The Black Hills' rugged granite formations, clear streams and labyrinthine caves possess a captivating beauty. Days quickly fill with hiking, fishing, exploring history and tracking down bison for those one-of-a-kind vacation pics.
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Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park South Dakota
Sylvan Lake

Ageless beauty and outdoor adventure flourish in the Black Hills, in the state's southwest corner. You could easily spend a week or more here, but if you have only a couple of days, here's one way to spend an overnight in the heart of the Black Hills at Custer State Park.

Day 1

Custer State Park is a great place to meet the Black Hills. Entering the park from Keystone takes visitors on the Iron Mountain Road, full of switchbacks and breathtaking views.

buffalo safari red jeep tour custer south dakota
Credit: Ryan Donnell

Once past the gatehouse, visitors can choose their pleasure: At Sylvan Lake, visitors swim, hike, fish, paddle and picnic. If you want to get up close to the park's bison herd, take a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour for a lively narrated 90-minute ride.

The narrow Needles Highway
The narrow Needles Highway

Then there's fishing for rainbow trout in Grace Coolidge Creek, hiking to Black Elk Peak (the trail starts in the park, but the peak is outside), horseback riding, navigating the spectacular Needles Highway or driving along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop to spot bison.

state game lodge custer state park resort
State Game Lodge
| Credit: Ryan Donnell

The park's historic State Game Lodge is where President Calvin Coolidge liked to stay. If you want to leave the park for dinner, Firehouse Brewing Company in Rapid City (30 miles north of the park) serves crispy fish and chips and flavorful ales.

Day 2

Breakfast at the State Game Lodge includes a Belgian waffle bar, biscuits and gravy, and fresh fruit.

Guests easily fill a day exploring the huge park's trails and creeks. But Jewel Cave National Monument, 20 miles west of the park, is worth a visit: It's one of the longest caves in the world (more than 173 mapped miles!) and filled with calcite that glitters in lanterns' light. Tours range from half hour introductions to several-hour caving adventures.

Mt Mount Rushmore South Dakota
Credit: Bob Stefko

At the iconic Mount Rushmore National Monument, 25 miles north of Custer, a flag-lowering ceremony in the evening tugs at patriotic heartstrings and honors vets in the audience.

5 Great Places to Stay in Custer State Park

1. Blue Bell Lodge

Modern cabins with woodsy accents and kitchenettes also have fire rings out front. Walk across the road to the dining room for homestyle cooking.

2. Legion Lake Lodge

Affordable cabins cluster on the hill over pretty Legion Lake. Families can swim, use the beachside playground, rent canoes and dine in the casual on-site restaurant.

3. State Game Lodge

The main lodge preserves the feel of the 1920s, when President Coolidge used to summer here. Guests can stay in the lodge, in a motel-style stone-and-timber building or in cabins.

4. Camping 

Electrical hookups and clean showers put these sites on our radar. Evening educational programs share details of the inspiring landscape.

Sylvan Lake Lodge Custer State Park South Dakota
Sylvan Lake Lodge
| Credit: Chad Coppess/TravelSouthDakota

5. Sylvan Lake Lodge

Frank Lloyd Wright picked the lodge's site on a rock-rimmed lake overlooking some of the prettiest views in the park. Rooms in the 1937 lodge feel like midrange chain hotel spaces; the wow factor comes from the lobby, the veranda and the scenery. Nearby cabins in a variety of sizes overlook the mountains, lake or woods.

Buffalo Roundup Custer State Park Black Hills South Dakota
Credit: Courtesy of TravelSouthDakota

Save the Date

All year long, travelers gaze in wonder at the bison, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs and burros in Custer State Park. But the biggest wildlife sighting happens each fall during the annual Buffalo Roundup, typically in late September. Thousands of people wait hours to hear, see and feel 1,300 bison and a few bewildered burros thundering down the valley while they're chased by dozens of cowboys on horseback. 

Chuckwagon cookout Custer State Park South Dakota
Chuckwagon Cookout

Bring the Kids

Guests get a cowboy hat and bandana, then board a hay wagon near Custer State Park's Blue Bell Lodge for a Chuck Wagon Cookout. Sing well-known country tunes on the way to the steak, burger and veggie cookout, then pile on the fixin's.