Custer State Park and Wildlife Preserve is South Dakota’s first and largest state park, protecting 71,000 acres of hilly terrain. The park was named after the famous Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, who gained a victorious reputation as a Union cavalry leader in the Civil War, but whose disastrous final Battle of Little Bighorn against native American tribes became the infamous “Custer’s Last Stand.”
While driving through the park, we encountered this magnificent bighorn sheep, who was so intently licking something off the center line of the road that he didn’t even notice we were waiting there for a few minutes until a motorcycle rumbled up behind us. South Dakota’s original bighorn sheep went extinct in the early 1920s, but a herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep was introduced to Custer State Park. Their coats are made of short hair and not wool, as one might expect.
Pronhorns are the fastest land animal in North America and can run up to 60 miles per hour for long distances. Pronghorns are often mistakenly called antelope due to their similar appearance but are a different species altogether.
There are 6 small tunnels in the park along The Needles Scenic Highway. You might think this road was named after the difficulty one has driving today’s large vehicles through these tiny tunnels, i.e. threading the needle. But it’s actually named after the needle-like granite formations along the highway that seem to pierce the horizon. This tunnel is only 8’4” wide and 12’ high.
The Cathedral Spires are the prime example of the needles after which the highway was named. These towering monoliths are a Registered National Natural Landmark. Can you see Theresa and Shadow in the photo above?
The Cathedral Spires attract climbers from all over the country. Their sheer, odd shapes and crumbling rock pose an extra challenge for even the most experienced climbers.
The young bighorn sheep was still a bit awkward in his footing.
His mother didn’t seem too concerned with his walking and was more focused on grabbing a bite to eat for herself.
Perhaps the main attraction of Custer State Park is its wildlife. We saw more wildlife roaming free in Custer than any other park so far on our trip, except perhaps for the large concentration of alligators and birds in Brazos Bend State Park in Texas. One of the more popular animals in Custer is the wild burro that strolls right up to your car to greet you.
Burros are not native to Custer State Park. These wild burros are descendants from a herd of domesticated burros that used to carry park visitors to the top of Harney Peak. After the rides were discontinued, the burros were released into the park, where they established a stable population (pun intended). Notice the cute young burro nuzzling up to his mother in the photo above.
The burros are very friendly and will stick their head in your car window to be petted. Unfortunately this frightened our dog Darby, and she has been nervous to ride in the car ever since.
Custer State Park is home to as many as 1500 free-roaming North American bison. There was once millions of bison roaming the western United States, but hunting decimated the species, and by the year 1900, there were only about 1,000 bison remaining in the wild. Peter Norbeck, known as the “Father of Custer State Park,” recognized this dire situation and purchased 36 bison to start a herd in the park, which was then just a game sanctuary.
It was amazing to watch this bison gallop across the open plain, the sound of his hooves thundering across the valley. Normally bison are quite docile and immobile, so its startling to see just how fast they can run.
By the 1940s, the bison herd grew to 2,500 head and began overgrazing the park. To reduce the herd to a more manageable size, the park started its annual bison roundup, which has a carnival-like atmosphere and attracts thousands of visitors. Extra bison are auctioned to ranchers from all over the country in order to keep the bison population at its optimum level for the park.
The bison also like to crowd around the road, but you don’t want to pet these beasts. Adult male bison can grow more than 6 feet tall and weigh more than a ton. They are the largest native terrestrial mammal in North America.
We hiked along Sylvan Lake during one of the coldest days of our trip punctuated by a sharp north wind and occasional snow squalls. The blurriness you see in this photo is driving snow.
The snow stopped briefly so we could grab a panorama of Sylvan Lake.