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Category Archives: Custer State Park

No visit to Custer State Park is complete until you find the Begging Burros. After watching the buffalo we headed over to the area where the burros usually hung out. They were along the road creating a major traffic jam.


People were feeding them and chasing them. One of the males tried, unsuccessfully to mount one of the females and in the process almost ran down a couple of people. Folks seem to forget these are wild animals.


There was one female that was very pregnant.


One of the foals was very cute and popular with the crowd.


We drove out to Custer State Park early in the morning looking for Buffalo. We did not have much luck the evening before. There were some around but they were too far away to take many photos.


We drove through the entire Wildlife Loop without seeing a single buffalo. We decided to drive up to Wind Cave and see if we could find some there. On the previous day when we were hiking the East Bison Flats Trail we saw some in the distance.


As we approached a turnout we found a herd of them gathered around a mud hole. Apparently it was quite the early morning attraction.


We watched them for a while before they started wandering off then we drove back to the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park hopping to look for some more buffalo. As we were driving along we saw a fawn Pronghorn Antelope. The mother was in the process of stashing it for the day. We watched as she walked over to a brushy area before returning to a small group of females and leaving the area.



We continued on looking for Buffalo. We found a herd along a side road. They were very close so we watched them for quite a while. Eventually I felt the car rocking and we noticed that one of them was using the car as a scratching post. We decided it was a good time to leave the area.



We were driving along the road in Custer State Park looking for Buffalo and not finding any. We encountered a half dozen Turkey Vultures in the road feeding. They had no interest in flying away so we stopped and I photographed them for a while. Fortunately there was no traffic so they stayed in the road for quite a while.



When the first car came along they flew out into the prairie. There also happened to be some Pronghorn Antelope along the road. When the vultures landed the antelope took off after them and chased the away.



Several years ago we were in Custer State Park in the spring and driving around the wildlife loop we found a large number of Mountain Bluebirds nesting along the road by the airport. We happened to find them in the evening when they were backlit by the sun. We decided to drive back out to the airport early in the morning and photograph them in the morning light. We did the same thing again this year.





After hiking to the Crazy Horse Memorial we drove back to Custer for lunch before driving out to Wind Cave National Park. I had hike the East Bison Flats Trail several times in the past and found it an easy trail with buffalo bones along the trail.

The trail starts on a road east of the Wind Cave Visitors Center before heading into the grasslands.


It looked like the area had recently been burned and the grass was short and very green. There a large number of wildflowers out and the bees were on almost every flower.


The Scarlet Globe Mallow seemed to be a favorite of the Prairie dogs.


We were having a great time on the hike but as we looked back we could hear lightning and see rain clouds so we reluctantly turned around. My wife is standing by one of the new trail markers. It the past they used a flimsy trail marker that was frequently missing. Now they have posts in the ground that should stand up and are easy to see. From the looks of it the Buffalo use it as a scratching post.


As I mentioned it looked like a fire had gone through the area not too long ago. A lot of the trees had turned brown. When we returned to the visitors center we found out that the Park Service had a controlled burn in the west flats but the fire had jumped the road and also burned the east flats. They were able to control it to the park. After the burn the wildflowers and grass came back quickly. The buffalo were having a great time feeding on the new grass.


After waking up at 3:30am so we could make an early start to the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup we spent the rest of the day at the roundup and arts and crafts fair. As evening approached we decided on an early dinner and a evening visit to Sylvan Lake. We thought it might be a good spot to get some evening photos.


It was still warm, after reaching 90 degrees earlier in the day, when we arrived at Sylvan Lake. W found a wedding party setup and photographing along the lake. We took a walk around the lake while waiting for things to clear out.


As night approached I thought it would be a good idea to try some star trail photography. My wife went along with it so we walked back to the car to get our gear and some warm clothes. We spent the early evening taking photos from the south end of the lake.


After taking about 30 photos I decided to call it quits. With the wedding party at the lodge there were a lot of cars driving around and I thought it would distract from the star trails. There were also quite a few planes flying through the background. The fact that we had been up for over 17 hours also played a part in the decision. This is as far as I got in my start trail attempt.


A few shots from this falls Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup. These are some of the folks who helped drive the buffalo into the corrals and cut the herd.







Photographing the Custer Buffalo Roundup can mean an early start to the day. We were up at 3:30am to head out to the Buffalo Roundup. When I went down to the motel lobby to pick up my breakfast bag I didn’t see anyone else up.

It was pitch dark when we headed out into the park. As we neared the park we started to see more cars. We decided to go to the south parking area. I’ll discuss that decision later in the blog. After driving several miles on the Wildlife Loop Road we headed up a steep hill. Just after reaching the crest we encountered a traffic jam. We could see a trail of red lights all the way down the mountain. Soon the lights started to disappear as everyone concluded they would be stuck in place for a while.

We decided to spend the time watching the stars and eating our bag breakfast prepared by the motel. I could really kick myself for not thinking about some star trail photography. The stars from the top of the mountain were spectacular and the next time I make this trip I hope to spend some time photographing star trails.Buffalo Roundup Custer State Park 14-9-_2730

About an hour after we arrived we started to see break lights go on as the traffic was starting to move. When we reached the bottom of the mountain we saw where the barricades had been setup. A short drive later we noticed park rangers directing traffic as we moved through the buffalo herd. Apparently the goal was to stop traffic before it entered the area where the buffalo were spending the night.

Shortly before sunrise we arrived in the south parking lot. The parking lot opened at 6:15am by the time we arrived at the parking lot we had already been up for about four hours.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_2758

As soon as we arrived we made our way over to the fence so we could pick a good spot to photograph the buffalo as they were driven past. I Picked out a low spot that would allow for a good shot of the buffalo when they were driven through a gap in the hills. As soon as we put our chairs down someone said this wasn’t a good spot then someone else said that it was a good spot. I decide it would be an great spot.

Unfortunately I had forgotten that I don’t like to sit still so, while my wife sat and talked with some of the folks who had gathered at the fence I wandered off to take some photos.

This cowboy was from Michigan on a horse that was from John Wayne’s hometown. He looked the part and has driven out to the roundup for years to help out. He said he was too old to ride in the roundup but he could still assist folks and provide some local color.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_2807

An hour after we arrived cars were still streaming into the parking area. This ranger was having a great time directing traffic. I think the early workday made her a little goofy. As I recall they had to be in place by 3am.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_2822

The Begging Burros were back in their usual location south of the south parking lot. As the morning wore on they became increasingly nervous about all the activity. The buffalo drive would come right through the area where they usually hang out. They gradually migrated far to the south out of the way of the drive before it started.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_2826

About an hour and a half after the parking lot opened most of the cars had arrived. The area along the fence east of the parking lot was packed with folks waiting for the Roundup to start.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_2856

I continued to walk around the grounds photographing the crowds gradually migrating to the south end of the south parking lot where I would have a good view of the start of the drive. Around 9 am (seven hours after leaving Custer) I noticed the first of the horseman heading out on a ridge line to block the buffalo from getting away. I should point out that I was using a Tamron 150-600mm (250-900mm equivalent) lens to photograph the event. Even with this lens the riders looked small.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_3433

Apparently the South Dakota Governor brought a group of business folks to the Roundup as part of his plan to bring new business to South Dakota. They were entrenched on a high hill above the corrals. Once the drive started they were driven down the ridge closer to the actions. The common folks had to walk.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_3421

Soon the buffalo appeared in the draw just south of Wildlife Loop Road where it intersects with Red Valley Road. The plan was to drive them slowly because of the heat. I forgot to mention that it was very warm. By noon the temperature was 90 degrees. The was in sharp contrast to the previous year when snowflakes were in the air.


In this photo you can see a horse in the background kicking up a little dust. Shortly after the photo was taken the rider was thrown from his horse. He appeared to be ok and was not caught in the buffalo stampede.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_3480
Once I saw that the buffalo were on their way to the corrals I headed over to my seat by the fence. As it turns out the drive moves quickly. Only three minutes elapsed from my first shot through the fence to my last shot. There were a couple of other problems with this location. I was shooting into the sun, the buffalo kicked up quite a bit of dust which was blowing directly at me. I was happy that I did not choose this location to watch the entire Roundup.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_3497

Several riders came by one carrying the American Flag and another the South Dakota flag. This was a nice touch and provided everyone with a good photographic opportunity.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_3505

As soon as the Buffalo were past me I headed to the north end of the parking lot and a ridge that provided a good view of the buffalo as they were driven into the corrals. On my way over to the ridge line I took this photo of the buffalo as they were lined up to be driven toward the Corrals. On the right you can see the folks watching from the south parking area and on the left you can see the white tents from the north viewing area.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_2865

From my vantage point I could see the buffalo lined up at the head of a draw with the wranglers waiting to drive them toward the corrals. There are two gates to the corrals. You can see the south gate at the bottom left of the photo. The other gate is below the north viewing area.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_2867

With a lot of shouting and cracking of whips the wranglers started driving the buffalo toward the pens.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_3557

Most of the buffalo headed for the north gate but a few were moving toward the south gate. These four buffalo made a break for it trying to get back to the open pasture. A loud cheer went up from the crowd as they made their break. Three of them made it. The wranglers chased them for a while but they soon found freedom over a far hill.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_3579



The folks on the north viewing area had a good view as the buffalo headed into the corrals. For some reason all of the buffalo went through the north gate this year.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_3585

After the buffalo were safely in the corrals folks started heading down to the corral area where lunch was being served. Transportation was provided but my wife and I are hikers so we decided to walk down.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_2885

When we arrived some of the wranglers were trying to herd a group of buffalo into a holding corral next to the pens where they would be processed. These were the buffalo that had been put into the pens before the public roundup so they could calm down before being processed.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_2899

There is always one that doesn’t want to go with the crowd. The wranglers had to make a number of attempts to get this fellow to follow the rest of the buffalo to the new pen.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_2906

It was a little warm so I managed to find a couple of extra dollars so we could have a cold beer with our buffalo meat lunch. Although the lines were long they moved fast and it wasn’t long before we were enjoying a cold one.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_2927

After lunch we walked around for a while but decided not to stay to watch the processing of the buffalo. On our walk back to the car we noticed the buffalo were peacefully grazing in the corrals.Buffalo-Roundup-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_2976

I was happy with my choice of the south viewing area. Did we need to get up at 3:30am? I don’t think so unless you have a particular spot you want to photograph from or you want to photograph the star trails. We would not have gotten our spot along the fence east of the road without being one of the early arrivals. Having said that I only spent a brief time photographing from this location. Most of my time was spent at the south end of the parking where I could see the start of the drive. The rest of the time was spent on the ridge photographing the buffalo being driven down the draw toward the pens. Neither of these locations required an early arrival.

We arrived in Custer State Park early in the afternoon and planned to do some scouting to see just where the roundup would take place and to try and pick the “best” location for photography.

On the day of the roundup there are two viewing areas setup. On to the northeast of the Buffalo Corrals and one to the southeast of the buffalo Corrals. This is also where you would park while watching the roundup. When you drive to the Roundup you must choose one of the two locations to view the Roundup. Once in one of the viewing areas you cannot leave and when you leave you must leave the way you came in.

As we drove through the park on the Wildlife Loop Road we did not see much in the way of wildlife. When we reached the area where the Roundup would take place we found there were park rangers station at both the north and south viewing areas. We stopped and talked to them trying to find out where the best location for viewing would be and the route the buffalo would take when they are driven into the corrals. This appeared to be the question that everyone else was asking. Several times I was approached asking if I knew the best place to be to photograph the Roundup.

We were a little disappointed to find out that the buffalo had already been rounded up and were stashed in an area southeast of the pens. In retrospect it makes sense because the herd is normally scattered around the Park and it would be impossible to round them up and get them into the pens in a single day. The Roundup that we would be watching is staged for tourists and allows all of the buffalo to be driven into the viewing area in a single large herd. It makes for great theatre.

After talking with the rangers we drove down to the buffalo corrals. There were a small herd of buffalo already in the Corrals. These had been driven in early in the roundup so they would be acclimated to the corrals and would have time to calm down. On the day of the Roundup some of the buffalo are processed and these would be the buffalo processed. Processing includes vaccinations, branding and checking the cows for pregnancy. The buffalo driven into the pens during the “Roundup” would be processed later after they had a chance to calm down.Buffalo-Corrals-14-9-_2982

We then headed out of the Park on the Wildlife Loop Road looking for buffalo. We drove past the location where the Begging Burros are normally found but the burros were gone. We found them a ways down the road near where the buffalo were said to be stashed. They were a ways from the road but when cars started to stop they started moving to the road.Begging-Burros-14-9-_3715

We continued on to Custer, SD where we checked into our Super 8 Motel. When we checked in the clerk mentioned that a breakfast bag would be available at 5am for those heading out to the roundup. My wife was not happy to hear that we would be getting up at 4:30 am.

We stopped for a bite to eat then headed back out to the Wildlife Loop Road looking for wildlife as evening approached. We found a group of buffalo next to the road bathed in evening light. We stopped for some photos before continuing on.Bull-Buffalo-14-9-_3751

We soon found the Begging Burros along the road with a mother and a very young burro standing in the middle of the road begging. We also ran into bull buffalo lounging in a wallow. Apparently they don’t roundup some of the bulls because they are so mean. This one had been in the same place earlier in the day.Bull-Buffalo-14-9-_3036

Dusk was approaching as we drove out of the park.Dusk-Custer-State-Park-14-9-_3045a

We drove through the Wildlife Loop a number of times during our stay in Custer State Park. We frequently saw Mountain Bluebirds as we drove past the park airport. Unfortunately it was usually the wrong time of day to photograph them. On our last morning in the park we decided to drive out to the airport so we could photograph them in the early morning light.Mountain-bluebird-14-5-_4068