The Annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup Offers an Ideal
Excuse to Experience Autumn in the Black Hills of South Dakota
The trailside foliage glows in hues ranging from sizzling yellows to scorching reds. Camera in hand, I wade in for the perfect shot.
"I wouldn't do that!" a park ranger shouts. "That's poison ivy."
I've driven to South Dakota's Black Hills to experience Custer State Park's late-September Buffalo Roundup. Arriving early gives me time to explore this lush island of greenery springing from a muted sea of plains and prairie.
In summertime, the Black Hills fill with heat-escaping flatlanders, but after Labor Day crowds diminish. The hills turn ghostly quiet with lodging vacancies abundant and roads deliciously empty. Best of all, autumn splatters the Black Hills with a Pollock-worthy montage of color, which includes some of the most photogenic poison ivy around.
Rapid City, a 70,000-resident community on its northeastern flanks, serves as gateway to the Black Hills. Folks here, I find, smile and greet strangers with friendly hellos. Ask advice on what to see or where to go and they provide scores of knowledgeable suggestions.
One such recommendation leads me to the Mount Rushmore Black Hills Gold Factory. I naively figured the name came from where the mineral was mined, but no, it represents a style.
"It all started back in the gold rush days," manager Paul Handshue explains on a tour. "A French goldsmith by the name of Henri LeBeaucame to the Black Hills looking to get rich. Legend has it that one day, he got lost in the hills and stumbled upon a cluster of wild grapes. From that he got inspiration to create a style of jewelry that would symbolize the grapes, wines and vineyards of his native France. So he created this particular style – pink and green leaves with grape vines and grape clusters. There are now only four major manufacturers of Black Hills Gold, which by federal law has to be made in the Black Hills and nowhere else."
For eye-candy leaf peeping, locals tout the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. The 22-mile route winds up a stream-fed mountain canyon hemmed in pine, spruce, aspen and birch. Tinges of leafy yellow border the clear rushing stream with neighboring shrubs offering dollops of red.
Three impressive waterfalls grace Spearfish Canyon. Bridal Veil Falls, visible from the highway, cloaks a rocky face with a shroud of sheer white. Water splashes, gurgles and whooshes down, making the scene seem subtle and serene.
Spearfish Falls requires a 3/4-mile hike on a loop trail complete with serenading songbirds. While Bridal Veil appears delicate, Spearfish pounds over in an 80-foot arc of liquid brawn.
Nearby, a mile-long stroll through leafy creek-side gold leads to Roughlock Falls. Here, the stream splits into two channels. One plummets 60 feet in a raging curtain of white while the other drapes the rock in lacy translucence. The final Indian camp in Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves was filmed near here.
Over the centuries, the Black Hills have been the sacred home of several Native American tribes. Early pioneers wisely left the hills alone, and the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 granted the area to the Sioux with miners and settlers barred from entry. Six years later, General George Armstrong Custer arrived. He came to build a fort and ended up finding gold. Treaty-ignoring fortune seekers soon founded the boomtowns of Lead, Central City and Deadwood.
Deadwood, which has allowed legalized gambling since 1989, served as a model for Colorado's own ghost-to-gaming transformations. I expected to see something resembling Blackhawk. Instead, I find a community still rife with historic character.
I wander the Mt. Moriah cemetery, which overlooks the city. Two of its most famous residents are James Butler Hickok and Martha Jane Burke, better known as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. An avid gambler, Wild Bill was shot during a game of five-card draw. The hand he held, black pairs of eights and aces, has become known as the "dead man's hand."
My final Deadwood stop is Tatanka. Founded by Kevin Costner, this interpretative center tells the story of the American buffalo and its relationship to Native Americans.
"Our way of life here depended on one animal," explains Lakota tribal member Billy Leroy. "We had over 100 different uses of the bison."
Known both as bison and American buffalo, experts estimate that at one time 30+ million roamed North America. While they provided a major source of food and material for the Plains Indians, the thundering herds proved detrimental to incoming farmers, ranchers and railroaders. Hired hunters such as Buffalo Bill Cody killed the animals and let their carcasses lie. By 19th century's end, few bison remained. Today, populations have recovered to around 500,000 animals.
After an indoor talk, we head outside to where tepees used in the movie stand. Behind a grassy knob rest bronze sculptures depicting 14 bigger-than-life buffalo pursued by a trio of Indian riders.
From Deadwood, I drive an hour south through a conifer forest bejeweled with gilded aspen and birch. There, I turn onto the Needles Highway.
Calling this 14-mile stretch of roadway a "highway" is something of a misnomer. It's a paved, skinny, two-lane, shoulderless route offering more twists and turns than a Dan Brown novel. It makes Colorado's Independence Pass road seem downright tame.
The Needles name comes from the granitic crags, knobs, spires, pillars and towers that claw the sky along the way. It looks like the Garden of the Gods on steroids.
Completed in 1922, the highway features a trio of one-lane tunnels, each barely big enough for modern tour buses to squeeze through.
The highway takes me into Custer State Park, which at 71,000 acres, stands as the second largest state park in the country. Only New York's Adirondack covers more ground. A massive bison grazes beside the pavement.
"Got lots of them," visitor center volunteer Kathy Mayer tells me. "About 1,300 roughly. There are four or five big old bulls kicking around here. They've found places with good grass and water. They watch the cars."
To get up close and personal with the park's bison, I book a Buffalo Safari Jeep Ride. The vehicle bounces past pronghorn and prairie dogs. Burros nuzzle under the canopy, begging for food. And, of course, we get close up views of bison. Christy reminds us that these unpredictable, one-ton creatures can run 30+ mph, jump six feet off the ground and change direction faster than an NFL running back.
"I had all girls in my Jeep on one tour," driver Christy Vogel relates. "There was a cow down at the end all by herself. She took one look at my Jeep and goes into full charge. Head down. All four feet pound straight at me. She gets about a foot from the grill, does a 90-degree turn, brushes along the side and disappears over the hill.
"I look at the girls. Their eyes are huge. Mouths gape open. Nobody's saying a word. Finally out of the silence the youngest, who must have been about 11, screams out 'COOL!'"
No trip to South Dakota would be complete without visiting its five famous faces – four presidents and an Indian chief. From Custer State Park, locals assure, me Iron Mountain Road provides the most scenic route to these. Like the Needles Highway, it's a squiggly zigzagger with one-lane tunnels, several of which point like spotting scopes straight at Mount Rushmore.
My first stop is Crazy Horse Memorial. Rather than whittle faces from a cliff, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski decided to carve an entire mountain into a giant sculpture of the Sioux leader. When completed, it will stand over 56 stories high and extend more than two football fields in length.
The key is "when completed." The memorial has been under construction since 1948, and at this point, only the chief's 87½-foot-high face stands completed. Korczak died in 1982. The work continues under the direction of his octogenarian widow, Ruth.
"Korczak always said he wasn't trying to be difficult when he wouldn't tell people when it was going to be finished," she says. "He just had no way of knowing. And we still don't."
I save South Dakota's trademark monument, Mount Rushmore, for last. This rocky tribute to patriotism began in the 1920s as the bait to lure tourists to a state that wasn't long on tourist attractions. The initial idea was to chisel the stony spires of the Needles region into full-length sculptures, but sculptor Gutzon Borglum had a better idea. He would fashion the faces of four presidents, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt from the side of Mount Rushmore. The 14-year undertaking was completed in 1941.
I share the national memorial with busloads of visitors from near and far. We've purposely arrived late in the day so we can catch the evening lighting ceremony.
A Boy Scout color guard performs a flag ceremony, a video explains the historic importance of these four presidents, and a park ranger gives a talk, which tonight covers the Lewis and Clark expedition. As the crowd sings the national anthem, the faces light up and military personnel and veterans descend to the stage and identify their units. I leave the ceremony feeling chest-poundingly proud to be an American.
"I'm really impressed," a visitor from Belgium remarks as we walk out. "We never have patriotic performances like this in our country."
My next day has its ups and downs. It begins with a visit to Wind Cave National Park. Established in 1903, Wind became America's seventh national park and the first to honor a cave. Here, stretch 140 miles of known passages making this the sixth longest cave system in the world.
Instead of the traditional grand chambers brimming with colorful stalactites, stalagmites and connecting columns, Wind Cave offers passageways where veins of calcite project from the cave walls. Called boxwork, these structures were formed when cracks in the surrounding limestone filled with calcite. As the limestone dissolved away, the harder mineral remained. Removed from its mold, the exposed calcite forms decorative patterns ranging from thin fins to honeycomb blades.
"We have 95% of all the known boxwork in the entire world right here," ranger Lacey Thomas explains. "If you want to see it, this is where you come."
Emerging the depths of the Black Hills, I next aim for its high point, Harney Peak. At 7,242 feet above sea level, Harney represents the loftiest summit between the Rockies and Greenland.
I start my climb from Sylvan Lake, a popular fishing spot in Custer State Park. The trail stretches 3½ miles each way with 1,100 feet net elevation gain. A cornucopia of color lines the pathway with shades of lime green, lemon yellow and tangerine orange. A whispering breeze rustles branches, and the earthy aroma of wood, dust and fallen leaves scent the air.
Atop the summit, flagstone walkways and rock-walled stairways lead to a collection of stone structures. Built by Civilian Conservation Corps workers during the Great Depression, this mountaintop site served as a national park-worthy fire tower until 1967.
Unimpeded views extend from plains and prairie to mountains and rolling hills. Below, granitic spires, pinnacles and knobs poke like baubles on a dimpled bodice of green sequined in gold. While I'm captivated by the scene, arriving hikers display different priorities.
"I'd better get good cell reception up here," one declares hopefully. "I'd better, I'd better."
Of course, what drew me to drive to South Dakota was the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup where cowhands herd bison from hills to holding pastures. There, the cows, calves and young bulls will be sorted, branded and vaccinated.
"We have 60 riders in three teams," explains park superintendent Dick Miller. "Twenty of those are the core group that work with herd manager ChadKremer year-round. Another 20 are from applications drawn by lottery. The final 20 are invitees."
About 14,000 spectators show up for the event. Crack-of-dawn arrivals grab prime spots along fences where they can feel the ground shake as the animals pound down the draw.
As a beauty-sleeping late arrival, I follow local advice and head for high ground where I can watch the herd as it sweeps down hills and through the valley. Autumn grasses carpet the rolling landscape in shades of dusty wheat and rosy pink. Occasional trees add splotches of green with streamside cottonwoods splashed in gold. The cool morning air sizzles with anticipation.
"There they are!" someone shouts, pointing to the distant hillside.
It first looks like a plague of ants cresting a ridge, but they seemingly grow in size as they rumble down the slope, their somber bodies moving as one undulating mass. Cowhands gallop and pickup trucks follow as they herd the herd over tufted terrain.
The first wave rounds the corner. I hear whips cracking and riders whoop. Dust flies. I feel I've been transported back to a time when these mighty beasts ruled the Great Plains.
The herded animals pass through gates and are soon corralled in a large holding pasture. A handful of stragglers follow. Then, it's over. This up-close vision of a bygone West lasts less time than an episode of Bonanza, but the opportunity to see so many bison in one thundering herd will long linger in my memory.
I drop down for a burger at the accompanying chuckwagon cookout. Demonstrations of sorting, branding and vaccination follow, but I decide to leave early. I prefer to see bison wild and free, not chuted, tagged and needled.
Besides, I'm itching to head for a drugstore to pick up some more calamine lotion.
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The Annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup takes place on the last Friday of September. Park admission is free on roundup day. Contact the Custer State Park for information.