Turned out, the range lands in the 73,000-acre park couldn't support that large
of a herd of buffalo ("Tatanka" in the native Lakota Indian language) during
the winter, so management techniques were instituted to keep them and the
For several decades now, the size and structure of the herd has been
ingeniously maintained through
buffalo roundups and auctions in late September. The number of bison
that remains is based on the predicted availability of grassland forage each year.
According to the park guidebook, the spring birthing season rejuvenates
the herd size toward 1,450 to 1,500 animals. It looks like this was a good year
for babies, considering how many we saw with their mamas today.
The 44th Annual Buffalo Roundup is September 28, 2009, if you're
interested in a unique experience. The roundup has grown from a utilitarian task to a popular event
attracting more than 11,000 people each year. Park management was smart to pick
up on that and earn some extra income from tourists! Two viewing areas are set up on
the prairie so visitors can watch in awe as 1,500 bison come thundering over a
ridge and down into a system of corrals, where they are tested, vaccinated,
branded, and sorted.
Part of the large herd of bison we saw
Most of the bison, about 950 to 1,000, are released back into the park. The
remainder are sold at auction the third Saturday of November to buyers from all
over the US and Canada for breeding or slaughter. I don't like to think about
eating magnificent critters like elk and bison, but I've had burgers made from
both and I can tell you I prefer them to beef.
Now I think a buffalo roundup of that magnitude would be a
pretty cool thing to watch! Depending on our race and travel
schedule this fall, we just might find ourselves back in Custer
State Park at the end of September.
LORDS OF THE PLAINS
Custer State Park is another one of those Black Hills treasures
that Jim and I didn't explore until recently. Keep in mind that
the entire Black Hills National Forest is 'way over a million acres. It has
so many amazing natural features, wildlife, and history that it
could take years to see and explore everything. The large state
park is only a fraction of the Black Hills experience -- and the
three or four hours we spent in the state park today are only a
fraction of of all the things to do and see just in the park.
But I guarantee you we got our money's worth!
Note the logo of the bison, one of the
park's most valuable natural resources.
I admit that I was a bit surprised initially at the $12 fee for
the two of us to enter the park. That "license" is good for up
to seven days, however. It was our choice to visit only one day
and forfeit the other six. I'd like to camp inside the park in
the future and have time to hike or run the trails and
participate in activities we couldn't do this time. The annual
license is a real bargain for people who live in the area.
I gotta tell ya, I've always loved seeing the buffalo at
Yellowstone National Park. When we lived in Billings, Montana,
we visited Yellowstone at various times and often saw small herds of bison
from the roads and ski trails. I've also seen small herds on private ranches in
the West, but I've never seen a herd like the huge one we saw at
Custer State Park! That alone was worth the cost of admission to
You'd be surprised how fast I can run!
Male bison are huge, about 2,000 pounds huge. One ton! They are considered the
largest native terrestrial mammal living in North America today.
Despite their size and apparent docility as they graze or lie
around, they can run faster than a horse and turn on a dime. There are
signs all over Custer State Park, and admonitions in the guide
book, warning visitors:
BUFFALO ARE DANGEROUS. PLEASE, DO NOT
We didn't even consider it. We've heard enough stories of runners and hikers
who've been threatened by buffalo to heed the warnings. We were
thrilled to sit in the safety of our truck along the side of the
road for about twenty minutes just watching the shaggy-maned
critters graze and walk past. Adult bison are fearsome-looking
but the light brown calves are downright cute like calves of
This cute little thing probably already
weighs 200 pounds.
Cody was as respectful of the buffalo as any other large animal
he's seen, like cattle and moose. He's much smarter in that way
than Tater (our yellow Lab) ever was. She loved to give chase, regardless of the
size of the quarry. Cody never chases or even pays much
attention to big game and livestock. He watched the bison curiously from the
back window of the truck for a few minutes, then lay down to snooze. What
fascinated Jim and me was soon a bore to Cody.
Of course, if one of the buffalo had its head in the back
window, he would have taken more notice! (See next section re:
the gregarious burros.)
Several bison roam the grounds of the State
We saw several small herds of buffalo and the herd with hundreds
of them along the 18-mile self-guided Wildlife Loop through the
southern two-thirds of the park. Although it was mid-morning by
the time we got into the park, later in the day than recommended to view
the most wildlife, we saw our share of interesting animals in
the woods and meadows.
Custer State Park's diverse habitat supports a wide variety of birds and animals
besides buffalo: elk, burros, bighorn sheep, mountain goats,
whitetail and mule deer, pronghorns, mountain lions, bobcats,
coyotes, prairie dogs, and other small critters. There are no
bears or moose in the park. Bird species include the golden
eagle, prairie falcon, western tanager, mountain bluebird, red
crossbill, and many others. Bird watchers can get a list of
birds at either of the two visitors' centers.
The second animal for which Custer State Park is known is the
Several of the popular "begging burros" greeted us soon after we
entered park property, even before we reached the pay station
or the Wildlife Loop. They were grazing right below
one of the large buffalo warning signs, which was both amusing
I'm not a buffalo!
According to the park guide book and our AAA Tour Guide, it's OK to feed the burros but
not any of the wildlife in the park. The burros
aren't native to the Black Hills, although they do run wild. They are descended from a herd
of burros that once hauled visitors to the top of Harney Peak,
located a little north of the park. After the rides were
discontinued the burros were released into the wild in the park.
By now they've become so accustomed to people petting and
feeding them that they are quite tame -- and persistent. They
reminded me of the "wild"
pony in the Virginia Highlands
that wouldn't leave me alone when I was running/hiking the
I KNOW you've got some food in there!
We didn't feed these guys. We didn't realize at the time that we
could, or we would have taken some fruit, veggies, or bread to
Cody was very curious of the burros since they had their
heads in my window! He was allowed to touch noses with one when
he didn't show any sign of fear or aggression. He's done that
with friendly horses along the greenway in Roanoke. I doubt he
saw much difference in these guys.
I'm not sure how many burros are running loose in the park.
These eight were the only ones we saw today.
ULTIMATE ULTRA RUNNERS
Soon after beginning the Wildlife Loop we saw four pronghorns
grazing and resting near the road. They stood still while I took their
pictures but didn't come any closer to visit like the burros did:
Three of the foursome were farther from the
road (above and below)
As few miles later, as we crested a ridge, we could see two
other pronghorns leaping across the road in front of us. We
slowed, then pulled completely over when we realized they were
chasing each other around long loops on either side of the road,
back and forth. Fortunately, no other vehicles came along while
we watched their show. They appeared to be young males who were
engaging in useful play, thoroughly enjoying the act of running
fast and learning some survival skills in the process.
As runners, we were so fascinated that we watched them (enviously)
for several minutes, wishing we had their energy, speed, and
agility. They were moving so fast I didn't even try to
Later I searched for more information on the internet so I could
properly identify them. I've always heard the term "pronghorn
antelope" but I learned that pronghorns are not antelope. Male pronghorns have
branching horns they shed annually (females have smaller,
unbranched horns). Antelope have unbranched horns they don't shed.
See my pronged horns? This fella was part
of the stationary foursome
we saw but I betcha he'd love to run with
one of his buddies.
Pronghorns have remarkable endurance and can reach speeds of 40
MPH or more. Only cheetahs can run faster than pronghorns -- but
pronghorns can run longer than cheetahs. Very cool. I now
think of them as the best four-legged ultra runners in the
Although there are many miles of trails throughout Custer State
Park, including part of the 111-mile Centennial Trail, we just
traveled through the park via our truck today. I wasn't familiar
with which trails might be runnable for me; I chose to
run on the smooth Mickelson Trail, another long trail through
the Black Hills, after leaving the park. On our next visit to
the state park I'd like to hike or run some of its trails.
There are several scenic routes visitors can drive through the
park to see a wide diversity of terrain from grassy meadows to
an interesting maze of granite spires, tunnels, and canyons.
1. IRON MOUNTAIN ROAD
We entered the park from the northeast via scenic Iron Mountain
Road AKA Route 16 Alt., which connects Mount Rushmore to Custer
State Park. This is a winding, hilly road through gorgeous
forests full of spruce, pine, aspen, and birch trees. Even in
late May the deciduous trees are just leafing out at this
altitude (mostly 5,000-7,000 feet) and there is no new growth
yet on the evergreens at the higher altitudes. The new light
green leaves and grasses are a lovely contrast to the deep green
of the pines. We didn't see very many wildflowers in bloom yet.
Three things most intrigued us on Iron Mountain Road: the
series of loopy "pig-tail" bridges, the three tunnels that frame views of
Mount Rushmore, and the numerous piles of logs and branches
forming "tee pees" in the woods.
Peter Norbeck, the progressive conservationist, did a lot more
than introduce the first bison into Custer State Park. The former
state governor and US senator from South Dakota was also instrumental
in establishing the park itself in the early 1900s and walking
almost every inch of it. He dreamed of
visitors exploring the park on foot but realized most people
wouldn't do that. So he "found great pictures in nature and gave
them to the world by building roads to them."
These aren't superhighways, however. Drive the Iron Mountain
Road or Needles "Highway" and you'll soon realize the 20 MPH
signs aren't kidding. The curvy, mountainous roads were
deliberately designed to be driven slowly so visitors can savor
the surroundings. The spiral "pigtail" bridges (one is
shown below) on Iron
Mountain Road and very narrow tunnels
on the Needles Highway force you to go even slower.
We were delightfully surprised when we passed through the first
tunnel on Iron Mountain Road, looked back, and saw Mount Rushmore framed
by the other end of
the tunnel! How cool is that?!
Two of the other tunnels on Iron Mountain Road also frame the
monument and you can see it from several overlooks.
I mentioned the "tee pee" shaped piles of logs along this road
and throughout the state park and national forest -- they are
part of the forest service's land management to prevent fires
and reduce infestations of mountain pine beetles. You can see
several of them in this photo:
No, they aren't tee pees for critters
(well, not intentionally, anyway).
Large fires in 1988 and 1990 burned over 20,000 acres in the
The slash or brush piles are now created to thin the forest,
clean up the forest floor, and remove potential fuel for wildfires.
Foresters spend a lot of time creating all the slash piles each
spring. The piles dry out during the summer and are burned in
the winter when fire danger is low. This system has been very
effective in keeping the forests more healthy in recent years.
2. WILDLIFE LOOP
I've already described the 18-mile Wildlife Loop, which
forms a large U in the middle of the park. We began the loop in
the NE part of the park near the main visitor center and Game
Lodge on Alt. 16 and drove clockwise until it intersected with
scenic route 87 on the west side of the park.
The Wildlife Loop is mostly comprised of hilly woodlands and
open meadows. It has a very different feel than the rocky,
mountainous Iron Mountain and Needles roads. You still
need to go slowly, however, to maximize the chance of seeing
wildlife (and not running over it).
3. NEEDLES HIGHWAY
Hwy. 87 is a scenic highway that traverses the western side of
Custer State Park. It continues north to become the more famous
Needles Highway, another circuitous route that carries
visitors through the rocky northern third of the park. This is
the road that Peter Norbeck first designed so visitors could see
some of the fabulous rock spires and other land formations for
which the park is renowned. He deliberately designed it for slow
On this 14-mile route visitors are treated to two or three very
narrow tunnels (one is only eight feet wide, another nine feet
wide) and lots of granite towers that give the road its name. I
was at the wheel through this section because Jim wanted to nap.
That limited the number of pictures I took, but if you know me,
I'm not above taking lots of "windshield shots." I did the best
I could to capture some of the scenery while driving and not run
off the road or wake Jim up.
This tunnel is 9' wide and wasn't a problem
in the truck. Jim was still asleep.
I did have to stop and wake Jim up, however, before entering the
last skinny tunnel. Yikes! Only eight feet wide, according to
the sign! Here's the entrance from the SE side:
We pulled in the mirrors on both sides of the truck so I didn't
scrape them as I inched through the tunnel to the delight of the
spectators watching at the other end! You can see two men
watching from the other end. The tunnel was enclosed, then open
at the top on the far side.
Too funny. Well, actually, a little nerve-wracking going through
but fun once we got out on the other side and joined the
spectators watching the next drivers come through!
This is the view from the other end:
There's no way you could get most campers through there; I
felt like I barely had room to get our truck through it. It's
probably about the same size as the one above. It was
a lot of fun once I got through it, though.
Somehow I missed seeing the "Eye of the Needle," one of the park
landmarks. Here's a picture of it on a sign right after the
Once past the tunnels and the scenic Sylvan Lake area (lodge,
campground, picnic area, store, etc.) we drove out of the
park (still on Hwy. 87), past Harney Peak (at 7,242 feet, South
Dakota's highest point), and got on Hwy. 16 north toward Hill
City, where I ran on part of the Mickelson Trail. I'll talk
about that in the next entry.
WHAT ELSE CAN FOLKS DO IN CUSTER STATE PARK?
We left lots of things to do in future visits here, particularly
exploring the extensive trail system. Some things, like Little
Devil's Tower, you can see only on foot. Twenty-two miles of the
lengthy Centennial Trail wind through the western side of the
park and empty into Wind Cave National Park to the south. Other
trails go to Badger Hole, the French Creek Natural Area, Sylvan
and Legion lake areas, through the prairie, and around the
various lodges. Additional trails that originate in the park
take hikers beyond park boundaries to Harney Peak, Cathedral
Spires, Sunday Gulch, and other destinations.
Other outdoor activities in the park include mountain biking and
road cycling, rock climbing, horseback riding, photographing
wildlife and scenery, birding, boating,
swimming, fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing.
Boats at Sylvan Lake
The park conducts all sorts of
interesting naturalist and history programs and sponsors
numerous special events besides the buffalo roundup. Examples
are a volksmarch, arts festival, conducted hikes to Little
Devil's Tower, guided nature walks, a Halloween night hike, the
Buffalo Wallow Chili Cookoff (each recipe must contain some
buffalo meat), gold panning, geocaching, jeep rides, wildlife
caravans, hayrides, chuck-wagon cookouts, fly-fishing trips, and
There are several activities that are of interest to history
buffs, such as the
"Badger Hole." That's the affectionate name for the cabin
occupied from 1927 to 1957 by one of the park's more colorful
characters, Badger Clark. South Dakota's first poet laureate,
Clark gave lectures, told stories, and recited his poetry at
many gatherings. He lived a simple, independent life yet loved
to socialize with people. His cabin is open for public tours
during the summer.
Most of the buildings, roads, dams, tunnels, and bridges in the
park were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression
(the one in the 1930s, not 2008-9!). Someday I'd like to
check out the Gordon Party's stockade the CCC rebuilt along French
Creek, as well as other historic buildings they constructed. One
is the attractive Peter Norbeck Visitor Center. We would have
spent more time looking at the exhibits there if a busload of
school kids wasn't inside the same time we were there.
Picturesque Sylvan Lake
Three of the five handsome stone and wood lodges in the park
date back to the 1920s and '30s. We drove past all of them but
didn't go inside any of them. I'd like to.
- Sylvan Lake Lodge replaced a Victorian-style hotel built in 1895.
After it burned down in 1935, architect Frank Lloyd Wright suggested
its current location. The current lodge was built in 1937, expanded in
1991, and remodeled in 2008.
- Legion Lake Lodge, located along Galena Creek near the southern
end of the Needles Highway, dates back to 1913 when the state park was
still a game preserve. Its setting by Legion Lake is very pretty. I
didn't go into the lodge but did visit the nearby store briefly.
- The State Game Lodge, which is on the National Register of
Historic Places, was built in 1922. It served as the summer White
House for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927. The rooms have been
renovated recently and the new Creekside Lodge built on the grounds in
- Blue Bell Lodge is set in a more remote location along French
Creek at the base of Mt. Coolidge. It was built in the early 1920s by
an executive at Bell Telephone and named for the company's bluebell
logo. This lodge was also renovated last year.
LODGING AND CAMPING IN THE PARK
There are several options for overnight accommodations inside
the park. I've already mentioned the lodges, each with its own
unique "personality." They offer historic lodge rooms, hotel,
motel, and cabin choices. The lodges have resort-style amenities
that include some or all of the following: dining rooms,
lounges, lobbies, meeting rooms, auditoriums, general
stores, gift shops, gasoline, and various programs and
Typical view of pine forests and rock
formations from one of the scenic overlooks in the park
There are also various
camping options inside
Custer State Park: one-room camping cabins,
campsites with or without electrical hookups, primitive
campsites in the French Creek Natural Area, the French Creek
Horse Camp, and two group campgrounds. Some of the campsites can
be reserved and some are first-come, first-served.
There are also numerous lodging and camping choices outside the
park in surrounding communities like Rapid City, Keystone,
Custer, Hill City, Hot Springs, Lead, and Deadwood.
So . . . we have lots more things to explore in
Custer State Park and the entire Black Hills area. We
highly recommend spending a few days here to enjoy some of the
many natural and historical activities that are available.
Next entry: checking out part of the Mickelson Trail
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil