The Black Hills of South Dakota is a beautiful region with plenty of photographic opportunities, including Custer State Park. South Dakota’s first and largest state park is popular for its combination of amazing wildlife, landscapes, and some of the most scenic drives you will find anywhere. In this article we’ll look at some of the main points of interest in the park.
Custer State Park is located in southwestern South Dakota, fairly close to the state lines of both Wyoming to the west and Nebraska to the south. It is south of Mount Rushmore, north of Wind Cave National Park, and west of Badlands National Park.
→ See Our Guide to Photographing Badlands National Park
If you are interested in photographing wildlife, Custer State Park is an excellent choice. The park is home to a herd of well over 1,000 free-roaming bison, as well as elk, pronghorn, deer, bighorn sheep, and more. Not only is wildlife in the park, it is also easy to find. The bison and pronghorn especially can often be found near the roads (based on my experience). In fact, it’s not uncommon that you’ll have to stop the car and wait for a bison or other animal to cross the road.
But Custer State Park also features a beautiful landscape that is well worth photographing. And one of the best things about visiting Custer is that you can use the roads to easily access much of the park. If you are in the area visiting Mount Rushmore or one of the other Black Hills attractions, a quick visit and drive through Custer State Park will allow you to see a lot even in a limited amount of time. I first learned of Custer State Park by looking for something to do after visiting Mount Rushmore with family. The drive from Mount Rushmore to Custer was amazing, and the park itself was also a highlight of the trip.
→ See More of the Best Places to Photograph in South Dakota
Wildlife Loop Road
Wildlife Loop Road is an 18-mile journey through the park that will typically provide you with a chance to see and photograph the wildlife of the park. Most likely you’ll see many bison, although the herd may be well off in the distance. You’re also likely to see pronghorn and burros. If you’re lucky you may see elk or bighorn sheep.
While the wildlife is the main feature of this loop drive, the landscape is also quite picturesque. The park recommends 45 minutes to drive the loop, but you’ll probably stop to photograph several times along the way.
You can see the location of Wildlife Loop Road, and the roads that intersect it, on this map. The best time to see wildlife is early in the morning or in the evening, shortly before sunset.
Jeep safari tours are available if you want an even closer look at the wildlife.
Needles Highway (closed during winter) is another scenic drive that you don’t want to miss. This is a 14-mile stretch of South Dakota Highway 87 that runs from US Highway 16, past Sylvan Lake, and ends near Legion Lake. Needles Highway is named for the stunning granite peaks that resemble needles.
The mountainous road is often narrow and winds quite a bit. There are three narrow tunnels that are as small as 8 feet 4 inches wide and 9 feet 10 inches tall.
In order to access the road you will need a Custer State Park pass (fee). I highly recommend taking this route either on your way to or from the Wildlife Loop Road.
Iron Mountain Road
Iron Mountain Road connects Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park, with part of the road being within the boundaries of Custer. The road is only 17 miles long but it is a slow drive due to the constant switchbacks. Although this mountain road takes some time, it is well worth the trip. The road was built, in part, to showcase Mount Rushmore. You can catch several views of Rushmore in the distance, although if you are heading towards Custer State Park you will be facing away from these views. Tunnels were even constructed to frame Mount Rushmore.
Like Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road showcases the beauty of the Black Hills. You may also see some wildlife along this road. To access this road, follow signs for 16A from Rushmore or Custer (see it on the map).
Sylvan Lake is a beautiful man-made lake that was created by building a dam across Sunday Gulch. The lake and surrounding rock formations form one of the most photogenic locations in Custer State Park. This hub of activity includes a lodge, campground, restaurant, a few trail heads, and boat rentals.
Although the scenic drives are the main attraction for most visitors, the park also offers several hiking trails that are worth exploring if you have the time. There are several hikes that range from about 1 – 3 miles that offer excellent scenery and views. For details on all of the trails please see this page.
There are a number of places you can stay in and around Custer State Park. Rapid City is the largest city in the area and is about a 3 minute drive north of Custer. There are plenty of hotels in Rapid City, which is a popular base for many who visit Mount Rushmore. Custer State Park also offers multiple campgrounds and several lodges. The park lodges include Sylvan Lake, Legion Lake, Blue Bell, and the State Game Lodge. For information see CusterResorts.com.
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