Plan B: Custer State Park, South Dakota

Article and photos by Jack Olson

Billowing clouds loom beyond a lone tree

Billowing clouds loom
beyond a lone tree

If, by chance, the federal government, for some cockamamie reason, were to close all the national parks, monuments, and any place else they oversee, a traveler might want to find a worthy alternative, a surprising and brilliant alternative. In fact, South Dakota’s Custer State Park can stand on its own as a premier location for recreation, wildlife, and scenery.

A lone bison munching along the Wildlife Loop Road.

A lone bison munching along the Wildlife Loop Road.

Although Custer State Park encompasses an amazing variety of environments and activities, the park is probably best known for its wildlife. And the superstar that almost everyone travels from states around to see is the bison. I grew up envisioning herds of “buffalo” thundering across the plains, but the park’s literature and website say “bison”, so I’ll reluctantly go along. The park claims a herd of 1,300 bison, and if you don’t meet at least a few hundred you must have your eyes closed.

A sweet family of burros along the Wildlife Loop Road.

A sweet family of burros
along the Wildlife Loop Road.

Although Custer’s upper reaches may be home to bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and elk, you must, absolutely must, take the Wildlife Loop Road. This 18-mile slow-speed gateway directs you into the heart of easy wildlife viewing, undisturbed by highway traffic. Stop in at the Wildlife Station Visitor Center halfway along the road. They will supply additional information, can suggest various side roads within the Wildlife Loop, and maybe even know where specific wildlife may be found. Be sure to take those side roads. There are bison, for sure, and likely pronghorn antelope and prairie dogs. But the humorous clowns are the wild burros which will find you. They approach cars and beg. I wouldn’t feed them, but it’s impossible not to laugh or to grab a shot or ten.

Bridal Veil Falls in Spearfish Canyon thread in wisps right next to the highway in the nearby national forest.

Bridal Veil Falls in Spearfish Canyon thread in wisps right next to the highway in the nearby national forest.

There’s a totally different experience in this very large park of 71,000 acres. It’s not the rolling grasslands where the buffalo (sorry) roam and the deer and the antelope play. It’s jumbled rock, plus lakes, streams, and tunnels that you hopefully squeak, rather than scrape, through. Don’t miss the Needles Highway, named for the many granite spires towering above you. Or take the dramatic Iron Mountain Road that heads to Mount Rushmore.

There are several campgrounds in Custer State Park, some of which take reservations online. The park also features four lodges, where reservations are definitely recommended. RMOWP held a conference here in 1987, headquartered at the historic State Game Lodge. Just outside the state park are commercial campgrounds plus motels in the nearby town of Custer. Trails honeycomb the park, and horseback rides and jeep tours are available. Boating is fun on four lakes in Custer.

Grace Coolidge Creek meanders gently through the lower park

Grace Coolidge Creek meanders gently
through the lower park

I’ve been to Custer State Park many times and all have been enjoyable, fun, exciting, educational. What’s not memorable about having a wild burro stick its nose in your car window? Getting out of a tour bus while the driver inches it through an 8’4” wide tunnel? Sitting patiently in your car, but on pins and needles, while a herd of bison ambles slowly in front, behind, and around your car? Just relax and think how you’ll never forget that.

If you really crave a bison fix, scoot to Custer State Park in late September for the annual Bison Roundup. At this time the scattered beasts are herded into corrals for branding and health measures. If you’re situated in the right location, and volunteers should help you find the best spots, you will tremble as the prairie shakes under the hooves of the rumbling herd.

A herd of bison occupy a meadow within the Wildlife Loop Road

A herd of bison occupy a meadow within the Wildlife Loop Road

There are several extraordinary sites to explore in the area. Wind Cave National Park adjoins Custer State Park. Jewel Cave National Monument is truly a jewel of a labyrinth. Mt. Rushmore is just up the road. These parks will fill several days of your adventure—if they are open.

For more information on South Dakota’s Custer State Park, go to www.custerstatepark.com. Partway down the right side of the park homepage is a link to “Tatanka: Custer State Park guide,” an excellent all-encompassing guide to the park that you can download.