Adventurous types know to head to Pamplona to run with the bulls and to camp out by East Africa’s Mara River to watch the wildebeest migration, but few have ever heard of the Custer State Park roundup, which sends more than a thousand snorting bison stampeding across the South Dakota prairie at speeds of up to 50 mph. For the last five decades, cowboys have corralled the park’s buffalo every fall – this year, they’ll saddle up on September 27 – while spectators watch the chaos and the governor hosts a massive barbecue. The event is a party for in-the-know travelers and locals, who have a chance to celebrate the beauty of their state’s wild western border while watching some two million pounds of animal rocket across the grass.
At 71,000 acres, Custer State Park is big. That makes finding every member of the resident herd – 1,300 animals roaming free from the granite spires of Needles Highway to forbidding Harney Peak, the highest point east of the Rockies – a real hassle. Herding the headstrong creatures into a pen to be inoculated and branded is harder still (they seem to struggle with the concept of “for your own good”). Only experienced cowboys on well-trained horses are allowed to run with the herd, though spectators are permitted to wander close to the furry, pulsating mass. The vast majority of the buffalo will eventually be released back into the park, but a select few are chosen for November’s Annual Buffalo Auction, which raises roughly $325,000 for the South Dakota Department of Parks and Recreation.
The department needs the money because this corner of the Mount Rushmore State is absolutely packed with preserves and monuments. And justifiably so – the place is a postcard version of the West. That’s why Calvin Coolidge used the State Game Lodge inside Custer as a “Summer White House” and why various politicians have seen fit to protect the white sand beaches of Angostura Recreation Area, the winding, bike-friendly George Mickelson Trail, and rugged Roughlock Fall Nature Area, one of the most photogenic spots in the Black Hills. Members of the Northern Platte tribes still wander Bear Butte State Park on their vision quests.
Aside from the bison, which can weigh 2,000 pounds and are hard to ignore, Custer protects healthy populations of elk, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, mountain goats, pronghorns, and feral “begging burros,” descendants of the pack animals that helped prospectors summit nearby mountains now known for climbing into tourists’ cars in search of treats. Be polite and bring them carrots. In this part of South Dakota, animals and mankind have reached a respectful accord.
More information: Although Custer State Park has four distinct lodges and many campgrounds, the hub for the annual Buffalo Roundup is the State Game Lodge. Built in 1920 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the lodge offers rooms from $115 a night, but books up early for the roundup. The event takes place September 27 and 28.