Custer State Park: Wildlife Loop


South Dakota’s first state park takes up a lot of real estate in the middle of the Black Hills.  I entered the park from the south, on South Dakota Route 87, after leaving Wind Cave National Park.  The southern end of Custer is a little less dramatic than its smaller northern component, at least when it comes to the landscape.  But, there are rolling plains, some small hills, and plenty of wildlife living in this area.

A few miles after entering the park, there is an entrance fee station ($5 per person or $12 per vehicle, as of 2008).  Here, you can turn off on the park’s Wildlife Loop Road, which makes a sweeping 18 mile semicircle around the southern end of the park.

It’s a sure bet that you will run into bison on the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park.  Roughly 1,500 bison live in the park.  You’ll probably jump out and take pictures, the first time you see one of these creatures… but later on…

… they will be stopping you.  Bison jams aren’t uncommon, and traffic will come to a halt when a herd wanders by, grazing…

… and scratching!

It might take a little more luck to spot some antelope playing on the prairie.  You’ll have to act fast with your camera, since they don’t stick around as long as the bison.

I had said the landscape wasn’t dramatic, but that’s not entirely true.  The cloudy weather was limiting my experience (and it was starting to rain), but despite the gloom, this is still a very beautiful place.

If you want to spend a lot of time admiring the wildlife in this part of the park (there are also prairie dogs, elk, deer, bighorn sheep and mountain goats that occasionally appear), then I suggest you take the Wildlife Loop Road.  On the other hand, I was more interested in exploring other parts of the park, and the rest of the Black Hills, so I found the wildlife loop to be a bit boring — especially the final few miles.  I’ve seen quite a few buffalo in the past year or two, in Yellowstone, on Antelope Island in Utah, and several other places.  I was ready to move along, and see something different.

The Wildlife Loop Road ends at US Alt-16, which cuts an east-west path across the middle of the park.  Turn left and follow Alt-16.  You can make a stop at the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center if you’d like, but there isn’t much else exciting, along Alt-15.  When you reach the intersection where Route 87 turns off to the north, make a right turn, and you’ll be headed up Route 87 towards the “Needles” section of the park.

Needles Highway (Route 87) – Hole In Wall Picnic Area

The name of the Hole In Wall Picnic Area tells you exactly what you’ll find here: a rock wall, with a hole in it.  This small cave is across the creek from the parking area (no long hike required)…

… and the cave is big enough to walk inside.  The passage doesn’t go much further than this, but it’s fun enough that the kids will love it.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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