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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

The buffalo in Custer State Park South Dakota

The main reason I wanted to visit Custer State Park was to see the buffalo in their natural grassy plains environment. The North American bison is also known as a buffalo, and both names can be used for this national mammal of the United States.

two large brown shaggy furred buffalo graze in a field, at 6 feet tall and over 2000 pound, these are large animals.
a mother buffalo and her baby lie in a grassy field while a large herd of buffalo graze behind them under a whispy clouded sky

The 287km square (71,000) acre Custer State Park has a main 29km (18mi) Wildlife Loop Road. This will take you from the Visitor Center to the Blue Bell Entrance Station. Travel time for the loop road can take around an hour, and it is open all year round. The recommended speed to travel is 40km (25mph) or slower. The best time to see the wildlife is early morning or late evening. This is when they are most active. I visited the park with a friend, and we did not see the buffalo we were expecting, so we called into the ranger station. The staff are very helpful and are advised of the most recent sightings. With directions to go down a side road, my friend and I set off with high hopes. We were definitely rewarded as we came alongside a large herd of buffalo, and many other sightseers on the road.

a long line of jeeps and cars are parked on the side of a dirt road. Buffalo roam in the grass next to the vehicles, where people are viewing the animals.

The buffalo have right of way here, and people are requested to remain in their vehicle or stay at least 100 yards from the bison, elk and other animals. Remember, these are wild animals, no matter how cute and cuddly they look. If you get too close, back away slowly, do not make any sudden moves. A buffalo can grow to 1.6m (6 ft) tall and weigh more than 900kg (2,000 lb). From the original 36 buffalo here in 1914, up to as many as 1,400 now live in the park. The buffalo graze their food, the park does not supplement them.

The park control the herd numbers of buffalo and prevent overcrowding by selling off some of the animals at an annual auction. Each year since the 1960s the park has hosted a Buffalo Roundup. Thousands of people come to watch the event, where cowpersons on horseback round up the buffalo. Here, they test, brand, vaccinate and sort the animals near corrals on Wildlife Loop Road. This is also when they organize the fall sale. Designated viewing areas for spectators fill up fast. Along with the roundup, usually late in September, is the Arts Festival. This three day festival is a joyful extravaganza of music, entertainment, food, arts and crafts. There are often over 100 booths offering the artisans wares.

a mother and baby buffalo rest in the grassy meadow.

As well as the buffalo, the park has pronghorn, prairie dogs, white-tailed and mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, coyotes, mountain lions, burros, mountain goats, birds and other small wildlife.

a white tailed deer stands in a grassy field, her underbelly white as well, her nose black, and the tips of her brown ears edged in black. The fur on her back and legs is light brown

Other scenic drives that take in part of Custer State Park are:

· 18mi Iron Mountain Road, one hour trip. This highway winds between Mount Rushmore and the junction of US16A and SD36. Expect to see magnificent scenery, bridges and tunnels.

· 14mi Needles Highway, a one hour trip. This is closed in winter. Expect to see forests, meadows, granite mountains, and incredible views over the forest to the horizon.

· Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, a three hour trip. This is the best trip to undertake and includes most of the other three scenic drives.

For those with time to spend, the best way to discover and appreciate the beauty of the park is by walking it There are around 20 different hiking trails, from easy to strenuous, from 1.6km (1mi) to 19km (12mi) one way.

The best time of the year to come depends on the visitor. Some people want to come in summer when the weather is warm and all the facilities and roads are open. The five lakes in the park are perfect for fishing, swimming and small crafting. Others like to come in the quieter winter months when they can ice fish and snowshoe. Spring brings new life to the park with trees starting to bud, and babies being born. Fall is Buffalo Round Up time, and the variegated fall colors are spectacular. Maybe it is best to come several times during the year. Season passes are available for purchase.

For overnight or longer accommodation there are four lodges available. Camping is permitted in designated areas only and reservations are required. Camping cabins are available within the park, or hard-sided campers and tents can park at the campsites. Backpackers can camp in designated areas too.

My friend and I drove the park in our own vehicle, but if you wish to take a buffalo safari tour in a jeep with a guide, they are available to be booked at the park. Trail rides can also be arranged, as can an evening chuckwagon cookout and scenic wildlife hayride.

The park was established in 1912, named after Colonel George Armstrong Custer, and is the first and largest state park in South Dakota. The park is a great way to see the plants and animals in the wild, either by driving or walking through. It brings to life the lyrics of Katharine Lee Bates in her poem and song - America the Beautiful:

O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties Above the fruited plain!

When in the area, I also recommend visiting:

map of Rapid City surrounds

Happy Travels!

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