A wild herd of small, sweet donkeys pushes against a fence. Behind them are rolling hills covered in long, green grass and a wide, open, bright blue sky. Tourists reach across the barrier, hands outstretched to temp the animals with treats. The donkeys gobble up these offerings and loiter a bit while their visitors scratch them behind the ears. The heartwarming sight of the "begging burros" is a daily occurrence on the Wildlife Loop Drive at South Dakota's Custer State Park. This reserve is located near other must-see attractions in the Black Hills, like Crazy Horse Monument, Mount Rushmore, Deadwood, The Mammoth Site, and Jewel Cave. Read on to learn why over two million tourists visit this beautiful destination each year.
Custer State Park's Scenic Drives
Custer State Park awes visitors with its jaw-dropping landscapes and unabashed wildlife, and historical sites. Each of the three scenic drives offers unique views and experiences.
Length: 14 miles
Time to drive: One hour
Sights: Granite "needle" formations, Sylvan Lake, tunnels, and birch and aspen forests
Needles Highway is fundamental to defining Custer State Park. Many South Dakotans will name this road when listing the most beautiful places in their state. In 1922, the state governor of South Dakota, Peter Norbeck, rode his horse and hiked through the Black Hills, marking where he wanted this road built, leaving a truly gorgeous legacy for the generations to come. The road winds through granite mountains and past Sylvan lake to give drivers breathtaking views. Since it is so narrow and winding, this route is only open to cars until the first snow in the fall to keep travelers safe.
Wildlife Loop Road
Length: 18 miles
Time to drive: One hour and a half
Sights: American bison, prairie dogs, elk, deer, big horn sheep, feral burros, burrowing owls, coyotes, mountain lions
Wildlife Loop Road is fun for families. Car may face traffic jams caused by some of the park's 1350 bison crossing the road--not much can make these gigantic animals hurry up, so the wait can take some time. There are also the donkeys who will stick their heads right through an open car window in search of a treat. Curious prairie dogs pop out of their holes to see who's passing by. Early morning and late afternoon drivers may also catch a glimpse of elk, deer, big horn sheep, burrowing owls, coyotes, or mountain lions.
Iron Mountain Road
Length: 17 miles
Time to drive: one hour
Sights: Mount Rushmore, tunnels, pig-tail bridges, mountain scenery
Peter Norbeck also oversaw the construction of this road which connects Custer State Park to Mount Rushmore National Monument. At the time, engineers advised him that bridges in the shape of a pig's tail would be nearly impossible to build. He persisted, and today, travelers can easily enjoy some of the most beautiful places in the Black Hills.
Custer's Buffalo Roundup And Game Lodge
Some park visitors will want to get more involved with the history and culture of the area. Visiting the State Game Lodge or witnessing the annual buffalo roundup are two ways to do this.
Custer State Park is home to one of the largest, publicly owned bison herds. Around 1300 bison roam the park, but it's vital to limit them to that number to preserve the ecological balance of the park. That's why every year in the fall (late September or early October), volunteers on horses round up the bison and sort them for auction. Around 10,000 spectators watch from folding chairs with binoculars. It is astounding to feel the earth rumble under the feet of these enormous animals. Anyone interested in riding at the event should apply through the park's website. Spots are limited and so high in demand that cowboys and cowgirls should apply at least four months in advance and may only participate once every four years.
The State Game Lodge in Custer State Park is one of the best hotels in South Dakota and a fundamental part of the area's history. Built over 100 years ago, it has hosted presidents and other distinguished visitors. Calvin Coolidge and his family made it their summer home. His wife Grace adopted a raccoon as a pet. Anyone hoping to stay there must make reservations well ahead of time. If that's not possible, the lodge also has a restaurant to explore. Travelers can enjoy meals featuring bison, wall-eye, rattlesnake, and other local products while basking in the lodge's elegant, luxurious surroundings.
Best of all, Custer State Park has enchanted travelers for over a century but remains uncrowded--unlike many national and state parks. Families can view wildlife and landscapes in relative peace. Everyone driving cross-country or headed to Mount Rushmore should include this destination on their itinerary--they won't regret it.