Custer State Park, not far away from Rapid City is a must-see destination in South Dakota. It has some hidden gems that all travelers need to discover themselves. It also has one of the largest bison herds in South Dakota, around 1500 head of bison. Bison grow up to 6 feet tall and weigh about 2000 pounds. Because they are unpredictable, it is recommended you keep at least 75 yards distance from them. Custer State Park encompasses well over 71,000 acres in the black hills and is one of the largest state parks in the USA. The park has lots of fun activities including camping, hiking, fishing, and biking opportunities all year round. This state park is listed as one of the top 10 destinations for wildlife sightings.
The Iron Mountain Road
The Iron Mountain Road stretches over 17 miles, also called 16A, and leads to the park entrance coming from Mount Rushmore. It has amazing views of Mount Rushmore and of the surrounding mountain range. I think it is one of the most captivating roads I have ever experienced. If you head out there on a calm overcast day like we had the day we were there, you will find less cars on the road. We were alone most of the road, not to mention it has 3 single lane tunnels carved through the mountain. You have to be careful because you cannot see cars coming the other direction until you have entered the tunnel. The road is famous for its views but also famous for what they call pigtails in the road, which are like winding bridges that wind you around and under the road. Unfortunately, we did not see any wildlife until we reached the Custer State Park. The Iron Mountain Road has over 314 curves and switchbacks. Something to remember if you are traveling with someone who has motion sickness.
Wildlife Scenic Loop
When we entered Custer State Park, we asked how to drive the Wildlife View Loop Road to watch the buffalo herds, and other wildlife such as begging burros, white tail deer, Mule deer, Mountain goats, elk, antelopes, coyotes, bighorn sheep, and birds. The friendly ranger smiled happily as she explained the entire drive to us on the map pointing out where our best chances were to see the Bison. Once we began our drive the wildlife scenic loop, it was not long before we saw buffalos and calves running along the grassland and at times crossing the road to the other side. They seemed oblivious about the road or the cars driving down on it. It feels like they knew what everything was, and they had it all under control.
We were not disappointed by the large variety of wild animals we saw in the park, except the begging burros. Apparently, we went at a time they were resting as we saw them far away, taking an afternoon siesta on the grass. They come to beg for carrots in the mornings and leave the road once they are full. We saw antelopes running, rabbits staring in space, white tailed deer eating, and some birds lurking along the road. The road was well paved, the drive is comfortable through the grassy area from both sides of the road. The park is something you won’t forget to enjoy. The road is open year-round although driving can be dangerous during the winter season. Most expect about 1h30 minutes to finish the loop. There are few bathrooms available along the road.
The Needles Highway – Highway 87
Once we had completed the loop, we were heading towards the Needles Highway which was inside the park. It expands over 14 miles with world-class views of the surrounding area. This is something you do not want to miss. You are driving through Ponderosa pine, Spruce forests, Black hills surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains.
Those needles are made of rocks, those rock formations look like needles protruding off the ground. Part of the freeway goes through those needle formations, and the view was discernible. We were mesmerized by the beauty and the sheer size of the rocks. We stopped the car and walked around admiring this gorgeous formation. Before you enter this unique area, you have to go through a tunnel made of a rock called Needles Eyes Tunnel.
If you are scared to drive, you need to find someone who could and make sure no cars are coming from the opposite direction before you go in. I had to back up and wait for ten cars to go through the tunnel. once all cleared, I went through the tunnel which was a little claustrophobic because it’s a narrow path just enough to pass a car through. Sometimes, people need to stop other cars from entering the other end to avoid jams inside the tunnel. It’s hard to back up. The needles highway closes the first snow of the season and stays open for hikers and walkers.
Once we enjoyed the park and spent over a couple of hours wandering around, we headed out to Hill City where we were staying before we went to see Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Mountain.