We actually ended up visiting Custer State Park by accident – one of those really awesome accidents like finding money, or stumbling across a really great restaurant that no one else knows about. We were coming to see Mount Rushmore- everyone comes to see Mount Rushmore. We had found a great deal on a camping spot at Angostura State Recreation area which is about 15 miles south of the monument near the town of Hot Springs, SD.
The most direct path to Rushmore took us through a preserve area called Custer State Park. We had never heard of it and didn’t give it much thought. After all, it was just a state park, and having just left Yellowstone National Park we didn’t have any great expectations. We had already seen the best right? WOW, were we wrong!
Custer State Park is a 71,000-acre preserve in the Black Hills of South Dakota just south of Rapid City. Not only is it huge, but it is also as beautiful and surprising as any national park we have ever seen. If I was to make a guess I’d say that the only reason it is NOT a national park is that the State of South Dakota just won’t give it up! Not surprising really. I wouldn’t give it up either.
We were awe-struck by the beauty within this park, however, people don’t rave about this park as much as they rave about Yellowstone or Bryce Canyon or the other equally beautiful national parks. I’m not quite sure why that is.
The park was named after Lt Col. George Custer who found traces of gold in the Black Hills and sparked a gold rush to the area. He of course famously met his end at the Battle of Little Bighorn in nearby Montana. There are 2 Visitor Centers in the park. One is at the East Entrance and the other is the Wildlife Station along the wildlife loop which runs around the most of the park and offers a beautiful array of wildlife viewing opportunities. The park offers some 11 different camping options with varying amenities and options. There are also 5 different and unique lodges to stay in including State Game Lodge which has hosted presidents Coolidge and Eisenhower.
Custer State Park is the home to a number of awesome wildlife species and the viewing is every bit as good as Yellowstone or other better-known parks. There are so many great reasons to visit this park, but here are our 5 favorites and why we feel this park has to be on your bucket list.
Custer State Park is home to a herd of around 1300 free-ranging bison. The herd was started in 1914 with just 36 animals and has grown to upwards of 2500 at one time. However, the herd is now managed at 1300-1500 in order to keep it healthy. Each year in September the park holds a buffalo roundup in which cowboys (and girls) from all over the area come together to drive the herd into pens for vaccinations and auctioning off the surplus animals. The thunderous event draws tens of thousands of spectators and is certainly not to be missed.
On an average day in the park, just driving around the Wildlife Loop Road is almost certain to bring a very close up encounter with many of these enormous beasts as the road travels right through the middle of the grazing grounds. They will come so close that you could, as my husband often tells my son to “roll down the window and slap him on the backside!” (DONT DO THAT!). One afternoon we drove through the large herd (very carefully) and watched the bigger bison herd the younger ones, there must have been several hundred bison, it was quite something to watch.
For an unforgettable driving experience do not miss the opportunity to drive the white-knuckle Needles Highway. This winding 14 mile scenic byway takes you through some of the most breathtaking scenery you will see anywhere. Weathering and erosion have worn the mountaintops here down into needle-like formations which point up to sky forming a truly surreal landscape. The road is narrow and extremely curvy adding to the drama as each vista reveal itself. There are some one-lane tunnels, one of which will test your competence as a driver (DO NOT FORGET to fold in your mirrors.)
The pinnacle of the rode for us was the aptly named “Eye of The Needle” formation which looks very much like…well…the eye of a needle. We got there in the late afternoon which was perfect timing for this awesome pic. Plan to spend a little time on this road. You will find yourself driving really slowly and gripping the wheel a bit. One of the most beautiful scenic drives we have taken, the views are well worth the terror- lol.
How cute are prairie dogs? Our daughter almost lost it when she saw them up close. She loves anything furry and cute, she has about a thousand stuffed animals in her bed. There’s something awfully cute about prairie dogs, they are just so cute and tiny. They seem to have little personalities as they sit up and stare back at you, then scurry around and play with each other. Pick a couple and fill in their conversations and right there you have a couple of captivating hours of family fun. Custer has some really big prairie dog communities that can be found all along the Wildlife Road, so pack a lunch and plan to spend a little time. The kids absolutely loved this part because you can see them up close. The next time we saw prairie dogs was when we visited Bryce Canyon National Park, they are all over that park. Some of them get dangerously close to the main road.
At 71,000 acres, Custer State Park is a driving park. It is spread out and covers a varied landscape. From rolling prairies to the rugged granite outcroppings of the Black Hills, there is a landscape for everyone. There are lakes, rivers, valleys, meadows, mountains, forests, etc etc etc. So get out your best lenses and the old polarizing filter and get ready to get some awesome landscape photography!
Here’s something you just don’t find every day. Wild free ranging burro’s! Have you ever seen any? Well, Custer has them. The herd is remnants of burros that were brought out west as pack animals in the early 20th century. Over time they morphed into a trail ride service before eventually being released into the park. Since then the pack has roamed freely and become quite a favored attraction as they actively beg for food from passing motorists.
The herd faced very hard times recently as 3 of the 9 remaining donkeys were fatally injured as a result of the wildfire that decimated a good deal of the park last December (2017) The 6 remaining were taken out of the park for rehabilitation and have since returned to their familiar stompin’ grounds. The regrowth of the park has been matched by the herd through the generosity of a local resident who donated a couple of burros back to the park as well as a new addition to the herd- a baby born this spring! We truly have enjoyed this herd immensely and wish for their continued health.
We visited Custer State Park on several occasions because well, why wouldn’t you. At certain times it wasn’t too busy at all, but other times it was busy, especially around the burro’s. I urge you to be careful around the burro’s and keep an eye on little ones, my daughter managed to get kicked by one of the them as she was trying to feed them. There was a lot of people around and she got stuck in the middle, they wanted some yummy carrots and were getting a little freaked out with all the people and so she got a nasty side kick. Not fun, but they are wild animals.
6) WILDLIFE: WHAT?
A 6th reason? That’s right folks, only here at The Roving Foleys do you get a BONUS reason to visit this amazing state park. 6 for the price of 5! That would be the rest of the wildlife. This park is just chock full of opportunities to view elk, deer (whitetail AND muleys), pronghorns, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and if you are REALLY patient, maybe a cougar. We are HUGE wildlife lovers so any place that has this much diversity, we love. For the birders, there are about 400 species in the areas including all types of raptors, jays, and woodpeckers.
We suggest getting up early in the morning will increase your chances of seeing some animals. At this time of the day they are more active, the evening time is another good time to take a drive through the park, we were lucky enough to see a coyote one evening.
Some Quick Tips
We like to get up early to get into parks, because not only are they less crowded, the animals are more active and the views are magnificent. We always bring lunch with us and find a picturesque spot to sit and let the kids run around.
So as you can tell we are big fans of Custer State Park in South Dakota. If you are in the area, whether it be to see Mt Rushmore, the Badlands, Sturgis, or Deadwood- don’t miss the opportunity to cruise through this wonderful park. I promise you, you will be glad you did.
Have you been to Custer State Park? What was YOUR favorite part?
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