South Dakota, Where the Buffalo Roam | Black Hills Travel Blog
  • South Dakota, Where the Buffalo Roam
    South Dakota, Where the Buffalo Roam

Seeing and Experiencing the Bison of the Dakota Plains

It's late November and the prairie is quiet.

A light but sharp breeze combs its way through the brittle grasses, and the hills in the distance roll gently away over the horizon. Wisps of clouds lace the soft blue sky, and the sun is still low, moving slowly in its early morning rise.

Raising its giant head from a tuft of wheatgrass stands a stout, shaggy creature, backlit and silhouetted dark in the sloping light. He surveys his surroundings with a silent dignity, and there is an air of timelessness about it all. His ancestors at one time thickly covered these lands, roaming freely and unobstructed, but this animal belongs to one of just a handful of smaller herds on the continent today.

The buffalo, or bison, was officially designated our National Mammal in May of 2016, though to many in North America it has long been a symbol of the rugged Wild, of resolute and hardy perseverance. The indigenous tribes of the Plains see the bison as sacred, a powerful religious symbol, and the animal was a central component of their sustenance and livelihood for many generations. The mere utterance of its name commands respect and reverence in anyone who has studied, worked with, or even seen the Bison in person.

After being slaughtered dangerously close to extinction in the late 1800s, the bison have slowly begun a resurgence across the Great Plains of North America, and western South Dakota is one of the best places to view these proud and resilient animals. See the bison and the vital part they play in the rich and complex Great Plains ecosystem, an attraction notable and worthy as any other in the state.  

Custer State Park - Home to nearly 1,300 bison, this is the second-largest publicly held herd in the nation. Drive the 18-mile Wildlife Loop, slowly, as you'll routinely find the creatures ambling near and across the road. The park is also home to the annual Buffalo Roundup at the end of September, where you can see riders move the rumbling herd across the prairie as part of its winter management plan, along with an arts festival, music, and food.

Wind Cave National Park - The Lakota Sioux say that Wind Cave is from where bison first emerged onto the Earth, and this area was a popular hunting ground in the autumn and winter. Whether you take the scenic byway or explore the various trails running throughout the park, you're bound to spot groups of free-roaming bison, as well as deer, elk, pronghorn, and the ubiquitous prairie dogs.

Badlands National Park - Drive the Badlands Loop and hike the nearby trails to see small bunches of bison from a distance, but veer off to the Conata Picnic Area on the west end of the park and spend some time in the less-popular but wildly beautiful Sage Creek Wilderness. There are no hiking trails here, so coordinate your GPS to guide you to Deer Haven, a lovely juniper-studded overlook of the area. It's remote enough to feel like you've got the whole place to yourself, and you should be able to spot bison wandering below the formations and through the labyrinthine washes of the basin.

Bear Butte State Park - Visitors will regularly see a small herd of bison grazing around the base of Bear Butte, the laccolithic island of elevation above the honey-hued grasslands near Sturgis. Climb the holy mountain for sweeping views of the area or walk the trail around Bear Butte Lake for an easy 2.5-mile jaunt.

While there are no bison that high in the Hills, make a point of visiting Tatanka: Story of the Bison outside of Deadwood for in-depth, educational presentations and artwork.

A little further west into Wyoming, the Vore Buffalo Jump provides a unique and fascinating glimpse back in time at prehistoric bison hunts and indigenous life on the Plains.

In addition, there are two ranches in western South Dakota that are hugely responsible for the continued growth, awareness and education of the bison and their habitat:

South of Rapid City, the 777 Bison Ranch maintains over 1,500 DNA-tested bison, some of which make their way to other, smaller bison farms around the country every year.

Wild Idea Bison Ranch, near Badlands National Park, manages a herd of free-roaming, sustainably-raised bison and supplies their Rapid City store with quality ground meat, sausage, steaks, jerky and literature on bison and the Great Plains.

How about where to sit down to eat this healthy and delicious, high-protein meat, once you've seen them in the flesh? Fortunately, you'll be able to find bison on menus all over this part of the state, but here are some standouts:

For buffalo burgers, try Black Hills Burger and Bun in Custer, Cedar Pass Lodge in the Badlands, The Firehouse and Tally's Silver Spoon, both in Rapid City, and The Mineral Palace in Deadwood.

For finer bison preparations and entrees, head to Delmonico Grill in Rapid City for bison tartare, Dakotah Steakhouse, also in Rapid City, for ribeye, The Buglin' Bull in Custer for tenderloin, and The Powder House in Keystone for buffalo short ribs and stew.

It's often posted but worth further reminding that bison are wild animals. They're unpredictable, especially during mating season from July into September, and should not at any point be approached. Give ‘em wide berth if you happen upon them on a trail, and don't park next to them on the road. And, like the other numerous wildlife of the area, your best chance to witness the continent's largest native land mammal is in the earlier and later parts of the day. Wherever you decide to go, make sure to devote plenty of time to view these magnificent creatures—a vital, important part of the Great Plains heritage and future. It's a compelling, awe-inspiring experience, and should not be missed.

About the Author

Christopher is a native-born South Dakotan who has lived and traveled in many different places, but calls the Black Hills home. He has worked as, among other things, a fine-dining chef and filmmaker, and finds joy in books, backpacking and craft beer.

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