In the shadows of the Black Hills, visitors can find another delightful South Dakota outdoor area. Located only a few miles from Mount Rushmore lies Custer State Park. The highlight for any visitor is the 18 mile Wildlife Loop Road where buffalo, pronghorn, deer, elk, prairie dogs, hawks, and coyotes roam the plains. Buffalo are the main attraction, and the herd here numbers over 1,500.
A short history
The park was founded in 1912 by then Governor Peter Norbeck. He envisioned a state park in the Black Hills and dreamed of reintroducing many of the wildlife species that used to call this beautiful area home. Norbeck oversaw the introduction of buffalo, elk, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep and they have all thrived under the park’s protection.
Everyone knows the tragic story of the buffalo and how they used to number in the millions when Lewis and Clark first explored the Louisiana Purchase. By 1900 only 1,000 remained in all of North America. Peter Norbeck realized the danger that this symbol of the American west was in and took action.
Custer State Park to protect buffalo
In 1914 the park purchased 36 bison to start its herd. By the 1940s the herd size grew to 2,500 and began to overgraze the grasslands inside the park. The park realized the danger of overpopulation and began to manage the herd numbers.
Each September the park holds a buffalo round up. The event is incredibly popular and yearly brings in over 12,000 spectators. Park employees and volunteers herd the buffalo into corrals where the animals are tested, vaccinated, and branded. Most buffalo are released back into the park, but others are auctioned in order to cull the population and keep the animals inside the park healthy.
The Black Hills area pays tribute to Peter Norbeck with numerous memorials and remembrances. There is the Norbeck Preserve, a Norbeck overlook, and a Norbeck scenic drive. The honors are well deserved as he was instrumental in founding an awesome state park and helped save the buffalo from extinction. He was a conservation pioneer right up there with Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir.
Custer State Park Wildlife Loop
The Wildlife loop tops the priority list for those that come to Custer State Park. It reminds me of the popular Cades Cove Loop in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. Both scenic drives offer incredible mountain views, great places to stop and hike, and wonderful opportunities to view wildlife.
There is an entrance fee to the park, which is a modest $6.00 for out of state vehicles, but it is well worth it. The 18 mile loop will take from one to four hours depending on how often the car stops. After the drive stay around and camp as there is much more to do inside the park other than the scenic drive. Take a hike up to Harney Peak and enjoy and incredible view of the Black Hills and four states. Check out their website for more information.
Beware of the bison
Signs at the entrance to the park warn drivers of the perils of approaching the bison. Remember, millions of their ancestors were slaughtered indiscriminately by our forefathers, so they have a chip on their shoulders. Each year, several people get too close and provoke an attack or a near attack. Enjoy the wildlife, but do so at a safe distance. No one wants to have surgery to remove a piece of buffalo shrapnel from their rear end.
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