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Buffalo in Custer State Park

South Dakota

Custer State Park: A Nature Lover’s Dream Come True in South Dakota

By: Joel Welin

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  • States:
    South Dakota

There’s a wealth of activities available in this 28,000-hectare reserve in the southern Black Hills.

All it takes is one visit from one of the wild burros and you’ll become a fan: These ambassadors’ softly insistent nuzzling and nibbling will delight even the most weary traveler and will incite your desire to explore more of South Dakota’s remarkable Custer State Park.

Amazing Wildlife and Scenery

There’s such a diversity of activities available in this 28,000-hectare reserve in the southern Black Hills that it can seem overwhelming, but you can narrow your focus to a handful of adventures, including some of the best wildlife viewing in the nation (if not the world). Simply entering the park via the breathtaking Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway is an adventure in itself, especially as it passes through the iconic Needles section of Custer State Park.

A begging burro in search of a marshmallow

A begging burro in search of a marshmallow
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Activities and Lodges Galore

Although the animals are clearly the stars, there are many other choices for fun in this vast landscape, from hiking, horseback riding, biking, camping and climbing to boating, swimming, fishing, educational programs, fairs and festivals or simply relaxing at one of the five lodges in the park. The Sylvan Lake Lodge, in the far northwestern reaches of the park, features a main lodge, cabins and a dining room that draws locals for celebrations. The lake itself, with its massive granite outcroppings arising from the water, is a photographer’s dream come true. Rent a paddleboat, canoe or kayak and enjoy a ride on Sylvan Lake’s calm waters in the morning sunshine or any time of day.

Rock climbing in Custer State Park

Rock climbing in Custer State Park
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Highly Recommended Resorts

There are four other resorts in the park – Blue Bell, Legion Lake, Creekside and the State Game Lodge (President Calvin Coolidge’s 1927 “Summer White House,” complete with modern cabins, restaurant, a banquet room and a gift shop) – and all come highly recommended.

Speaking of cabins, you also can visit the homestead of one of the nation’s premier “cowboy poets,” Charles “Badger” Clark, a South Dakota poet laureate and author of “A Cowboy’s Prayer,” who lived in the Legion Lake area for the last 30 years of his life. 

The State Game Lodge in Custer State Park

The State Game Lodge in Custer State Park
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Buffalo, Badgers, Beavers and More

But back to the stars of the park: Established as a game preserve in 1913, Custer State Park currently is home to a herd of about 1,300 free-roaming American bison, or buffalo. The park also has sizable herds of elk, white-tail and mule deer, big horn sheep, mountain goats and pronghorn.

Other inhabitants you’re likely to see include badgers, beaver, coyotes, eagles, foxes, hawks, jack rabbits, prairie dogs and turkeys.

And be sure to say goodbye to those burros when you leave. Standing in the middle of the road as they do, they’ll leave you with a happy memory of your time in Custer State Park.

Pronghorns (similar to antelope) relaxing alongside a grazing bison in Custer State Park

Pronghorns (similar to antelope) relaxing alongside a grazing bison in Custer State Park
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Getting there

Getting to South Dakota is easy and convenient via connecting flights from many international gateway airports including: Minneapolis-St. Paul in Minnesota, Denver in Colorado, Chicago O’Hare in Illinois, Salt Lake City in Utah, Dallas/Fort Worth in Texas and Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, Georgia.

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