The Five Foot

Reaching New Heights

Ayana Sunset

The Five Foot

Reaching New Heights

Taj Mahal

The Five Foot

Reaching New Heights


The Five Foot

Reaching New Heights

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…

a girl stands atop little devils tower in custer state park south dakotaBeautiful views of the Cathedral Spires from Little Devils Tower!

Photos in this article taken by David M Gallo Photography. This page contains affiliate links, meaning that The Five Foot Traveler may receive a small commission when you purchase any flights or accommodations using the links in this article at no extra cost to you. I appreciate your continued support!

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. 

cathedral spires at custer state parkPlus, 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.

views of mount rushmore from the roadFantastic 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. 

girl climbs the cathedral spires trailBeginning 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. 

cathedral spiresThe 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. 

a girl stands on the ledge at the end of the cathedral spires trail in custer state parkThe 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. 

a girl climbs up little devils tower in custer state parkBeginning 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). 

brother and sister overlook the cathedral spires in custer state parkDavid 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!

girl in red dress stands on little devil's tower overlooking the cathedral spiresStanding 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. 

sylvan lake in custer sdCathedral 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

Rapid City

Badlands National Park

Mount Rushmore

Norbeck Overlook

Cathedral Spires

Little Devils Tower

Sylvan Lake

Harney Peak

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. 


The Best Travel Card for the South Dakota State Parks

Before you leave for your next trip, I highly recommend opening a free Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking account. I know that might sound a bit overwhelming, but don’t worry, you don’t need to be an investor to open an account! This provides you with your own Schwab Bank Visa Platinum Debit Card, which offers a ton of benefits both at home and overseas. I’ve been using a Charles Schwab Debit Card since 2011, and it’s honestly the best free travel card out there. Why is that so? Well, you can withdraw from any ATM around the world, and Charles Scwab will reimburse you any ATM fees! They also don’t charge foreign transaction fees either, which is, of course, important when you travel.It’s also worth noting there there is no minimum balance requirement and that they offer free online transfers between accounts (so it’s totally fine if you have another credit card, debit card, or bank account with another company) Open your Charles Schwab account today – FOR FREE – by following this link. 


Purchase Travel Insurance for your Trip to the Custer State Park, South Dakota

I hope you don’t embark without travel insurance! If you do, you better think again. Travel insurance is arguably the most important thing to have on hand (after your passports and visas) for a trip like this. I’ve had to use my travel insurance multiple times on the road, even though I’m healthy. You never know when something might happen; take comfort in knowing that whether your flight gets cancelled or you wind up sick and in the hospital, you will be covered. I recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance for each and every one of you travelers. You can get a free quote here.

Custer State Park Hiking Trails: Cathedral Spires, Little Devils Tower & Sylvan Lake – Pin It Please!

cathedral spires, little devils tower, sylvan lake - custer state park south dakota

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