We targeted Custer State Park on our trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota after some friends described their recent visit and reading opinions that it was second only to Yellowstone National Park for wildlife viewing.
The stage was Wildlife Loop Road, an 18 mile route through open grasslands and Ponderosa Pine clothed hillsides, that reportedly can be driven in 45 minutes. It took us approximately 4 hours in a morning and early afternoon, including some short hikes, exiting the car at pull overs, a picnic lunch, and short stops at a couple of visitors centers. In addition, we combined the drive with an afternoon foray into Wind Cave National Park since the two parks are contiguous and their roads network together.
While similar in format to our scenic drive in Badlands National Park, with beautiful scenery and frequent encounters with wildlife, the experience itself was different. The Black Hills ecosystem, with more extensive prairie and large groupings of trees, presented diverse and somewhat more lush environs.
Although our visits at both parks were anecdotal one or two day visits, Bison at Custer were more visible. We saw several large herds and they were all relatively close to the road or pull off areas. The Bison were close enough for good viewing, but far enough away for safety. Our binoculars and the photographer’s telephoto lens allowed for better appreciation.
It was exciting to take a turn on the road and see a hillside full of Bison such as in the title photo, or the one below.
Occasionally the Bison would be too close to the car, and for safety reasons we would enjoy them from that viewing point.
At one pull off the Bison were resting in the shade and the photographer captured this photo of one with its tongue out.
Interspersed with the frequent Bison sightings were encounters with other mammals including Pronghorn Antelope. Females, as seen in these photos, lack the pronghorns.
Also seen, were a large group of Bighorn Sheep, one of which was wearing a radio collar.
While not as exciting as some of the animals seen, this white tail deer made us laugh with her coy stare from behind a tree.
Ellen then caught this shot when the doe realized that she was not as hidden as she thought.
The more lush grasslands harbored some healthy Prairie Dog populations.
And where there are Prairie Dogs, there will be Coyotes as well as other predators. We caught this one hunting in a Prairie Dog town on the road to Wind Cave National Park.
The other animal fairly common in our native Ohio River Valley that we saw in Custer State Park was a healthy flock of Wild Turkey.
An interesting sighting along the way was a large herd of Burros that caused a minor traffic jam as the Loop wound its way through a valley.
The Burros were originally brought to the area to haul visitors to the top of Black Elk Peak, but when that commercial operation failed they were released into the park and became naturalized. They have learned to beg food from the passing cars; everything from Doritos to carrots being offered.
One nice bird sighting was this White-Winged Junco which has a range limited to the pine forest of the Black Hills. Here he sits in a small Ponderosa Pine.
When compared to the Badlands scenic drive, the Custer Wildlife Loop Road offers more up close valley exposures and less broad vistas. Also the contours were smooth and rolling rather than jagged and rocky.
And there was certainly more water.
It was late summer when we visited and leaf change was just starting, adding bright yellows to the palette.
The tree species were limited, with Ponderosa Pines on the hilltops and Cottonwoods in the creek valleys and watersheds.
But we did eye this collection of the white barked Quaking Aspen in a valley. As discussed previously, a cluster of Aspens is called a “clone”, arise off a single extensive root system, and each tree is genetically identical.
While small fires are not uncommon in the region, in 2017 Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park experienced the Legion Lake Fire that burned 54,000 acres over 5 days. The effect on the landscape was notable.
Recent fires have led to changes in land management and now crews collect downed timber in the hopes of limiting fire spread. The plan is to burn these piles when the area is no longer experiencing drought conditions, but they have not been able to burn them for 3 years.
What you miss when you only do a driving tour are the up close images that reveal nature’s beauty on a smaller scale. We found the following specimens when we got out of the car at the pull outs, or took to a hiking trail.
Bull Thistle – each flower only lasts a day.
Hairy Golden Aster – displaying its classic compact form. The height of the plant will depend on environmental conditions, with more harsh environments resulting in shorter or stunted plants.
Maximilian Sunflower – a native perennial, the plants can reach 10 feet tall and are heavy seed producers making them a valuable wildlife food source.
Aster – another member of the Sunflower/Daisy family. It can be a real challenge to identify them to a specific species.
And our first red dragon fly, the Autumn Meadowhawk. The adults are only seen from August to October.
By getting out on a hiking trail we were able to enjoy this vista and get the earlier photo of the White-winged Junco.
In summary, cruising Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop Road is a great day in the outdoors. There is beauty at every turn in the road and many opportunities to step out into nature. Even if you did not see wildlife, which given our experience seems unlikely, the scenery itself is rewarding enough. And like the Badlands scenic drive, persons of all mobility levels will feel one with nature. You can immerse yourself into the landscape as much as your time allows. We only spent one day here and at Wind Cave National Park, but with Rushmore nearby, it would be easy to enjoy a week in the immediate region, and perhaps see animals that we missed on our short visit, including mountain goats, mountain lions, and elk.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns and Ellen Burns.
Location – Custer, South Dakota. 30 miles from Rapid City, South Dakota, and 76 miles from Badlands National Park
Parking – Asphalt and gravel lots and pull offs all along Wildlife Loop Road.
Facilities – Yes, at multiple visitor centers.
Trail Conditions – Good bare dirt trails.
Print Map Link – https://gfp.sd.gov/userdocs/csp-trail-guide.pdf
Benches – At most locations.
Picnic Tables – At designated picnic areas along the route.
Kids – Will love the frequent opportunities to get out of the car for the scenery as well as searching for the animals in the landscape.
Dogs – Welcomed on a leash but not allowed in park buildings.