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Exploring Custer State Park

Many attractions near Rapid City, SD don't get much attention due to Mount Rushmore being the main attraction to this area. Custer State Park is one of these underrated attractions that you do not want to pass up!

Although it's a state park it still feels like a national park with its incredible wildlife, granite spires, wilderness hiking trails, and crystal clear lakes. Custer State Park is only a 40-minute drive from your stay at Lantern Inn. With 71,000 acres, it can be tough to find the best activities, so we will walk you through some of the best things to do in Custer.

Needles Highway

As part of SD-87, Needles Highway is one of the best ways to explore Custer Park without even leaving your car. Some of the best views and rock formations can be seen right from the road and it also makes for an adventurous ride with several tunnels and tight turns. 

The Highway's name comes from its direct access to the large granite spires called, "Needles." One reason this road is so spectacular is because, back in 1922, one of the early governors of South Dakota planned the entire route by horseback to find the most scenic route through the area. The best times to visit are Spring, Summer, and Fall. In the winter, the road can become slick and dangerous.

You'll reach one of the most unique features on this road when you reach the Needle's Eye Tunnel. This hole was carved into one of the granite spires to make way for the highway to pass through. At a width of 8'4" and a height of 12', you'll need to check your vehicle size before passing through, making this an adventurous task.
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Wildlife Loop Road

Another way to explore the area is by taking the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop. This route weaves its way through hills and grasslands that thousands of animals call home. In fact, the chances of you not running into an animal are very slim due to a giant herd of 1,400 free-roaming buffalo, who commonly block the roadways in the state park.

It's also likely that you'll encounter elk, big horned sheep, prairie dogs, coyotes and eagles. It's no wonder Custer State Park, also being a no-hunting reserve, was named as one of the top 10 wildlife destinations in the world.
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Begging Burros

Arriving at the southern end of the Wildlife Loop Road, you'll find yourself greeted by unusually friendly donkeys. If you're driving slow enough, these cute creatures will walk right up to your car and stick their head in your car window in search of a tasty treat.

Park regulations unfortunately prohibit feeding wildlife, but over the years, people have ignored this park rule and given these donkeys apples, carrots and bread.  
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Sylvan Lake

While driving down Needles Highway, you'll come across the most popular site in the whole park: Sylvan Lake. The granite rocks surrounding the lake make it look like a giant water cup that's about to spill over.

Sylvan lake does not allow motorized watercraft, but you can kayak, fish and swim. You can rent paddle boards and boats from the visitor center to bring to the lake. There is also a one-mile hike around the lake where you can stop and fish at any spot.

Sylvan Lake is a camper's paradise with overnight accommodations, fine dining at the silver lake lodge, and even a general store. 
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Hiking Black Elk Peak (Harney Peak)

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Roundtrip Distance: 6.4 Miles
  • Time: 3-4 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 1,499 feet

Sylvan Lake is at the base of the Black Elk Peak trailhead. Formerly named Harney peak, Black Elk Peak is a seven-mile loop that stretches from Sylvan lake all the way to the summit.

Although you'd be hiking a long way, the views have been said to rival those at Zion, Yosemite and Glacier National Parks. Custer is "just" a state park, but its attractions, views and overall experience rivals some national parks.