After we left Bear Country, USA we continued southward to go through Custer State Park – one of our very favorites.
I have included two maps in the post to help you better visualize the route we took. One is of the entire Black Hills region and highlighted in pink is the route we took from Ellsworth AFB (have also circled Wind Cave NP and Jewel Cave NM for you to see in relation to the area), where Bear Country, USA is located off Hwy 16, then to Keystone. From there we took the eastern side of the loop first, called Iron Mountain Road, constructed in 1933, and only a portion of this road is in the park. Then entered Custer State Park and followed the Wildlife Loop to the furthest southern point, but we detoured a bit making Jerry happy! We found a beautiful dirt road for us to take, but still taking within the park AND through some of the prettiest grasslands we’d seen yet. We drove through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen and rugged granite mountains. Just beautiful.
We saw pronghorns, whitetail deer, and after our brief picnic lunch stop, came across several different bull bison out on their own. We had read the males wander off away from the herd at this time of year and come back during mating season. We saw some HUGE fellas along the dirt road. We stopped to get a picture of one of them and truly wish there was some way we could have captured the sound of that lad chewing – heavens he was LOUD, and it was only grass!
We got back on the main drag on the west side of the park and continued up to get on Needles Highway. This roadway was carefully planned by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, who marked the entire course on foot and by horseback. Construction was completed in 1922. The road’s name comes from the needle-like granite formations which seem to pierce the horizon along the horizon. We kept going through various tunnels throughout the park, drove over a few of the pigtail bridges this area is known for as a result of Peter Norbeck’s foresight (see plaque), and saw lots of wildlife.
Continuing on Needles Highway we came to the point where the Needle’s Eye (so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing and thawing), is located and one of the most challenging tunnels in the entire park. It was fun to drive through it once again (last time we did, we were in our Mini Cooper) and then park the car and watch others come through. We were lucky again this time to see a bus slowly and carefully eke its way through the very narrow opening!
We also stopped at the beautiful Sylvan Lake and walked around a portion of the lake – saw lots of folks fishing, boating and just enjoying the beautiful day by strolling around the lake on the pathways. Such a gorgeous setting.
Custer State Park is home to more than 1300 head of North American bison, more commonly called buffalo and yet that is really an inaccurate name for these animals. Early American settlers called bison “bufello” due to the similar appearance between the two animals, and the name “buffalo” stuck for the American variety. But it’s wrong. The American bison (Bison bison) lives ONLY in North American, while the two main buffalo species reside in Africa and Asia. If you were to stand eye-to-eye with a buffalo species and a bison – and provided you weren’t killed or mown down – you’d notice stark physical differences. The American bison sports a large shoulder hump and a massive head whereas the buffalo of Africa/Asia does not. There are other differences (hair, hooves, etc.), but think you get the drift. What we saw in Custer and the area are NOT buffaloes, but instead bison!
Thanks to Peter Norbeck, the bison flourished in the area after they were near extinction in the early 1900s. Norbeck was also instrumental in bringing the elk, deer, pronghorn, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, etc., back to this area. He is known as the “Father of Custer State Park”.
So, in closing I’ll leave you with this groaner I read today:
“What did the father buffalo say when his son moved out?” Ready? Okay, here’s the answer: “Bison” – hahahaha
Think tomorrow we are going to try to get back to Jewel Cave NM before we leave here on Sunday.
Till the next time . . .