Do you want to see bison?
Like….a LOT of bison?
And epic, sweeping views of American grassland?
Followed by views of majestic mountains?
Plus a CAVE TOUR and a hike to a FIRE TOWER?
Seriously – your brain should be exploding right now. You get all of this in ONE DAY.
I invite you to explore Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park in Custer, South Dakota.
Here’s how you do it.
I had originally planned on taking my teardrop out and staying in the Elk Mountain Campground which is on Wind Cave National Park property but I’m glad I didn’t.
First off, gas was an astronomical $4.09 in Sheridan where I was coming from and second, taking the teardrop up Needles Highway would have made me cry.
I opted instead to make a day trip of it and left Wyoming at 5:30 in the morning. For regular sane people who recreate this trip I would just say “be in South Dakota already”.
Wind Cave National Park (which is free to enter!) focuses on tours of Wind Cave – the third largest cave in the world and one of the most dense cave systems in the world. As of my tour in May of 2022 there were 162 miles of passages discovered which they estimate is only 5-10% of the entire cave system.
There is a lot to say about Wind Cave – it’s history with the Lakota tribe, the amount of boxwork formations, the fact that it “breathes” – but this isn’t an article about that.
I arrived at Wind Cave National Park around 8:45 on a Sunday morning, parked, and went inside. Whenever I go to National Parks I always buy maps of the area and postcards. Then I get my Passport stamped.
After taking care of all of that, I went to the front desk to pick up my ticket for the cave tour.
I HIGHLY suggest that you book your tour in advance by using the recreation.gov website or app. Tickets cost $15 and they sell out quickly. I had snagged a ticket for the 9:00 am “Garden of Eden” tour which was an hour long but did not go through very much of the cave. Garden of Eden is literally the shortest tour so if you want to do more cave exploration I’d suggest going with any of the other tours.
Regardless – it was a great time.
The rangers giving the tours are very well informed, they are engaging and looking around at the formations is always a good time. The park has taken significant steps to make sure that the tours are very safe but they do suggest that you wear shoes with non-slip soles as well as a coat. However many people on the tour disregarded all of this information and one lady was in flip flops and had no problems.
The tour has a couple of surprises which I’m not going to ruin for you. I loved it and I’m going to go back and take one of the longer tours.
I had explored the visitor’s center while waiting for my cave tour to begin. The center is not large and has a small museum exhibit in the basement which is where you have to go to get to your cave tour anyways. Since I had arrived about forty-five minutes early I had plenty of time to peruse the exhibits, use the restroom, and meander down to the elevator building.
Once the cave tour finished I got back into my Jeep and headed north on Hwy 385 until I came across Hwy 87. Take Hwy 87 north until you find the Rankin Ridge Fire Tower trailhead on the right hand side.
If you stop in the parking lot you can see a pretty cool view of the tower from below.
Drive a little ways up until you find the parking lot for the trailhead. The Rankin Ridge Fire Tower trail is a short but high reward trail. It is correctly labeled as “mildly strenuous” because the first part is all uphill. But it’s a cool trail. You have the gorgeous smell of pine trees, steps cut out of stone, a little bit of scrambling and then astounding views at the very top.
You can climb the stairs up the fire tower but you cannot go inside the fire tower.
It was about noon when I got to the top so I stopped and ate one of my sandwiches. #cheap
Once you’re done admiring the views, head on back down to the trailhead and continue driving north on Hwy 87 until you reach the entrance for Custer State Park. You really can’t miss it unless your eyes are closed. It’s a right hand turn and you stop in front of a small cabin where you pay the entrance fee.
A seven day pass for one vehicle is $20. If you’re counting cost, so far you’ve spent $15 on a cave tour and $20 for the entrance to Custer. As long as you bring your own food and don’t buy any souvenirs, that’s all you’ll be spending today (plus gas money).
Once inside Custer State Park you’ll be taking the Wildlife Loop which basically does what it sounds like – makes a loop. There are SO MANY trails in this park which I was not able to take advantage of because I was headed straight for Needles Highway but if you have the time and the energy, definitely check a few of them out.
Oh – and did I mention you’ll run into some bison?
Probably the best thing about visiting Custer State Park in mid-May was the lack of other people. There were definitely people there, but I didn’t see nearly the amount of congestion that you’ll see in Yellowstone. I came across bison in the road three times but was out of the area in roughly 10 minutes. So the traffic jams were nowhere near as bad as they can get in other national parks.
Anyways – follow Wildlife Loop Rd around to the other side of the park. You’ll exit briefly because you’re following signs for Needles Highway (it is well marked, you can’t miss it). Re-enter the park using the pass you have already purchased and head up Needles Highway.
For the first little bit I was wondering what all the hype was about because nothing looked particularly spectacular. But as you get higher and higher you’ll start to appreciate the views. Especially once you finally reach the Pinnacles.
There are several parking lots offering view points and I wouldn’t stop at all of them because it takes a lot of time but the first parking lot was definitely worth it. Pro Tip: The closer you get to the pinnacles the more “meh” the photos. Don’t get me wrong – the pinnacles are beautiful but you kind of have to see them in all their glory if you’re going to get a good photo.
As you drive up Needles Highway you will also drive through two narrow stone tunnels which is a lot of fun. Be prepared for some congestion in those areas because the tunnels are one lane and everyone stops to take pictures.
As you get closer and closer to the top of the mountain you’ll find a parking lot and a trailhead for the Cathedral Spires. This is the second trail I stopped at.
Cathedral Spires is only 2.3 miles out and back and not too difficult. While hiking it I came across 20-somethings who were heading out to climb the spires, a six year old who had abandoned his shirt, a man carrying a baby, four teenage girls dressed in croptops, and an older gentleman with a cane. Basically – despite some elevation gain and rock scrambles – this trail is accessible to anyone.
This trail takes you to the base of the spires but I only did a half mile out because I needed to get back to Wyoming.
After getting back into my vehicle after Cathedral Spires, I drove through the second tunnel and made my way back down the mountain.
As you are heading out of the park you will pass Sylvan Lake on your right hand side.
I was trying to get home so I only stopped to take a few photos but Sylvan Lake has a dock for small boats, fishing spots and a beach area. Plus you can climb on the rocks and there is a path that leads around the lake. If you are looking for a place to stop and eat dinner or even just chill for an hour, this is your spot. It was beautiful.
After finishing at Sylvan Lake I headed back to Wyoming and got home around 7:30. All in all a great day. I will definitely be visiting Custer again to take a longer cave tour and hike some of the trails I drove past. I don’t know that I will do Needles Highway again any time soon but if I do, it will be to get to the end of the Cathedral Spires trail.
Here is the itinerary:
- Wind Cave National Park cave tour
- Drive to Rankin Ridge Fire Tower
- Hike to the fire tower, eat lunch, come back down
- Drive to Custer State Park, drive Wildlife Loop Rd
- Drive Needles Highway
- Stop at Cathedral Spires
- Stop at Sylvan Lake for dinner
- Go home!
Total Cost – $35 + gas and souvenirs.