Wildlife Adventures in Custer State Park

Custer State Park is the hidden gem of South Dakota tourism. With none of the notoriety of tourism giants Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, and less publicity than its National Park big brothers Badlands and Wind Cave, Custer State Park is probably not even on your South Dakota radar. But it should be.

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Bison Crossing!

With fishing, boating, scenic drives, hiking, guided activities, shopping, multiple resorts with dining options, camping, wildlife viewing, horseback riding, mountain biking, and more, there is enough to do in this state park to keep you busy for weeks!

But the big draw to this park is the wildlife. If you want to see native North American wildlife in their natural habitat, this is the place to be.

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A herd of 1,300 bison (one of the largest public-owned herds in the world) roams freely throughout the park. In addition to bison, you can also find pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and a band of friendly burros.

FUN FACT OF THE DAY: bison are often mistakenly called buffalo, when in fact bison and buffalo are completely different animals. Buffalo cannot be found in the wild in the USA. The animals we know as “buffalo” (bison) can only be found in North America, whereas true buffalo can only be found in Africa and Asia. Bison were called buffalo by early explorers due to their resemblance to the buffalo they had seen elsewhere, and the name kinda stuck.

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WILDLIFE LOOP ROAD

Distance: 18 miles
Expected travel time: 45 minutes

This road is basically a scenic drive wildlife safari, and is hands down the easiest way to see wildlife in the park. It passes through prairies and ponderosa pine-covered hills, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see a number of the species who live in Custer.

It is recommended to drive this road early in the morning or in the late afternoon, right before sunset, as that is when the animals are most active.

SAFETY TIPS:

  • Don’t approach the bison! They may look calm and friendly, but they’re crazy unpredictable and faster than they seem. They can get really violent without any warning. So observe those bad boys from a distance.
  • Drive slowly. The critters are everywhere, so keep your eyes peeled.
  • Animals have the right of way. If a herd crosses into the street, all you can do is just wait till they pass.
  • Be careful not to hit any animals with your car! Critters, especially deer, are known to unexpectedly leap out into the road. So be mindful and watch out for them.

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And now, all my photos from the Wildlife Loop! We ran into the herd of bison within moments of starting the drive. Definitely off to a good start!

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And then we saw this little guy out in the prairie. He was kinda far out there… thank goodness we had eyes watching out both sides of the car!

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And then my favorite part… the band of friendly burros!! They were just hanging out right next to the parking lot. I generally follow the rule of not approaching wildlife, buuuuuuttt look at these guys!! Could they be any more adorable???

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They obviously loved all the attention. They were so sweet!

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And then once we were back on the road, we saw this little fellow.

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The Wildlife Loop is without a doubt one of the coolest things you can do in Custer. Even if you are just passing through South Dakota, spend a couple hours to do the drive and see all the animals.

But now onward to the rest of the state park!


After the Wildlife Loop we headed over to the Blue Bell Resort area (where we were camping…but more on that later). We had signed up for one of the guided activities available through the resorts: a chuckwagon dinner!

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A little goofy for a group of childless adults perhaps, but damn we sure had fun! It was the perfect amount of ridiculous and silly. We couldn’t stop laughing for most of it! And the food was super delicious.

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Wearing our souvenir hats and bandannas. The bandannas came attached to the hat, but hey, we’re Los Angeles girls! We decided to be more cowboy-chic.

The old-fashioned hayride takes you on a 45min scenic drive through the park’s backroads to a mountain meadow canyon for a chuckwagon feast. Upon arriving at the chuckwagon pick up location, each guest receives a souvenir cowboy hat and bandanna to help get you in the spirit! Did wearing them make us feel a little silly? Duh. But that’s part of the fun. You’ve gotta let your inner kid out sometimes, right?

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As you drive towards your dinner, you can sing-along to classic country and folk music tunes played for you by a live guitar accompaniment. But also be sure to keep an eye out for wildlife!

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Upon arriving at your destination, the fun doesn’t stop! Live music continues, and they encourage dancing and audience participation while you enjoy a hearty cowboy feast.

The menu includes your choice of an 8oz sirloin steak or a 1/3lb hamburger, both served with all the fixin’s including cowboy beans, cornbread and honey, potato salad, coleslaw, watermelon, cookies, coffee, and lemonade. A vegetarian option is also available.

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PRICES: (at time of publication)

Adults: $56 | Children (under 12): $49
Children (3 years and under): Free
    (If they sit on a parent’s lap on the ride and eat from a parent’s plate.)

For more information or to book a chuckwagon dinner tour, click here!

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For information on other guided activities available through the resorts, click here!


On our next evening in Custer (we spent our days in nearby Wind Cave National Park), we decided to check out the Sylvan Lake area. It was too late in the day to actually do anything, but the lake itself is beautiful and worth taking a peek at, plus the lodge at Sylvan Lake is of historic interest and there are gift shops to check out while you’re there.

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Plus we saw more bison on the drive back to Blue Bell. Win.

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For those not so into the idea of roughing it (or who just need a break from camp cooking), there are plenty of dining options to choose from in the park. Before heading back to our campsite, we decided to stop for a cocktail at the Blue Bell Lodge Dining Room and Lounge.

How could we resist a bar with horse saddles for seats?

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Drinks in mason jars and appetizers were the perfect way to end our day of adventuring.

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For more information on the Blue Bell Lodge Dining Room and Lounge, click here!

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For more information on the rest of the dining options available in Custer, click here!


And last of all, the place we called home for a couple nights: the Blue Bell Campground!

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This was just one of several available campgrounds in Custer, and it was pretty awesome. Showers, running water, real toilets, located next to the Blue Bell Resort, easy access to general stores if we needed supplies…it was everything we could’ve asked for in a campground. For additional information or to book a site, click here.

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But if this one is full, there are plenty of other campgrounds available. Click here for a full list of campgrounds and booking options!

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Not so into camping? No worries, Custer has tons of other lodging options to choose from, including cabins, lodges, and resorts. Click here to view the possibilities and reserve your stay!

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The adorable baby birds living outside of the Blue Bell Campground women’s restroom.

This post only shows the tip of the iceberg in terms of things to see and do in Custer State Park. We would’ve loved to spend more days here, but sadly we all had fulltime jobs to return to and so had to hit the road after just two nights. If you’ve been to Custer and have any additional information to add, please share in the comments!

For more information on Custer Resorts, visit their website. For more information on the state park overall, visit the official state park website.


 

Author: Natalie Bates

LA-based freelance writer | Blogger | Craft beer drinker | Rock 'n roll girlfriend | Adventurer | Lover of tattoos, red lipstick, and popcorn | World traveler | Compassionate human | Photography enthusiast | Eco warrior | Celtic babe ❤️

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