Traveling to this midwest park to see groups of bison bring tallgrass prairies to life.
Story and photography by Carol Polich, Bozeman, Montana
Before sunrise, a caravan of vehicles streamed down Wildlife Loop Road to
get prime parking in the prairie hills of South Dakota’s Custer State Park. More than 12,000 people then made a mad dash to the 6-foot retaining fence, pushing and shoving to claim a spot, only to wait three more hours.
It seemed like insanity to me. Once we heard thundering hooves in the distance, the din simmered down to oohs and aahs. Then suddenly, someone yelled: “There they are!” Silence descended as we peered through binoculars and cameras at moving brown spots on distant hills. Visions of Dances With Wolves flashed through my mind as we gathered for the 44th annual Buffalo Roundup in late September 2009.
Cowboys with whips and park staff in pickup trucks herded the usually docile animals. These calm cowboys rode by with the Stars and Stripes and the flag of South Dakota, adding some patriotism to the scene.
More than a thousand bison were coming to pens where officials and volunteers, mindful of the amount of sustainable grass in the park, would cull the herd.
The park can sustain no more than about 1,500 buffalo. Through the decades, that number has fluctuated depending on seasonal conditions and available forage. The excess animals are auctioned off to buyers wanting to supplement their herds or start new ones elsewhere in the country.
Clouds of dust and flying turf enveloped the 1-ton animals as they came running by, a mass of horns, hooves and muscle on the move. You would think such large, lumbering animals would be slow, but I’ve seen them stop on a dime and easily jump a 5- or 6-foot fence in Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. My jaw has dropped at their speed and agility.
Riding herd on the stampede takes both organization and an understanding of bison intellect. In past years, there had been plenty of runaways trying to turn back, but not this time. The herd moved easily from prairie grasses to asphalt and into the holding pen.
I was a little disappointed, craving more action, but the spectacle of these animals moving across the plains was a thrill anyway. So was the silence that shrouded the hills once the beasts were corralled.
When I revisited the scene the next day, it was almost ghostly. Breeding antelope raced about while the remaining bison grazed in the distance. Prairie dogs scampered from hole to hole as though wondering what on earth had thundered above them.
While the bison roundup is the main attraction, Custer State Park has a lot more to offer. The roundup capped a two-day arts festival and craft show featuring more than 100 exhibitors and several food vendors vying for the attention of tourists like me. It all took place on the grounds near the historic State Game Lodge, where, in the early evening, bighorn sheep and lone bison tend to come to the lawns to graze.
If you’re not in the mood to browse or buy and you want to escape the crowds, there’s plenty of daytime wildlife viewing along Wildlife Loop Road and other side roads. September is the rut season for the elk and the pronghorn antelope. With the elks’ mating calls and sparring, along with the antelope racing after each other, wildlife watching is quite entertaining.
Several scenic drives wind through the park, thanks to the efforts of Peter Norbeck, a conservationist who was South Dakota’s governor and a U.S. senator many decades ago.
He helped establish Custer State Park and oversaw a tremendous undertaking in road construction. Norbeck explored the park on foot and on horseback, savoring the beauty of the Black Hills. His first road was completed in 1922 and named Needles Highway, for the spiky granite formations that stud the horizon.
Iron Mountain Road was Norbeck’s next road project, connecting the park with Mount Rushmore to the north. The drive takes visitors along a series of pigtail bridges, so named for a corkscrew configuration that allows for sudden changes in elevation without disturbing the natural landscape. The road is designed to make you slow down and enjoy the scenery.
If exercise is what you’re after, the park has many hiking trails. Some of the more popular ones lead north out of the park to Harney Peak, South Dakota’s highest mountain at 7,242 feet. Moving through forestland and past viewpoints overlooking the Hills, you eventually arrive at the summit, where an abandoned fire tower sits. Once the trail gets rocky, add mountain goats to the list of watchable wildlife.
The best trails start at Sylvan Lake, where on a hot day you can cool off with a swim or just relax on the beach.
I came here for the buffalo roundup and found that there’s more to explore in the Black Hills. South Dakota’s slogan—“Many places, many faces”—rings true.