The Complete Guide to Camping in Custer State Park

Custer State Park provides many options when it comes to camping – there’s something for everyone. In addition to the nine established campsites in this park, there is also the French Creek Natural Area for those seeking a genuine wilderness experience.

Furthermore, the surrounding region has a myriad of dispersed camping areas, car campsites, and RV campgrounds. Whether you are just a backpacker or an experienced RV camper with a large rig, this guide will help you find an ideal camping spot in or near the Custer State Park. 

Overview 

Donkeys in Custer state park

The largest of all state parks in South Dakota, Custer State Park has it all: grassland prairies, deep lakes, soaring mountains, and granite bluffs. And these are just some of the park’s highlights – it is also home to a variety of wildlife, including feral burros, cougars, pronghorn, river otters, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, mountain goats, white-tailed deer, mule deer, coyotes, and elk.

Those wishing to see all this natural beauty will be pleased to know that the Black Hills area, where Custer State Park is located, has miles of stunning hiking trails. Moreover, the area provides its visitors with numerous biking, boating, and fishing opportunities. No matter what outdoor activities you enjoy, you’ll probably have a chance to engage in them while staying in this breathtaking region. 

I think the best way to experience Custer State Park and everything this place offers is by camping in it. Whether you prefer sleeping in an RV or a tent, camping is a sure way to make your time in this unique region unforgettable. 

Have a look at some vital regulations you’ll need to keep in mind while staying in the region: 

  • While camping in Custer State Park, practice the Leave No Trace Principles. 
  • To protect your provisions from all the wildlife mentioned above, store them in an animal-proof container. 
  • Do not pitch your tent or park your RV outside of designated campgrounds. The only exception to this rule is staying at the French Creek Natural Area, where you can camp anywhere you want. 
  • The entrance fees for Custer State Park are available at annual, weekly, or daily rates.

Custer State Park Campgrounds 

Black Hills in South Dakota

Named after Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, Custer State Park is South Dakota’s first and largest state park, located in the Black Hills region. This is one of the state’s most spectacular-looking areas and a top-rated tourist destination. 

Besides state and national parks and forests, the region is also home to one of the most well-known national memorials in the country – Mount Rushmore.

All of this makes Custer State Park and its surroundings a fine choice for any outdoor enthusiast. Those planning to visit and explore this part of South Dakota should consider camping at one of the park’s established campsites – it’s the best way to experience the area’s natural wonders. 

Established Campsites in Custer State Park 

Custer State Park features nine established campsites. While all of them provide visitors with beautiful surroundings and convenient amenities, they vary in proximity to different sections of the park and in size. 

Here’s everything you need to know about these places: 

Center Lake Campsite 

Center Lake Campground
Photo by Julie Falk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
  • Open: May 1st – September 30th 
  • Fee: $19 per night 
  • Reservations: Same-day reservations are available 
  • Number of Sites: 71 
  • Hookups: No hookups available 

Situated in Custer State Park’s northern section, the Center Lake Campsite is an outstanding option for all those planning to camp near Mount Rushmore. The campsite got its name after Center Lake, which is just to the south and provides visitors with plenty of boating, fishing, and swimming opportunities. 

One of the best things about this place is that it’s enormous: its 71 sites accommodate both RVs and tents. However, if you own a large rig, you’ll have to look elsewhere – only smaller recreational vehicles are permitted here. 

The facilities available at this campsite are somewhat basic. Besides access to potable water, you’ll find only showers and vault toilets here. Moreover, this is the only Custer State Park on my list that doesn’t offer advance reservations. You can only make a reservation on the day of your stay (from about 6 am MT), either online or by calling. 

Like most other campgrounds featured in this roundup, the Center Lake Campsite is open seasonally, from May 1st to September 30th. None of the campground’s 71 sites has access to electricity. 

Blue Bell Campsite 

  • Open: May 1st – October 14th 
  • Fee: $30 per night for electric sites, $15 per night for tent sites 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Number of Sites: 31 
  • RVs: Electric hookups are available 

Next is a developed campground situated in Custer State Park’s western section – the Blue Bell Campsite. This place was named after the Blue Bell Entrance Station (just north of it). 

That is precisely what turns this campsite into an excellent option for anyone planning to explore Custer State Park – it’s a very convenient place to stay due to its “entry point” location. Furthermore, this place is only a few minutes away from French Creek: if you’re into trout fishing, look no further than Blue Bell Campsite. 

This campground is open throughout the warmer part of the year, from May 1st to October 14th. It is typically packed during this period, so making a reservation is highly recommended. Staying at a tent site will cost you only $15 per night, while those coming here with RVs can expect to pay double that price. 

Regarding amenities, the Blue Bell Campsite has drinking water, showers, vault toilets, and flush toilets. It is, however, very close to the Blue Bell Lodge, which features additional facilities such as a laundromat, restaurant, gift shop, convenience store, gas station, and some resort cabins. 

Game Lodge Campsite 

Pronghorn In South Dakota
  • Open: Year-round 
  • Fee: 30$ per night for electric sites, $26 per night for tent sites 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Number of Sites: 59 
  • RVs: Electric hookups are available 

One of the best things about Game Lodge Campsite is its convenient location. It is right next to Highway 16A, the primary west-east road running through the park. Those who decide to stay here will be close to the park’s eastern entrance and the primary Visitor Center. 

In addition, the campsite is very close to a few popular destinations inside Custer State Park, such as State Game Lodge and Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center. One particularly praiseworthy feature of this place is that Grace Coolidge Creek flows right through it – it significantly contributes to the campsite’s tranquil atmosphere. 

In terms of capacity, Game Lodge Campsite features 59 sites and accommodates RV and tent campers. Its amenities – an RV dump station, drinking water, showers, and flush and vault toilets – are available only during the peak camping season, i.e. between April and November. 

The State Game Lodge, mentioned above, is ¼ mile west of this campsite and features a gas station, gift shop, convenience store, laundromat, full-service restaurant, and some lodging cabins. You’ll be able to get your provisions there and enjoy delicious restaurant meals. 

French Creek Horse Camp 

Donkey in Custer state park
  • Open: Year-round 
  • Fee: $40 per night 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Number of Sites: 28 
  • RVs: Electric hookups are available 

The next Custer State Park campsite on my list is for campers who usually camp with horses. That is precisely why each of its 28 sites features two corral spaces for these majestic animals. 

Those wishing to stay here must provide health certificates for their horses and keep the confinement areas mentioned above as clean as possible. You’ll be able to get water for your horse(s) from the nearby French Creek. 

The French Creek Horse Camp is located next to North Lame Johnny Road, just east of the Blue Bell Campsite. Since it’s situated off the primary park roads, the campground provides quite a bit of solitude and privacy. 

In terms of facilities, the campsite features drinking water, a vault toilet, a dump station, showers, and flush toilets. However, even though the French Creek Horse Camp is open year-round, its facilities are available only during the peak camping season. Reservations are highly recommended.

Legion Lake Campsite 

Legion Lake in Custer
Photo by Ken Lane via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
  • Open: May 1st – October 13th 
  • Fee: $30 per night for electric sites, $14 per night for tent sites 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Number of Sites: 26 
  • RVs: Electric hookups are available 

The Legion Lake Campsite sits across the water of Legion Lake and the sheer rock walls of Lenker Rock along Highway 16A. Due to its location, the campground provides visitors with hiking, boating, swimming, and fishing opportunities. Moreover, it’s very close to the famous Badger Clark Memorial. 

Here, you will find a mixture of tent-only and RV sites. Staying at a site that can accommodate a recreational vehicle will cost you more, but you’ll also be able to use the electrical hookup. 

Don’t expect too much in terms of amenities – just drinking water, showers, and flush toilets. Also, this campground is open seasonally from early May to mid-October, and advance reservations are highly recommended. 

The last thing worth mentioning here is that those staying at Legion Lake Campsite also have access to Legion Lake Lodge. There, you’ll be able to buy groceries in a basic shop, eat in a small restaurant, and obtain a fishing license. 

Grace Coolidge Campsite 

Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center
Photo by Acroterion via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
  • Open: May 17th – October 13th
  • Fee: $30 per night for electric sites, $15 per night for tent sites 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Number of Sites: 26 
  • RVs: Electric hookups are available 

This particular Custer State Park campsite got its name after the 30th first lady of the United States – the wife of president Calvin Coolidge. Situated just off Highway 16A, it’s one of the more centrally-located campsites in the park. 

The Grace Coolidge Campsite is conveniently close to the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center, Coolidge Walk-in Fishing Area, and the park’s Visitor Center. It is also 1.5 miles away from State Game Lodge – which I’ve described above – and only a mile from Coolidge General Store (fuel, gift shop, convenience store & laundromat). 

There are 26 sites here in total – 20 sites for recreational vehicles and six tent-only sites. The latter ones are situated on the other side of the highway. The RV sites are equipped with electric hookups, and staying at one will cost you $30 per night. 

The campsite’s amenities include drinking water, showers, flush toilets (in the RV-camping area), and vault toilets (in the tent-camping area). It’s a seasonally-open campground, and advance reservations are a must. 

Stockade South Campsite

Stockade Lake
  • Open: May 17th – October 7th 
  • Fee: $30 per night for electric sites, $15 per night for tent sites 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Number of Sites: 23
  • RVs: Electric hookups are available 

Next is one of the two campsites at Stockade Lake – the South Stockade Campsite. Smaller, quieter, and more secluded than its northern cousin, this campground can be found on the lake’s southern shore, as its name suggests. 

The Stockade South Campsite has 23 sites, some of which can accommodate trailers and some tent-only. In addition, the campground features 13 cabins, and staying in of those will cost you significantly more – $55 per night. 

From the campsite, visitors can easily access Stockade Lake and the Gordon Stockade Historic Landmark, a wooden palisade that kept the first gold seekers safe from Indian attacks. Moreover, this place is only five miles away from Legion Lake Lodge (mentioned above), where you can eat in a restaurant and buy groceries. 

The campsite features the same amenities found at most other Custer State Park campgrounds: potable water, showers, and flush toilets. Reservations are essential – you’ll want to reserve a tent/RV site or a cabin as early as possible. 

Stockade North Campsite 

Stockade Lake Dam
Photo by Ken Lane via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
  • Open: May 17th – October 7th 
  • Fee: $30 per night for electric sites, $26 per night for tent sites 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Number of Sites: 42
  • RVs: Electric hookups are available 

Situated just off the main highway, Stockade North Campsite is the larger of the two campgrounds nestled on the shores of the majestic Stockade Lake. Its location is undoubtedly its greatest asset – it’s right next to this pristine body of water and provides visitors with quick and easy access to the highway. 

Stockade North Campsite features almost twice the number of sites as its southern cousin, and it accommodates tent and RV campers. Here, you’ll be able to participate in activities such as hiking, boating, and fishing – all are close to the campsite. 

As for the amenities, you can expect the usual – drinking water, showers, vault toilets, flush toilets, and electric hookups for recreational vehicles. The campsite is open from mid-May to early October, and reserving a site in advance is highly recommended. 

Like in the case of Stockade South Campsite, you’ll be close to Gordon Stockade (great for history buffs!) and Legion Lake Lodge, which features boat rentals, gift & convenience shops, resort cabins, and a small restaurant. 

Sylvan Lake Campsite 

Sylvan Lake Campsite South Dakota
  • Open: May 17th – September 30th 
  • Fee: $30 per night for electric sites, $15 per night for tent sites 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Number of Sites: 39
  • RVs: Electric hookups are available 

The last Custer State Park developed campground on my list is the Sylvan Lake Campsite, just to the southeast of the lake after which it was named. It’s one of the most popular campsites in the region – making a reservation is essential. 

One interesting fact about this place is that it’s the highest of all campgrounds in the park, as it sits at an elevation of 6,200 feet. And, since it’s less than ⅓ of a mile away from the lake, the campsite provides its visitors with excellent fishing, kayaking, and swimming opportunities. 

There are 39 sites here, with the RV ones equipped with electric hookups. Facilities include drinking water, showers, vault toilets, and flush toilets. 

Those looking for more can always visit the Sylvan Lake Lodge, a bit over a mile away from the campsite. There, campers can obtain fishing licenses, buy souvenirs and groceries, and eat delicious meals at the lodge’s full-service restaurant.

For more beautiful campsites in South Dakota, check out our guide to camping in Badlands National Park.

Backcountry Campsites in Custer State Park 

If you’d rather camp “out there” than stay at a developed campground, you’ll be pleased to know that you can also engage in backcountry camping while in the Custer State Park. For that, you’ll want to head over to the French Creek Natural Area: 

French Creek Natural Area 

French Creek Natural Area
Photo by Brett Whaley via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
  • Open: Year-round 
  • Fee: $7 per night 
  • Reservations: Not needed, but registration is required 

Backpacking in the pristine getaway known as the French Creek Natural Area is an excellent option for folks seeking adventure in Custer State Park. Showing the rugged side of the park, this spectacular wilderness has a special status – it was “set aside” to preserve the region’s gorgeous natural beauty. 

Located in the central part of Custer State Park, the French Creek Natural Area can be easily accessed from both the east and west. If you’re coming from the west, you’ll want to use North Lame Johnny Road, which is very close to the French Creek Horse Camp described above. On the other hand, those coming from the east should use the Wildlife Loop Road, which starts south of the Custer State Park Airport. 

Besides camping, folks coming to this area can also engage in backpacking. Although it isn’t formal and features no trail markers, the French Creek Natural Area Trail runs for 24 miles out-and-back (12 + 12 miles) and makes for a solid few days of hiking. 

However, you should not attempt to traverse the entire route if you don’t have a good understanding of the area and some backcountry navigation experience. After all, the French Creek Natural Area Trail features 60-foot cliff climbs and more than 40 stream crossings. It’s a breathtaking setting for folks to challenge their backpacking skills, though. 

If you’re more interested in camping, keep the following factors in mind: 

  • The water from the creek is not drinkable. Bring plenty of clean water in portable canisters. 
  • When answering the “call of nature”, do it at least 200 feet away from the creek and make sure to bury the waste. 
  • Building a campfire in the French Creek Natural Area is not permitted. 
  • You’ll have to pitch your tent at least 50 feet away from the creek. 

Camping Near Custer State Park 

Lake in Black Hills

Securing a site at one of Custer State Park’s nine established campsites is rarely easy – after all, this is one of the most popular outdoor destinations in this part of the United States. 

However, if you find all the campsites described above full, you’ll still have the option of camping near Custer State Park. There are plenty of dispersed, car, and RV camping options outside the park. 

RV Campsites Near Custer State Park

Those who come to this area in their recreational vehicles can stay at one of the many RV campsites near the park. These are the best ones: 

Wheels West RV Park 

  • Fee: $37 – $50 per night 
  • Number of Sites: 60 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Hookups: Fulls hookups are available 
  • Pets: Permitted

Situated right off Highway 16A, Wheels West RV Park is very close to the state park’s west entrance. 

This place has recently got new owners, and many outdoor enthusiasts praise its cleanliness and good organization. It features bunkhouse-style rooms, tent-only sites, and RV sites equipped with full hookups. 

In terms of amenities, the Wheels West RV Park features occasional live music, plenty of lawn games, and a small gift shop. 

French Creek RV Park 

  • Fee: $32 – $41 per night 
  • Number of Sites: Not stated, but plenty 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Hookups: Full hookups are available 
  • Pets: Permitted 

The next RV campsite on my list is located in the town of Custer, just west of Custer State Park. 

Its location is undoubtedly its greatest asset – you’ll be camping in a beautiful setting while still having easy access to the town’s services. And, of course, Custer State Park will be only a short drive away from the campsite. 

Besides the grassy area for tent campers and full hookups for RV campers, French Creek RV Park also features showers, picnic tables, and free Wi-Fi. 

Custer’s Gulch RV Camp

  • Fee: $59 – $69 per night 
  • Number of Sites: 60
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Hookups: Full hookups are available 
  • Pets: Permitted 

Behind this peculiar name hides yet another convenient place to spend a night near Custer State Park. 

Custer’s Gulch is a quiet RV campsite surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills. It is situated just west of Custer State Park, about a mile south of Highway 16A. 

Its many amenities include free Wi-Fi, picnic tables, flush toilets, full RV hookups, hot showers, a laundromat, and an RV dump station. 

Custer Mountain Cabins & Campground 

Mountain in Custer
  • Fee: $25 – $48 per night 
  • Number of Sites: Not stated, but plenty 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Hookups: Full hookups are available 
  • Pets: Permitted 

This particular campsite can be found close to the town of Custer, to the west of the state park. 

It’s a calm and tranquil place: all its sites are tucked in a charming pine tree forest. However, don’t expect too much privacy here – the camping spots are pretty close together. 

Amenities include a tenter’s kitchen, free Wi-Fi, coin-operated dryers and washers, and restroom and shower facilities. 

Big Pine Campground 

  • Fee: $44 – $50 per night 
  • Number of Sites: Not stated, but plenty 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Hookups: Full hookups are available 
  • Pets: Permitted 

While not as close to Custer State Park as some other campsites on my list, the Big Pine Campground is still a nice place to spend a few days. 

The best thing about this particular place is its nicely shaded sites. Moreover, the campsite is just a bit over a mile away from the town of Custer, SD. 

Amenities include a dump station, fire pits, picnic tables, a game room, bathhouses with hot showers, and laundry services. 

Echo Valley RV Park 

Crazy Horse Memorial
  • Fee: $35 per night 
  • Number of Sites: Not stated, but plenty 
  • Reservations: Recommended
  • Hookups: Full hookups are available 
  • Pets: Permitted 

Situated west of Custer State Park, Echo Valley RV Park is an excellent option for folks planning to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial or Sylvan Lake. 

Although pretty basic, this campsite is tranquil and set in a scenic area. It is also centrally located and relatively close to the region’s famous attractions, like the ones mentioned above. 

Besides secluded camping spots, you can also expect friendly staff, picnic tables, and a shower house. 

Mount Rushmore KOA Campsite 

Mount Rushmore KOA
Photo by Shelby L. Bell via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • Fee: $75 – $125 per night 
  • Number of Sites: Not stated, but plenty 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Hookups: Full hookups are available 
  • Pets: Permitted 

Here we have an excellent RV campsite for folks looking to explore the Black Hills region. 

The Mount Rushmore KOA Campsite can be found on Highway 244, north of Custer State Park. Amenities include free Wi-Fi, cable TV, a sauna, a pool, mini golf, a snack bar, and much more. 

While this campsite is not the best place for outdoor enthusiasts seeking peace and solitude, its amenities are hard to beat. 

Rushmore View RV Park 

Car in Keystone
  • Fee: Varies 
  • Number of Sites: Not stated, but plenty 
  • Reservations: Recommended
  • Hookups: Full hookups are available 
  • Pets: Permitted 

As its name suggests, this campsite is close to Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. 

However, it’s also an excellent option for folks looking to explore Custer State Park, as it’s located just north of it. Rushmore View RV Park accommodates small and large rigs, and all its sites are equipped with electric hookups. 

While staying here, you’ll be close to the town of Keystone, where you’ll be able to access laundry facilities, a convenience store, a gas station, and much more. 

Custer / Mt. Rushmore / Black Hills KOA

National Memorial of Mount Rushmore
  • Fee: $50 – $125 per night 
  • Number of Sites: Not stated, but plenty 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Hookups: Full hookups are available 
  • Pets: Permitted

Situated west of the town of Custer and the state park itself, this RV campsite is another excellent option for those planning to visit the area. 

Camping here will cost you more than staying at any other place on this list, but you’ll also have access to numerous amenities. 

These include an on-site shop selling camping gear and essentials, a playground, a dog park, a snack bar, and free Wi-Fi. You can also buy propane and firewood here.  

Spokane Creek Campsite 

Spokane Creek
  • Fee: $25 – $45 
  • Number of Sites: 46
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Hookups: Full hookups are available 
  • Pets: Permitted 

If your goal is to explore Custer State Park’s northern part, look no further than the Spokane Creek Campsite. 

This particular campground provides its visitors with easy access to the Center Lake area due to its location near the intersection of Playhouse Road and Highway 16A. 

This is a full-service vacation destination – visitors can expect mini golf, a basketball court, an outdoor pool, and a coffee shop serving three meals daily. 

Car Campsites Near Custer State Park 

Car campers are welcome at most of the RV campsites described above. However, if you find these places packed, you’ll still have several excellent options at your disposal: 

Oreville Campsite 

  • Fee: $20 per night 
  • Number of Sites: 26 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Hookups: No hookups available 
  • Pets: Permitted 

Situated northwest of Custer State Park, the Oreville Campsite is a fine choice for those looking to explore Sylvan Lake and its surrounding area. 

Oreville Campsite features 26 sites organized in two loops, none of which are equipped with electric hookups. However, all these camping spots are pretty spacious, and the overall atmosphere is impeccable – you’ll enjoy relaxing among the campsite’s towering Ponderosa pines. 

The amenities are pretty basic: besides potable water, expect only two sets of bathrooms. 

Bismark Lake Campsite 

  • Fee: $20 per night 
  • Number of Sites: 23 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Hookups: No hookups available 
  • Pets: Permitted 

If you’re planning to visit this region by car, Bismark Lake Campsite is one of the most convenient places you could stay at. 

While car-camping here, you’ll be only a few minutes away from Custer State Park – the campsite is situated just across the road from Stockade Lake. Set amidst a scattering of Ponderosa pines, the campground’s 23 sites provide privacy, spaciousness, and incredible lake views. 

Besides potable water (available only during the summer), the campsite’s amenities include restrooms and a tranquil picnic area. 

Comanche Park Campsite 

Jewel Cave National Monument
Photo by Murray Foubister via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
  • Fee: $16 per night 
  • Number of Sites: 34 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Hookups: No hookups available 
  • Pets: Permitted 

Next up is Comanche Park Campsite, an excellent option for outdoor enthusiasts looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the famous Mount Rushmore area. 

This is a sizable campsite – it features 34 roomy sites and accommodates cars, smaller RVs, and tent campers. 

It is located right next to Highway 16, west of the town of Custer. Those staying here will be less than 5 miles away from the breathtaking Jewel Cave National Monument. 

Grizzly Creek Primitive Campsite 

  • Fee: $20 per night 
  • Number of Sites: 20 
  • Reservations: Recommended 
  • Hookups: No hookups available 
  • Pets: Permitted 

Next up is another good option for car camping near Custer State Park – the Grizzly Creek Primitive Campsite. 

Located between Mount Rushmore and the park itself, this place is laid out in a large loop on the banks of Grizzly Creek. Besides 20 basic sites, it also features restrooms at each end of the circle. 

As its name suggests, there aren’t many camping facilities at this place. Drinkable water is available only during the summer months. 

Elk Mountain Campsite 

Elk Mountains in South Dakota
Photo by Runner1928 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
  • Fee: $16 per night 
  • Number of Sites: 62
  • Reservations: First-come, first-served 
  • Hookups: No hookups available 
  • Pets: Permitted 

The last campsite on my list is an excellent option for those who want to explore Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. 

The Elk Mountain Campsite operates on a first-come, first-served basis and features 62 sites. These are available in both open and forested environments. 

As for the amenities, expect flush toilets, vault toilets, fire rings, trash collection, potable water, and firewood for sale. 

Dispersed Camping Near Custer State Park 

Besides staying at established campgrounds in Custer State Park and RV/car campsites near it, you can also camp in the wild in the adjacent Black Hills National Forest. 

The forest is overseen by the United States Forest Service, which generally permits dispersed camping on the public land it manages. You can always reach out to Hell Canyon Ranger District for more information regarding dispersed camping in this area. 

Dispersed Camping in the Black Hills National Forest 

Black Hills National Forest sign

Situated near Custer State Park, Black Hills National Forest is a phenomenal destination for outdoor enthusiasts interested in free, dispersed camping. 

You’ll have hundreds of thousands of acres of beautiful nature at your disposal. However, this forest’s best dispersed camping zones are generally located in its western and northern sections. 

The best of them include: 

  • Keyrapmore – Just off Highway 16, north of Custer, SD. 
  • Wrinkled Rock – Close to Mount Rushmore, north of Custer State Park. 
  • Spring Creek – Just off Highway 16, northwest of Custer State Park. 

Reservations

Custer state park welcome sign

Eight out of nine established campsites located in Custer State Park allow reservations. The only campground that doesn’t do so is the Center Lake Campsite – you can only make a reservation on the day of your stay. 

By visiting the Camp SD website, you can reserve your camping spot at any of the remaining designated campsites in Custer State Park. 

One important thing to remember here is that this area is a top-rated camping destination in the summer. So, if you’d like to secure a good spot for your July or August weekend camping trip in Custer State Park, you’ll want to make a reservation as early as possible. 

No permits or reservations are required for camping in the French Creek Natural Area. The only thing you’ll have to do is let the park staff know that you’re in the backcountry by registering on the day of your camping/backpacking trip. 

What to Pack

Choosing a Custer State Park campsite that best fits your needs is crucial – there’s no doubt about that. However, the only way to ensure an entirely safe and enjoyable experience is by selecting and packing the right equipment for a camping adventure in this region. 

If you know something about camping, you already have all the essentials, like a set of comfortable camping chairs and a well-made tent. You may want to consider packing the following items as well: 

  • Black Hills guidebook – You’ll want to arrive at Custer State Park fully prepared for everything waiting for you. This convenient guidebook contains all the critical (and up-to-date) information concerning camping and hiking in the area. 
  • Black Hills map – Combining apps like the Dyrt or iOverlander with a physical map is always the best choice. This one, made by the National Geographic Society, covers the Black Hills region of South Dakota in stunning detail. 
  • Portable cooler – I think the best portable coolers available today are made by Yeti. You’ll want to bring one to keep your water and favorite drinks fresh and cool. 
  • Portable water containers – The best way to save yourself from frequent trips to the water access point of a particular campground is by bringing a few portable water containers. 
  • Portable camping stove – Staying at an established campsite or pitching your tent deep in Custer State Park’s wilderness doesn’t mean you can’t make your favorite meals.

When to Go 

Custer state park in summer

Like other State Parks around the US, most of Custer State Park’s campsites are open seasonally, from May to October. There is, however, one notable exception – the Game Lodge Campsite. This place is open year-round, although some amenities are not accessible during the colder months. 

The peak camping season in the Black Hills region of South Dakota aligns with the summer months. Most people camping in Custer State Park do so between Memorial Day and Labor Day. You’ll want to plan your camping adventure outside of these dates if you’d like to have solitude while staying in the area. 

While this might mean that you’ll have to deal with lower temperatures, at least you’ll have more privacy and won’t be bothered by the noise other campers create.  

Where to Get Provisions 

The largest state park in South Dakota is surrounded by many outdoor attractions, including the Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore, Mammoth Site, Crazy Horse Memorial, Black Elk Peak, and the Jewel Cave National Monument. 

This makes the entire region immensely popular with tourists, which is why there are all kinds of shops in the area’s small towns. Those planning to visit Custer State Park can get their supplies at many different places, some of which include: 

  • Custer – Situated along Highway 16A, some 30 miles southwest of downtown Rapid City, the small town of Custer is the primary stopping-off point for folks heading to the State Park. Here, you’ll find several excellent outdoor shops, grocery stores, and gas stations – the town has everything you need for a camping trip. 
  • Keystone – If you’re coming to Custer State Park from the north, the tiny town of Keystone is your best option for stocking up on provisions. Situated between Mt. Rushmore and Custer State Park, this place has most of the stuff you’ll need for a multi-day stay in the region’s wilderness. 
  • Rapid City – Much larger than the towns listed above, Rapid City has all the major services you might need. It is the biggest city in the park’s vicinity and a gateway to a few other wilderness areas, such as the Badlands National Park. 

The Takeaway 

Now that you know pretty much everything there is to know about camping in and near Custer State Park, you’ll be ready to plan your camping adventure in this majestic region of South Dakota. 

Hopefully, the information provided above will help you select a campsite whose atmosphere, location, and amenities suit your particular needs. Have a great trip! 

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