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  • Writer's picturebertandernietheberners

A Dog Friendly Guide to Custer State Park and the Black Hills of South Dakota

Custer State Park and the Black Hills of South Dakota are fabulous destinations to enjoy with your dog! There’s lots to do in the area all year long. We’ll have another post coming about other things to do in South Dakota with your pup, including how to visit Badlands National Park! Here, we’ll zoom in on the Black Hills region in the western part of South Dakota with a focus on our tips for making the most out of a visit to Custer State Park.


Custer State Park is a seriously cool park, and it is seriously big! It’s managed by the State of South Dakota, but with a bounty of recreation activities available and its sheer size (71,000 acres!), it could easily be a national parks property. Unlike most state parks where you can just buy a day pass, entry fees at Custer are higher and get you a whole week of access. You could easily spend this much time exploring! If you don’t have a week, don’t worry - follow our recommendations to maximize your time and get a flavor for the area. 

You can pay with a credit card at the entry gates. 

  • 7 day vehicle permit: $20 

  • Annual pass: $36 

The park has 9 campgrounds as well as lodges and cabins - more on these in the WHERE TO STAY section. For a good map of the park, save this link:

Once you’re in through the gates, there is so much to see on foot, in your car, or even on a paddleboard. Custer is particularly well-known for its 1,500-head buffalo herd and the Wilderness Drive. Pets are permitted in most places except for buildings and swim beaches, and must be on leashes no longer than 10 feet at all times. 

If you happen to plan a visit in September, you might be able to catch the Buffalo Roundup, when cowboys and cowgirls drive the buffalo to pens for their annual health checkups! Admission is free on this day and leashed dogs are permitted to attend and watch with their humans, but be warned that it’ll be very crowded. In 2023, the park set an attendance record with more than 22,000 people viewing the roundup! More info here:


There are dozens of trails to explore with your dog at Custer! When we visited in June of 2023, we prioritized two hikes to sample the park while being conscious of both heat and crowds. It can be hard for our Berners to hike when the weather gets too warm, so we made sure to do our more strenuous hike early in the day. 

Cathedral Spires Trail (AllTrails)
  • Length: 1.6 miles out and back 

  • Elevation: 488 ft - some scrambling up large boulders, can be steep

  • Parking: Extremely limited. There is a small lot at the trailhead, but it comes up quickly on curvy and winding Needles Highway. 

This trail was a total highlight for us with breathtaking, surprising views around every turn! We had no idea South Dakota could look like this. The landscape of the Needles area is so unique and it’s worth exploring on foot rather than just driving through. 

Sylvan Lake Shore Trail (AllTrails)
  • Length: 1.1 mile loop

  • Elevation: 82 ft - easy, largely paved lakeside trail

  • Parking: Plenty available near Sylvan Lake Lodge, still gets crowded 

Finish the Needles Highway drive at Sylvan Lake, park, and make the loop around. You’ll see people paddleboarding, fishing, and even swimming in the lake. Be sure to check out the balanced boulder and go through the split rock! We had a quick picnic lunch at the lake before continuing our park visit. Remember - dogs are not permitted on swim beaches. 


There are three scenic driving loops available at Custer State Park. They all offer turnouts to pull over and take photos, but be prepared for some curvy, windy driving. The roads are narrow in many places and have steep drop offs! You’ll want to be prepared if you get car sick. There are occasional pit toilets but nowhere to get gas or snacks, so arrive at the park with a full tank and a full cooler of food and beverages. Take your time and enjoy the scenery! 

Needles Highway
  • Length/Drive Time: 14 miles, 1-2+ hrs depending on traffic and stops

  • Highlights: Not one but two tunnels! If you’re driving an RV, a camper van, or even a vehicle with a car-top carrier, you’ll want to double check your measurements to be sure you fit - the tunnels are skinny! Only one vehicle can fit at a time, so be prepared to wait your turn at these bottlenecks. 

Wildlife Loop
  • Length/Drive Time: 18 miles, 1-2+ hrs depending on traffic (vehicle and animal!) and stops for viewing

  • Highlights: The loop drive is perhaps what Custer State Park is best known for and it is your chance to see the buffalo herd! You’ll also likely catch sight of mule deer, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs. Keep an eye on the ditches for other park residents like foxes and coyotes. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot elk - they are most active in the mornings and evenings. Slow down and pull over for photos but don’t get out of your car and disturb the animals - this means any dog potty breaks will need to happen before or after you begin the drive. You’ll likely see the park’s population of feral burros begging for carrots, but it’s best to skip feeding these guys. We drove the wildlife loop twice during our visit to Custer - once around midday and once in the evening - and we saw a lot more animal activity as the sun was setting and temps were cooling down. 

Iron Mountain Road
  • Length/Drive Time: 17 miles, 1+ hr

  • Highlights: This road runs through the northeast section of the park and ends not far from Keystone and Mount Rushmore. We didn’t do this drive on our visit, but there are three narrow tunnels towards the end as you exit the park. These tunnels will provide you with a view of Mount Rushmore! For more on how to visit Mount Rushmore with a dog, see this post. Punchline: It’s not a dog friendly national monument and it can be dangerously hot to leave your dog in the car while you visit. You’re better off viewing it from a roadside pullout if you have your dog along! 


There is a lot of tourist infrastructure in the Black Hills area to support folks coming to visit Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore. Custer State Park offers several types of campsites (RV, Tent, Cabin, and Primitive) in addition to several lodges. The lodges are NOT pet friendly, but the cabins are! More details on the Custer Resorts pet policy here. We didn’t camp at Custer, but check out some of our tips on camping with pups: Things I’ve Learned about Camping with Dogs

We opted to stay in an adorable old fashioned motel called the Chalet Motel in Custer. In addition to traditional motel style rooms, you can stay in a cute freestanding “chalet” cabin! At the time of our stay, there was no pet fee or weight limit for dogs. Bert and Ernie had plenty of green space for potty walks, and we loved having our own little spot so we didn’t have to deal with hotel hallways or elevators. The Chalet Motel is a short 5 minute drive from Custer State Park, and it’s located on the main drag in Custer (Mt. Rushmore Road), so you could easily walk to restaurants. 

Custer proper is a great place to stay to be close to the park, but there are several other towns in the area that act as tourist centers including Keystone (about 40 mins north, where Mount Rushmore is), Rapid City (about an hour north, the biggest city in the area), and Hot Springs (about 40 mins south, better if you are going to Wind Cave). 

You can find typical chain hotels (Best Western, Super 8, Holiday Inn, etc.), Airbnb/VRBO short term rentals, and plenty of campgrounds. Start searching at Bring Fido to begin narrowing down dog friendly accommodations, but you’ll want to be sure to confirm with the specific hotel/rental to get their most current pet policy. For more on how to find places to stay with your dog, see this post: How to plan a trip with your dog


We definitely recommend bringing picnic supplies and snacks to enjoy in the park, but once you’ve left for the day, here are a couple of spots to check out in Custer! 

  • Miner Brewing Co - We love a dog friendly brewery! Miner has tons of seating (indoor, covered outdoor, and lawn) and space to spread out with your dog. This brewery is located in Hill City, about a 20 minute drive from Custer or 15 mins from Keystone/Mount Rushmore. Miner shares a parking lot and a kitchen with Prairie Berry Winery - menu includes sandwiches, soup, salad, snacks, and pizza. 

  • Calamity Jane’s Coffee Shop & Grill - Grab breakfast, lunch, or dinner at this spot right on the main drag in Custer. Walkable from the Chalet Motel, Calamity Jane’s bagel sandwiches totally hit the spot to fuel us up for a long day on the road! Pups need to stay outside. 

  • Mt. Rushmore Brewing Company - Also located on the main road through Custer, you can grab beers, lunch, or dinner here. Dogs allowed on the large outside deck off the brewery. 

For our tips on bringing a dog to a brewery, see this post: Everything You Need to Know About Taking Your Dog to a Brewery


There’s lots more to see in the Black Hills, although Custer will keep you plenty busy! Here’s a quick list of some other activities and sights to see with notes on dog-friendliness: 

  • Mount Rushmore - As previously discussed, not very dog friendly. Best to see from the road if you have pup along with you. If you choose to visit, know that you do not need a National Parks pass to enter - it’s free! 

  • Crazy Horse Memorial - This one is a little complicated (here’s a good article about some of the controversy), but if you choose to visit, you can bring your leashed dog. 

  • Petrified Forest of the Black Hills - A short hike (about 5 blocks) but perhaps a cool opportunity to see petrified wood. Leashed pets are permitted. About an hour north of Custer - maybe a better add-on if you are staying near Rapid City. 

  • World’s Largest Smokey Bear - We loved this one! Stop in Hill City on your way to Miner Brewing Co. and snap a pic with this gigantic Smokey. Definitely worth a quick photo stop, especially if you’ve ever seen the other big Smokey Bear in International Falls, MN. There are several of these cool chainsaw art sculptures around South Dakota. 

Stay tuned for another post detailing all sorts of other things to do in South Dakota, including Badlands National Park, Sioux Falls, and the Mitchell Corn Palace. We hope you have as much fun on your road trip through the Black Hills as we did! 

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