A Buffalo (and Traveler) Stampede | Black Hills Travel Blog
  • A Buffalo (and Traveler) Stampede

Baby Buffalo in the Black Hills

The annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival is set to begin this weekend, culminating with a stampeding herd of more than 1,000 of the shaggy beasts early on Monday morning. But buffalo aren't the only ones running around the park.

The history of the roundup is pretty strange, when you think about it. As Craig Pugley, the park's visitor coordinator, noted in this morning's Rapid City Journal, "The roundup is an event that we would do whether anybody showed up or not." And, for a number of years, very few people did. After all, the roundup is purely practical in nature.

At any given time, Custer State Park - only a couple miles outside the town of Custer - has between 1,000 and 1,500 head of buffalo. And as wild as they are, buffalo need to be taken care of: they need to be vaccinated, pregnant animals need to be identified, and, since the park can only sustain a limited number of them, they buffalo that can't be reasonably supported are auctioned off. In order to handle all that efficiently, the herd is gathered by cowboys on horseback and in Jeeps and corralled. Park staff have been doing it that way for decades.

But then a funny thing happened a few years ago. People realized what an incredible experience it was to witness hundreds upon hundreds of buffalo - North America's largest indigenous land mammal - thundering toward them. Having attended the event before, I can attest to the incredible display of nature's power. It might have something to do with the rumbling noise and ground shaking.

Nowadays, the visitors well outnumber the buffalo. In fact, the CSP Buffalo Roundup is one of the more popular annual events in the Black Hills. About 11,000 people attended last year, and park officials expect even more next week. That's why the park's staff have expanded the viewing areas and improved access with new parking procedures.

To make the most out of the roundup, here are a couple of travel tips:

  • Get There Early. Even with better parking and larger viewing areas, it's going to be a bit crowded. I recommend being there when the parking areas open at 6:15 a.m.
  • Bring Your Camera. This one is obvious. If you're really serious, bring your tripod.
  • Bring Your Own Seats. If you don't care to stand for several hours, bring some light folding chairs. Blankets are good, too, since the early morning air in CSP is a bit... uh... crisp.
  • Bring Entertainment. Families with small children, take note: Since buffalo only move when they want to move, you may have a few hours of waiting to do. Bringing bottles of water, candy, games, a deck of cards or some light reading is never a poor choice.
  • Pack Light. You probably won't have a good view from your car, which means you'll have to pack everything from from your vehicle to the viewing area and back again.

No matter what, the Monday morning event will be a bit crowded. Fortunately, the entire weekend is filled with events, including a chili cook-off, art show and, according to park staff, about 150 vendors. If getting up at O-dark-thirty on a Monday morning isn't your idea of fun, the other CSP weekend events might be up your alley.

About the Author

Dustin is a fifth-generation South Dakotan, grew up exploring the forested gulches of the Black Hills. While studying at Oxford University, Dustin discovered the amazing combination of student discounts and the European rail system, and set off to see the continent. Eleven countries, five trains, a Greek fishing boat and several pubs later, Dustin realized a deep affinity for travel. Although he’s journeyed across three continents since then, the Black Hills remain one of his favorite places to explore. Now a member of the Western Writers of America, Dustin has penned several travel guides on the Black Hills, Badlands, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming for publishers including Fodor’s and Globe Pequot.

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