If you’re looking for more things to see on the way to Mount Rushmore, consider checking out the South Dakota State Parks! Between visiting the Badlands and taking in Mount Rushmore, we didn’t think there was much more that we could do in South Dakota that would inspire us. That is, until we discovered the magnificent hikes in Custer State Park! From the Cathedral Spires to Little Devils Tower and Sylvan Lake, we were left astounded at each turn. What a beautiful hidden gem near Mount Rushmore! Read on to learn more about Custer State Park and the various hiking trails…
Beautiful views of the Cathedral Spires from Little Devils Tower!
How to get to Custer State Park
The closest airport to Custer State Park is the Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP), which serves direct flights from 11 different destinations and 4 airlines. While it’s a smaller airport in the United States, it’s more than likely that you will have a layover en route to Rapid City; we had a layover in Chicago when we flew on a United-operated flight from New York. I recommend checking out your flight options here.
If flying isn’t your thing, take a road trip! While it was a little too far for us to drive from New York given our available time frame, it’s certainly an option that many people take. Just be warned: prepare yourself for many corn fields and long drives. Rather than driving from home, we rented a car in Rapid City to begin a road trip through South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. Have a look at rental car options here.
Plus, look at these epic roads you get to drive!
Where is Custer State Park?
If you’re looking for things to do near Mt. Rushmore, you’ve certainly chosen the right spot! From Rapid City, make your way along Highway 16A to the Norbeck Overlook. There, you will find a panoramic view overlooking Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Fantastic views of Mount Rushmore en route to Custer State Park!
The Norbeck Overlook is a worthwhile stop on your way to Custer State Park, but be warned that it can be a bit windy! Highway 16A then turns into the Needles Highway, which twists and turns its way up the road and under rock tunnels. Take in the stunning views until you come to the Cathedral Spires trail head.
Custer State Park Camping
You have so many options when it comes to Custer State Park camping. You can view all of the Custer State Park Campgrounds here. I would note, it gets chilly in the winter, so make sure you’re prepared! If campgrounds aren’t your thing, there are many Custer State Park lodging options. While you can stay nearby in Custer SD, I recommend staying in Rapid City so that you’re relatively equidistant to Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore as well (this is what we did). You can search all accommodations in Rapid City here.
Custer State Park Hiking Trails
I highly recommend devoting – at minimum – an entire day to exploring the fantastic Custer State Park Hiking Trails. I honestly could have spent days exploring the area, but we hadn’t expected to be as blown away by South Dakota as we were (sorry South Dakota!) and definitely didn’t factor in enough time. Don’t make the same mistake as us, but if you’re short on time and still want to take in the incredible landscapes, I recommend these hikes in Custer States Park…
1. Cathedral Spires Trail:
The Cathedral Spires Trail is located just off Needles Highway. It’s an easy 1.5 mile (2.5 km) one-way trail, or a 3 mile (5 km) round trip hike, should you just be doing the Cathedral Spires. You will see a wooden sign reading “end of trail” once you reach the end, however, there are other connecting hiking trails as well. The Cathedral Spires trail begins with a gradual ascent and has only a 500 foot (152.4 meter) elevation gain.
Beginning of the Cathedral Spires Trail
The trail then flattens out for a stunning walk through “the Spires” – we couldn’t believe how beautiful this gem just outside of Custer, SD was! You will find yourself walking through Ponderosa Pine, Spruce, and granite rocks — if you’re lucky, you’ll even spot rock climbers atop the Spires! In all honesty, the hike itself is far better than the viewpoint you get at the end of the Cathedral Spires trail.
The Cathedral Spires – Custer State Park Hiking Trails
Once you see the “end of trail” sign though, I recommend veering right and climbing uphill slightly to get a better viewpoint of the valley below. The Cathedral Spires trail is a great option for anyone with a moderate fitness level or those short on time. As it’s not too long or difficult, the Cathedral Spires would also make for a lovely family hike.
The proper end of the Cathedral Spires Trail
2. Little Devils Tower Trail:
Branching off the Cathedral Spires trail, you’ll see signs for Trail #4. If you have the time, and like an adventure, I highly recommend following Trail #4 to Little Devils Tower; this singular trail was arguably the highly of my United States Midwest road trip. While the Cathedral Spires trail is relatively easy, do note that the Little Devils Tower trail is moderate to strenuous, depending on your fitness level and the section of the trail.
Beginning the rock scramble up to Little Devils Tower!
When you turn off the Cathedral Spires trail and onto Trail #4 (or Little Devils Tower trail), you will begin another windy steep ascent. Trail #4 isn’t well-marked early on so, when in doubt, bear right and feel free to ask any other hikers you pass along the way for directions (as we did). You’ll probably want to make many photo stops along the way, but I urge you to put away your camera and enjoy the views with the naked eye until you reach the top of Little Devils Tower at 6,920 feet (2,109 meters).
David and I overlooking the Cathedral Spires in Custer State Park!
Eventually, as you approach Little Devils Tower, you will start to see little blue markings to guide you up. The trail will become quite gravely, and in order to reach the peak of the Little Devils Tower, you will have to rock scramble up. It may look daunting, but it is so worth it! That said, my 72-year-old grandfather did it with just a bit of hesitation… he’s pretty awesome though! At the end of the Little Devils Tower Trail, you will be rewarded with absolutely breathtaking views over the Cathedral Spires, Black Elk Wilderness, backside of Mount Rushmore, and the brick fire-tower standing at 7,242 feet (2,207 meters) at Harney Peak. Our hike up Little Devils Peak was a spontaneous decision, and I so wish that I had had time to break out a book atop the mountain while taking in the jaw-dropping landscape. I can certainly say that I will stand atop Little Devils Peak again in the future!
Standing atop Little Devils Tower – Custer State Park
3. Sylvan Lake:
If you continue onward from Little Devils Peak, bearing right on the way down, you will reach Sylvan Lake. Of course, you can also reach Little Devils Peak from Sylvan Lake, and I actually think that might be the more popular (and longer) route. Just remember to look for the start of Trail #4. Either way you take it, know that it is an extremely steep, but so-worth-it trail.
If you parked at the Cathedral Spires trail head as we did, head back down the Little Devils Peak trail the same way you climbed up, and drive to Sylvan Lake! It’s a very short drive, and along the way you’ll pass the Needle’s Eye too. Sylvan Lake is incredibly peaceful and there’s a short, easy trail around the lake that you can tack on to your day too! It is said to be the most recognizable lake in Custer State Park, and I can surely understand why. If you’re there on a nice day, I’d even recommend taking a paddle boat out on the lake.
Cathedral Spires to Sylvan Lake – Custer State Park
Next time, I hope to climb Harney Peak to see – up close and personal – the highest point between Custer, SD and Europe!
Custer State Park Map [South Dakota Road Map]
To give you an idea of distance, I have pinpointed the Norbeck Overlook, Cathedral Spires Trail, Little Devils Tower Trail (Trail #4), and Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, South Dakota. I have also marked Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore, and Rapid City for your reference on this South Dakota road map. I, personally, never would have expected to find such beauty outside of sleepy Custer, SD!
Custer State Park
Rapid City Regional Airport
Badlands National Park
Little Devils Tower
Know Before You Go
Packing for the Cathedral Spires, Little Devils Tower, and Sylvan Lake
Now that you have a Custer State Park map on hand and have read about the various Custer State Park hiking trails and viewpoints, make sure you’re prepared! If you’re camping, ensure you have a reliable tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, camping pillow, and a warm coat at absolute minimum, especially if you're checking out the Custer State Park camping options. All of the gear I linked to, I own and recommend personally. Of course, there are many more things that I recommend packing for your trip though, and I highly recommend that you check out my “137 Travel Essentials” to pack for your trip to the Badlands.
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Purchase Travel Insurance for your Trip to the Custer State Park, South Dakota
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