Custer, South Dakota

Photo: Custer State Park
Photo: Custer State Park

The national and state parks—from the Great Smoky and Rocky Mountains to Yellowstone and Yosemite—are some of the most-visited sites in the country. At least during the summer. When the weather is warm, there are lines at the parks’ entrances, the campsites are fully booked, and cars outnumber wild animals on some of the scenic roadways. But it’s a completely different story during the winter.

Right now, most of the parks are quiet. Some are covered in snow. The animals, at least the ones who aren’t hibernating, roam undisturbed. And although a few roads might be impassable, the parks are still open. So bundle up, you’re off to Custer State Park.

Custer State Park isn’t just the largest park in South Dakota, it’s one of the largest parks in the Continental U.S. The park has expanded numerous times since it was created in the early 20th century. It now includes 71,000 acres in the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota. It’s full of granite rock formations, dense forests, and crystal lakes. Bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and more than 1,500 American bison call the park home. Plus, a former presidential retreat welcomes visitors all year.

Photo: Custer State Park
Photo: Custer State Park

Follow the scenic drives through the park. Needles Highway winds through pine and spruce forests, around giant granite spires, and by the now-frozen Sylvan Lake. The Wildlife Loop Road twists and turns around good spots to see mule deer, elk, and prairie dogs. You might be accosted by begging burros—wild donkeys who approach cars for food—along the way. Hike the Cathedral Spires Trail or the Harney Peak Trail for amazing views over the park. Ice fish for rainbow trout at Center Lake or Legion Lake. Snowmobile through the ponderosa pine trails. Then go warm up at the State Game Lodge.

The State Game Lodge sits in a valley near the Wildlife Loop Road. The stone and wood building is surrounded by oak, birch, and aspen trees. It opened in the 1920s and then became well-known when President Calvin Coolidge spent the summer here in 1927. The lodge has been expanded to include cabins and modern hotel rooms. While the most-popular activity is the Buffalo Jeep Safari Tour, during which you hear about the park’s history while searching for herds of massive bison. The warm Chinook winds keep the temperatures mild and you from freezing. During the summer, reservations are required well in advance. Right now, the tour, like most of the park, is all yours.

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