During our Black Hills road trip in August 2020, my husband Daniel and decided to spend an afternoon visiting Custer State Park. I’d never heard of the park before we arrived in the area but it came highly recommended by our campground host. As it turns out, the park is enormous. We only had enough time to drive through the scenic Custer State Park Wildlife Loop during our afternoon visit and even that took more time that we anticipated. In hindsight, we probably should have set aside a whole day just to see the park and take photos of the wildlife.
About Custer State Park
One of the nation’s largest state parks, Custer State Park was established in 1919 and covers an area of over 71,000 acres in South Dakota. The park is so big, in fact, that it covers a uniquely divergent set of ecosystems. At Custer State Park, rolling plains and grassland prairies converge with granite cliffs and clear mountain streams. The park is located in South Dakota’s Black Hills and near famous tourist attractions such as Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park and Crazy Horse Monument.
One of the most popular ways to enjoy the park is by taking a scenic drive. Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Roads both afford spectacular mountain views through the beautiful Black Hills. Needles Highway passes through a region of eroded Black Hills in the park’s northwest corner with needle-like granite formations. Iron Mountain Road is a scenic drive connecting Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore National Monument. Both are winding roads mountain roads that should be driven slowly and have tunnels restricting large vehicles from passing through.
Due to the size of our RV, we had to skip both of these scenic drives and content ourselves with exploring the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop. The park is famous for its wildlife and is home to over 1,500 bison as well as pronghorn antelope, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, wild burros and more. Driving the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop was pretty incredible so I don’t feel like we missed out at all. But I do hope to come back sometime in the future with smaller vehicle that will fit through the Needles Eye Tunnel so we can enjoy those scenic drives.
Driving the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop
The Custer State Park Wildlife Loop is an 18-mile scenic drive that winds through the southern half of Custer State Park. The drive begins in a mountain of ponderosa pines and then heads south to the park’s prairie grasslands. At the very southern tip of the loop, the road passes through a corral where the herd of 1,350 free-roaming buffalo reside.
True to its name, Daniel and I saw lots of animals along the Wildlife Loop – way more than in any of the National Parks that we’d recently driven through. Before long, I realized that the wildlife is managed differently here than what I’m used to seeing in National Parks. Custer State Park used to be a zoo many years ago and this legacy is still visible today. The bison are corralled and hunted, the wild burros are routinely fed by visitors, and the bighorn sheep are all tracked with radio collars. The animals aren’t truly wild here.
But it was still a fun experience to see so many native species in one afternoon.
Note: when viewing wildlife, the staff and Custer State Park reminds you to keep your distance. Visitors are urged to stay in their cars or remain at least 100 yards away from bison, elk, and other animals. Regardless of distance, if any wild animal changes its behavior due to your presence, you are too close and should back away.
Custer State Park Wildlife Loop: Bighorn Sheep
The first wildlife that we saw on our visit was a herd of bighorn sheep crossing the road near the park’s entrance. The bighorn sheep caused a bit of a traffic jam and we had to wait for them to finish ambling across the road. Not that we minded, of course – I grabbed my camera and eagerly jumped out of our RV to take some photos (along with all the other people nearby). Visitors should be aware that traffic jams are a common occurrence on the Wildlife Loop and be prepared for them.
Custer State Park’s bighorn sheep population was initially introduced to the park in 1922 from the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep herd. The population grew to over 200 sheep until the herd was almost decimated by disease a few years ago. Through efforts by wildlife biologists, the disease was eradicated and the herd has rebounded to 63 animals as of January 2020.
Custer State Park Wildlife Loop: Bison
Custer State Park is home to one of the world’s largest publicly-owned bison herds. While the population varies from year to year, the herd typically numbers around 1,300-1,400 buffalo. Each year, the park hosts an annual Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival where visitors can watch cowboys and cowgirls rounding up the thundering herd. The roundup is part of the park’s management plan to ensure the population does not exceed the available rangeland forage area. After the roundup, selected animals are auctioned off and hunted.
During our visit to the park, we found the park’s buffalo herd at the very southern tip of the Wildlife Loop. Here, the buffalo are corralled together and very easy to spot.
Custer State Park Wildlife Loop: Pronghorn Antelope
Pronghorn, also referred to as antelope, are also commonly sighted along the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop. Daniel and I spotted several pronghorn during our visit who ran along side of the road for a while. Pronghorns live on the open grassland and are the fastest land animals in North America with speeds up to 60 miles per hour.
Custer State Park Wildlife Loop: The Begging Burros
The “begging burros” are a famous fixture at Custer State Park. These wild donkeys are known for begging for food from visitors and have been known to be so friendly that they have tried to get into people’s vehicles. Daniel and I looked forward to seeing some burros during our visit but alas we only saw them from a distance and didn’t get any good photos.
You can read more about the begging burros at this article: ‘Begging Burros’ are Friendly to a Fault.
Custer State Park Wildlife Loop: Prairie Dogs
Prairie dogs are also commonly found in Custer State Park’s grassland areas. Prairie dogs live together in large social groups called prairie dog towns and are *adorable*. Daniel and I didn’t see very many prairie dogs during our visit to Custer State Park, but we saw quite a few on our Black Hills road trip to Wind Cave National Park which is just down the road.
Custer State Park Fee Information and Map
The fee to enter Custer State Park is $20 per vehicle. This pass is good for an entire week but is not necessary for cars passing straight through on US Highway 16A or SD Highway 87 South without stopping. The pass is required, however, for travel on Needles Highway or Wildlife Loop Road. Annual licenses are also available.
For current fee and information on park conditions, consult the Custer State Park web site.
A full map of Custer State Park is available for download from the Custer State Park web site: Custer State Park Overview Map
Accommodations at Custer State Park
The park offers 9 different campgrounds in within the park boundaries. Four historic lodges are also available at Custer State Park Resort. Since Daniel and I were planning to visit several attractions in the Black Hills area, we chose to stay at the privately-owned Big Pines Campground in Custer since it is more centrally located. The campground has a number of 30 and 50 amp sites nestled among the forest along with some primitive tent camping sites and a camp store. It was a great choice and we enjoyed our time there.
Where are we now?
Date: August 4, 2020
Great American Road Trip Status: Day 30
Starting Location: Big Pine Campground, SD
Ending Location: Badlands KOA, SD
Miles Traveled: 148.8
Total Trip Mileage: 21091
For more details on our Great America (Socially Distanced) Road Trip, see my previous posts:
- Days 28-29: Black Hills Road Trip: Things to do Near Mount Rushmore
- Day 27: Joyner Ridge and Red Beds Trails
- Day 26: Bear’s Lodge (Devil’s Tower)
- Days 22-25: The Middle of Nowhere
- Day 21: Wildlife Fiesta
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