By Talia Avakian
April 19, 2019
Danita Delimont/Getty Images

If you're looking for the chance to see fascinating wildlife up close without leaving the U.S., it might be time to plan a trip to South Dakota.

The state’s rolling plains, wooded streams, and timbered hills are home to elk, pronghorns, deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and one of the world’s largest publicly owned bison herds at Custer State Park.

South Dakota’s oldest state park, Custer State Park was originally established as a game preserve in 1913 to re-introduce wildlife into the area that disappeared due to the effects of early settlers and the gold rush. Today, the park is home to a herd of roughly 1,300 bison, and the first baby bison of the year was just recently born on its grounds.

The park’s bison calving season occurs each spring, typically arriving at the last week of March or the first week of April and continuing through mid-May. 

Courtesy of Custer State Park

The Prairie Trail in the south of the park is one of the best trails for viewing the wildlife and the calving bison, according to Mark Hendrix, who has been a ranger with the park for seven years.

While other animals that reside in the park, such as elk, are nocturnal and can best be seen during early morning hikes, the bison can be seen all throughout the day and can be spotted in various ways.

The annual roundup, known as the Buffalo Roundup, brings crowds who come to feel the ground shake as they watch the park’s herd of more than 1,300 make their way through the valley just a few hundred feet from the viewing area. 

Meanwhile, the Wildlife Loop Road offers a scenic 18-mile drive through open grasslands dotted with wildflowers and animals ranging from bison and whitetail and mule deer, to elk, coyotes, prairie dogs, eagles, and rare birds. Sometimes, the bison herds come right up to the road.

To get even closer, opt for a Buffalo safari Jeep tour or a hayride and chuck wagon cookout. Both journeys go off of the Wildlife Loop Road to get up-close views with guides who have decades of knowledge. 

Visitors are prohibited from feeding or disturbing the wildlife and must either remain in their vehicle or at least 100 yards from bison, elk, and the other animals during viewings. 

“It’s a lot of fun watching the wildlife grow up throughout the different seasons of the year in the park,” Hendrix told Travel + Leisure. “Just watching how the bison take care of the little calves in the spring, nurse them all summer, and then teach them what to eat throughout the winter, it's amazing.”

Since the park’s animals are free to roam its 71,000 acres of land, they can be seen all over and throughout the year, though winter tends to be a great time to view them without the crowds. Sometimes, you could be one of the only people on the park’s many trails in the winter, according to Hendrix, allowing you to take in the full serenity of the area.

Hendrix also recommends visitors make the drive to the Mount Coolidge Lookout Tower between May and the end of September. From the tower, visitors can take in views for miles of everything from the Black Hills in the west to the Badlands and surrounding prairie in the east.

There are multiple resorts visitors can stay at in the park, each of which has its own unique character.

The Legion Lake Lodge, a quiet lakeside lodge, offers fishing and swimming options ideal for families with a shallow lake and affordable prices. The Sylvan Lake Lodge overlooks Sylvan Lake and is a good option in the summer, with mild temperatures thanks to its higher elevation.

The Blue Bell Lodge is the spot for horseback riders with its various trails. There's also the Creekside Lodge and the State Game Lodge, the largest resort in the park. The State Game Lodge has hosted former presidents including Calvin Coolidge and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Whatever accommodation you opt to stay at, Christopher Parton, general manager of Legion Lake Lodge, recommends that travelers visit each during their stay and take a few extra days to explore the additional gems South Dakota has to offer such as Wind Cave National Park, the historic Wild West town of Deadwood, and the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs.

This year marks also marks the 100th anniversary of Custer State Park, so be sure to be on the lookout for special events that will take place throughout the year.

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