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Custer State Park: South Dakota’s home on the range

Crystal clear mountain waters, spectacular open pastures, ponderosa pine forests—to say this land in the Black Hills region is idyllic is an understatement. Add to that the 1,500 wild buffalo and you have the quintessential embodiment of the great American West.

Facts and figures

  • Located 15 miles outside the city of Custer, this area became a state park in 1919.
  • The 71,000-acre state park—Oregon’s first—is revered for its bountiful wildlife. In addition to buffalo, it’s home to bighorn sheep, burros, cougars, coyotes, deer, elk, mountain goats, mountain lions, prairie dogs, pronghorn and river otters.
  • On the last Friday in September, the park holds its annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup. During this popular festival, wranglers and rangers drive thousands of stampeding buffalo. Hundreds are then sold at auction, leaving ample rangeland for the remaining animals to forage.
  • The park maintains nine campgrounds that feature camping pads, fire grates, picnic tables and electric hookups (in most).
A view of Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park
A view of Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park

History

In 1897, Congress granted South Dakota land in the Black Hills to be used as school lands. In 1910, the state exchanged them for 50,000 acres of land that would be known as Custer State Forest. In 1914, 36 buffalo were added as part of a preservation effort. In 1919, the 50,000 acres were established as South Dakota’s first state park and given the name Custer State Park.

During the summer of 1927, Custer’s popularity spiked when President Calvin Coolidge made it his “summer White House.” Each day of his stay, White House staffers stocked the creek with fish to boost Coolidge’s chances of hooking one.

In 1965, the park added 21,000 additional acres, bringing its total to 71,000.


Things to see and do

Custer State Park’s abundant wildlife is by far its biggest draw. Set aside a couple hours to drive the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road, where you may come face-to-face with buffalo, deer, elk, feral burros and maybe even a mountain lion. Animals are most likely to be visible during the early morning and just before sunset. (Remember wild animals should never be approached, touched or fed.)

Other scenic drives include the 17-mile Iron Mountain Road, which links the park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and the 14-mile Needles Highway, named for the needle-like granite formations that decorate the highway.

Cathedral Spires seen from on top of Little Devils tower
Cathedral Spires seen from on top of Little Devils tower

Head to any of the park’s four lakes to swim, paddleboard, hydrobike or canoe. The picturesque Sylvan Lake is the most popular for swimming, but the lesser-known (but similarly beautiful) Center Lake will appeal to those looking for a less crowded watering hole. Assuming you have a South Dakota fishing license, cast a line in any of the lakes for a chance to catch rainbow and brown trout, northern pike, panfish and both large and smallmouth bass.

Hikers can explore miles of trails, from the relatively easy Creekside and Grace Coolidge trails, to the moderate Legion Lake and Prairie trails, to the more difficult Cathedral Spires and Sunday Gulch trails.

The park features nine campgrounds, including a horse camp and cabins in the Blue Bell, Game Lodge, Stockade North and French Creek campgrounds. A variety of camping options are offered, whether you want a primitive, back-country experience or prefer more modern accommodations, complete with flush toilets and showers. Costs, accessibility, availability and reservation requirements vary widely among the campgrounds, so research beforehand to determine which suits your needs.

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Best time to go

Although Custer is open year-round, you may encounter blizzard conditions and road closures from October through May. You’ll enjoy a broader range of activities and areas to explore as well as more comfortable temperatures in mid-to-late June and the first few weeks of July. September is another wonderful time to visit, as temperatures are cooling down from late summer’s heat, but expect crowds the last weekend of the month, when thousands flock to the annual buffalo roundup.

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January 18, 2018 09:48 AM