Custer State Park, SD
When I was doing my research for our road trip, I wasn’t sure Custer State Park would be a huge priority. It was primarily the Wildlife Loop Road that drew me in, but the advice online said we should come in the morning or late afternoon to see the bison. And I’m never good with time constraints. Of course this was no exception – we had the time to visit but of course it was right in the middle of the day!
However, I am so so glad we were able to fit it in, because the wildlife was out and about and simply amazing! The kids mostly sat in the back of the van and did their thing (read: played on their phones) while James and I admired the scenic landscape and stopped for photos every four feet. But it was a nice slow pace after we’d spent the morning at Jewel Cave, so I didn’t mind the kids being glued to their screens for the drive. One day they’ll appreciate this kind of thing – I know I wouldn’t have at their ages. Oooohhh wildlife – soooooo exciting. (No, but really kids, it is!)
The park is situated in such a way that many people drive directly through it as they’re traveling on 16A through Black Hills National Forest. We entered from the West Entrance, paid our entrance fee ($20 & it covered a week!), and then made our way toward Wildlife Loop Road with a map in hand. I assume that if you don’t plan on stopping or making your way down south toward the loop, you mention that at the entrance station and you don’t have to pay. But I was so thankful that our fee covered a whole week because that meant if we didn’t get to see any wildlife, we could swing back by on the day we left town and try again! (It turned out to be totally unnecessary though.)
(Just to avoid any confusion, I don’t remember seeing a sign similar to this one at the West Entrance – we actually took it on our way out of the park at the East Entrance. But of course who puts an entrance sign at the end of the post? The things I worry about…)
The first thing we came upon after entering the park was Stockade Lake. It is a beautiful spot for a picnic – but we’d already eaten lunch.
Lots of people were driving back in towards the campground, but we decided not to check it out and instead head to the Loop. This park has more than a handful of camping areas – it’s clearly a hot spot. Of course that makes sense given that it’s in the gorgeous Black Hills. It’s directly south of Mount Rushmore and very close to Wind Cave National Park, Hot Springs, Jewel Cave NM, and Crazy Horse Memorial.
I navigated while James drove, but finding our way to Wildlife Loop Road wasn’t exactly rocket science. And just a few minutes into our 18 mile drive, we spotted our first bison (buffalo).
(As a side note, here’s your homeschooling moment of the day: What we all call buffalo are actually American Bison. True buffalo are native to Africa and Asia and they look vastly different from the bison you see below. So although all of the tourist guides and websites talk about the “free-roaming buffalo”, my anal-retentiveness demands that I refer to them as bison. I’ll happily stand alone on this one!)
Although we spent a few minutes taking photos of the guy hanging out solo, we noticed that the people driving towards us barely gave him a glance as they passed. That indicated to us there might be more up ahead. And sure enough…
So. Many. Bison. Eeeeek! (There were also so. many. people. watching the bison.)
I want to make one thing totally clear here. Bison are aggressive and will defend themselves if they feel it’s necessary. There are many videos that have gone viral because someone thought it smart to approach these gigantic mammals for the perfect selfie. I was not about to be the star of one of those videos and neither were my children. So these next two photos were taken quickly and in an area where the bison were far enough away from the road that they were only barely paying attention to us. We got the photos and then quickly ushered them back into the van.
As we drove down a bit farther, this pair was hanging out closer to the road. I took my chances for a quick shot with my 135mm, and again, they clearly weren’t paying attention to me. Plus there were tons of people out of their cars and off their motorcycles inching much closer than I dared. So I figured my distance was greater than theirs, and therefore I had a better chance of making it to safety if needed. Ha!
As we kept driving, we came across this trio. The park calls them the “free-loading (or begging) burros” and apparently they’re not shy about approaching people for food. They have a big area to roam, but they’re technically in an enclosed section. I assume it’s to keep them safe? According to the internet (which of course knows everything), they’re feral, but were introduced to the area by humans. However, they’ve since reverted back to a semi-wild state although they’re clearly not afraid of people.
We thought that was the end of the excitement, so we just spent some time enjoying the scenery as we drove.
But then we got to see a herd of pronghorns! This was particularly exciting because we have a small group that hangs out near our home in Colorado. We live in a neighborhood that is situated next to a plains conservatory, so we often see wildlife. But these pronghorns (commonly referred to as antelopes because of their appearance, although they are most closely related to the giraffe) are never close enough to us for a good photo. I’ve been able to zoom in on a blurry shot and determine that’s what they are, but this was an entirely different experience. They were right next to us!
How majestic is this creature?!
My (very limited) research seems to suggest this is a bachelor band based on their “horns”.
🎶 “We’re following the leader, the leader, the leader…we’re following the leader, wherever he may go…” 🎶
I kinda wanted to dig through our stuff and hand this one our water purifier. That puddle does not look appetizing. But I trusted his instincts and waved goodbye as we moved along.
As we were nearing the end of the loop, we came across another herd of bison. And I can already feel my anxiety returning as I look at these photos. We’d stopped at the small wildlife station just before this and talked to a ranger (peace officer?). She said there had been three vehicles totaled in the past week by bison. I can’t find any information about that online, but I did see that at least four people were injured last year in this very same park. So yeah, as we were driving by, we slowed down a bit, snapped the photos, and I just held my breath as we creeped along. Others stopped and got out (or off their bikes – which seems CRAZY to me!), but again, I wasn’t trying to get famous for all the wrong reasons.
Beautiful girl. At least I think it’s a girl. But can you imagine a life where you just stand around and eat all day?! Sign me up!
Look at the baby!
We kept driving, and our very last glance at the wildlife in this amazing state park was a momma and baby hanging out alone. They were just walking along without a care in the world. (Although, there are mountain lions and coyotes around, so assumably they have lots of cares.)
As we finished up the loop, we came across the park’s Visitor Center. It’s a very nice building with some interactive things inside, but we were pooped and ready to head to Mount Rushmore so we didn’t spend much time there.
We headed right on 16A, passed the East Entrance, and then made our way up Iron Mountain Road which was a total loop-de-loop adventure in and of itself. When we come back (and we will,) we’ll also have to check out Needles Highway which is within the park and apparently has some spectacular views. If you’re coming to Black Hills, definitely give yourself at least half a day to experience Custer State Park because it’s totally worth it!