spots and a nearby restaurant.

Center Lake Campground

Open from May to October, Center Lake Campground is a medium-sized campground close to an enchanting lake underneath the shade of mature ponderosa pines. Open from May to September, the campground is about ten miles south of the nearest town, Keystone SD, and it encompasses 71 sites which are available for same-day reservations only. About a quarter of these sites are tent-only sites, and the remaining sites are only suitable for smaller RVs or trailers, typically under 20 feet in length.

The sites are rustic, there are no electrical, water, or sewer hookups, but each of the spacious sites comes equipped with a fire ring, grill, and picnic table. Generators may be used for up to two hours at a time between 8 AM and 8 PM. There are several vault toilets scattered throughout the campgrounds, and a shower at the south end of the campgrounds, right near the beach. You’ll have convenient access to a boat dock, swimming, and fishing opportunities at this beautiful campground.

Sylvan Lake Campground

If you want to stay near the majestic views of the glistening waters and towering rocky faces of Sylvan Lake, this is the campground for you. Situated in the far north of the state park, less than ten miles south of the small town of Hill City, SD, this campground offers 39 campsites that are available for reservation from May to September of each year. Approximately half of these campsites are tent-only sites, with the remaining sites suitable for RVs or trailers up the around 25 feet in length.

Campsites that are large enough for RVs are provided with electrical hookups, fire rings, and picnic tables. There is a plumbed bathhouse located in the middle of the upper loop, with both showers and flush toilets, as well as a vault toilet in the lower loop. Potable water faucets are scattered throughout the campground. This spot also makes a great base camp for those interested in visiting Mount Rushmore, as it is less than 20 miles to the east.

Stockade South Campground

The Stockade Lake South Campground, located near the Western edge of the park less than five miles from the small town of Custer, SD, is open from May to September. It is situated on the southern banks of Stockade Lake, a 120-acre lake full of large and smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, bullhead, and perch. There are approximately 20 campsites suited RVs and trailers up to 25 feet in length that are available for reservations, as well as some cabins and a few tent-only sites.

Each of the campsites large enough to accommodate RVs offer electric hookups, metal fire rings, grills, and picnic tables. While the sites are fairly small, the evergreens that surround each site give campers a sense of privacy. There are flush toilets and showers centrally located in the main loop, faucets with potable water are scattered throughout the campground, and an additional vault toilet is located at the southern point of the campground.

Legion Lake Campground

If you are looking for a place to park a big rig in Custer State Park, Legion Lake Campground in the western portion of the park is likely to be one of your best options. Near the tranquil waters of Legion Lake, a little over ten miles from the small town of Custer, SD, this campground offers a prime spot for fishing, swimming, boating, and hiking.

There are 21 spacious campsites are available for reservation that are able to accommodate RVs and trailers from 45-60 feet long. Each of these sites comes equipped with electrical hookups, fire rings, grills, and picnic tables, although they do not have hookups for water or sewer. There are centrally located flush toilets and showers in the campground as well as a faucet with potable water. Legion Lake Campground is less than half a mile from Legion Lake Lodge, which offers a restaurant and convenience store.

First-come first-served

Alternate camping

Lodges and Cabins

If you want to enjoy a rustic experience at Custer State Park you can park your motorhome and stay at one of the cabins located on several of the park campgrounds. These log cabins offer an atmosphere of the Old West with the modern convenience of electricity, heating, and air conditioning. You can stay cozy and warm in your cabin while enjoying the beautiful hills and forest all around you. While there is no indoor plumbing in the cabins, they are furnished with tables, benches, and beds.

If you want to park your RV and enjoy the comfort of a lodge, there are four located within the park: Blue Bell Lodge, Legion Lake Lodge, State Game Lodge, and Sylvan Lake Lodge. These lodges offer convenient amenities like restaurants, gift shops, and convenience stores.

Seasonal activities in Custer State Park

In-Season

Hiking and Biking

Custer State Park offers 71,000 acres of vast open land that you can explore on foot or on your bike. If you want to hike or cycle on an easy trail, Lover’s Leap is a perfect three-mile trek where you’ll enjoy breathtaking views of Mount Coolidge, Black Elk Peak, and the Cathedral Spires. If you want to bike or hike on a more strenuous root the Prairie Trail is a great option that offers a chance to spot free-roaming bison and pronghorn, as well as panoramic views of the Black Hills. If you prefer to learn more about the natural and cultural history of the area, you can take a guided adventure hike during the summer season.

Rock Climbing

If you are looking forward to a rock climbing challenge during your next motorhome excursion you will be in luck if you decide to visit Custer State Park. The Needles is an amazing geological formation of mystical granite towers and spires which has been offering one-of-a-kind adventures for rock climbers since the early 1900s. Of particular interest to climbers is the Cathedral Spires and Limber Pine Natural Area, a 637-acre portion of the Needles with unique spires of rock that reach far into the sky, declared a National Natural Landmark in 1976. You won’t want to miss this chance to climb some of the most amazing rock faces in the country.

Horseback Riding

If you want to enjoy some horseback riding on your RV trip to Custer State Park, you can ride along beautiful nature trails while soaking in the incredible views of the Black Hills and majestic lakes all around you. Many of the regular hiking trails are suitable for equine exploration and there are five marked horse trails which lead out of French Creek Horse Camp, four of which are suitable for about half a day’s ride.

The fifth trail, Centenial Trail, is longer, typically requiring a full day to complete the 22 miles. Although Custer State Park does not officially organize tours by horseback, several private companies in the area do offer guided tours. If you are riding your own horse, it is recommended that your horse be well-shod as the trails can be rocky, and some include creek crossings.

Exploring Historical Sites

Custer State Park boasts several amazing historical sites that you can explore during your motorhome adventure through South Dakota. The Gordon Stockade, a replica of the original log fortress built-in 1874 stands near the western entrance of the state park. The fortress was erected as protection from the Lakota people by the Gordon Party, who were searching for gold, despite it violating the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.

Mount Coolidge Fire Tower is a castle-like structure built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s that sits at highest point in the park. From this vantage point, on a clear day, you can spot the Badlands 60 miles away. You can also visit Badger Hole, a historic cabin and home to the state’s first poet laureate, a cowboy poet who went by the name of Badger Clark. While it has been moved from its original position, the cabin is decorated with furnishings of the old west, much as it was when Clark wrote his first South Dakota related book of poetry, Skylines, and Wood Smoke.

Off-Season

Scenic Drives

If you want to stay cozy in your car or RV while still taking in the picturesque views and amazing wildlife that roam in the park, you can take a scenic driving tour. The Custer State Park Wildlife Loop is an 18-mile route that takes you through lush forests and grassy knolls where you can spot bison, deer, wild donkeys, and prairie dogs. The Needles Highway is a 14-mile road that introduces you to the awesome, towering spires of the Needles, a spectacular section of unique geological formations. While the State Park Wildlife Loop is fairly easy to navigate, the Needles Highway is a narrow, windy route that might not be suitable for large RVs or trailers.

Buffalo Jeep Tours

One of the main attractions for many visitors to Custer State Park is the free-roaming bison which can be spotted throughout this 71,000-acre park. While it is not advised to venture too close to these majestic but unpredictable creatures, you can safely observe them more closely in their natural surroundings by taking a private buffalo safari jeep tour. These tours are offered in both the morning and in the evening, typically taking around two hours in order to provide guests with the opportunity to get a panoramic view of bison, elk, and pronghorns as they take an off-road ride in an open-air jeep.

Cross-Country Skiing, Snowshoeing, and Snowmobiling

You can experience Custer State Park's transformation into a magical winter wonderland if you take an RV trip to this park during the colder months. Many of the hiking trails that explore the untouched beauty of the Black Hills in the summer are groomed in the winter for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Some trail entrances feature warming stations with wood-burning stoves during the winter. Snowmobiling is another thrilling way to travel across the park and is permitted at Center, Legion, Stockade, and Sylvan Lakes, as well as on closed portions of the Needles Highway.

Fishing and Ice Fishing

You will want to be certain that your rod and reel are in your campervan if you are traveling through Custer State Park. There are four fairly large lakes situated in the park, each of which are stocked with rainbow trout, brook trout, and brown trout. Northern pike and panfish can be found in the waters of Stockade Lake and both Stockade and Legion Lakes have healthy resident populations of both large and smallmouthed bass which share the lakes with the trout species.

A large number of wild trout also thrive in the clear, cool streams and rivers that meander through the landscape, making this state park an excellent destination for fly-fishermen as well. Ice fishing is a popular winter pastime when the ice gets thick enough to walk on, usually between mid-December until mid to late-March. Fishermen in the winter months may be able to catch crappie as well as trout, and lunkers are more likely to swim closer to the surface when the lakes are frozen.

Bird Watching and Wildlife Viewing

Make sure you pack your binoculars and camera in your travel trailer when you head to Custer State Park. The off-season is a great time to see the incredible wildlife that calls the state park home since it's less crowded and noisy. You can see herds of free-roaming bison, elk, and pronghorn all around the park, as well as squirrels, marmots, skunks, and prairie dogs. Keep your eyes peeled and you might catch a glimpse of the animals that prey on them as well, mountain lions, coyotes, fox, and bobcats.

If you are lucky and patient, you might even spot one of the rarest animals in North America, the black-footed ferret, as it hunts for its favorite meal, prairie dog. Birdwatching at Custer State Park is sure to be a delightful experience as well, with the opportunity to log a variety of different avian species. You'll likely spot common species like wood ducks, doves, mountain bluebirds, prairie falcons, and western tanagers. Plus, you may catch a glimpse of one of the park’s threatened or endangered birds, such as the hooded merganser, the chestnut-sided warbler, the greater sage grouse, or the sharp-shinned hawk.

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