Most people who travel to the Black Hills of South Dakota are intending to visit Mount Rushmore and perhaps even the Crazy Horse Monument, while on their way somewhere else (Yellowstone National Park for example). However, visiting Custer State Park (CSP) with its open prairies, dense forests, and large buffalo herd, can be the perfect complement to the more acclaimed (and crowded) tourist draws in the Black Hills.
Custer State Park is located in the Black Hills of southeastern South Dakota, several hours drive from any big city (like Chicago, Denver, or Kansas City). While Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse are must sees on any outing in the Black Hills, they are each easily visited in just a couple of hours. If you’re staying in the area for more than one day and want something a little bit off of the main tourist trail, then Custer State Park can be the perfect chance to explore deeper and to get to know the area. For starters, the park is immense, with over 71,000 acres of rolling prairie and forested hills with lots of space to spread out, it is nearly six times larger than Mount Rushmore National Park. CSP is probably best known for its large herd of roughly 1,500 free roaming buffalo but there are also many other animals that can be seen in the park like antelope, deer, goats, and even a herd of burros. There are also miles of hiking trails, lodges, campgrounds, and lakes to explore.
The trailhead to South Dakota’s tallest peak, Harney Peak (or Black Elk Peak as it is now known), is located just within the park and the summit can be reached via a moderately difficult seven mile hike. The peak tops out at an elevation of 6,200 feet at the summit, making it the tallest mountain in South Dakota and the tallest in the United States east of the Rockies. At the top, there is stone fire lookout tower, making it a unique summit to rest and take in the great views of the plains below. If you know where to look, you can even see the backside of Mount Rushmore from up there. Elsewhere in the park, there are also many miles of less strenuous hikes if this seven mile hike isn’t for you.
The thrill of seeing wild, free roaming buffalo is the closest thing to what it must have been like in the old west that we can experience, and there are so many of them that they often kick up huge dust clouds as they graze. If you’re lucky enough to be around the large herd, you can have the animals that seem as big as your car, completely surround you. Buffalo are a truly magnificent animal and you can really appreciate that when they’re in close proximity and you can experience that here, without the crowds. The buffalo photo above was taken on a dirt road with not another person within miles of us and we could literally touch it out of our car windows it was so close (we didn’t touch it by the way).
So if you’re planning a trip to the Black Hills or if you’re just passing through on your way somewhere else, think about staying an extra day and exploring Custer State Park, it’ll probably be the best part of your trip.