If you ever feel like you don’t have it together, think of the fact that we are nearing our one year anniversary of our cross-country road trip this week and I’m only JUST now getting around to posting this blog post! At long last, today I’m sharing our Custer State Park review!
If you read my part one Badlands SD guide, you’ve heard me say this before, but WOW were we blown away by how cool South Dakota was. How is this not a hotspot on everyone’s vacation list!? Here in the midwest, we don’t have many cool National Park vacation destinations like our friends on the west coast, but South Dakota is one of them! We honestly never would’ve visited if not for the pandemic, so for that, I am grateful! Can’t wait to to go back and visit again with June one day.
We only had a day to explore Custer State Park because we were passing through on our drive out to Oregon to see my family, but I wish we’d had more time! Thus, this is by NO means an exhausted list, but hopefully if you’ve been wanting to plan a road trip, it will convince you to A. Put South Dakota on your radar, and B. Give you a helpful place to start!
South Dakota Road Trip Pt. 2
Badlands to Mt. Rushmore:
Our Itinerary–a refresher:
We drove from Chicago to Sioux Falls for the night (stayed at an Air BnB), then Sioux Falls to the Badlands, where we camped for two nights. That’s where this itinerary picks up, on day 4 of our trip!
Drive from Badlands to Rapid City
We departed from our campsite at the Badlands (see my review of the Badlands here!) early morning and drove to Rapid City , stopping for lunch and a beer at Firehouse Brewing, which has a great open-air inside/outdoor patio! Ending with a marionberry ice cream cone at the ice cream parlor off the square (the name is escaping me now,) before jumping back on the road is a must! From Rapid City, it’s only about 30 minutes to Mt. Rushmore!
Drive from Rapid City to Mt. Rushmore
To be honest, I can’t say Mt. Rushmore was super high on my “must visit” places, but if you’re in the area, it’s nice to check it off the bucket list. Neal however, was dying to see it, so we made a quick pit-stop. I think the coolest part about it is by far the little mini boardwalk trail, which is beautiful, and gets you away from the crowds and gives you a cooler perspective of Mt. Rushmore. I obviously couldn’t resist wearing my Mt. Nasty shirt for the occasion. I think the looks I got were the most fun part of the entire excursion.
Should you stay in Rapid City to see Mt. Rushmore?
Wanted to note here that there is definitely the option to stay in Rapid City on your South Dakota trip. It’s a cute little town, but personally we’re glad we did Under Canvas (more on that below), or I would recommend staying somewhere closer to Custer State Park, like the Sylvan Lake Lodge, or an AirBnB–just because it’s closer to all the cool outdoor activities you’ll likely want to do!
Where to stay near Custer State park?
Under Canvas Mt. Rushmore Review
After camping for two nights in the Badlands, we figured we might be ready for some running water and a hint of civilization. We had heard a lot about Under Canvas resorts (and loved our stays at The Fields so much, we thought this would be comparable!) If you want a cool outdoorsy glamping experience, you will love Under Canvas! I will say, it definitely felt like a “resort” environment–there are a LOT of tents, and there’s a main building with the restaurant, they have live music on the patio, etc. This is not a wilderness retreat, it’s basically a chic trendy boutique hotel.
Don’t get me wrong, you’re still very much glamping (there is no AC in the tent) but you do have running water (you have to pull a lever to get the water to run) and super nice king sized bed with nice linens, nice toiletries, and of course, the holy grail, a running toilet. I was worried it would be hot in the tent without AC as the temps were topping high 80’s and 90’s, but it wasn’t–it cools down SO much at night, it was perfect, really!
Overall, we really liked our experience here! The staff was great, we loved that they have options to use their grills/picnic areas if you want to provide your own food, or you could grab your meals/beverages at the restaurant in the main building. We really liked the food offerings too, they had some great healthier options which are pretty much nonexistent everywhere else in the state.
In terms of location, it was the perfect in-between between Mt. Rushmore and Custer State park. Depending on where you’re wanting to go in the park, expect a 30-45 minute drive though!
Other lodging options around Custer State Park:
I will say, if Custer is your priority and you’d like to spend as much time there as possible and you’re just looking for a place to crash, you could look into a Custer Resort in the park so you don’t lose time to driving. If we went back (and I hope we do!) I would probably go that route, but I’m glad for our first visit we did Under Canvas, because that’s such a fun experience!
If you’d like to camp, the Game lodge campgrounds are highly rated and look beautiful and fun!
Custer State Park Activities:
Let’s talk more about the park itself. WOW, talk about underrated, hidden gems! I had never heard of Custer State Park before we started researching this trip, and I’m so glad we stopped here. Cannot wait to take June back–it was so much fun with the two of us, but a really great family friendly vacation, too!
We only had a day to spend here, but wish we’d had more time! Here’s what we did on our super quick visit:
Drive the Wildlife Loop
It’s hard to pick a highlight of the day, but one of them was DEFINITELY driving the Wildlife Loop! It’s basically like a DIY domestic wildlife safari. My favorite part were definitely the donkeys, which aren’t actually wild. But they’re SUPER friendly and come right up to you! They were SO CUTE!
Highly recommend stopping at the Wildlife station when you enter the park and ask them if they know where to find the Bison that day. It’s a really big park, but they can usually point you in the direction of where they are. There were HUNDREDS–it was crazy!
Hike, Swim, Picnic at Sylvan Lake:
I did a lot of research on best hiking trails at Custer, and settled on the Sunday Gulch trail at Sylvan Lake! It’s only about 3 miles but don’t be fooled–it is not an easy trail! But it was a VERY cool hike–there are a lot of rocks you have to scale (there are handrails, luckily!) and it gets strenuous at times, but the views were beautiful! Bring your suit so you can take a dip in the lake after the hike–it got HOT. Also make sure to bring lunch to enjoy at the picnic tables down by the lake!
Fun fact: This is the trail where we met our friend Jess–we ended up hanging out by the lake shore and splitting a bottle of rosé after our hike. (Yes, we had a bottle on ice in the cooler in our car.) It was fantastic!
Scenic Drives: Needles Highway
You’ve likely seen photos of the famous Needles Highway, so if you’re up for a drive, definitely check that out! Honestly it ended up being 45 minutes way from Under Canvas (which we realized partway there) so we didn’t end up driving to the actual *Needles Highway* but the drive on highway 244 heading that way was GORGEOUS and just as impressive! There was a beautiful overlook that we pulled into and took lots of beautiful photos! Highly recommend!