Custer, South Dakota is a beautiful town located in the perfect spot to explore the Black Hills. The town is full of history and there are plenty of things to do for the whole family. Here are some of the best things to do in Custer, South Dakota, plus a few bonus ideas around the area as well!
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Are you looking for a fun-filled vacation destination for the whole family? If so, you can’t go wrong with Custer, South Dakota. From Wind Cave National Park to the Black Hills National Forest and the Crazy Horse Memorial, there’s something for everyone in and around Custer. You always think of Mount Rushmore, and while that is definitely a must-see, there’s so much more!
And best of all, many of the activities are kid-friendly! Here are some awesome things to do in Custer, SD with kids or other fellow travelers.
Jewel Cave National Monument | Mount Rushmore | Custer State Park | Sylvan Lake | Needles Highway | Iron Mountain Road | Wildlife Loop Road | Crazy Horse | Aktá Lakota Museum | Wind Cave National Park | 1880 Train | Reptile Gardens | Rent a VRBO/Airbnb | Pirate’s Cove Adventure Golf | Storybook Island | Bear Country USA | Deadwood | Spearfish Canyon and Devil’s Bathtub hike | Badlands National Park | More places to explore!
Family time in Custer SD
Personally, I love traveling to the area around Custer. Coming from Colorado, I feel like we can actually get away from some of the crowds so abundant in Rocky Mountain National Park lately, and enjoy the outdoors. We’ve been up to the Black Hills area more than once, and my kids always talk about it as one of their favorite places for family vacations.
What can you do? There really is a lot to do, and it’s such a beautiful area, that’s why my kids like it so much!
What is Custer South Dakota known for?
One of the things that Custer South Dakota is known for is its rich history. There are plenty of museums and historical sites to explore in and around downtown Custer, such as the 1881 Courthouse Museum, supported by the Custer County Historical Society.
Visitors can really get a feel for what life was like in the area in the past.
Additionally, Custer is a great place to visit for outdoors enthusiasts. The town is located in the heart of the Black Hills, which is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. There are plenty of hiking and biking trails, as well as opportunities for fishing and camping.
What should I not miss in the Black Hills National Forest?
Well, hold your horses, and I’ll get to that! There is so much to explore in and around the Black Hills National Forest. Let’s get to it.
1. Jewel Cave National Monument
Go on a treasure hunt at the Jewel Cave National Monument. This is a great activity for kids who love adventure! They can explore the complex cave systems and look for treasure along the way. There are several tours available, and there’s also a junior ranger program, in which my kids always love to participate! Just ask a park ranger at the desk for the Junior Ranger book for the kids’ age groups.
Check out the cave tours as well with a park ranger or review the best one for your situation on their website!
Caves are some of our favorite places to explore. In fact, my son would walk for miles in a cave. However, if I asked him to take a hike with me he’d be tired in 50 feet!
It’s all about motivation! We all loved Jewel Cave National Monument.
2. Mount Rushmore National Monument
This is a must see for any family visiting Custer, South Dakota. Visiting Mount Rushmore is a breathtaking and unforgettable experience. The kids will love seeing the faces of presidents carved into the mountainside and announcing their favorite.
Again, there is also a junior ranger program available here so make sure the kids stop in and ask for the junior ranger booklets at the information center in the white building on your left before you go down the walkway with the state flags.
How much does it cost to visit Mount Rushmore?
At the time of writing this article, it does not cost anything to get into Mt Rushmore. However, it does cost to PARK at the monument.
When we visited this summer, it cost $10 for a regular vehicle to park at Mt Rushmore, $5 for seniors (62 and up), and it was free for active duty military. This may change so check with the national monument website before you go.
What animals are at Mount Rushmore?
This was a question my son was very interested in, and I’ve actually had several people ask us.
The animals at Mount Rushmore you may see around are mule deer, Rocky Mountain goats, bighorn sheep, bison, marmots, chipmunks, red squirrels, and many other birds and amphibians. Be sure to ask a ranger if you’re interested during your visit and most will tell you all about the animals in the area!
What time is Mount Rushmore’s light show?
The light show is usually at 8 or 9 pm depending on the time of year. Check the Mount Rushmore website for current times before you go.
What are 3 facts about Mount Rushmore National Memorial?
1. Mount Rushmore is a National Monument located in Keystone, South Dakota.
2. The monument is made up of four granite sculptures of the heads of U.S. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.
3. The sculpture was carved into the mountain by Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln Borglum from 1927 to 1941.
These are the basics, now, can you find 3 more interesting facts?
3. Custer State Park
Custer State Park is home to a large herd of bison and it’s a great place to take a scenic hike or go kayaking (Sylvan Lake is located within the park boundaries). And did you know it’s actually home to 1,500 buffalo?! You can also go hiking, biking, or kayaking at Sylvan Lake which is located in the park (highly recommended!).
Custer South Dakota is well-known for its annual Custer State Park buffalo roundup. Every fall, the park rounds up its bison and auctions off a few of the animals to help fund the park’s operations. The roundup is a popular event and draws spectators from all over the country.
Is Custer State Park worth the trip?
Yes, you should definitely visit Custer State Park, South Dakota!
The first time we came through the area, we just drove through quickly, but it’s certainly worth it to take the time to get out and explore.
The park is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the area, and there are plenty of things to do for visitors of all ages. Whether you’re interested in hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, kayaking, or simply taking in the natural beauty of the area, you’ll appreciate Custer State Park.
How much is the entrance fee for Custer State Park?
For a temporary license (1-7 days), you will pay $20 for each vehicle. If you want an annual park entrance license, it will cost you $36. A second annual park entrance license costs only $18, so it might be worth it to get one if you plan on visiting the park often.
Again, check the official state park website to see if prices have changed before you go.
Should I stop at the Wildlife Station Visitor Center?
The Wildlife Station Visitor Center is a great place to learn more about the animals in Custer State Park and what you can do to help protect them. The visitor center also has restrooms and a small gift shop.
How many days do you need in Custer State Park?
To really enjoy Custer State Park, South Dakota, you’ll need at least two days. That will give you enough time to slowly drive the Wildlife Loop Road, the Needles Highway, experience a day at Sylvan Lake, and take in all the park has to offer.
The park is home to bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, and deer, as well as prairie dogs, coyotes, and wild turkeys. You can also go fishing in one of the many lakes or hike some of the park’s trails.
4. Sylvan Lake (Custer State Park)
So, in preparation for your family vacation, be sure to watch National Treasure: Book of Secrets! Much of it is filmed around Sylvan Lake and Custer State Park, and kids (and Mom) will squeal, “Oooh! This is where they climbed over the rocks and poured water all over them and found the entrance!!”
We absolutely loved spending an entire day at Sylvan Lake. It’s good to get there earlier in the day to find a parking spot, but we had no trouble and arrived at 9 am on our last visit.
Can you swim in Sylvan Lake?
Yes, you can swim in Sylvan Lake! In fact, there are a couple of great beach areas for kids and adults alike to build sand castles and swim. Just remember, there is no lifeguard on duty, so swim at your own risk.
What’s the best time to visit Sylvan Lake?
The best time to visit Sylvan Lake is in the summer months when the weather is warm and the water is inviting. However, if you enjoy hiking, fall is a great time to visit as the leaves are changing color and the temperatures are cooler.
Hiking trails around Sylvan Lake
The Sylvan Lake Shore Trail hike around the lake is about 1.1 miles but is a must do for almost anyone who loves the outdoors! There are some awesome views and rocky areas, but the Sylvan Lake Trail is not too difficult and a lot of fun.
Just be careful of the drop-offs in some areas, and watch your step on the rocks. There are also a few places where the trail is a bit narrow, so especially with kids just take your time and enjoy the views.
Can you stay at Sylvan Lake?
Yes, you can stay near the lake in Custer State Park! There are a few different options for camping, including RV sites, tent sites, and cabins.
If you’re interested in staying, be sure to make reservations early as the campsites fill up quickly during the summer months.
Custer State Park Campgrounds
There are four campgrounds in Custer State Park, and they all fill up quickly during the summer months. If you’re interested in camping in the park, be sure to make reservations early.
There are 9 campgrounds in Custer State Park including:
- Blue Bell Campground
- Center Lake Campground
- French Creek Campground
- Legion Lake Camp
- Sylvan Lake Campground
Sylvan Lake Lodge
If you’re looking for a place to stay that’s a bit more luxurious, Sylvan Lake Lodge in Custer State Park is a great option. The lodge offers cabins, suites, and rooms, all with stunning views of Sylvan Lake.
There are also plenty of things to do at the lodge, including horseback riding, fishing, canoeing, and more.
Again, if you’re interested in staying at Sylvan Lake Lodge, be sure to make reservations early as the rooms fill up quickly!
What else is there to do at Sylvan Lake? Get on the water!
In addition to swimming and hiking the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail, you can also rent paddle boats, and there are kayaks and stand up paddle board (SUP) rentals available. I stuck with a kayak but my daughter and her friend both had a fabulous time on the SUPs around the lake.
If you’re looking for things to do in Custer, South Dakota with kids, Sylvan Lake is an awesome option. I would say must-see! There’s plenty to do for everyone in the family.
5. Drive the Needles Highway (Custer State Park)
What is the Needles Highway?
The Needles Highway is a beautiful but winding road that takes you through some amazing rock formations. It’s definitely not for those who are prone to car sickness, but it’s well worth it for the views.
This is one of the most popular things to do in Custer State Park, so again, try to get here early to avoid the crowds.
What is there to see on the scenic Needles Highway?
There are several things to see on another one of the many scenic drives in the Black Hills, the Needles Highway, including Sylvan Lake (of course), the Cathedral Spires, Needle’s Eye Tunnels, and more.
The Cathedral Spires and the Cathedral Spires Trail, are definitely some of the highlights. These towering rock formations are incredible to see in person. Start at the Cathedral Spires Trailhead on about a mile and a half mile hiking trail. It’s a challenging hike and a steep hike in some parts so wear good hiking shoes, and I wouldn’t want to take young children. There is a nice flat area at the base of the spires where you can get some great photos or enjoy a picnic.
The Black Elk Peak Trail
If you are ready for a longer hike, the Black Elk Peak trail is a loop about seven miles long and takes you to the highest point in South Dakota. It’s a pretty strenuous 4-5 hour hike, but the views from the top are definitely worth it. At the summit, you’ll see the abandoned Harney Lookout Tower as well as awesome 360-degree views.
There are actually several ways to get to the top of Black Elk Peak
The trailhead is located near Sylvan Lake, so if you’re and love a magnificent hike, it’s worth checking out!
The Needles Eye Tunnels are another highlight. These tunnels were carved out of solid granite and are pretty amazing to see (and drive through!). They are narrow, so larger vehicles may have some difficulty.
There are also several pull-offs along the road with great views, so even if you don’t want to drive the whole thing, it’s still worth taking a drive on the Needles Highway.
The Needle’s Eye Tunnels are two tunnels that were carved into the rock formations. The first one is about 50 feet long and the second one is about 150 feet long.
You can actually drive your car through the second tunnel, but it’s pretty tight! It’s only one way so you may have to wait a bit while the cars from the opposite direction come through. Good luck!
How long does it take to drive the Needles Highway?
The Needles Highway is only 14 miles long, but it definitely feels longer with all of the twists and turns. I would allow at least an hour to drive the highway, plus time to stop at the various overlooks and take pictures and enjoy it.
Needles Highway is definitely one of the top things to do in Custer State Park and should not be missed!
6. Iron Mountain Road (Custer State Park)
The Iron Mountain Road is another beautiful but winding road in Custer State Park. This road is a bit longer than the Needles Highway at 17 miles, but it’s just as scenic.
The highway connects Custer State Park with Mount Rushmore National Monument and the Crazy Horse Memorial.
If you have time, I would definitely recommend driving the Iron Mountain Road all the way to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse.
7. Wildlife Loop Road (Custer State Park)
The Wildlife Loop Road is an 18-mile loop that takes you through Custer State Park. This is a great way to see some of the park’s wildlife, including bison, deer, pronghorn, elk, and more!
Allow at least an hour and a half to drive it slowly and watch out for wildlife. It’s a good idea to start at the Visitor Center, grab a map (or pull it up on your smart device) and ask about anything special going on or wildlife sightings.
Cross the street and drive south onto the Wildlife Loop Road.
8. Crazy Horse Memorial
It’s sort of one of those requirements when in the area to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial. This memorial honors the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse and it’s a great place to learn about American Indian culture and history.
We were lucky enough that we could actually see the head of Crazy Horse from the deck of our VRBO cabin!
Can you see Crazy Horse without paying?
Yes, you can see Crazy Horse without paying, but from a distance. Obviously, you can see it from the road, but if you go to the entrance just ask at the ticket booth if you can go in to take a picture and flip the car around to the exit.
We’ve done this a couple of times, and they’ve either suggested it or agreed.
Spend the day at Crazy Horse
There is a lot more to do than I expected at Crazy Horse. If you want to learn more about American Indian culture, there are three museums with lots of interesting things to see like traditional clothing and weapons. Watch the orientation film, and there’s also an amphitheater where they often have cultural shows and performances.
The grounds are beautiful with many places to explore, and the views from the top are incredible. If you have time, spend a day here and even enjoy the evening laser light show when in season!
9. Aktá Lakota Museum & Heritage Center
Learn about American Indian culture at the Aktá Lakota Museum & Heritage Center. This museum is dedicated to preserving and promoting American Indian culture through art, history, and educational exhibits.
Admission to this museum is absolutely free, but you can definitely donate to help preserve the Lakota heritage and St Joseph’s Indian School!
The Aktá Lakota Museum features an informative museum on this proud people.
10. Wind Cave National Park
If you or your kids, friends, or fellow travelers like caves, we have another one for you! Wind Cave National Park is home to one of the world’s longest caves (Wind Cave) and it’s a great place to hike, camp, and explore with your family.
Wind Cave is a bit different than Jewel Cave, in that it’s not as easy to see the formations. However, it’s definitely worth taking a tour to see this cave!
There are several things to do in Wind Cave National Park, but the main attraction is exploring the cave.
The best way to see the cave is by taking a tour. There are three different types of tours: the Natural Entrance Tour, the Garden of Eden Tour, and the Fairgrounds Tour. All three tours take you to different parts of the cave, so review the details on their website and decide which one’s best for you!
11. Black Hills Central Railroad: 1880 Train
Who loves Thomas the Tank Engine!? Me, me!
Okay even if you’re not a Thomas fan, who doesn’t want to ride an old-fashioned steam train through the scenic Black Hills region? Definitely take a ride on the Black Hills Central Railroad 1880 Train.
My personal preference is to ride the train in the fall when all the gorgeous colors are out. However, take a look at the train schedule and purchase your tickets at their website.
12. Reptile Gardens
Until you have actually been there, you will not imagine the sheer number of reptiles, especially snakes, they have on site! Both of my kids absolutely LOVE reptiles, the reptile house is always their favorite place at any zoo we visit. So of course, Reptile Gardens was a must see, especially when Grandpa reported he visited there as a kid and rode the giant tortoises!
Now, you’re not allowed to ride the giant tortoises as they’ve discovered it makes it harder for them to breathe, and we don’t want to hurt these creatures, but you can certainly pat their shell and get up eye to eye.
Also, be sure to take a picture with a baby crocodile or a snake on your head after the gator or snake shows!
Reptile Gardens is home to hundreds of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals from all over the world. Also, I have to say, the flowers and grounds are gorgeous, and I love looking at all the gardens to decide what might look nice in my own yard!
13. Rent an Airbnb or VRBO with friends
Spending time with friends is always more fun than doing things alone, so why not rent an Airbnb or VRBO with some friends while you’re in town?
You can cook dinner together, and then roast marshmallows over the fire pit. After a long day of exploring, just relax and enjoy each other’s company with stories and laughter.
BONUS! More kid and family favorite things to do near Custer, South Dakota:
Fun family things to do in and around Rapid City
My kids’ favorite miniature golf course!
15. Storybook Island
A free storybook themed park in Rapid City with lots of things to do for kids
16. Bear Country USA
A drive through wildlife park where you can see bears, bison, deer, elk, and more!
17. Is Deadwood worth visiting?
The activity highest on our list (well the kids’ list for Deadwood) was to watch a gunfight reenactment in Deadwood. This is a great activity for older kids (ages 10 and up) who are interested in American history. The gunfight reenactments are based on actual events that took place in Deadwood during the late 1800s.
This activity just barely won over the second most important place to visit in Deadwood, The Chubby Chipmunk, hand-dipped chocolates!
Discover Deadwood Gulch Resort
The Deadwood Gulch Resort is a great place to stay if you’re looking for things to do in Deadwood with kids. The resort has an indoor pool, arcade, and mini golf course. Plus, there are plenty of restaurants and shops nearby.
18. Spearfish Canyon and the Devil’s Bathtub Hike
Spearfish Canyon is another beautiful drive when you’re in the Black Hills region. The canyon is full of scenic beauty along with hiking, biking, and picnicking opportunities.
One of the most popular things to do in Spearfish Canyon is the Devil’s Bathtub hike. This is a moderate 1.5 mile out-and-back hike with an incredible waterfall at the end. Be sure to bring your camera and wear shoes that grip well and can get wet.
We loved going down the “slide” waterfall into the Devil’s Bathtub, but be especially careful with kids to be sure of footing. It is slick and rocky so as a mom, I always advise to be cautious and think about safety first!
However, it’s an awesome location with more lush greenery than we have in Colorado, with a fun reward at the end!
19. The Badlands National Park
The Badlands National Park is one of the most unique landscapes and national parks in the United States. The park is full of canyons, cliffs, and spires. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area!
There are plenty of things to do in the Badlands National Park with kids. You can go on a hike, take a scenic drive, or go on a ranger-led program. Don’t forget the Junior Ranger Program!
The best time to visit the Badlands National Park is in the summer, late spring, or early fall. However, keep in mind that it can get very hot! Be sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
What is the best month to visit Custer South Dakota?
The best time to visit Custer, South Dakota is in the summer. This is when the weather is the most pleasant and there are the most things to do. However, keep in mind that although it’s pretty far north, it can get super hot! So again, always be prepared with water and sunscreen.
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No excuses with so many things to do in Custer SD
So there you have it, some of the best things to do in Custer, South Dakota with kids! I hope you enjoy your time in this beautiful town and area.
Custer is a great town for families who want to experience a little bit of everything on their vacation.
Personally, I feel the entire Black Hills area really is THE perfect vacation spot for families! With so many things to do, you’ll never be bored. So what are you waiting for? Get planning today! 😉
And if you have any other suggestions, be sure to leave them in the comments below!
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