Exploring Custer State Park, South Dakota

Buffalo are commonplace at Custer State Park (Roberta Sotonoff)

Buffalo are commonplace at Custer State Park (Roberta Sotonoff)

Custer State Park is big – 71,000 acres big. And, it’s beautiful which is probably why it became a backdrop for films like “A Man Called Horse” and “Dances With Wolves.” Winding roads pass lakes, lodges and lots of animals like bison and pronghorn antelope – which have horns like a sharp-edged “U.”  The streams, granite hills and prairies make me just want to wander through woods, listen to the birds, inhale the scent of ponderosa pines and enjoy the peacefulness.

Since my multi-generational family loves the outdoors, a couple of days at the park is a perfect choice.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You prefer wide open spaces to the indoors.
  • A hike in the woods is one of your favorite pastimes.
  • The buffalo roam the park and the deer and the antelope play here.
  • It is perfect for couples, families or a multi-generation vacation.
Cowboy Keith and friend sing away as everyone else chows down. (Roberta Sotonoff

Cowboy Keith and friend sing away as everyone else chows down. (Roberta Sotonoff)

Hayride and Chuck Wagon Cookout

It’s late afternoon when we mosey over to the Bluebell Lodge area for the hokey but fun chuck wagon dinner. Everyone lines up to get their cowboy hat and red kerchief. Looking like cowboy wannabes, we climb unto  a “covered wagon” pulled by a pickup truck. To make it more authentic, hay is scattered on the floor.

Enter Cowboy Keith Burden, a chap with a long white beard, guitar and harmonica. During  the 45-minute drive, he entertains with songs, corny jokes and his vast knowledge of the area.

We spot a prairie dog town and a couple of deer along the way.  Our destination is at the bottom of a canyon. Tall pines surround it. Would-be cowhands line up for some pretty decent grub – steak, burgers, cornbread and other fixings. And, it wouldn’t be a real cowboy cookout without baked beans. While downing the chow and enjoying the scenery, Cowboy Keith and his friend continue entertaining – lots of cowboy songs and more bad jokes.

After dinner, there is circle dancing – the Hokey Pokey and the Chicken Dance. Then, in unison, the crowd yells  “yahoo.” It echoes through the canyon and creates a cool sound effect.

Lodging at Custer State Park

Staying overnight in the park is a real treat. The four lodges have on-site accommodations, dining rooms, cabins and history. For example, the nearly 100-year-old State Game Lodge served as Calvin Coolidge’s “Summer White House” in 1927 and Dwight Eisenhower visited in 1953.

Blue Bell Lodge also has a past. The Bell Telephone Company (aka AT&T) built it in the 1930s to house their employees. The workers’ job was to cut down trees for telephone poles.

Blue Bell’s larger log cabins are our accommodations. They are quite cozy, with mini-kitchens, indoor fireplaces and outdoor fire pits. When it gets dark, we sit outside and gaze in awe at the star-studded night sky.

The next morning, we eat breakfast is at the lodge restaurant. My grandson orders pancakes that are as big as his face.

Creature and Bison Bonding


Our chariot (Roberta Sotonoff)

Then, it is off to the two-hour Buffalo Safari.  In search of creatures, the six of us pile into a canvas topped jeep. Within 10 minutes, we spot about 20 bison alongside the road – just grazing or rolling around in the dirt. Some just stare at us. Our guide tells us that there are up to 1,500 buffalo in the park. We see lots of them during our visit here.

The jeep passes several pronghorn(antelopes) and prairie dog towns. These curious, squirrel-like creatures seem to be everywhere. They stand on their hind legs guarding their territory.

Mules come right up to the car and beg for food. Luckily we bring along some carrots. They eat them right out of our hands. My grandchildren are ecstatic.

Our next adventure, the kids’ first horseback riding experience, delights them even more. The one-hour ride down a winding, woodsy path leads through streams, alongside tall trees, granite hills and beside buffalo, marmot, a  huge turtle and several wild turkeys. During our ride, our guide tells us about flora, fauna and the park’s history.

Enjoying the scenery on the trail. (Roberta Sotonoff)

Enjoying the scenery on the trail. (Roberta Sotonoff)

I  dismount with a sore tush but am sad when the ride is over. Horseback riding, the animals, the woods – the whole Custer State Park experience makes me to break out into a chorus of ‘Home on the Range.”


  • You will definitely need a car and a map. Custer State Park  is huge.
  • The park  is about 40 miles from Rapid City and that is only to the entrance. Figure about an hour and a half travel time.
  • Be alert for animals in the road.
  • Staying in the park?  Stop off at a grocer or big box store in town to pick up some vittles. Cabins have cooking facilities but food is not cheap at the park’s general store.

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