We had heard about Custer State Park while in the Rapid City area and decided to check it out on our second to last day. We are super glad that we did! The only regret we have is not going sooner, as the $20 admission fee is good for a week, and there is plenty to see and do! We got a lot out of our one day of activities, however.
The day started with yet another scenic drive from Black Hawk. When we arrived at the gate, the park ranger handed us a map and recommended the Wildlife Loop, Sylvan Lake, and the Needles Highway as major highlights.
We started with the Wildlife Loop, which is the area of the park in which visitors are most likely to see the likes of buffalo, prairie dogs, mountain goats, antelope, and more. The loop started off with seeing a pronghorn antelope off to the side of the road.
We then stopped at a scenic overlook where we climbed a hill to see sweeping views of the valley, birds, wildflowers, and even some cacti! We then does and bucks off in the distance over wide-open, green hills.
We then hit the “buffalo corrals” area of the park, where the buffalo are able to roam freely. The “buffalo corrals” are marked off by fences and grates in the road which the buffalo cannot walk over. The reason for this we figured was to keep the buffalo away from the camping areas of the park, but never found out for sure. We did read about the annual “Buffalo Corral” that is held every September, however, where the buffalo are herded by professionals on horseback so that some of them may be sold. The reasoning for this began in the 1970s as a way to control a rampant disease among the animals, but is now done to control the population in the area, as the habitat in that area can only support 1500 buffalo per year. The park does not provide them with food or healthcare otherwise, however.
The buffalo stuck together in relatively large groups and seemed very used to having people around, as they frequently crossed the road or rested in the grass close to the road as passersby reveled in taking their picture. It is very cool to see such large creatures up close and see them interact with one another!
At our first buffalo sighting, we also saw this amusing street name. John was not amused, but I thought it was pretty hilarious.
While in this section of the Wildlife Loop, we saw a few mules, which the park ranger had told us we were allowed to feed and pet. As we approached a stop-off parking area, we saw one mule go up to some cars and interact with people. Much to my dismay, by the time the buffalo crossed in front of us and we reached the parking area, the mule had wandered back off to join his friends in a field.
After seeing hundreds of buffalo along the sides of the road, we exited the “buffalo corals” and stopped to eat a late lunch in a scenic spot with picnic tables.
Not long after this, we came across the “Prairie Dog Town”, which was a short stretch of prairie dog holes that really did look like a little “town” due to their proximity to one another and how they would pop up out of their holes and communicate with each other like adorable neighbors. We were able to see some of these oh-so-adorable animals pretty close also because they came up to the side of the road, as well as a little chipmunk who posed for a photo!
The final excitement on the Wildlife Loop came at a scenic overlook where we realized we could have eaten our lunch at the picnic table set up! Check out the view for yourselves:
Then we got back on route 16A and headed back towards Sylvan Lake and the Needles Highway (Route 87), a fourteen-mile narrow, winding road named for the large, needle-like rock formations and tunnels you see along the way. Warning: DO NOT take your RV on this road! The road is very narrow with 180 degree turns at points and the tunnels are even narrower – we had to fold in the tow mirrors on the truck to be safe as we went through them! But it is a not-to-be-missed experience in a regular vehicle for sure!
The route is within Custer State Park, so you must have an admission pass to be on it. Thus, everyone on the road is a sightseer and you have to be watchful of slowing traffic to view wildlife or a scenic overlook.
The drive begins with a mild drive through some deciduous forests where we saw a few deer close to the road. There are small rock formations along the way. The drive gets increasingly spectacular as the tunnels and sharp turns in the road climb us higher for better views of the granite, needle-like formations.
There are many scenic overlook points to pull off on this road and we stopped at many of them. The best one came just before the Needles Eye Tunnel, named so because of its semblance to an actual needle’s eye, where we saw a family of mountain goats along the road. One was close enough that John could practically touch it!
Then came the magnificent Needle’s Eye Tunnel, which again, it felt like we were barely going to fit through but made it just fine with John’s careful driving. Narrow, but stretching high, the sun was in exact position to shine through as we drove through it to be greeted by large, towering rock formations on the other side. Quite a sight to see!
After the Needles Highway, we drove by Sylvan Lake to get back to our campsite, which was a pretty little lake where you could rent canoes and paddleboards if you wished. There was also a general store/gift shop with some pretty cute souvenirs. If we had had kids already, I would have been very tempted to buy them some stuffed buffalo or mountain goat toys!
As yet another beautiful day ended in our exploration of the Black Hills National Forest, we headed back to our campsite to grill.
Like what you read? Please check out our YouTube video to see more of the wildlife and of driving the Needles Highway!