Named for Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, whose 1874 expedition discovered gold in the Black Hills, the second-largest state park in the country — 73,000 acres — offers a great getaway in the prairies and foothills of southwestern South Dakota. And it’s probably the only place you might find buffalo strolling past your RV campsite! Located just south of Rapid City, the park lures vacationers year-round with camping facilities, hiking, mountain biking and horseback-riding trails, rock climbing, scenic drives and scores of lakes and streams for fishing, boating and swimming. Jeep buffalo safaris, pack trips, hayrides,
chuck-wagon cookouts, gold-panning demonstrations and nature programs are among the regularly scheduled activities. Every October, the park’s 1,500 free-ranging buffalo (American plains bison) are rounded up–except for the oldest bulls, which are loners and
too ornery to bother with. To maintain the size of the herd, approximately 500 are sorted out for sale at auction. Most go to private herds for meat production. The roundup weekend includes a chuck-wagon buffalo cookout, an arts festival and Western entertainment. In 1999, an estimated 6,000 spectators attended. Cowboys and park personnel on horseback and in pickup trucks form teams to herd the big beasts toward the corrals, where spectators watch as they are funneled into pens and separated so the year’s new crop of calves can be branded and vaccinated. The sale of the excess animals benefits the park, which is financially self-sufficient. It also prevents overgrazing of the available land. Besides the buffalo, other viewable wildlife include pronghorn, mountain goats, elk and mule deer, along with coyotes, mountain lions and bobcats. More than 180 bird species inhabit the park, including wild turkeys. Roaming burros, probably descended from those abandoned by prospectors, mooch for handouts along the roads and are the only park animals you’re allowed to feed. Don’t miss Badger Hole (the cabin home of Charles “Badger” Clark, a local poet), the Gordon Stockade (a living-history replica of a log fortress built by early gold seekers) and the Mount Coolidge Fire Tower. For a break from campground cooking, there are four restaurants serving everything from sandwiches to trout, pheasant and buffalo, and a dinner theater at the Black Hills Playhouse, which is also within the park. The rustic State Game Lodge served as the summer White House for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927 and was visited later by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nowadays, the lodge has sprouted modern wings housing attractive motel rooms. Nearby points of interest are Mount Rushmore National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, Badlands National Park, Black Hills National Forest, the Hot Springs Mammoth Site, historic Deadwood and Jewel Cave and Wind Cave national monuments. Plan a visit to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, where unadoptable wild mustangs have been gathered from Bureau of Land Management lands to live out their lives unmolested. Custer State Park has eight campgrounds with 350 sites. There are no electrical hookups. You can rent rooms in cabins and lodges. For more information, call (605) 255-4515. To make reservations for visits between April 30 and October 10, call (800) 710-2267. For state travel information, contact South Dakota Tourism, (800) S-DAKOTA.