If you’ve ever been to South Dakota, I hope you’ve had the privilege of visiting Custer State Park – widely considered one of the best in America. An unimaginable amount of diverse outdoor adventures happen here – think hiking, kayaking, cruising, horseback riding, wildlife sightings, rock climbing. The list goes on, so we’ll touch more on these items later. One of the most iconic experiences in Custer State Park that you can participate in is the annual fall Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival at the end of September. Make the most of this experience with these pro tips.

But first, what is the Buffalo Roundup? And why does it occur?

An incredible experience to watch cowboys and cowgirls drive a herd of over 1,400 bison through a valley and into a corral in Custer State Park. The rumble of thundering hooves, hoots and hollers, crack of the wranglers’ whips and bison grunts are as real as it gets. This effort is completed each year to maintain the health of the herd via immunizations, health inspections and an auction of excess animals. If the herd was not maintained, the parks’ 71,000 acres of open grassland would be overrun leaving scarce resources. Around 400 animals are often auctioned off, they go to replenish other herds across the nation or start new herds, some are also sold for meat. 

Tip #1: Arrive Early

Bison outlines on a hill in custer state park with the sunrise
Custer State Park

How early you ask? Before the sun is up. I would advise arriving to the park at least by 5 a.m. to beat the traffic. The event can see 15,000-20,000 people so you can expect a line of cars as visitors move into the viewing areas with gates opening at 6:15 a.m. If you are staying in Rapid City, plan on a 30-minute drive to the park entrance. 

To view the roundup map, click here. For information about accessible parking, click here

Tip #2: Pre-Plan Your Viewing Area

There are two viewing areas for the event – North Viewing Area and South Viewing Area. Each viewing area is equally as great and handicap parking is provided in all areas. Do note that only one-way traffic is permitted during the day of the event. During your departure, you’ll exit the same way you entered. Note: Leave fido at home during your adventure as there are no pets allowed during this event.

Tip #3: Bring A Lawn Chair 

Custer state park buffalo roundup crowd with event wranglers
Custer State Park

Depending on when you arrive to the park, you might have time to kill before the herd appears. Folding chairs and blankets are common items for visitors to bring. Before the event starts, you can sit back, relax and enjoy the sunrise light up the ponderosa pines.

Tip #4: Wear Warm Layers

The Black Hills climate tends to get cooler in the fall and can be pretty crisp in the mornings. The average low coming in at 40° and warming up to a pleasant 70°. Rain jackets are also suggested as we can experience some light rain or snow during this time of year.

Tip #5: Pack Snacks

Concessions are available at the Buffalo Roundup event that consists of a pancake breakfast before and BBQ lunch after. Both options have been known to run out during previous years. So, don’t forget your emergency snack stash and water to make it through common mealtimes.  

Tip #6: Opt For A Closer View

Bison herd of custer state park being corraled with the event crowd behind
Custer State Park

Whether it be your long lens camera or a handy pair of binoculars, these items give you the best chance for an up-close view no matter your location during the event. Bison are wild and unpredictable, therefore, visitors post up behind a low-key fence at the roundup site. After the herd passes through the valley, spectators do have a chance to get a closer look at the corrals where they are tested, branded and sorted.

Tip #7: Don’t forget about the Arts Festival!

Starting Thursday mid-morning, visitors can enjoy three days of browsing a beautiful collection of work from artisans and crafters near the State Game Lodge. Here’s your perfect chance to find your favorite South Dakota souvenir, try authentic cuisine and enjoy entertainment.

After the event, how can I extend my Custer State Park experience?

Cruise through the famous 18-mile road through open grassland. On this drive, you can see a variety of the parks’ wildlife – coining it’s name as Wildlife Loop Road. The best time to see the wildlife is early morning or just before sunset when the animals are more active. Use caution when driving as it’s common for wildlife to walk across the road. 

View of a van cruising through the granite pillars of Needles Highway in Custer State Park
Custer State Park

Drive the impressive Needles Highway. An incredibly unique experience, originally marked on foot and horseback, that cruises through tunnels and around sharp turns. Don’t let the term “highway” fool you. You’ll want to take it slow at 25mph or under to fully enjoy the scenery. This highway is open April through October. In the winter months, the road is brought back to it’s beginnings allowing visitors to explore on foot or bicycle only.

A few of my favorite hikes in the park are as follows: (1) Little Devils Tower for the views from the top, (2) Sunday Gulch for trail variety, (3) Cathedral Spires to see the granite jut to the sky from ground level, and (3) Black Elk Peak because it’s the highest point east of the Rockies (bragging rights are real).

Couple canoeing on sylvan lake in custer state park
Custer State Park

Experience the “crown jewel” of Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake, where granite rocks protrude from a majestic body of water. Some visitors may recognize the lake from the film National Treasure: Book of Secrets. 

Take in the scenery and immerse yourself in western heritage on horseback through the Black Hills National Forest. The park has one riding stable at Blue Bell Lodge. Trail rides range from 2-hours to a full day trail ride with lunch. You can view a Black Hills horseback experience here.

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