Bison, Badlands and the Black Hills: What I saw on a 3-day trip to South Dakota
Editor’s note: TPG’s Melanie Lieberman traveled to South Dakota on a free trip provided by the South Dakota Department of Tourism. The opinions expressed below are entirely hers and weren’t subject to review.
After just three days in South Dakota, I'd learned more about bison than I ever thought I'd need to know. As the largest land mammal on the North American continent, bison can grow to weigh more than 2,000 pounds. Despite their size, however, they can charge with surprising speed, racing up to 35 mph (or as fast as a horse). Most importantly, they are moody and unpredictable, and thousands of them can be found roaming across the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota.
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I saw my first bison at Custer State Park in late September, when I visited South Dakota as a guest of the state's tourism department. Perhaps best known for its giant faces carved into mountainsides (it is, after all, nicknamed the Mount Rushmore State), South Dakota is also home to a number of other stunning national and state parks; the kinds of meandering, sinuous byways that are perfect for road trips; and ample wildlife unperturbed by the presence of gawking humans.
Like so many other people after a year and a half of the pandemic, I had been spending more time seeking crowd-free places and exploring new destinations closer to home. South Dakota promised wilderness and solitude in spades, so I decided to accept the offer to visit.
Here's what I saw (and learned) during my three-day trip.
Where the buffalo roam
It was a cold Friday morning, and I clung to my cup of coffee like a talisman as I maneuvered my rental car into a line of vehicles bound for Custer State Park, a wilderness reserve that spans 71,000 acres of the Black Hills in South Dakota.
Dawn was just beginning to spill out across the prairie and filter through the ponderosa pines as we sped along serpentine roads to the park.
I had arrived in South Dakota in time for the 56th annual Buffalo Roundup — a massive affair that draws tens of thousands of people to the state's largest park (more than 22,000 people attended in 2021). Although the roundup is used to regulate the bison population at the park, it's also become a state tradition, with plenty of fanfare, chaps and Stetsons. That morning, I watched from the bed of a truck (along with other members of the media) that was part of a cavalcade, including riders on horseback, urging 1,400 frenzied bison to thunder across the parched grasses to the corrals.
As a New Yorker who has spent my entire life in the cities and suburbs of the East Coast, I found my only point of comparison was that scene in "The Lion King" when wildebeests trample Mufasa. I had never seen animals of this size so close in such numbers, and I was struck over and over by the thought that bison seem almost prototypical — a cave etching come to life.
The whole earth seemed to rumble as the bison raced past us in clouds of dust, growling and chuffing, the cacophony amplified by the whoops and yelps of the horseback riders and drivers honking their horns. At times, I found I was shouting, too. The energy and adrenaline were contagious, and there was so much dust I would scrape it off my skin and clothes later that afternoon.
As members of the media, we had access to the herd a day in advance and got a (very supervised) tour of the bison with Custer State Park staff. In a rather tense moment, we were told to quiet down when we attracted some unwanted attention. The tail, we were told, was the tipoff. When a bison is on edge and agitated, its tail goes still and stands straight up — a warning.
We all relaxed and exhaled deeply when the bison turned its attention back toward the grass and began wallowing almost playfully in the dust and dirt.
Custer State Park isn't the only place to see bison roam in South Dakota. Both of the state's national parks have herds of the mighty beasts as well. (If you're wondering, the term buffalo is widely used, but these are in fact bison — a cousin of the buffalo, sure, but not even a particularly close one.)
The Badlands may get all the attention, but I wasn't about to go to South Dakota and not visit the state's other national park, Wind Cave. Unfortunately, the park's namesake feature — one of the world's largest and densest cave networks — is underground, and I arrived just after the last tour departed. Entry to Wind Cave National Park is free, but the tours (which you'll need to join to gain entry to the cave system) are not, and tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis. With national parks so popular these days, it's not uncommon for people to wait an hour or more for tickets.
Still, you can explore the above-ground features of the park at your leisure. Off-trail hiking is even permitted here and, when necessary, encouraged. So after picking up a guide from the visitors center, I drove to a trailhead for a short afternoon hike.
It was an easy trail, but I quickly became fixated on the large piles of dung scattered on and around the trailhead. At the visitors center, a ranger had excitedly told me about the wildlife I could see on the surface of the park, including the park's herd of bison, which are known for not having been bred with cattle.
As I picked my way along the trail, passing through a prairie dog colony that fell silent, I became increasingly vigilant. There was a lot of poop. There's just no nice way to write that.
When I rounded a corner, I saw a big, bison-shaped rock. I only needed to give it a more careful glance to realize it was an actual bison blocking me from the rest of the trail — and that I was already far too close. You're supposed to stay at least 25 yards (75 feet) away from bison, according to the National Park Service. Just that morning, I'd witnessed the incredible power of an agitated bison during the roundup and heard the cautionary tales of unwise tourists who had gotten too close to these temperamental creatures.
So, I backed away slowly and decided to return to the car. I didn't have ample time to explore off-trail; the light was already fading, and I wanted to squeeze in one more site before the day came to a close.
As I worked my way back toward the parking lot, I wondered if I'd overreacted. Maybe it had simply been a boulder after all. And that's when I heard it: a low grunt. Or, maybe I merely sensed it — that distinct feeling of being watched and sized up.
There was a bison ahead to the right of the trail. There was no way to get to my car, which I could see, without passing by the bison.
I watched its tail. Down, but not wagging happily like a golden retriever. It was alert.
I quickly put as much space between us as I could, keeping an eye on that tail and those giant umber eyes like stream-slicked river stones. Deciding that I was either very nonthreatening or extremely uninteresting, the bison turned to a tree and began rubbing its giant side against it.
Take a hike
After the excitement of the roundup, I began what I can only describe as an absurd mission to do, well, everything. During my trip to South Dakota, I made the drive to Mount Rushmore, where I was admittedly more interested in a duo of mountain goats than the giant faces of men carved into the mountainside.
I also saw the still-in-progress Crazy Horse Memorial bathed in the amber light of sunset.
The day before, a group of us had hiked Little Devils Tower, a 3.6-mile spur trail in the Black Hills that, despite its popularity, still had satisfying scrambles. A swarm of ladybugs (to say nothing of the wind) made every step challenging business, but the view from the top, looking out across the terrain's spiny granite needles, made the effort worthwhile.
After our hike, I completed a quick loop around nearby Sylvan Lake before reconvening with the group for dinner at Skogen Kitchen in Custer, which would not feel out of place in Chelsea or the East Village with its menu of shishito peppers drenched in goat cheese crema and roasted halibut with kohlrabi and pickled peaches.
My bison-blocked stroll in Wind Cave National Park definitely hadn't satisfied the itch I had to lace up my hiking boots and hit a serious trail.
So, the day before my flight home to the New York City area, I once again crawled out of bed and into my car in the early hours of the morning to drive 1 1/2 hours northwest, past Rapid City and the historic gold rush town of Deadwood, to Spearfish Canyon.
The 76 Trail was well marked, and it was easy to park in a lot adjacent to the Spearfish Canyon Lodge. I hurried to the top of the 1.2-mile out-and-back trail to beat any other early risers and ate the breakfast bowl I'd shoved into my pack while admiring the early fall foliage. In a week, I suspected, the whole canyon would look like pure fire.
Afterward, I crossed the street from the lodge to check out Roughlock Falls, an easy little stroll with boardwalks and bridges to see waterfalls.
Then, I sped off to Badlands National Park, stopping along the way to grab snacks and cold soda from the famous Wall Drug, which started as a drugstore promising free ice water to parched travelers in the 1930s and now has 26 retail stores selling everything from souvenirs to pharmacy items, plus a restaurant famous for its homemade doughnuts.
I spent the late afternoon in the blistering heat climbing slippery, shoe-worn and sandy stretches of Saddle Pass Trail. I stayed until dark, watching all sorts of wildlife — bighorn sheep, jackrabbits and more — emerge after most of the visitors cleared out, watching closely for signs of rattlesnakes or bison.
In the morning, after bedding down at the nearby Frontier Cabins, I returned to the park, chasing the sunrise to get to Notch Trail before the crowds.
Another short-but-rewarding South Dakota hike, this 1.5-mile trail includes a steep wooden ladder that takes you up and out of the canyon. It's not a particularly challenging trail if you're not bothered by heights, but I suspect it's frustrating when it gets crowded since you can't exactly pass people on the ladder or on particularly narrow passes. Fortunately, that early in the morning, I passed only a handful of other hikers and had the view, for a time, entirely to myself.
Over the course of the day, I ticked off the other trails on my park map before finally taking a minute to just drive, stopping frequently along Badlands Loop Road (South Dakota Highway 240) to admire the painterly buttes and stark canyons of the Badlands — arid earth that has been whittled and carved away by wind and rain for hundreds of thousands of years.
Remember the days when you used to print out directions on MapQuest (yes, I'm older than I look) and if you screwed up, all you could do was retrace your steps to the last place you were sure, very nearly sure, that you knew where you were?
For my trip to South Dakota, I printed off driving directions before flying into Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP), which is serviced by United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Allegiant Air, with nonstop flights from major cities like Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), Denver (DEN) and Las Vegas (LAS).
If you're planning a road trip around South Dakota, search for directions on your phone before leaving an area with reliable cell service or Wi-Fi. During my drives, I would often track my progress with the little blue dot after losing connectivity and simply try not to make any critical errors.
But there were many times when I'd disregard my phone altogether and opt instead to rifle through map printouts and notes on driving directions. It was a wonderfully freeing and somewhat terrifying feeling. But it would have been hard to get too lost in South Dakota, where miles of highway unspool like gray ribbons across the Great Plains. We all know a song about this place ... or rather, the feeling of this place: the blue skies and zephyr-blown clouds. The glory of its sunrises and sunsets, the incredible wildness.
Travelers planning a trip to South Dakota this year may want to consider a trip in late fall, when the weather is spectacular and the foliage is beginning to turn. In 2022, the Buffalo Roundup (which is always free and open to the public) will be held on Sept. 30. A new visitors center focused on bison is expected to open in time for the event.
And just after the roundup, on Oct. 2, the 6.2-mile Fall Volksmarch at Crazy Horse Memorial will also take place. The hike takes participants up the memorial, which is currently the world's largest mountain carving in progress.
During my brief trip to South Dakota, I spent many hours, whole days really, being with only myself.
Throughout my trip, I'd find myself standing at the edge of a scenic overlook (or maybe just pulled over on the side of a road) entranced by a view conjured from a Johnny Cash song, a scene from an old Western, a part of the country I knew existed but couldn't quite believe was just a four-hour flight from New York City.
And as I retraced the hairpin turns of Needles Highway, passed through fields pockmarked by prairie dogs and took in the sun-scorched spires and hoodoos rising from the Badlands, I felt for the first time since the start of the pandemic a deliberate type of solitude, an alone-ness that wasn't lonely or uncomfortable. After so much time on my own, isolated from my friends and family by the ongoing coronavirus crisis, this trip was helping me reclaim my independence.
Even in the midst of the Buffalo Roundup, surrounded by well over a thousand bison and tens of thousands of people, I had the sense that I was reconnecting with one of the most amazing things about travel: the way it helps you learn yourself, to lean on yourself, and be at peace in those moments when you are rekindling a wildness we sometimes lose in the steadiness of everyday life.