Hello and thanks for stopping by my article on Custer State Park! My name is Peter Cordova Jr. but my friends call me Petey. I was born in a small mountain town called La Oroya in Peru. We didn’t have much but thanks to my parents getting work visas and saving up enough money, we were able to move to the United States when I was just eight years old.
The rest of my life was spent growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina – where my parents still reside and where my brother and I consider home. I currently live in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is not far from Charlotte.
My biggest inspiration for travel was my Grandpa on my mom’s side. He was the absolute man back in Peru and one of his philosophies was that humans were always meant to roam. That is something that has stayed with me. However, my family didn’t have the budget to go on expensive vacations or afford flights for our small family, so we did the next best thing.
We developed a love for cinema together, because although we could not physically travel, we could still be carried away to far away places from the comfort of our couch. To this day, our favorite thing to do is watch movies together and it’s the biggest reason why I was inspired to pick up a camera.
Having the ability to travel with my camera has now given me the power to capture my favorite memories and tell my own stories. But to be honest the main reason I love it is because photography is contagious and it inspires others to travel. I think the world makes more sense the more you see of it.
A Family Trip to South Dakota
My trip to South Dakota was actually a family trip. My parents have always wanted to see Mount Rushmore and so I thought it was finally time to take them. Since we were already going to be in South Dakota, I figured I would plan a trip that they would not forget and so I began to do some research.
I realized that there was so much to see in South Dakota. The consensus from the articles I read was that Custer State Park was a must-visit! After planning the trip, here is what our visit looked like: we checked out Pactola Lake on the way to our Airbnb, had a full day at Badlands National Park and another full day at Custer State Park, saw Black Hills National Forest by helicopter and finished with a trip to Mount Rushmore!
Why Custer State Park Should be on your Bucket List
To put it simply, my entire family’s jaws dropped the closer and closer we got to Custer State Park. The landscapes were unlike anything we had ever seen before, to the point where my mom was even asking if some of the rock formations were man made! It almost felt like we were traveling through the mountains of Middle Earth (The Lord of the Rings reference).
The roads were not the easiest to drive. We actually had to go quite slow because of all the twists and turns but that just gave us more time to admire the landscape. I have been to a fair amount of unique places but I can’t say that I can compare this place to anywhere else. If you are a traveler who likes to climb on rocks and enjoys a nice hike full of fresh air, colorful trees and a rewarding view, then you are going to love this place!
Favorite Part of Custer State Park
I was pretty amazed how great the photos turned out at Custer State Park. I have to credit South Dakota with this one because the colors of the trees were already beautiful and the sights were already breathtaking. All I had to do was hit the shutter button and let my camera do the rest.
My favorite part of Custer State Park was the stone tower at the end of Black Elk Peak Trail. This is the highest point in all of South Dakota and not only was it sunset but also it was just my family and I getting to enjoy it all to ourselves. It was one of those moments that, while it’s happening, you know that you are going to be talking about it for the rest of your days.
Best Things To Do at Custer State Park
- Check out the wildlife areas in Custer State Park where there are lots of buffalo running around. This was my first encounter with these amazing animals and let me tell you – they are incredible!
- Have a picnic in the recreation area. There are many fantastic spots for a picnic and to enjoy peaceful time with loved ones or close friends.
- Cool off at the lake on a summer’s day as the recreation area has a pretty large sized lake for everyone to enjoy. You can enjoy a variety of water activities here such as swimming, paddle boarding and more.
- Hike the Black Elk Peak Trail to the stone tower for stunning views over the state park. There are a few different trails to choose from but this one is widely regarded as the best. It’s the ultimate experience!
My Favorite Memory from Custer State Park
I have many memories from this trip to Custer but the one that stands out most is being at the top of the stone tower with my family. My little brother, cousin and I ventured up a bit further into the stones than most people do as we wanted to look out over every inch of the park before sunset.
At that time, I saw how much fun my brother and cousin were having taking epic pictures as well as getting creative with their poses. Although it was a simple moment, I felt super happy. They had made a long journey to the top and instead of being tired and complaining, they were having a blast! I was proud enough to do the Jeremiah Johnson nod of approval 🙂
Where to Stay near the Park
My family had plans to explore a couple of different places that were spread out in South Dakota and so we booked a quiet Airbnb cabin near Pactola Lake. This placed us at a good distance from all of our destinations.
There is camping and lodging at the park in case you plan on spending your trip just at the park. So that is also an option. On our travels across South Dakota we passed lots of small colorful towns with restaurants and inns if that sounds appealing. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stop at them since we were on a mission to get to our predetermined spots.
More Awesome Places to Visit in South Dakota
My second recommendation in South Dakota would be Badlands National park (hands down). It’s on the opposite side of Rapid City, which is most likely the airport that you will fly into. There is something about the desolate lands and extreme terrain of Badlands that makes it well worth visiting. For any Star Wars fans, it felt like we were walking around Tatooine! Not to mention the great amount of wild goats that we got to see.
My third option would be Mount Rushmore. I know it might be full of tourists and not the most exciting place but my family and I just became US citizens in 2019. So we were grateful for the chance to finally see this monument. Politics aside, we are happy to be in America and the fact that we can now say South Dakota is part of our country is the cherry on top!
Need to Know Before you Go
- Your best airport in South Dakota is in Rapid City. Be prepared to rent a car here, as well as buy groceries in town.
- Definitely pack food and snacks for the park. The trails can be long but there are lots of places to take a break and eat with a view.
- Drive slowly as the roads get a bit twisty and cars get congested sometimes. There is no need to risk a fender bender on the top of a hill.
- We went in October and although during the day the weather wasn’t too bad, definitely bring a coat for when the sun dips.
- If you go at the end of September, there is the annual Buffalo Roundup where all the buffalo are brought together and migrated to a different section of the park. We missed this but it doesn’t mean you have to!
- Buffalo are beautiful creatures but definitely keep your distance because they are still massive and strong animals.
- Arrive at Custer State Park early for the best chance at getting a good parking spot because it’s quite a popular destination year-round.
- Bring a quality camera and take lots of pictures because I still look at mine often. It just brings back so many good memories.
- Take a portable phone charger because it’s going to be a long day.
- Finally, we were at the top of Black Elk Peak Trail at sunset and so we had to walk back to the car in the dark (two or three hours). If you plan the same, bring headlights and good shoes because hikes in the dark are much riskier. Also be aware that mountain lions are active at night and we luckily only saw one from far away (my heart skipped a beat).
I hope that my experiences and recommendations have helped provide you with the right info to visit Custer State Park. I hope nothing but good times for travelers who decide to explore South Dakota. Until next time!