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?
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 Tunnel
Custer State Park is open year-round 24 hours a day.
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
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 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?
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
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?
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
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.
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?
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?
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 Loop
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?
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.
It is better to do this scenic drive early in the morning because you will see more wildlife.
Iron Mountain Scenic Drive
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?
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
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
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
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
This is a 1.5-mile climb to the “The Spires”. This hike has some beautiful scenery.
Lover Leap Trail
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
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
The lakes are absolutely beautiful. You can rent paddleboards, canoes, and kayaks within Custer State Park.
Lodging or Camping at Custer State Park
Custer State Park Resort is located within the park and has many lodging options.
- Blue Bell Lodge
- State Game Lodge
- Sylvan Lake Lodge
- Legion Lake Lodge
- Creekside Lodge
- Specialty Cabins
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
There are some really cool tours at Custer State Park.
Buffalo Safari Jeep 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
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
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
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
Saddle up for a horseback riding adventure. These trail rides start at Blue Bell Lodge.
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?
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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