Custer State Park Trail Challenge

Looking for a way to challenge your family this spring and summer? Consider hitting the trail at Custer State Park. You might be surprised what you find along the way.

Katie Brown Wiederholt

How the
Challenge works

The Custer State Park Trail Challenge runs from May to September. Hikers can pick up a log sheet at any visitor center in the park as well as the park office. Participants can turn in their completed sheet to earn a commemorative pin. The list of trails for the 2024 Trail Challenge will be posted on Facebook, and at the park visitor centers at the beginning of May.

When warmer days finally arrive after a long Black Hills winter, one of my family’s favorite activities is hiking in beautiful Custer State Park. The smell of the forest is invigorating, and even with the occasional crunch of snow remnants under foot, we know spring and summer are coming soon.
One great way to add variety to our hikes and to set a fun summertime goal is to take on the Custer State Park Trail Challenge. The challenge consists of eight separate hikes chosen by park officials in late April and posted in early May.

The challenge actually began as a way to invite visitors to get out and hike the trails of Custer State Park and experience a different aspect of the park than the popular drives and loops people typically stick with each year.

Making the best

My husband and I started doing the Trail Challenge with our two young daughters in the summer of 2020 when our original vacation plans had to be canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. That was an extremely hard season for everyone, but had we not been looking for a fun family activity that involved social distancing, we might not have given the Trail Challenge a try. Getting outdoors and appreciating nature was especially important during that time of isolation and uncertainty.
That first year of hiking involved a lot of piggy-back rides for our then-three-year-old, and many, many snack breaks. We felt a good sense of accomplishment when we earned our badges as a family.

Tips from the CSP staff

Custer State Park Visitor Service Supervisor Lydia Austin said the Trail Challenge began in 2013 as an idea to encourage use of the many hiking trails in the park. “I think the Trail Challenge offers a perfect opportunity to have kids enjoy hiking,” Lydia said. “It is not just another day on the trail, it’s a treasure hunt. Who can find the sign or medallion first? It’s a family event. Everyone from the youngest to the oldest can take part.”

Lydia, a mother of two boys, said her favorite trail is Lovers’ Leap while her sons love Little Devils Tower Trail. She offers some suggestions for enjoying a fun and safe hike with kids.

  • Choose the right trail:
    Select a trail that is suitable for children based on their age, physical ability and experience.
  • Pace yourself:
    Take breaks as needed, especially if you have younger children. Let them set the pace and explore nature at their own speed.
  • Dress appropriately:
    The Black Hills weather is always unpredictable so be ready. Make sure to have warm or cooler clothes depending on the seasons as well as water and food.
  • Have fun and be flexible!

“Make the experience enjoyable for your kids,” Lydia said. “Let them explore and discover the wonders of nature while being mindful of their safety.”

Priceless memories

Each trail on the challenge has a medallion located somewhere on the hike. Hikers must take a rubbing on a log sheet of the medallion using something in nature or, in our case, a brightly colored Crayola crayon. Finding the medallion on each trail is my daughters’ favorite part of the challenge and it often leads to some friendly family competition.
Detailed information about each trail is available online or at the park’s visitor centers. It is helpful to know how long and strenuous a hike is before embarking, especially with young children. While some of the longer, more strenuous hikes can be intimidating with small children, we just take it slow and avoid the hottest times of the day. Taking plenty of snacks and water breaks are a must.

I have kept our family’s log sheets and pins from the years we completed the challenge. I like to write the dates we completed each hike on the sheet as well. It is fun to look back and reminisce about the time we came very close to a pronghorn on the Centennial Trail or a silly song my daughter made up while hiking Lovers’ Leap Trail.

For those not ready to take on eight trails this summer, there are plenty of shorter options to enjoy with kids. One of my daughters’ favorites is Cairn Trail behind the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center. It is steep, but short. A visit to the education center there is a must, too.

It’s called a challenge for a reason

Sometimes it is not always fun and laughter. It is called a challenge for a reason and there are times my daughters complain about pine needles in their shoes or their legs getting tired. Usually a short rest and a snack do the trick. Some days we must push ourselves a little, and that’s OK, too. Fresh air, tired muscles, and some mud on our shoes make for the best night’s rest.
If you’re worried about weather (I think we can all admit that the weather in the Black Hills can be a little … unpredictable), err on the side of caution with littles and reschedule when needed. One time we did come upon a large bull buffalo on our last hike of the challenge, but it was uneventful and makes for a fun story now.

I’ve been less apprehensive about the weather and buffalo than I am about snakes. I don’t like snakes. At all. We rarely spot any on the trail, and I have to admit that when we have, the girls get a good laugh because of my screaming and jumping.

Getting outdoors as a family might mean speeding up to race up a hill or slowing down to watch butterflies gathered near a creek. It means taking a moment to enjoy the small details, like wild raspberries along the trail. Above all, it means making memories with the ones we love.
One of the best parts of the Trail Challenge is that it gets us away from screens and even from regular household tasks. We can clear our heads and have conversations. Sometimes it leads to a fun conversation with one of my daughters while the other runs ahead with my husband. Sometimes my husband and I even get a few minutes to visit one-on-one. Overall, the fresh air and being out in nature is just good for the soul.