This post is part of a series on The Ultimate Pet Friendly Road Trip, our 10-month, 15,000-mile tour of the top pet friendly attraction in each of the lower 48 states.
The history of Custer State Park – South Dakota’s first and largest – dates back to 1897. When mapping out the state, Congress set aside sections 16 and 36 of each South Dakota township to be used for schools or other public purposes. The theory was good, but in reality these parcels were scattered in rugged terrain and difficult to manage. In 1910, the state exchanged these parcels for a solid block of land in the Black Hills, and in 1919 this place was designated Custer State Park.
Throughout the 1920s surrounding homesteads were purchased and incorporated into the park, and in the 1930’s the Civilian Conservation Corps arrived. They built miles of roads and bridges, laid out the park’s picnic areas and campgrounds, and built three dams that created Legion, Center, and Stockade Lakes.
Today Custer protects 71,000 acres of the state’s most magnificent landscapes, provides habitat for a dazzling array of wildlife, and draws people from around the world to experience its incredible scenery and recreational opportunities. From picturesque drives to multi-day hikes, wildlife viewing to paddling a lake, campfires and stargazing to elegant dining options, Custer has something to please every taste. The difficulty isn’t in finding things to do, but in deciding what to do FIRST!
Your best bet for spotting wildlife will always be in the early morning or evening hours when animals are more active. Wildlife Loop Road is open 24-hours a day, so explore at your leisure, but be especially careful driving at night. If you’re desperate to see some of the park’s 1,450 bison, start at the Visitor Center for an update on the latest sightings, and then hit the 18-mile loop and keep your eyes peeled.
Winding through grassland and pine-covered hills, you’re likely to spot pronghorn (above), white-tailed and mule deer, bison, prairie dogs, hawks, and oodles of other birds. If you’re especially lucky you may even catch a glimpse of a big horn sheep, mountain lion, elk, coyote, mountain goat, or eagle.
One of the animals you’re almost sure to meet on Wildlife Loop are the “begging burros.” While they are “wild,” these guys put Ty and Buster’s skills of persuasion to shame! Park rules prohibit feeding any of the animals, and doing so causes the burros to reject their natural food sources and rely on humans to provide their next meal. That’s especially bad when winter comes and park traffic slows – so please, stay strong and resist the urge, even when they give you their “burro eyes.”
Coming to the conclusion that she was getting nowhere with me, this burro set her sights on the easy mark in our family. Apparently Rod’s reputation precedes him … even with burros! But he held strong, and though the pouty face almost did us in, we knew that not feeding this aggressive panhandler was the right thing to do.
The most popular reason for visiting Custer – after the bison, of course – is Needles Highway. This 14-mile road twists around jagged granite mountains, through spruce and pine forests, and across meadows dotted with aspen and birch trees. The route was carefully laid out on foot and by horseback by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, and construction was completed in 1922. The park guide says to allow 45 to 60 minutes to dive Needles, but if you’re stopping for pictures it will take closer to two hours.
Needles Highway ends at Sylvan Lake, the “crown jewel” of Custer State Park. Here you’ll find a trail around the lake (the trail on the west side of the lake is flat and was perfect for Ty’s stroller), picnic tables, kayak, canoe, paddle boat, and stand-up paddle board rentals, a beach for the kids, and trailheads for some more difficult hikes. There’s also a general store here with a walk-up snack bar and ice cream.
Pets are welcome throughout Custer State Park, with a few exceptions: pets are not allowed inside park buildings, including cabins, lodges, and comfort stations, or on designated swimming beaches at the park’s five lakes.
Pet Rules at Custer State Park
- Pet waste must be cleaned up and disposed of properly.
- April 1 – Sept 30: Pets must be on a leash no longer than 10 feet when in developed areas, including campgrounds. Elsewhere in the park pets must be under immediate control of the owner and at least 200 feet from other park users or developed areas.
- October 1 – March 31: Pets are not required to be leashed, but must be under immediate control of the owner.
- Pets should not be left unattended in campgrounds, especially if they will disturb others.
- Pets are not allowed inside park buildings, including cabins, lodges, and comfort stations.
- Pets are not allowed on designated swimming beaches.
There are more than 60 miles of trails in Custer State Park to explore with your pet! One of our favorites has always been Lover’s Leap, a 3-mile loop that starts behind the pavillion across from the Peter Norbeck Education Center. That wasn’t an option this year with Ty in his stroller, but the 2-mile, paved Creekside Trail ran right by our campground an it was the perfect place for walks with Ty!
For something new, Buster and I met up with friends and hiked the 3-mile Grace Coolidge Walk-In Fishing Area Trail to Center Lake. Ty’s stroller would never have worked on this one – there were more than a dozen creek crossing with single-plank bridges that would have been too narrow for the stroller. Buster even balked at a few and opted to wade through the creek instead.
It’s unfortunate Rod and Ty missed it, because it was a gorgeous walk! The trail was relatively flat, there were several secluded fishing holes along the way, and the rock formations were literally close enough to touch.
It’s important to note that wildlife has the run of the park at Custer, so it’s possible that you could meet animals on some trails. For that reason, dogs who don’t have a rock-solid recall should be kept on leash. Bison can be aggressive if approached, move extremely quickly, and don’t like being harassed by dogs. Getting bear bells for your dog will keep you both from surprising a bison, and check with the visitor center for advice on trails where you’re less likely to meet wildlife.
Constructed in 1933, Iron Mountain Road is only partially within the boundaries of Custer State Park – but it’s 17 curvaceous miles are not to be missed! With pigtail bridges that turn back on themselves, tunnels that frame Mt. Rushmore, and a dip into the incredible scenery of the Black Hills National Forest, this is a drive unlike any other.
A Quick Note on Pets at Mt. Rushmore:
The views from Iron Mountain Road are about the best your pet is going to see of this sculpture. Pets are not allowed beyond the parking lot at the monument.
If seeing a mountain sculpture is on your pet’s bucket list, make your way to the Crazy Horse monument. Here leashed pets are welcome in the courtyard viewing area, and pets small enough to be carried (or in strollers) are welcome to explore the visitor center exhibits and museum. Pets are not allowed on the busses that travel between the visitor center and the sculpture, and currently there is no trail from the visitor center to the mountain.
The best way to fully experience Custer with your pet is to stay in one of the park’s nine campgrounds. If you’re bringing horses, French Creek Horse Camp even offers accommodations for your equine travel companions! We chose the Game Lodge Campground for it’s central location, and were delighted with our choice.
Several of the lodges at Custer even have restaurants with outdoor patios. We stopped by Blue Bell Lodge, and they were happy to have the boys join us for dinner!
Visiting these attractions with Ty and Buster is a dream come true. We’ll be blogging about each one as we go along, so fasten your seatbelt and stay tuned!
The Ultimate Pet Friendly Road Trip wouldn’t be possible without the support of our wonderful sponsors: Winnebago, 2 Hounds Design, Alcott, goDog®, PetGuide.com, Red Roof Inns, Sleepypod, The Bark, PetHub, RVPetSafety.com, and The Honest Kitchen. Please be sure to visit their websites and social media pages and thank them for their participation!