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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With a lot of shouting and cracking of whips the wranglers started driving the buffalo toward the pens.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.