In spring 2014, a friend and I had the opportunity to travel out to South Dakota and parts of Wyoming. On the way, we ran into a freak winter storm that blew across the Great Plains. There were wind gusts of up to 64 mph in Rapid City. Thankfully, it cleared up by the time we made it to Custer State Park, south of Rapid City, and the weather was perfect.
Custer State Park is a state wildlife reserve in the Black Hills, named after George Armstrong Custer, who died at the Battle of Little Bighorn. It is 71,000 acres of scenic countryside. You can drive the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road through gently sloping terrain all around the park. There are also hiking trails, lodges, and lakes where trout fishing is popular.
Besides picturesque scenery, Custer State Park’s big draw is a herd of over 1,300 bison. The bison are known to occasionally block the road. We drove through a big herd and got pretty close, but luckily they stayed away from the road.
The first bison we saw was in a small group of three or four, grazing on the prairie. I’d never seen bison in person before, and from a distance, I thought it was a statue. They can stand as tall as six feet and weigh as much as 2,000 pounds.
They look like docile beasts, but can become agitated and charge vehicles. Apparently visitors to places like Yellowstone National Park have gotten too close, trying to take photos or “selfies” with the bison, and have regretted it. I can’t imagine being in the middle of a bison stampede, or facing down an angry bull. They probably outweigh my car!
American bison are the largest land animals in North America. There were once tens of millions on the continent, but systematic killing reduced their numbers to a few hundred. Thanks to conservation efforts, they are no longer considered endangered. Farms sell bison meat, which is supposed to be healthier than beef from cattle. According to the USDA, 100 grams of raw bison meat contains 109 calories and 1.8 grams fat. A comparable sample of raw beef contains 291 calories and 24 grams fat.
Other animals roam Custer State Park as well, including elk, coyotes, mule deer, white tailed deer, mountain goats, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, river otters, pronghorn, and cougars. We saw a herd of pronghorn near the visitors center, which is the first time I’ve seen that animal as well. Whitetail deer is about as exotic as it gets in Illinois, unless a black bear or cougar wanders down from Wisconsin. Apparently, feral donkeys known as “Begging Burros” approach visitors for food, but we didn’t see any.
Custer State Park’s new visitor center is open from 9am to 4pm, but the park is open 24 hours. A Temporary Vehicle License to visit the park is $20/vehicle and $10/motorcycle. Campers must self-register at stations located on each end of the natural area. The fee is $7 per person, per night. Cabins are also available for rent. My friend and I only had time to drive the loop, but one day I hope to return and enjoy everything this park has to offer.