11 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Custer, SD

Written by Brad Lane
Updated May 2, 2023
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Author Brad Lane has enjoyed a few trips to the Black Hills and always takes time to visit Custer before heading into the state park.

Custer is a small town in western South Dakota and a great base for exploring the nearby Custer State Park — one of the largest state parks in the country. From inspiring drives on scenic highways to herds of bison sharing the road, the state park is on another level of public natural spaces to explore. And, if the 7,000 acres of Custer State Park isn't enough, the city also provides excellent access to the surrounding Black Hills National Forest.

Bison near Custer
Bison near Custer

One of the Black Hills' most notable tourist attractions, Mount Rushmore, is less than a 30-minute drive from Custer. Visitors don't have to drive that far, however, for sightseeing within the city. Less well-known are the 1881 Courthouse Museum and the Four Mile Old West Town. And with several hotels and campgrounds to host summer visitors, Custer is a great place for exploring all the things to do in the Blacks Hills.

Need more sightseeing ideas? Learn about the best places to visit with our list of the top attractions in Custer, South Dakota.

1. Custer State Park

Custer State Park
Custer State Park

Custer State Park is South Dakota's largest state park and offers a wealth of nature and sightseeing. The park encompasses a staggering 71,000 acres, and its heart is accessible from Custer with less than a 20-mile drive.

The park offers several scenic drives and places to visit among its massive expanse. Needles Highway, Wildlife Loop, and Iron Mountain Road traverse the area, allowing for scenic drives. The Needles Highway is famous thanks to its corkscrew design and inspiring views of the Black Hills.

Mountain streams and man-made lakes provide fishing, swimming, and boating opportunities. Sylvan Lake is a particularly popular spot, surrounded by huge rock formations rising from the water's edge. Black Elk Peak is another one of the park's impressive features. This 7,244-foot mountain is the tallest peak in South Dakota and is a popular day hike destination that starts near the shores of Sylvan Lake.

Many of the park's nine campgrounds, including Sylvan Lake Campground, rank high as some of the best campgrounds in South Dakota. These campgrounds are the best way to see the starry sky that overtakes the landscape at night.

The park is also richly stocked with wild game. An early morning or late afternoon drive on the Wildlife Loop Road is a rewarding experience. The highlight of the wildlife viewing is the free-roaming bison herd that numbers about 1,300.

Read More: Best National & State Parks in South Dakota

2. Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake
Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake is the Crown Jewel of Custer State Park and is a 15-minute drive from Custer, accessible via the Needles Highway. Immense rock formations surround the lake, providing a picturesque landscape and an abundance of hiking, swimming, and boating opportunities.

The Sunday Gulch Trail is a popular hike at Sylvan Lake, and for those looking to try Black Elk Peak (formally known as Harney Peak), the lake is a good place to start, too. Fishing is allowed in Sylvan Lake with a valid South Dakota fishing license.

Near the lake, the Sylvan Lake Lodge provides a comfortable overnight stay, as does the tent-only Sylvan Lake Campground. Reservations are recommended for either during the summer.

3. Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument
Jewel Cave National Monument

Just 13 miles west of Custer is Jewel Cave National Monument, a karstic cave in which crystals sparkle like jewels. Currently, with more than 195 miles of mapped passages, Jewel Cave is one of the longest cave systems in the world.

It features sparkling calcite crystals, delicate strands of gypsum, and other cave formations. The large rooms are strewn with boulders, tight crawl spaces, and dark fissures leading into the unknown.

The only way to explore underground at Jewel Cave is on a regularly scheduled tour led by a park ranger. Guided tours range from 20-minute, family-friendly Discovery Talks to all-day Wild Cave Tours. The most popular option, the 80-minute Scenic Tour, features concrete floors with a moderate number of steps.

Address: 11149 US-16 B-12, Custer, South Dakota

4. Needles Highway Scenic Drive

Needles Highway Scenic Drive
Needles Highway Scenic Drive

The Needles Highway (SR 87) is a magnificent scenic mountain road running through Custer State Park and easily accessible from Custer. It winds through the imposing landscapes of the central Black Hills along a 14-mile stretch of curving road, passing by magnificent rock pinnacles and granite spires, such as the iconic Needle's Eye.

The road also comprises tunnels, narrow shoulders, and corkscrew construction. A prominent stop along the highway is the almost fairy-tale-like Sylvan Lake, offering a great place to explore Custer State Park.

The highway is part of the larger Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway, which also includes other inspiring drives on Iron Mountain Road and Wildlife Loop State Scenic Byway.

5. 1881 Courthouse Museum

1881 Courthouse Museum
1881 Courthouse Museum

This historical institution is a repository of Southern Black Hills history, located at the center of the city, and has been operating as a museum since 1976. The Custer County Historical Society operates this once-functioning courthouse, displaying a wide range of exhibits covering life in the Custer area for the last 150 years.

An original jail cell, a one-room schoolhouse, and a Carriage House complete with antique cars are within the building and on the grounds. Guided tours are available, and visitors are encouraged to explore the different rooms on their own.

The museum hosts regular events throughout the year. The Old Country Fair is a cherished tradition that takes place over the 4th of July holiday at the museum. Other summer events include car shows, archery competitions, and a Gold Discovery Days carnival.

Address: 411 Mt Rushmore Road, Custer, South Dakota

6. Legion Lake

Legion Lake
Legion Lake

Legion Lake is another aquatic destination within Custer State Park and close to Custer. It's on the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway and accessible from the city with a 15-minute drive (7.5 miles). It's a central spot for lakeside and lakeshore activities, including boating, fishing, camping, and hiking trails.

The Legion Lake Lodge offers popular places to stay near the lakeshore. The resort has 26 family cabins available, gently tucked into the woods and within walking distance of the lake. The lodge itself is home to a public dining room, rentals, and a beautiful patio.

Visitors to Legion Lake from Custer also pass by Stockade Lake on the way. It's the largest lake in Custer State Park and arguably the most popular, with two large campgrounds and easy boating access. Because of this popularity, Legion Lake tends to provide a more tranquil environment to explore.

7. Wildlife Loop Road

Wildlife Loop Road
Wildlife Loop Road

The 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road in the southwest region of Custer State Park is easily accessible from Custer. And, driving this paved road at the right time of day offers guaranteed wildlife sightings.

The best time to see bison and other wildlife is early morning or around dusk. The park's resident bison frequently make an appearance, in addition to bighorn sheep, antelope, and prairie dogs.

This scenic byway also displays a range of Black Hills landscapes that are worth the drive alone. Hiking opportunities are found next to parking areas along the drive, and guided tours are available through the state park.

8. Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial | Aaron Vowels / photo modified

A few miles north of Custer is the Crazy Horse Memorial, a Mount-Rushmore-style mountain carving. The initiative for this other gigantic, 606-foot piece of rock sculpture came from a Lakota chief named Standing Bear, who sought to remind the world that the Indians, too, had produced great heroes like Crazy Horse.

Visitors to Crazy Horse enjoy the view of the memorial from a sweeping outdoor veranda. Other things to do on campus include visiting three museums included with the cost of admission to the memorial, including the Indian Museum of North America. Several other visitor resources like a Cultural Center and a Wall-of-Windows add to a full-day experience at Crazy Horse.

The monument is still a work in progress, and displays at the Visitor Center detail the continuing story of this larger-than-life monument.

Address: 12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, South Dakota

9. Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore is often the first thing that attracts vacationers to the Black Hills near Custer and is one of the most popular places to visit. This inspiring mountain memorial has brought tourists to the area since its completion in 1927.

The Grand View Terrace at the memorial delivers exactly what it was named for. Visitors get a closer look at the carvings on the 0.6-mile Presidential Trail that departs from the terrace. The Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center and Sculptor's Studio adjacent to the terrace offers extra insight into the memorial and constructors.

It might be Mount Rushmore that brings tourists to the Black Hills, but it's so much more that keeps visitors coming back year after year. The immediate area surrounding Mount Rushmore features lush woodland lakes and tall craggy peaks.

For places to pitch a tent and explore the surrounding forest, check out our best campgrounds near Mount Rushmore article.

10. Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park is another underground adventure full of eye-catching formations, twenty minutes south of Custer. Above ground is a quiet Black Hills prairie environment, but beneath the soil is one of the nation's most complex cave systems, named after the barometric pressure change at the cave's small opening.

Wind Cave displays a dense collection of Boxwork formations found in only a few other places in the world. These unique formations, among many other stalactites and stalagmites, are only accessible to the public on a ranger-led guided tour.

Guided tours are offered nearly every day of the year. Tours vary in length and in which rooms of the cave they explore. Typical tours last around 60 minutes and include concrete and illuminated walkways with a moderate number of stairs.

11. Four Mile Old West Town

Four Mile Old West Town
Four Mile Old West Town | Richie Diesterheft / photo modified

Four Mile Old West Town is a living history museum accessible via Mt. Rushmore Road, and has numerous structures to explore. Stepping back in time to the days of the Black Hills Gold Rush and beyond, this roadside historical attraction can be a quick stop or a full afternoon thing to do.

Admission to Four Mile comes with a recorded self-guided tour detailing the history of the town. Hundreds of artifacts are on display, strewn throughout the museum's historic buildings, making it easier to imagine what life was like in the Black Hills prior to the 20th century.

Address: 11921 US-16, Custer, South Dakota

Map of Tourist Attractions in Custer, South Dakota

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