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Needles Highway Tunnel – Custer State Park – South Dakota

So you’re thinking of heading to Needles Highway Tunnel in South Dakota and exploring the Black Hills National Forest. You want to see the majestic sights and the rocks that were carved by human hands.

But we’re not here to talk about Mount Rushmore. No, today’s post is all about Custer State Park.

And yes, Custer State Park has majestic sights, but the rocks have been carved to allow cars to get through, not to highlight the facial features of a forebearer.

So why are we talking about Custer State Park? Because this place is phenomenal – lake, check; hikes, check; wildlife, check; beautiful vistas, check.

You can spend days here if you want.  And this jewel is not out in the middle of nowhere. It is just south of Mount Rushmore — you can even see parts of Mount Rushmore from Custer State Park.  Both are in the Black Hills National Forest.

The first time I went to Mount Rushmore I had no idea about Custer State Park. We thought all there was to do in the area was Mount Rushmore. Boy, we were wrong.

Please don’t make the same mistake that we did.  Plan to make Custer State Park a part of your South Dakota road trip itinerary, and here we will tell you how to do it.

Let’s explore the Needles Highway Tunnel and Custer State Park! 

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Where is Needles Highway Tunnel and Custer State Park?

Where is Custer State Park Map

Custer State Park is in South Dakota near Mount Rushmore and Rapid City.

How Far Away is Mount Rushmore?

Mount Rushmore is not too far away from the Needles Highway Tunnel.  Custer State Park is about a 40 minutes drive from Mount Rushmore.  But Custer State Park is really big, so that can be deceiving. You can be very close or be farther away depending on where you’re at and what entrance you use for the park.

How Far is Rapid City from Custer State Park?

Rapid City is about 40 minutes away from Custer State Park.  If camping (or glamping), within Custer State Park, isn’t for you, Rapid City is a commonplace for lodging in this area.

We stayed at the Marriott, Residence Inn.  The Marriott hotels in Rapid City share a common pool and arcade area. The pool area is actually an indoor water park. Our kids couldn’t believe that their hotel had an indoor water park!

Rapid City is a great place to stay!

How Far is Custer State Park to The Badlands National Park?

If you are interested in going to the Badlands National Park while in South Dakota, Custer State Park is about an hour and fifteen minutes from the Badlands. Badlands National Park is a must-see in this area.

While you are visiting the Badlands be sure to go to Wall Drug Store!  It’s about an 11-minute drive from the west entrance to the park.

Admission and Fees Custer and The Needles Highway TunnelCuster State Park Visitor Center

Hours

Custer State Park is open year-round 24 hours a day.

Fees

A single-use pass is $20. The single-use pass is actually good for a week, and you can use it at any state park in South Dakota.

An annual pass is $36.

The Layout of Custer State Park

Custer State Park

Before I went to Custer State Park I had no idea how big it was.  Unfortunately, we did not plan enough time to do it all!

How Big is Custer State Park?

Custer State Park Map
Image Courtesy of tourmaps.com

Custer State Park is 71,000 acres.  It is the nation’s largest state park.

To give you an idea there are 3 scenic drives in the park.  Each could take 1-2 hours.  The Needles Highway Tunnel, Wildlife loop, and the Iron Mountain loop are all around 17-20 miles.

How Long Should I Spend at Custer State Park?

via GIPHY

This is a tough one. You could easily spend 2-3 days exploring this park.  There are wildlife safaris and the wildlife loop, hiking, lake activities, and camping all available at Custer State Park.

How much time you should spend depends on what you like to do and how much time you have.

So Mount Rushmore in my mind is a one-day (or half a day) excursion. You can also do the Wind Cave National Park, also in the area, in a day. That leaves you with multiple days to spend at Custer State Park if you are staying in the Black Hills National Forest area for a week.

Black Hills National Forest Vs Badlands National Park

If you are debating on how much time to spend at the Badlands National Park compared to places in the Black Hills National Forest, my personal view is to spend more time at Custer State Park.

Badlands National Park is awesome, but it is hot, and if you have kids with you, you are probably spending no more than a day there (and you can do Wall Drug Store in a few hours).

You might not have enough time to do it all, But what is great about Custer State Park is regardless of whether you have a few hours or a few days, you can have a great time.  Pick your favorite part of the park, ask a park ranger for advice if you need it, and have fun!

Needles Highway Tunnel

Needles Highway Tunnel at Custer State Park

We were most looking forward to driving the Needles Highway tunnel.  This Highway was completed in 1922.  The governor at the time went on foot and horseback to mark the entire course.

It was designed to hit the most beautiful parts of Custer State Park.  The 14-mile stretch has a speed limit of 20 mph and many places to pull off the road to take in the views. 

Why is the Needles Highway Tunnel so Famous?

Needles Highway at Custer State Park

The Needles Highway in South Dakota seemed almost impossible to build.  There are giant “granite needles” – large rocks that look like needles all along the path.  To create a road they had to blast through the needles to create tunnels.

Needles Highway Tunnel

Needles Highway Custer State Park

The most famous Needles Highway tunnel is very narrow, but is quite the sight! It was a great accomplishment to build this road for the purpose of scenic views.

Hot Tip

The Needle Highway tunnel has a pull-off before you enter it.  You can get out and take pictures.  There is also an area where kids can climb on the rocks and explore.

Where Does the Needles Hwy Start? 

Custer State Park

We entered Custer State Park at the West entrance.  This will take you to the Northside of the Needles Highway Tunnel.  I think this was a great place to start because you immediately see the Needles Highway tunnel and how narrow a tunnel it really is.  You can pull off and check it out!

How Long Does it Take to Drive Down the Needles Highway?

Diving through the Needle Highway tunnel

This 14-mile drive takes about 45 – 60 minutes.  The speed limit is slower plus you will want to pull over and take pictures.  Give yourself time to enjoy all the scenic views.  The Needles Highway tunnel is so impressive you will want to pull over for sure!

Custer State Park Wildlife LoopWildlife loop at Custer State Park

What is the Wildlife Loop at Custer State Park?

The wildlife loop is an 18-mile scenic drive within Custer State Park.  There are over 1,350 free-roaming buffalo, as well as, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, coyotes, mountain lions, and owls to spot along this road.

How Long Does it Take to Drive the Wildlife Loop?

Custer State Park

Plan an hour and a half to drive the Wildlife Loop.  If you have ever been to Yellowstone, you will know that cars aren’t the only users of the roads – wildlife cross or stand on or near the road.  This happens at Custer State Park as well.

Hot Tip

It is better to do this scenic drive early in the morning because you will see more wildlife.

Iron Mountain Scenic DriveIronman Highway at Custer State Park

How Long is the Iron Mountain Scenic Drive?

This scenic drive is 17 miles.  Allow about an hour to complete the entire drive.

What is the Iron Mountain Drive?

Mount Rushmore From Custer State Park

This scenic drive connects Custer State Park to Mount Rushmore.  You will see some of the most beautiful scenery in the Black Hills on this drive.

There are three tunnels and one of them frames Mount Rushmore.  It is pretty awesome to have a perfect view as you come out of the tunnel and see Mount Rushmore.

This drive leads to the exit of the park and in the right direction to visit Mount Rushmore.

Hiking in Custer State Park

Custer State Park Hike

There are over 17 hikes, which is another indication of how big this park is. It is really hard to narrow down these hikes. Especially, if you are looking for easy, immediate, or hard ones to complete.

Most Popular Hikes

Custer State Park Hike

These hikes should be on your radar. as you decide which ones you want to do on your visit to Custer State Park.

Sunday Gulch Trail 

Moderate

This trail is a 4-mile loop that begins at Sylvan Lake.  As you hike you will see the giant needles that this area is famous for. This isn’t an easy hike even though you will find stairs and handrails.  This hike will take about 2.5 -3 hours to complete.

Cathedral Spiral Trail

Easy

This is a 1.5-mile climb to the “The Spires”.  This hike has some beautiful scenery.

Lover Leap Trail

Moderate

This is a very popular hike at Custer State Park.  It is about 3 miles and will take just over 1 hour to complete.  A Native American legend says that two lovers leap to their deaths on this trail.  The hike starts out steep but becomes manageable.

If you have been on any other hikes at Custer State Park comment below and let us know your favorites.

Lakes and Ponds at Custer State Park

Sylvan Lake at Custer State Park

Custer State Park has five bodies of water; Center Lake, Legion Lake, Stockade Lake, Sylvan Lake, and the Game Lodge Pond are all located within the park.

Things to Do on the Lakes and Pond at Custer State Park

  • Boating – on the 4 lakes
  • Swimming
  • Fishing
  • Paddleboarding
  • Canoe/kayaking

The lakes are absolutely beautiful. You can rent paddleboards, canoes, and kayaks within Custer State Park.

Lodging or Camping at Custer State Park

Camping at Custer State Park

Custer State Park Resort is located within the park and has many lodging options.

There is really something for everyone.  It is a great resort if you want to spend the majority of your time within Custer State Park.

Things to Do at Custer State Park

Custer State Park

There are some really cool tours at Custer State Park.

Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour

Custer State Park Safari Tour

Image Courtesy of Custer State Park Resort

This is an off-road wildlife experience. You will get to see wildlife up close and personal.  It will take about 1.5 -2 hours to complete.

Admission and Hours

Adults $60

Children under 12 $50

Tours are available starting at State Game Lodge Resort and run from 8:00 am – 5:00 pm daily.

Hayride & Chuck Wagon Cookout

Chuck Wagon Dinner Custer State Park
Image Courtesy of Custer State Park Resort

This 45-minute hayride through the wildlife area of the park is a beautiful scenic experience. A cowboy dinner is provided as well as a cowboy hat and a bandanna.

Admission and Time

Adults $58

Children under 12 $51

Reservations must be made.  The experience starts between 4:30 – 5:30 pm.  This adventure starts at Blue Bell Lodge.

Guided Trail Rides

horse back riding custer state park
Image courtesy of Custer State Park Resort

Saddle up for a horseback riding adventure.  These trail rides start at Blue Bell Lodge.

Cost

1-hour trail ride

Adults and Children $50

2-hour trail ride

Adults and Children $90

Are You Excited About Custer State Park and Needles Highway South Dakota? 

Needles Highway Tunnel at Custer State Park

I hope you are excited to go to Custer State Park.  There really is so much to do and see.  The Needles Highway tunnel is unforgettable. We had a great time and know you will too!  Hopefully, you can stay longer and do more than we did!

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79 Comments

  1. Someday I plan on getting to Mount Rushmore, so I will definitely make this part of the trip – thanks for sharing.

  2. The Needles Highway through the rocks looks wild. I didn’t really know much about the area other thanMount Rushmore. If we ever make it down that way I’d like to check out the Cathedral Trail and horseback riding.

    1. Great post! Lots of wonderful photos and info.! We camped in Custer state park about 20 years ago
      I remember waking up and seeing bison close by..so cool! Thanks for reminding how cool this area is!

  3. I never knew that Custer State Park was so big! We like to hike, so we would probably want a few days there. Thanks for the tips!

  4. We’ve been to Mount Rushmore, but we did not check out Custer State Park – nor The Bandlands. Your post has inspired me to make it happen…only an 8-hour road trip so manageable. So may check out those cabin options. And I would love to drive through Needles Highway and the tunnel (or rather sit in the passenger seat).

  5. Custer State Park is on our bucket list! I would love to drive the Needles highway and do some of the hikes you mentioned. You definitely had me at the trail rides, as well! Thanks for sharing these great ideas!

  6. I’m hoping to plan a family summer trip to south Dakota area and out to Montana. I never realize how much there is to do and explore until I see posts like this.

  7. A ton of information. So helpful. And that Needles Highway is a trip – would certainly have to plan if you had a big truck. The steaks – yup I am there. I was in that area as a kid but have not been back. Thanks for the post.

  8. We loved driving down Needles Highway. We had a 15 passenger van, so going through the Needles Eye tunnel was a lot of fun.

  9. This looks awesome! I’m glad to know more about this area, we are planning a road trip there for next year.

  10. We visited Mt. Rushmore and Wind Cave NP last September and loved them. While there, I noticed how many other amazing things there were to do in the area. We would definitely like to go back sometime in the next few years.

  11. You are the perfect travel guide! Beautiful scenery and awesome pictures. I need to add South Dakota to my list now. The needles highway looks so cool and I would enjoy the wildlife tour! I would love the chuckwagon cookout too and want a cowboy hat!

  12. Great information outlining Custer state park. Looks like you had an awesome time. I like how the rocks are carved so people can drive through!

  13. What a beautiful place to visit the carved out rocks and the amazing gray colors are so unique! Thank you for sharing.. I would love to spend some time enjoying the beauty of Custer State Park!

  14. This is such a great place! We visited a few years ago and there was so much to do! You have provided a great planning resource here with ideas and prices. Thanks!

  15. Very thorough and complete post! I used to live in Wyoming and went to Mount Rushmore once but don’t think I did this area. It’s very unique and beautiful! ❤️

  16. Planning a trip to this area in the Fall. Lots of great info. Hoping for some pretty foliage in addition to these wonderful sites!

  17. Custer State Park is on the agenda when we move cross-country next month. It looks like I may need to plan two nights there. Thanks for the information!

  18. Ahhh, I feel like I would be white knuckle driving through the Needles Tunnel! Haha. It looks super cool though, so does the whole place.

  19. Wow! Custer State Park is first of all, so close to other South Dakota attractions I want to visit, and second, surprisingly stunning on its own. How cool is it that you saw buffalo? And the Needle Highway tunnel looks too tiny for cars to go through! I bet it would be fun to drive through it though!

  20. Custer is a favorite of ours! We enjoyed camping in the cabins while there. Wind Cave National Park was really cool to tour too!

  21. Love that drive! How fun. I also love how many activities (sign me up for the trail ride!) are offered.

  22. We were hoping to get there this year, but it’s now my goal to go next year. Thanks for all of this wonderful info and stunning pics!

  23. Hmmm… Custer State Park was not up on my radar when we were starting to plan next US road trip. But I will now have to add it in!! Looks amazing! Your phots are so nice!

  24. It’s amazing how many different parks and experiences you can have within a few hours of each other. I think the horseback riding would be a lot of fun!

  25. Pingback: Best Hikes in Badlands National Park – Planning Away

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