Custer State Park

Trip Planning

Underrated RV Destinations: Custer State Park in South Dakota’s Black Hills

Jeremy Puglisi shares his tips for visiting the underrated destination of Custer State Park.

Though national parks get most of the glory, state parks certainly deserve some attention of their own–especially epic ones like Custer State Park. Nestled in South Dakota’s Black Hills, Custer State Park showcases the region’s eye-popping geography and wildlife, offering adventure on a grand scale amid the park’s 71,000 acres.

In Custer State Park, the spirit of the Old West comes alive. Gaze upon herds of elk and bison in their natural terrain, saddle up for a horseback ride, chow down on a chuckwagon meal, and sleep under the stars. At the center of it all, the park contains pristine sapphire lakes and some of the nation’s most unbelievably scenic drives.

RV travelers don’t come to Custer State Park to explore the park alone. Instead, it is located in an area abounding with history, beauty, and recreation. It’s a short drive away from iconic Old West towns and several national parks and monuments (including Mount Rushmore, Badlands, Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, and the Crazy Horse Memorial). Plus, the larger town of Rapid City is nearby.

When RVers are asked to list their favorite campgrounds ever, a surprising number are found in and near Custer State Park–-for good reason. No matter how packed the schedule gets with things to explore, make sure to plan plenty of time to hang a hammock amid the ponderosa pines or enjoy a campfire under the dark skies.

Custer State Park and the surrounding region make for a quintessential RV trip–one that should be on your bucket list.

Family Fun & Outdoor Activities

The best way to take in the scenery and wildlife found in Custer State Park is by taking a scenic drive. These are not merely the equivalent of a Sunday drive through the countryside–instead, the park includes some of the most exhilarating stretches of roadway found in the nation.

Grab some binoculars and start your adventures with a slow drive along the Wildlife Loop Road. Sunrise and sunset offer the best chances of seeing the wide range of animals that call Custer State Park home, including bison, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and more. You might even encounter some burros begging for a treat (though park officials do not recommend feeding the wildlife).

For more driving adventures, the Needles Highway, Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, and Iron Mountain Road offer switchbacks, tunnels, and views of Mount Rushmore. The Needles Eye Tunnel is a mere 8-feet-9-inches wide, making for a daunting passthrough. These drives allow you to take in the best of the Black Hills scenery, including the granite mountains that jut skyward from the rolling evergreen hills.

If you have kids along (or even if you don’t), the Hayride & Chuckwagon Cookout is not to be missed. The food is actually good, but the singing is the true star of the show. This is seriously so much fun–you’ll truly feel like a cowboy camping on the range. Another family-friendly adventure is the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour. Though you might not always encounter wildlife, you can enjoy the ride.

There are plenty of ways to get up close and personal with the scenery in Custer State Park. A slow stroll on horseback is one of the best. Right in the park, Blue Bell Stables offers rides ranging from one hour to full-day trips. And, of course, there are some fabulous hiking trails. Whether you want to do a flat loop trail or a strenuous climb, you’ll find it in Custer State Park.

The park’s lakes are also a great place to stop and play, offering fishing, swimming, kayaking and paddleboarding (some rentals are available through the park lodges), and more. Sylvan Lake is one of the most popular, a striking blue gem set amid the granite boulders. Stop at one of the three visitor centers to learn more.

 Did you know you can also enjoy stock theater in the park? This is a perk not found in many state or national parks, but Custer State Park’s Black Hills Playhouse entertains audiences with a selection of lively productions each summer season.

Where to Eat

You don’t have to leave Custer State Park to find great dining options. Make a stop at the State Game Lodge or Blue Bell Lodge to enjoy a meal in rustic, historic venues built in the 1920s. Try the bison burgers for a taste of the region.

Another Black Hills staple is the Sioux taco, made with traditional Native American fry bread. Toppings on this open-faced taco often include bison beef, refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, and cheese. Though Badlands National Park is just over an hour’s drive from Custer State Park, it’s worth it to take in the scenery and to grab tacos at Cedar Pass Lodge.

Campground Recommendations

Blue Bell Campground: Custer State Park has nine campgrounds, and Blue Bell is highly regarded as one of the prettiest–and a great choice for RVers due to the site selection, which can handle larger rigs. Located in a ponderosa pine forest along the French Creek, this campground lives up to its reputation for beauty. You will find electricity but no water or sewer hookups.

Game Lodge Campground: Another option directly in Custer State Park is Game Lodge, which is the park’s largest campground. Where the Blue Bell campground offers a sylvan landscape, Game Lodge is mostly located in a wide-open field, with spacious sites. Bison may even stop by! This campground also has electric only sites.

Rafter J Bar Ranch Mountain Resort RV Park & Cabins: Rafter J is another park that gets rave reviews. Though it is further from Custer State Park (35 to 40 minutes), you’ll find ginormous, gorgeous sites and full hookup options. The park offers a pool and hot tub. Plus, it is directly located on the George Mickelson Hiking & Biking Trail, which runs over 100 miles along a converted railway line.

Custer's Gulch RV Park & Campground: If you want to be close to Custer State Park but desire full hookups, Custer’s Gulch is a great option. Visitors appreciate how quiet it is and how spacious the sites are–with some backing up to national forest lands. General Custer himself is said to have camped in this very spot!

Best Time to Visit

Summer is the best season for Custer State Park. If you live in a region that gets hot in the summer, you’ll appreciate the relatively cooler temperatures and breezes. Flowers and trees will be in full bloom, and the wildlife should be active. Winter is cold and very snowy, while the shoulder seasons see weather that varies a lot from day to day.

The entire Custer State Park region sees a massive influx of visitors each August, as the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally brings in half a million riders. You may or may not want to visit at this time, depending on your tastes. If you do, book ahead, as reservations fill quickly.

In September, Custer State Park hosts the annual Buffalo Roundup, where you can watch modern-day cowboys roundup a herd of over 1,300 bison.

No matter when you visit, you are sure to be awed and amazed by Custer State Park. From the beauty and wildlife to the amazing selection of day trips nearby, South Dakota’s Black Hills will likely inspire you to return again and again.

Jeremy Puglisi is the co-author of Where Should We Camp Next? A 50 State Guide to Amazing Campgrounds and Other Unique Outdoor Accommodations. He is also the host of The RV Atlas podcast.

Custer State Park
Custer State Park
Custer State Park
Custer State Park
Custer State Park
Jeremy Puglisi

Author and co-host of the RV Atlas podcast

Jeremy Puglisi is the co-host of the RV Atlas podcast and the co-author of See You at the Campground: A Guide to Discovering Community, Connection, and a Happier Family in the Great Outdoors, and Where Should We Camp Next: A 50 State Guide to Amazing Campgrounds and other Unique Outdoor Accommodations. He loves nothing more than hitching up and heading out to the next campground with his family.