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Custer State Park, Black Hill, South Dakota
Custer State Park is a whopping 71,000 acres within the Black Hills area and is named after the infamous General A. Custer who led a scientific expedition into the Black Hills in 1874. At this time gold was discovered which changed the course of history in the area not only for the local tribes but also for the wildlife. In 1913 the South Dakota legislature decided that a wildlife reserve should be created in the southern black Hills to allow the wildlife to become re-established.
The park received their first bison from the Scotty Philip herd in Fort Pierre while Pronghorn, elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goats were also brought into the reserve from out of the area. The wildlife thrived and by 1919 this reserve became Custer State Park.
PRICE OF ENTRANCE
Being a State Park you have to pay to enter and the National Park card "America the Beautiful" does not work with state parks. Entrance costs $15 per car for seven days which is good value if you are going to be in the area for that long but we only spent part of one day in the park, still not bad value for four of us in the car.
WHY VISIT THE PARK?
The scenery is beautiful and varied. You can see prairie fields, huge dark lakes, rugged granite mountains and spires. Beside the wonderful and varied scenery you can enjoy seeing a variety of wildlife. The park boasts a huge herd of 1,500 bison and indeed we saw several groups of these amazing animals. It didn't matter how often you saw them it was still a very emotive sight spotting them grazing in the grasslands as they are just so much a part of American history.
You are reminded that these huge beasts might look docile and cuddly but they weigh up to 2,000lbs and can run at 30mph sand they are wild animals so they should be admired from the safety of your car. A buffalo can eat 3% or 4% of its body weight in forage and drink 10 - 20 gallons of water daily.
I was quite disappointed as we still didn't see any big horn sheep which are resident in the Black Hills and the Badands too. The mountain goats are not native but have done well since being introduced in 1924. They are usually only seen in the mountains so as we only drove the "Wildlife Loop Road" we didn't see these either.
We were lucky and saw pronghorn and elk so we were pretty happy. The other animals we saw again we prairie dogs and we spent some time watching them as they are very cute.
Finally we came across a few cars surrounded by burros which looked like donkeys or small mules to me. They gather around the cars and beg for food quite determinedly, you are told not to feed the wildlife but these people all ignored this and were getting out of their cars too. These animals came from a herd that once carried visitors to the top of Harvey Peak but they are not very happily settled in the park as residents.
DRIVES IN THE PARK
We visited this park after we visited Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. We experienced one of the famous "Wow" Road trips on the drive between Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park. This road is called the "Iron Mountain Road". This is the road that everyone said could not be built but Governor Peter Norbeck was determined and mapped out the route himself on foot and horseback. The road passes through three granite tunnels and if you drive in the right direction, which we did on our return trip, you got a wonderful view of Mount Rushmore framed by the tunnel entrance.
The other route was the "Wildlife Loop" which is an 18 mile loop which takes you along the path where you are most likely to see bison, elk and prairie dogs and indeed we did. It was a beautiful drive scenically and you had to keep to the 35 mph speed limits so the chance of seeing wildlife was greatly increased as people were not driving at speed and overtaking you.
OTHER POSSIBILITIES WITHIN THE PARK:
You can stay at a choice of four different lodges in the park or camp within the seven designated camping areas. You can follow trails in the park for hiking, climb various peaks within the Needles area of the park, you can ride your own or hire a mountain bike to explore further within the park or follow the 111 mile Centennial Trail if you feel really fit. You can fish for trout; go boating, ride horse along trails and so much more if you have longer to spend in the park area.
The State Game lodge which is at the pretty high altitude of 4,259ft and is within the park was chosen by Calvin Coolidge as his summer White House in 1927 and then again Eisenhower also paid a visit many years later. You can choose to stay at this very same lodge if you want to stay somewhere that two presidents have visited.
The other lodges are all higher in the mountains and each offers something different. If you vist in holiday times then I would suggest booking early as we have found that accommodation within parks gets booked pretty early.
THE HOME OF BADGER CLARK
The cabin is famous for being the home of South Dakota's first poet laureate and he lived here in this cabin for the last thirty years of his life. He built the cabin himself and then wrote his poems from within its walls. Apparently he was one of those rather eccentric dressers and a larger than life character. The cabin is open to visitors from 10am to 5pm in the summer season. Within the cabin are displays which tell you the story of this man's life and his work. It was interesting to visit and learn about this man who i had previously never heard of.
If we went to this part of the USA again i would go in autumn as they have a huge Buffalo Roundup which goes over three days. Firstly there is an outdoor arts festival followed by western entertainment and a chilli cook off and finally the park's 1,500 bison are herded by cowboys on horseback and in four wheel drives. They are stockaded , counted, culled , branded and given medical attention ready for the winter months. This event alone brings in 14,000 people each year. If this tempts you then the Roundup for 2012 is going to be on September 24th, in 2013 on September 30th and if you are planning that far ahead the event will take place on Sept 29th in 2114.
Keep to the speed limit and do not feed the wildlife. Do NOT approach the buffalo. You are nt allowed to have open fires unless on a fire grate or BBQ. Then this one amazed me .. "Visitors are not allowed to jump or dive from bridges, rocks or cliffs into any of the ark's lakes, ponds or streams" Surely that is just common sense!! Another obvious one is that you are not allowed to remove anything natural or cultural features such as antlers, rocks or artefacts. Loaded firearms are not allowed in the park but unloaded or cased firearms can be carried in vehicles. Finally another pretty obvious one is that open containers of alcohol cannot be carried in vehicles. Pets must be on a leash no longer than 10 feet but are not allowed in any buildings or on swimming beaches. You are expected to poop scoop after your pet too.
WOULD I RECOMEND?
Once again this is a perfect way to enjoy some of the USA's great scenery and wildlife. It is not expensive, easily driveable loop roads and somewhere you can see in part of a day by driving these roads or if you want to really explore the park there are many options of places to stay. There are so many more places to explore and two visitors centre as well as a historical Stockade built by the first group of gold hunters to arrive in the area. We didn't have time to see this but it would have been interesting had we had the time.
A really well looked after state park with a great wildlife conservation record. Definitely worth a visit as it is so close to Mount Rushmore and crazy Horse it would be rude not to call in.
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