Try bringing in the herd for a vacation in the state that has it all
CUSTER STATE PARK, S.D. — It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. After what seemed like hours waiting patiently for something to happen, the seismic shaking of the earth signaled the main show was about to begin.
Riders on horseback fanned out across the top of the hill, while below in the valley the rest of us in rack trucks waited for our cue. As if a director had yelled, "Action," 1,300 American buffalo came careening down the hill, with both riders and trucks taking up their positions to help herd them into corrals.
Welcome to the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup. In this annual event, the shaggy bison are interrupted from their usual noshing on the park’s lush grasslands, and rounded up for several days of sorting, branding, testing and tagging.
With one of the largest American bison herds in the world, park staff use the roundup to keep the population in balance with available land and resources — checking them out thoroughly before returning most of them to their grazing a few days later.
Our group’s driver volunteered that sometimes the bison — annoyed at the interruption — get pretty bad-ass and refuse to cooperate, but this year, with the exception of one frightened calf who went AWOL with its mother in hot pursuit, the herd was downright docile. In no time at all, they were safely corralled, and both participants and spectators headed off for a chuckwagon lunch of brisket and beans.
Along with a group of national and international journalists, I had been invited to take part in the roundup, and to say that we were right in the center of the action is no exaggeration. The herd’s headlong rush to the corral was a sight I won’t soon forget.
The general public is not left out either. While they are not allowed in the thick of things as we were, they can stake out a spot for optimal viewing as the herd comes thundering down the hill. (FYI: About 14,000 people attend every year; if you want to make plans for next year, the roundup is always held on the last Friday in September; which in 2019, is the 27th.)
A wealth of attractions
The bison roundup was my main reason for coming to South Dakota this time, but a previous visit showed me the state has an embarrassment of riches, both natural and man-made. In the latter category are, of course, the massive stone heads of presidents at Mount Rushmore, and of Lakota Sioux warrior Crazy Horse atop his own mountain.
Both never cease to amaze, but it’s the natural wonders of the state that hold a special appeal for me. On the drive to Custer State Park, I went through the Needles of the Black Hills. Aptly named, the Needles are granite pillars and spires that reach up to stab the sky. The 14-mile Needles Highway, with its twists, turns and tunnels, is a scenic sight not soon forgotten. Beautiful any time, in autumn the starkness of the formations is alleviated by lush green pines and yellow quaking aspens.
Another scenic wonder, the Badlands, in the southwestern part of the state, were no doubt bad to the unwary pilgrim trapped within the wasteland without water or means of survival, but for today’s visitors, the only bad is in the name.
The 243,000-acre National Park encompasses the largest mixed grass prairie in the United States as well as a lunarlike landscape of buttes, spires and pinnacles warped and twisted into fantastical shapes reminiscent of a science fiction film. If you’re lucky enough to catch a vivid sunrise or brilliant sunset, the inhospitable terrain takes on a striking palette of gold, hot pink, red, lavender, indigo and purple.
A tale of two cities
No two cities could be more different than Deadwood and Rapid City, but they represent the yin and yang of the state — the former a peek into its wild and wooly past, and the latter a symbol of its vibrant present.
Fans of TV Westerns know that Deadwood in its heyday was about as wild as the West got. Gamblers and gunslingers, lawmen and ladies of the evening, cowboys and cattle barons all played their parts in making Deadwood the most colorful town between Dodge City and Cheyenne.
The two most famous names associated with it were Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, whose graves can be seen in the hillside Mount Moriah Cemetery, along with those of murderers, madams and pillars of the town’s society — such as it was. After touring the cemetery, a historic walking tour of Deadwood’s 19th century buildings will help put their stories in context.
Be sure to arrive early at Saloon #10 to grab a seat for the Wild Bill re-enactment (believe me, they fill up fast). Although the saloon was a favorite watering hole for colorful types such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Poker Alice and Buffalo Bill Cody, it was Hickok who gave it its lasting fame.
On the afternoon of Aug. 2, 1876, he sat down for a game of poker with three friends. It was to be his last. Positioning himself behind Wild Bill was a sidewinder named Jack McCall, who without warning, drew his gun and shot Hickok in the back of the head.
That dramatic scene is re-enacted several times daily and campy as it is, never fails to draw enthusiastic responses from the assembled patrons.
Try your luck
After you’ve watched Wild Bill meet his maker, you can adjourn upstairs for dinner at the Deadwood Social Club whose specialties are South Dakota buffalo and beef.
Finally, you can try your luck at one of Deadwood’s myriad casinos, including those in two of its historic hotels, the Bullock and the Franklin.
If Deadwood is a paean to the past, Rapid City is modern and makes a perfect base for exploring the Black Hills and Badlands. Dubbed "the city of Presidents," there are life-sized bronze statues of all past U.S. presidents scattered throughout the downtown streets.
One of these — Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, stands like a bronze barker outside the door of Murphy’s. He appeared to be urging me to enter the iconic Rapid City restaurant located in a renovated 1911 city garage building.
Murphy’s is known for buffalo meat loaf, but also try to wheedle the code from someone to get into its companion speakeasy, the Blind Lion. This place is a find — that is if you can find it, and the Smoking Barrel (mint gin, rum, scotch and bourbon with a hint of tobacco smoke) is a libation worthy of its name.
Other not-to-be missed attractions include the Journey Museum, a trek through the 2.5 billion-year history of the Black Hills and Badlands, and Prairie Edge Trading Co. and Galleries, where you can shop for the highest quality Plains Indian arts and crafts.
A second visit to South Dakota only emphasized what I had learned the first time. From Deadwood to Rapid City, Black Hills to the Badlands, shootouts to scenic wonders, bison roundups to giant heads in granite — this state has it all.
Where to stay:Frontier Cabins, Wall. Rustic and cozy, the cabins are an easy drive to Badlands National Park. frontiercabins.net
Sylvan Lake Lodge, Custer State Park. Located in a splendid setting of pine and spruce forests overlooking its namesake lake, accommodations are in both the lodge and individual cabins, where you wouldn’t be surprised to find a curious deer sharing your patio. custerresorts.com/lodges-and-cabins/sylvan.lake-lodge
Grand Gateway Hotel, Rapid City. Family owned and operated for three generations with comfortable accommodations and a friendly staff. GrandGatewayHotel.com
Where to Eat:Firehouse Brewing Company, Rapid City. Located in the city’s first fire station, it has an extensive menu and a selection of beers from the onsite brewery. FirehouseBrewing.com
Wall Drug Store, Wall. Don’t be fooled by its name. No mere drug store, it’s one of the country’s most famous roadside stops, complete with frontier town, shops and a 520-seat restaurant. walldrug.com
Dakotah Steak House, Rapid City. Steaks rule, but you can also sample dishes such as pheasant poppers, buffalo skewers and elk ravioli. DakotahSteakhouse.com