Custer State Park
We arrived at Custer State Park in the late afternoon on Wednesday, July 26. I've been to a lot of great state parks, but Custer might be the best one I've ever visited. Not only is it enormous (of the 6600+ state parks in the US, it is the 8th largest), it's gorgeous, and there is so much to see and do.
We started at the Visitor Center.
There, we got an overview of the park and learned more about all it has to offer. Exhibits throughout the Visitor Center focus on Custer's most iconic species, the bison. You can call them buffalo if you want to, but they are not buffalo. They are bison.
This exhibit is clever. You stand on the mat at different distances from the screen to simulate standing different distances from bison. At the farthest position, the bison continue their normal activities, but as you step closer, they become aware of you. You learn to recognize the signs that the animals are disturbed by your presence as you move even closer.
After the Visitor Center, we checked into our room at the State Game Lodge. The beautiful native stone and wood lodge opened in 1920. It served as the "Summer White House" for President Coolidge in 1927 and hosted President Eisenhower in 1953.
We unpacked our things and then ate dinner at the Lodge. The food was fantastic.
Then we spent time relaxing on the porch. The view was beautiful and it was really peaceful.
As it got later and the temperature dropped, we went for a walk. Other than the flies (what is up with the flies in South Dakota?!), it was a perfect evening and a great way to end the day.
Even in the state park there were multiple ton bales. They are literally everywhere in South Dakota. Anyone remember the iconic Amazing Race challenge?
After a good night's sleep, we were up bright and early on Thursday, July 27. We walked next door to the Creekside Lodge...
... for the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour! I wish they called it the Bison Safari, since buffalo live in Asia and Africa, not South Dakota, but it is what it is.
Goal #1: Spot the 2000 pound vegans.
The bison roam wherever they want among Custer's 71,000 acres. While there's no guarantee you'll see bison on the Buffalo Safari, you almost certainly will. The guides keep each other informed about where the bison are and which direction they're headed. Our guide, Kathy, had us near the bison within 10 minutes.
As I said, the bison go where the bison want to go. And sometimes, they want to go a few feet from where a Jeep is. It would have been incredibly stupid (and dangerous) for us to have gotten this close to a bison even inside a vehicle, but the bison came toward us while we were stopped. He walked right by us with barely a glance.
For the most part, bison stay together with their herd. A senior female decides where to head, and everyone else follows. The cinnamon-colored babies follow right behind their mothers.
When the herd stops to eat or drink, the babies break formation. But then they drop right back behind their mothers when it's time to roam.
I could have watched the bison all day, but we had other animals to try to spot. Before long, we saw some pronghorns.
And, of course, we saw hundreds (thousands?) of prairie dogs. They're everywhere and they're adorable.
The Buffalo Safari was 2 hours long and we loved every minute. Kathy took us all over the park and told us all about the native plants and animals. It was fantastic.
She showed us the area affected by the 2017 Legion Lake Fire and how the plants and animals are recovering.
All too soon, our tour ended. We walked to our next destination, the Peter Norbeck Education Center.
They have educational displays, toys and crafts for kids, and programs for all ages.
You may be wondering who Peter Norbeck was. He served two terms as the Governor of South Dakota, followed by three terms as a US Senator. He is best known as "Mount Rushmore's great political patron," as he promoted the carving and secured the federal funding for the sculpture. His summer home was in Custer State Park and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
We checked out of the State Game Lodge and drove to Legion Lake Lodge, admiring the stunning landscape along the way.
Legion Lake is really pretty.
Visitors were enjoying the beach and the swimming area. Others were out in kayaks.
We continued our drive to Blue Bell Lodge.
We had lunch at the lodge. Everything was fantastic. The plate directly in front of Steve is chislic, which is South Dakota's official state nosh. (Yes, really.)
We spent a bit of time walking around after we ate. This area of Custer State Park actually looks a lot like the Sierra Nevadas in California. The Ponderosa pines, the granite outcroppings... it felt very much like Bear Valley, where we've spent so much time as a family.
Although it was too short, we made the most of our time at Custer State Park. It's a beautiful place and I would love to return someday. But we were excited to head to our next location. I'll tell you all about it tomorrow.