We never thought we could be so close to wildlife in a state park other than Yellowstone National Park. Custer State Park is located southwest of Rapid City, South Dakota. We took Highway 16 to Keystone, gateway to the famous Mount Rushmore. The familiar bridge and tunnel reminded us of our trip to Mount Rushmore on the Independence Day of last year. Then we took the winding mountain road – Needles Highway driving among lush pine forest towards Custer State Park.
As we drove deep into the mountains, we followed the sign driving towards Wildlife Loop Road. After a while some trees with brown needles appeared. Were they suffering from disease? Then we came to a fork in the road. Which way shall we go? It shows Mt. Coolidge Lookout on the map, so I chose to go there. The 1.7 miles steep narrow dirt road took us to the Mt. Coolidge fire tower. At an elevation of 6,023 feet, the vista was gorgeous. Although it was hazy, from the binoculars, we saw the distinctive Needles, a group of eroded granites, on the Black Hills. To the left of the Needles is Crazy Horse, a giant cliff sculpture of a native Indian in process. The profile of President George Washington on Mount Rushmore were visible as well. From the interpretive sign, we learned that the brown trees were burned by the wildfire. Despite the damage from the wildfire, the landscape beneath was still beautiful with purple mountains and forests.
Back to the Needles Highway, we continued driving among the forest. Finally we reached Wildlife Loop Road, and the landscape started to become open. When we saw some vehicles stopped by the road from afar, we knew wildlife was the reason for the stopped traffic. Across the wildflowers dotted prairie, we saw a herd of buffalo resting under the trees. It was about noon, they might be taking a nap and enjoying the cool shades. We moved on keeping our eyes peeled. After a while, we drove out of the forest and the open prairies came to our vision.
Just as we were worried about the timing of our visit was not ideal for wildlife watching, we were cheered by the scene of burros, tourists and parked vehicles. Wow! This was the moment we were waiting for. I brought four pounds of carrots for burros. Two burros walked towards me immediately at the sight or the smell of the bag of carrots in my hand. I guided them to the parking area and started feeding them. They chewed up carrots quickly and wanted more. Other burros also came along and soon I was surrounded by burros and other tourists. Some of of the burros were white, some were brown. One burro had a grey face with dark brown beard. I petted burros and the touch of them was amazing. Their furs were coarse but I could felt their friendliness and inner strength.
Two white burros stayed still on the hillside in the distance. Had they not moved, I would have mistaken them as statues. Another dark colored burro with a white nose stood under a tree below the hill. We walked towards the dark colored burro by the tree trying to feed it. It didn’t eat. Instead, it laid recumbent on the ground by the creek. Maybe it was full or it was not well. From there, we had a closer view of the two white burros. It was a mom and a baby burro. They stayed away from the crowd watching. The baby burro pushed its head underneath its mom’s belly. It might be trying to get milk from mom. A guy walked slowly towards the hill and threw an apple towards them. They didn’t care about the apple. We wondered why they kept their distance.
There were prairie dogs making noises on the prairie. They came in and out of their homes under the mounds of dirt. A baby prairie dog came out along with its mom. Mom stood on its hind legs with its front legs kept together and checked out the surroundings when the baby prairie dog ran all over the place. It crawled around its mom and tried to jump. It fell on its butt and scratched its rear end. They were fun to watch.
We were thrilled to have a close encounter with the burros and kept driving along the Wild Life Loop. It was a beautiful grassland. Rolling hills covered with green grass and blanketed with a variety of wildflowers. Yellow sweet clovers was the sunshine on the prairie. A few blue ponds dotted the prairie. Forests receded to the distance leaving this open field to wildlife. A herd of pronghorns were grazing on the low land. They were elegant animals with huge eyes.
We passed Buffalo Corrals and reached the Wildlife Station Visitor Center. A bunch of swallows flew in and out of the nests under the roof feeding the chicks. The gentleman at the visitor center told us both barn swallows and cliff swallows were nesting there. The difference between them is that barn swallows have forked tails. He also told us the best place to view buffalo up close was just a short drive north of the visitor center. And he was right. We saw a buffalo traffic jam up the road.
A big herd of buffalo was roaming among a sea of yellow sweet clovers right by the road. There were quite a few baby buffalo. The little ones seemed to have light brown colored furs. Most of the buffalo were grazing, some were resting recumbent. Some buffalo had patches of fur that were about to fall. A few birds flew around the buffalo eating bugs. The traffic moved slowly. Everyone was busy taking photos from their vehicles whereas buffalo were crossing the road, grazing on the fields. When we moved up to the road, we were thrilled to see buffalo right outside of our truck. They seemed to be tame but they could be dangerous as we witnessed a bull fight in Yellowstone National Park years ago. Their huge size and weight, strong muscles and horns manifest their reigning status of this land. Numbers were stamped on their hips. A giant buffalo with a big black head showed up on the left of the road. It might be the bull. It had fur on the front part of the body as if it wore a fleece. A big “o” was stamped on its hip. It crossed the road in front of us. We were awed by its stately body and mighty power.
Breeze ruffled the yellow sweet clovers and another herd of buffalo appeared in the distance. They were resting on the prairie away from the road. We turned around and drove through the buffalo jam again.
Back to the Wildlife Station Visitor Center and joined the ranger’s talk. The young lady ranger told us that the baby burro was just two days old, and she couldn’t wait to go and see it! They had ten burros but one recently died from a rattlesnake bite. The newborn brought the number of burros back to ten again. There was a herd of wild buffalo originated in this area. The park brought herds from other areas and currently has 1,300 buffalo. Nearly 400 cubs were born each year. By the end of September, the park will have an annual buffalo roundup when the buffalo will be vaccinated and auctioned to control the number of the herd. 800 buffalo will be kept in winter.
Petting and feeding burros, the cute newborn baby burro, the up close encounter of the free roaming buffalo, the breathtaking view from Mt. Coolidge Lookout, and the scenery of a sea of wildflowers on grassland made our trip to Custer State Park fun.