9 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Custer, South Dakota
The small town of Custer makes a great base for exploring the surrounding Black Hills National Forest, which holds some of the state's best attractions and things to do. Highlights nearby include Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Jewel Cave National Monument. Mount Rushmore can also be accessed from Custer within a 30-minute drive. Less well-known, but also interesting and worth a visit, are the 1881 Courthouse Museum and the Four Mile Old West Town.
1 Custer State Park
Custer State Park, located north of Wind Cave National Park, is 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. Needles Highway, Wildlife Loop, and Iron Mountain Road traverse the area allowing for scenic drives. Mountain streams and man-made lakes provide fishing, swimming, and boating opportunities. Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park is surrounded by huge rock formations that rise from the water's edge. Camping opportunities are also available. Harney Peak is another one of the park's impressive features.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Custer
2 Crazy Horse Memorial
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, the real victor in the battle on the Little Bighorn River. Work on the monument was begun in 1947 by Korczak Ziolkowski (1908-82), a sculptor of Polish origin, and continued after his death by members of his family. It is still not completed, but as the head and upper body are finished, the memorial was officially dedicated in 1998. The Indian Museum of North America also stands on the site.
Address: 12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, South Dakota
3 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.
Address: 11149 US-16 B-12, Custer, South Dakota
4 Needles Highway Scenic Drive
Running through Custer State Park, the Needles Highway is a magnificent scenic mountain road (SR 87). Easily accessed from Custer, it winds its way through the imposing landscapes of the central Black Hills. Along the 14-mile stretch of curving road, visitors pass by magnificent rock pinnacles and granite spires, such as the iconic Needle's Eye. The road also comprises tunnels, narrow shoulders, and corkscrew construction. As a great introduction to Custer State Park, a prominent stop along the Needle's Highway is the almost fairy-tale-like Sylvan Lake.
5 1881 Courthouse Museum
Located in the center of the city and operating as a museum since 1976, this historical institution is a repository of Southern Black Hills history. Operated by the Custer County Historical Society, this once-functioning courthouse displays a wide range of exhibits replicating life in the Custer area for the last 150 years and beyond. An original jail cell, a one-room schoolhouse, and a Carriage House complete with antique cars can be found within the building and on the grounds. Guided tours are available, and visitors are encouraged to explore the different rooms on their own.
Address: 411 Mt Rushmore Road, Custer, South Dakota
6 Sylvan Lake
A 15-minute drive from Custer, and accessed along the Needles Highway, Sylvan Lake is the Crown Jewel of Custer State Park. Surrounded by immense rock formations, this lake provides 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.
7 Wind Cave National Park
Twenty minutes south of Custer, Wind Cave National Park is another underground adventure full of eye-catching formations. Above ground at Wind Cave National Park 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 small opening of this massive cave, Wind Cave displays a dense collection of Boxwork formations, which can be found few other places in the world. Guided tours are offered nearly every day of the year and are the only way to see the cave.
8 Wildlife Loop Road
Easily accessed from Custer, the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road in the southwest region of Custer State Park is a near guarantee to see some wildlife. In addition to the many opportunities to see bighorn sheep, antelope, and prairie dogs, the park's resident bison frequently make an appearance. This scenic byway also displays a range of Black Hills landscapes that are worth the drive alone. Hiking opportunities can be found next to parking areas along the drive, and guided tours are available through the state park.
9 Four Mile Old West Town
Accessed via Mt. Rushmore Road, Four Mile Old West Town is a living-history museum with numerous structures to explore. Stepping back in time to the days of the Black Hills Gold Rush and beyond, this quick stop or full afternoon tourist attraction comes with a recorded self-guided tour detailing the history of the town. Strewn throughout the historic buildings, hundreds of artifacts can be admired, 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