It was a cold, drizzling morning at the southern end of the Black Hills in South Dakota. Bonnie and I were huddled up in warm clothes along with several thousand others, waiting for the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup to begin.
Then comes the rumble. You can almost feel it before you see it. Across the hills, the first of a herd of around 1,300 bison tops the ridge. And then more. Then you hear the crack of the wranglers’ whips. As the herd keeps moving, you see the wranglers moving, urging the herd forward, keeping strays with the group.
This isn’t like wrangling cattle. It’s an entirely different animal, both literally and figuratively. Bison are ornery. Indeed, the roundup does not even try to wrangle the bachelor bulls, instead concentrating on the cows and their calves.
Following the herd is a line of trucks to keep the herd moving forward. This happens every year, so the more experienced bison know what to expect and, generally, where to go. As the herd is pushed down into the valley, they have to be turned back across the road and into the corrals.
Located squarely between the two viewing areas, this area provides the best opportunity to really see the wranglers at work. The whips crack, the wranglers holler and bison grunt. Finally, the last of the stragglers are pushed across the road into the corrals and a cheer goes up from the crowd.
It’s a sight to behold, one you simply just can’t see anywhere else other than the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup.
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What is the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup?
Every year, during the last week of September, the folks at Custer State Park round up all of the cows and calves of the bison herd. This is the second-largest public bison herd in the country at around 1,400, trailing only the herd in Yellowstone National Park, which is around 4,600 bison.
And there’s the problem and the reason for the roundup: Custer State Park is less than a third the size of Yellowstone NP. In order to keep the herd healthy and the land healthy, the state park must be active in its management.
So, they round up the bison to immunize the herd, perform health inspections on the animals and, most importantly, auction off excess animals. The land can only support so many bison and without a lot in the way of natural predators, the herd would outgrow the state park within a few years if not kept in check.
The other component to keeping the herd healthy is making sure no disease that can be spread to nearby cattle takes hold in the bison herd.
Following the Buffalo Roundup, the folks with South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks demonstrate how the bison are inspected and cared for. On the day of the roundup, they start this process with a small portion of the herd which had been corralled a few days earlier. They do this to allow the bison time to get used to being around each other in the corrals.
Remember bison are ornery, right?
You can see that firsthand as the staff work to get the bison in the chutes. These are large, wild animals and they do not want to be confined.
Still, the wranglers are used to working with bison and understand the patience and caution needed.
How to See the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup
First and foremost, seeing this event takes prior planning. It is quite popular, with as many as 20,000 people coming to see the action. While you might be able to score a last-minute hotel room or campsite, I would not count on it. This is the tail end of the tourist season in Custer and we saw several businesses that were already closed for the season.
We camped at the Big Pine Campground just on the west side of Custer in a camper van we rented from Outdoorsy. We have camped here before, way back in 2012, and it is every bit as good as we remember it.
When we came back to the Black Hills this past winter, we stayed up in Rapid City at the Hilton Garden Inn. It was quite comfy and is a good base for exploring more of the area, not just Custer.
Once you have secured a place to stay, you need to make sure you have the right gear with you for the Buffalo Roundup. You should have, at a minimum, rain gear and warm layers. Rounding up 1,300 or so bison is not an exact science, so it might take a bit longer than you expect. It was cold while we were there and it has snowed in past years.
We also recommend bringing folding chairs and snacks. While the Buffalo Roundup has both breakfast and lunch for sale, the lines were quite long and they ran out of bison brisket at the lunch before we got some.
On the day of, get up early! We got up around 4:30 a.m. thinking as long as we were on the road by around 5:30 and in the park by 6 a.m., we would be good. We were wrong. The line to get into the park took a couple of hours to negotiate and by the time we got parked and walked up, there weren’t a ton of great spots left to set up in. We eventually found one in a draw and had a good view.
On the way in, you will be forced to make a choice: North Viewing Area or South Viewing Area. We asked a ranger and he recommended the North Viewing Area because the bison will be coming down head-on towards the North Viewing Area. So, we did the North Viewing Area and enjoyed it.
Both viewing areas will have a shuttle down to the corrals after the Buffalo Roundup for the lunch and to watch the staff work on the animals. We ended up walking down and back. It was a bit faster and it was only about a mile each way.
Pro tip: You cannot bring pets to the Buffalo Roundup (they have to stay in the car) and RVs have to go to a lot near the North Viewing Area and be shuttled. Thankfully, we were able to park the camper van in the normal parking area.
Other Activities In and Around Custer State Park
Unless you happen to live in the area, getting to Custer State Park can be a bit of a challenge. Driving all that way just for the Buffalo Roundup might seem like a waste.
The Black Hills remains one of our favorite places on earth. There is so much to see and do there, even at the end of the season.
For starters, there are three units of the National Park Service right there near Custer: Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
If you decide to stay up in Rapid City, there’s a ton of cool stuff up in the north part of the Black Hills. The town itself is really cool, even in the dead of winter.
But, honestly, there’s a lot to do in Custer State Park itself!
Go to the Arts Festival
We made a point to walk over to the arts festival and check out all of the amazing artisans of the Black Hills. I am not going to lie… there was some cool artwork that tempted us.
The buffalo robes really tempted me as well. I still really want one. That would be epic. I just can’t justify the price.
They also had some local craft beer on hand. I can’t turn down a good Oktoberfest beer, like the one out of Crow Peak Brewing in Spearfish.
Go For a Hike
We got out on the Lover’s Leap Trail the day before the Buffalo Roundup. We had it mostly to ourselves, despite the proximity to the arts festival.
The hike was about 4.5 miles with some really nice views of the Black Hills. We even spotted some bighorn ewes lounging in the trees.
Drive the Wildlife Loop Before the Buffalo Roundup
The Wildlife Loop is one of the best parts of Custer State Park. This 18-mile drive takes you through the rolling hills at the southern end of the Black Hills. On a normal day, you can expect to see bison and the park’s famous begging burros.
If you watch carefully, you might spot pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, deer, elk and coyotes.
We enjoyed watching the herd mull about right by the road. We also learned a cool trick if you are ever driving a van to take pictures of wildlife. You can open up the side door to allow the photographer a truly unobstructed view of the action without getting out of the vehicle.
If you plan on driving the Wildlife Loop, be sure to do it before the Buffalo Roundup. That way the bison will actually be out and about. After the roundup, you will still find large bulls scattered about. It is just not the same as seeing the herd.
Drive the Needles Highway to Sylvan Lake
One of the most scenic roads in America, the Needles Highway winds north through some of the most scenic parts of the Black Hills. The entire area is framed by granite spires and the road is littered with one-lane tunnels blasted through the granite.
The views on this drive are truly something special, especially the Cathedral Spires.
At the end of the drive, be sure to get out and see Sylvan Lake. Sylvan Lake is arguably the prettiest spot in all the Black Hills. It is also a great jumping-off point for a hike up to Black Elk Peak, the highest point in South Dakota.
Where to Eat in Custer
For this trip, we were happy Black Hills Burger and Bun, regarded as one of the best burger joints in America, was open.
A word of warning: the wait can be long, so get there early and before you are hungry.
We went the night before the roundup and the burgers were worth the wait! We each got a bison burger… I got the Texan, Bonnie got the Black Hills Blues.
My burger was just… great. I loved it. I would go back again but I was not convinced this was one of the best burger joints in America. Then I bit into Bonnie’s burger. WOW! That was one of the best burgers I have ever had. That was worth the wait right there.
On our last night, our friends Kari and Tom, who run the Nature Tech Family blog, had us over for dinner for elk chili and it was amazing! Getting fresh game meat, other than venison, is so hard to get at home!
Final Thoughts on the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup
The Buffalo Roundup is one of the most unique events you will ever see in your life and is certainly worth the trip. While it does take a bit of prior planning to make it happen, we can’t recommend it enough. We had an absolute blast.
Since we have been to the Black Hills a couple of times before, we were able to work in our visit as part of a larger September trip. We flew into Denver and rented a camper van from Outdoorsy. Our first stop was Rocky Mountain National Park before coming up to Custer State Park.
The distances were a bit long (about five hours between Rocky Mountain NP and Custer State Park). That said, the drive was not hard. The itinerary ended up working just about perfectly.
So, in one week, we were able to spend three days in Rocky Mountain NP, see the elk rut and do plenty of hiking AND then go to Custer State Park, see the Buffalo Roundup, plus do plenty of other cool stuff.
In short, it was the perfect trip.