Custer State Park

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Yesterday we spent the afternoon at Custer State Park. Having never been there before, I wasn’t sure what to expect with this stop. It was a $20.00 entrance fee since our America the Beautiful park pass didn’t cover the entrance fee since this was a state park rather than a national park. We hoped the visit would be worth the entrance fee.

I think I sometimes find myself believing state parks to be sub-par to national parks. They are the parks that didn’t make the cut, and weren’t epic enough to make the list of National parks…second string players, so to speak. And sometimes this can be the case, but it certainly wasn’t the case for Custer State Park.

It was one of the most beautiful parks we have ever visited, national or state.

There is nothing ordinary about Custer State Park. It was the first state park in South Dakota and is the largest state park in the state.  

As we entered this spectacular reserve, it took only minutes for the enchantment to beguile our senses. The towering pines sheltering the roadway, the gentle, flowing creeks, the massive granite outcroppings- was nature at its most bewitching.

And taking center stage in this transcendent landscape was one of the most powerful icons of the American West- the bison- shouldering his way into view, unchallenged master of this wild world.

The bison, or buffalo, is the official logo of Custer State Park and its main claim to fame as a wildlife refuge.

The story of the buffalo is a tragic one. Once 30-60 million strong, herds of buffalo covered the lands of the west in the 1700s. By the end of the 1800s they had dwindled down to fewer than 1000 and were in danger of extinction.

But the story doesn’t end there. Preservation measures began soon after with laws passed to protect the buffalo of Yellowstone National Park. At Custer State Park the conservation efforts began as well and now they find themselves home to the second largest buffalo herd in the country, 1300 strong, with around 400 new babies born to the herd each spring.

At the front gate we were directed to head first to the visitor’s center. We were told that there we would be directed which way to drive to see the buffalo herd according to where the park rangers had spotted them that day…

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Found them!

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We needn’t go any further than the visitor’s center. How convenient. They had the buffalo there waiting for us!

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 The huge bulls knew they had the right away and we were thrilled with the up close views as they ambled across the road, bringing traffic to a halt. Walking with the cows were a sprinkling of spring calves that were a thrill to watch.

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It was unreal.

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The sight of those majestic creatures so close to the car took my breath away. The kids were shaking with excitement and Toby and I looked at each other and declared the experience worth every bit of that $20.00!

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And that was only the beginning!

Once we made our way through the sea of bison we parked in the lot of the newly built visitor’s center. Opened only since May of this year, this building, and the interactive exhibits inside, were wonderful.

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The exhibits revolved mainly on the icon of the park…the American Buffalo. Here the boys approach a buffalo virtually and get to see the signs of danger and the warnings to look for before the buffalo charges.

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At this station everyone stepped on the scale to see how the combined weight of our family measured up to the weight of a buffalo.

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Then we headed into the theatre to watch a wonderful 20-minute film about the park and the buffalo. It was entitled, “Spirit of Tatanka” and was narrated by Kevin Costner.

From there we left to drive Wildlife Loop Road, where we spotted more buffalo, prairie dogs, deer, and antelope.

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Then we came across an unexpected animal…

An unexpected, interesting critter that was waiting to make our acquaintance- the park’s burros…

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better known as the infamous begging burros.

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These burros originated from a herd that once hauled visitors to the top of Harney Peak. When the ride was discontinued years ago, the burros were released into the park and have become a popular visitor attraction.

These panhandlers stop traffic along the Wildlife Loop Road and are without a doubt the most photographed animals in the park.

Luckily I had read about the famous begging burros and came prepared for the experience, having packed an extra bag of carrots in the cooler.

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As soon as we pulled up they were at the windows looking for a handout.

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We then parked and got out of the car so all the kids could have a chance to feed the burros.

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They were so sweet and friendly.

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Ozzie lovingly squeezed one around the neck saying, “He’s just like my best friend, George.” (My parents’ donkey)

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Once we had exhausted our carrot supply we were back in the car. We left Wildlife Loop Road and headed UP, towards higher elevations to see the other site Custer State Park is known for: the granite needles.

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Towering high above the park are awesome granite spires, surrounded by tall pines. The views are spectacular but to get to those views we had to head up, up, up.

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It was knowing about this drive that made us consider renting a car. The drive up to the spires consists of a narrow road, with hairpin turns, and steep cliff drop offs. There is no way the bus could have made it,

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Especially with three of these tunnels, cut out of the granite boulders, that had to be passed through to reach the top.

There is no way the bus would have fit. It was quite the harrowing drive,

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But boy was it worth it!

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Check out these views!

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Unreal, right?!

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At the top of Custer State Park, at 6, 145 feet, is Sylvan Lake. The reward for that drive is this view:

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I don’t know that I have ever been in a prettier place.

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We walked around the lake and allowed the kids to climb on the granite boulders and explore the cracks and crevices.

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Toby joined them.

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It was a magical place and we could have spent hours hiking and exploring but, alas, we had a dinner reservation to get to, so after an hour of exploring, we climbed back in the car for the ride back down the mountain.

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Pictures truly can’t do justice to the magnificence of Custer State Park. If you ever have the opportunity to visit, don’t hesitate, don’t question… just go!

 You’ll be glad you did!

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