Western Adventures: Black Hills – Part II

State Game Lodge – Custer State Park

June 2nd, 2022:

With a few hours of daylight left, I decided to explore the park a bit before checking into my room at the State Game Lodge. Losing a day of travel due to my Dallas layover, meant I needed to be mindful of time and use every minute to ensure I enjoyed all that Custer State Park can offer.

Looking at the park map (found here) I decided to embark on Custer’s famed Wildlife Loop. This eighteen mile loop provides visitors windswept views of Custer’s high prairie ecosystem. It is a mini-Serengeti – where you encounter bison herds, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, prairie dogs and the park’s popular ‘begging burros.’

Late afternoon and early evening is usually a good time to catch wildlife. I found myself to be the only car on the road, which is rare but welcome as I took in the solitude and immersed myself in the dynamic scenery.

The clouds gathered in the blue sky like cotton candy. As I maneuvered the road I noticed a few pronghorn and a mule deer.

In the distance I spotted begging burros. Popular with tourists, the burros are one of the few animals in the park you can actually get up close with. They are wild donkeys that live in a small section off the Wildlife Loop and and they approach vechicles expecting food. This non-native donkeys were originally brought to the park to haul visitors to the top of Black Elk Peak. When the rides were discontinued, the donkeys were released into the park. Their descendants continue to roam the park today.

I want to stress that you should NEVER approach wildlife, but the begging burros are a bit of an exception. As always use caution.

One of my favorite animals EVER is the small but mighty Prairie Dog. While Prairie Dogs are often seen as a nuisance to ranchers – they actually are a keystone species that keeps the prairie ecosystem alive. The prairie dogs live in Custer and are a fan favorite off the wildlife loop. You can watch them from a safe distance and listen to their ‘bark’ and enjoy the overload of cuteness.

Fun fact: Lewis and Clark were so enamored with the prairie dog they sent a live one back to Thomas Jefferson. Learn more here.

While visiting Custer in 2009, a ranger explained to me how vital prairie dogs are to the American West and they actually help cattle ranchers by improving access to the soil for grazing. Prairie Dogs are highly intelligent and have a complex social structure that ensures the success of their ‘towns.’ To learn more check out these facts from WWF.

Custer is known for it’s bison. It is one of the last remaining places to see bison in the wild in the United States. In fact we can thank Custer State Park for helping to ensure the future of Bison aka Buffalo for years to come.

For centuries millions of bison roamed the plains – with thunderous run that shook the ground as the herd moved from place to place. The Native Americans including the Lakota of the Black Hills relied on the bison for food and clothing. They respected the buffalo.

Unfortunately with trappers and westward growth – the buffalo populations decimated and America’s largest mammal was nearly extinct.

Custer State Park sought to protect and reintroduce bison into the park boundaries. They purchased thirty-six bison to start the herd in 1914 from rancher Scotty Phillip – who helped save the American Bison. This herd now hovers around 1400 bison today.

Custer manages the bison population with the Buffalo Roundup every year to ensure the herd is healthy and thrives for generations to come.

In May of 2022 (a month before my arrival), the new Bison Center was opened just off the Wildlife Loop near the Buffalo Corrals. This center helps educate visitors about the park’s bison, the roundup and herd management.

Usually the herd is found roaming throughout the park, but during this trip they were in the corrals to ensure the baby bison were monitored and protected. The corrals still offer tons of room to roam and it was amazing to see the bison safely.

Bison are the strongest and largest land mammal on the contitent. They weigh over two tons and can run thirty miles per hour. DO NOT APPROACH BISON they will GORE you and are WILD Animals. Keep a safe distance and follow park protocal. Respect their space – after all – how would you feel if a stranger walked up to you and started taking your picture of trying to pet you? You’d want to gore them too. Be mindful!

Custer has lots of great lodging options and one of the more rugged is Blue Bell – which has both old west flare without compromising hospitatlity. Blue Bell is on the Wildlife Loop and includes cabins and a campsite as well as a fantastic restaurant with homemade western food like steak and a hearty breakfast.

Blue Bell is also host to the Old West Chuckwagon Hayride Cookout – enjoy prairie caravan into the woods for home cooked food and scenery – just like pioneers and mountain explorers of days past.

Completing the Wildlife Loop I headed to the State Game Lodge area of Custer. situated in the shadows of the hills, just outside of the Wildlife Loop’s vast prairie, the State Game Lodge area is full of history, wonder and is arguably the ‘capital’ of Custer State Park.

The historic lodge is celebrating 100 years in 2022 and has played host to dignitaries, Presidents and thousands of explorers to the Black Hills.

Continue to my next post to learn more about the State Game Lodge as we check into the lodge and continue our Western Adventure in the Black Hills.

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