We drove the wildlife loop in Custer State Park on August 1
The history of the Black Hills, as with many other places in the west, is marked by the discovery of gold. As a sacred place to the Sioux, prior to the white man, its unwritten history extends far into the past. The pivotal shift, however, was in the summer of 1874 when Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer discovered gold near the present day town of Custer City. Even though the land belonged to the Plains Indians, under the Treaty of 1868, thousands of gold seekers poured into the area and illegally occupied the newly discovered mountains of gold. But that is another story. Sad, controversial, and horrendous.
By 1897, when Custer State Park was first established as South Dakota’s first state park, Congress granted sections sixteen and thirty-six of each South Dakota township to be used for schools and other public purposes. The parcels, scattered throughout the Black Hills timberlands, were difficult to manage and in 1906, the state began negotiations to exchange the scattered parcels for a solid block of land. In 1910, South Dakota relinquished all rights to 60,000 acres of land within the Black Hills Forest Reserve in exchange for 50,000 acres in Custer County and 12,000 acres in Harding County. In 1912, these two parcels of land were designated as Custer State Forest, and later became Custer State Park.
Now, with more than 71,000 acres of protected land, the park is the second largest state park in the country. Now the park is home to a healthy herd of more than 1,300 buffalo, but in 1900 it was estimated that less than 1,000 bison remained on the entire continent. Peter Norbeck, "The Father of Custer State Park”, saw the seriousness of the issue and took action by purchasing 36 bison to start the herd at the park. By the 1940’s, the herd had swelled to more than 2,500 and the parks rangelands were beginning to show the effects of overgrazing.
Now there is an annual roundup, held in late September, where the bison are herded into the Buffalo Corrals and the size and structure of the herd are adjusted according to the predicted availability of grassland forage. Although much of the park is forested, and the day before we had traveled through the winding roads of the Needles area, the southern portion of the park, with its wide open gorgeous rangeland truly caught my heart. Ungrazed by cattle, the native grasses are still dominant, punctuated by islands of forested hills and drainages lined with cottonwoods and elms.
We started our day before 8am, hoping that we would see more wildlife by leaving a bit earlier. The wildlife loop that leads south from 16A is only 18 miles long, but I could have happily spent the entire day just wandering the narrow roads looking at the buffalo, laughing at the burros, taking photos of wildflowers and enjoying open rangeland that seemed to look much as it might have looked before that fateful day in 1874.
We encountered our first group of animals even before we left the main highway, and the fuzzy photo of Mo and I is due to the complexity of trying to get a shot while a motorcyclist sped through the intersection, spooking the buffalo into a charge across the pavement. They can move amazingly fast! Crazy tourists!
Once south on the wildlife loop, however, the landscape opened up, and we encountered several different groups along the roadway. They are amazing animals. Relatively docile by nature, they can also be unpredictable and there are numerous warnings in the park to this effect. Most of the calves are born in May, with most cows having a single calf. Buffalo can live to 40 years, with an average lifespan of 25. They need little care, with instincts for survival that cattle seem to lack. They can survive brutal winter storms and at times care for their young in sub-zero blizzards.
A few miles south on the wildlife loop is a beautiful small visitor center, another lovely building crafted by the men of the CCC. A large group of buffalo were grazing around the center and the volunteer inside laughed with me and said, “Please don’t ask where the buffalo are!”. I guess that is the most often asked question and much of the time the buffalo.
The buffalo aren’t the only treasure along the route, however, with pronghorns, mule deer, whitetail deer, mountain goats, elk, coyotes, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, many birds, and burros calling the park home. The burros aren’t native in the Black Hills but were used to haul visitors to the top of Harney Peak in the early days of the park. The rides were discontinued and the burrow were released into the park where they have become an undeniable well loved visitors attraction.
We were tickled to find the burros along the southern portion of the loop, and of course have the requisite photos of sweet and silly burro faces reaching into our car windows looking for treats. We didn’t give them any, so they eventually ambled on. I especially enjoyed a young colt who laid his ears back and pointed his back end toward the car. Mo was a bit worried that we might end up with a scar on the Tracker! I noticed that the young ones were a lot more wary of the cars and people than the older tourist- adults.
In addition to the animals, we found several areas of summer wildflowers, including the bush morning glory which has an amazing taproot that can be as much as eighteen inches! in diameter and four feet long. We also saw a beautiful bluestem pricklypoppy, an plant that animals carefully avoid because of its harsh spines and unpalatable juices. Leadplant, found throughout the prairie, is nutritious for livestock and prairie Indians made a delicious tea from the leaves.
Finally returning to Highway 16 via HWY 87, we continued west to the town of Custer. Reading the brochures, we thought the Woodworking Museum might be an interesting “attraction” to try out. With Roger and Nancy in their own car with Jackson and us in the Tracker with Abby, it worked out well for visiting areas that didn’t allow dogs, since we could take turns watching our pets. The Woodworking Museum was nice, interesting, and something you don’t see every day, but I’m not sure it was something I would chose to do again.
We drove back into the town of Custer and found a great little spot for lunch where the food was really great, the service was wonderful, and the dogs were welcome. The Cattleman’s restaurant is touted in the tour books but when I saw the patio I swerved into the Frontier Grill, a place that looked a bit more like a biker bar than a restaurant. What a great choice! We then walked around town with the dogs, enjoyed more dog friendly art galleries and shops, took photos of the wonderful art buffalos around town, and topped off the afternoon with ice cream from the Purple Pie Palace, in spite of the long lines.
I wanted to see the Crazy Horse Memorial, and it was a top choice on my list, but by the time we drove north to the memorial, the two hour time commitment and $10 dollar per person fee, and the worry about the dogs again was just too much and the group consensus was to view the memorial from a distance. I took some distant photos, felt sad that it worked out this way, but realized that sometimes I just have to adjust.
Since I didn’t get there, here is the website for something that other bloggers have called the best thing to see in the Black Hills, and here is the mission statement of the foundation:
The mission of Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation is to protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of the North American Indians. The Foundation demonstrates its commitment to this endeavor by continuing the progress on the world’s largest sculptural undertaking by carving a memorial of Lakota leader Crazy Horse; by providing educational and cultural programming; by acting as a repository for American Indian artifacts, arts and crafts through the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational & Cultural Center; and by establishing and operating the Indian University of North America and, when practical, a medical training center for American Indians.