Custer State Park – Bison on the Prairie

As  the  Beatles  once  sang,  somewhere  in the black mining hills of Dakota lives young Rocky Raccoon. But Rocky has a lot of company up here: white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelopes, elk, mule deer, mountain goats, burros,   coyotes,   prairie   dogs,   eagles, hawks,  and  an  awesome  herd  of  1,500 American bison. At Custer State Park, kids can see what the Great Plains once looked like, back in the days when bison filled the land as far as the broad horizon.

A smart place to start is the Wildlife Station visitor center in the southeast corner of  the  park,  where  exhibits  will  acquaint the  children  with  the  many  species  they are  likely  to  see.  Then  turn  out  and  drive on Wildlife Loop Road, an 18-mile circuit through  open  grasslands  and  pine-clad hills   where   those   species   roam.   Early morning  and  evening  are  the  best  times, when  the  animals  are  most  likely  to  venture close to the road. Drive slowly, or get out  of  the  car  and  walk  quietly  down  the short nature trails to get a good look. Just west  of  the  center  you’ll  notice  a  set  of corrals  where  bison  are  held  after  the annual  late  September  roundup,  which thins  the  herd  and  keeps  it  healthy  (the public  is  invited  to  watch  the  cowboys move ’em out).

The  landscape  is  downright  startling along Needles Highway in the northwest corner,   a   14-mile   expedition   through spruce   forests,   meadows   fringed   with birch and quaking aspen, and giant granite spires  that  thrust  up  to  the  sky.  Park  the car  and  walk  around—there  are  several marked  trails,  and  these  rock  formations are  fun  to  explore,  with  tunnels  you  can walk  through  and  a  unique  shape  called the  “Needle’s  Eye.”  From  the  northeast corner,  Iron  Mountain  Road  leads  to Mount  Rushmore,  sliding  through  tunnels  that  frame  the  four  Rushmore  sculptures strikingly as you approach.

Just south of Custer State Park, you can explore   Wind   Cave   National   Park; of the  guided  tours,  the  most  fun  is  the 2-hour    Candlelight    Tour,    where    you explore a section of the cave where lighting  hasn’t  been  installed.  If  you’re  a  cave lover  and  it’s  summertime,  though,  definitely head west on U.S. 16 to Jewel Cave National  Monument, the third-longest cave in  the  world,  with  133  miles  of  underground  passages  charted  so  far.  Eroded by   stagnant   acidic   water   rather   than underground streams, Jewel Cave has narrow, twisting passages whose walls sparkle   with   calcite   crystals   and   delicate gypsum deposits.