Highlights of the 2019 Custer State Park Roundup | Black Hills Travel Blog

Highlights of the 2019 Custer State Park Roundup

  • Highlights of the 2019 Custer State Park Roundup
    Highlights of the 2019 Custer State Park Roundup
Thursday, September 24, 2020
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The bison pour over the hill, fluid and graceful. Dozens of riders surround them with the sharp cacophony of bullwhips and hollers to keep them in their place. The muffled thud of hooves thundering over the grass makes its way to us as they all draw closer and faster to our position on the sidelines. The herd undulates and moves like water towards the corrals and the smell of wet earth is fresh again.

Yesterday, I had the undeniable privilege of watching the unique, Western experience of the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup with thousands of spectators. It was a dewy, cold fall morning in South Dakota, with light rain on its way, but it was worth the chill and the early morning wakeup to be there.

The park gates open up at 6:15, but traffic quickly becomes clogged as thousands make their way in. To beat the crowd, I woke up at 4:00 and shuffled around, gathering up camera batteries, thick layers and slowly waking up to leave for the park at 5:00. From Rapid City, it was a little over an hour drive out to the park. When I arrived and parked my car, pancakes and maple syrup wafted over the field of cars and traffic was already backed up halfway to Custer.

The sun rose at nearly 7:00 and I was glad I had taken the time to put my hiking boots on in the morning. The terrain was at times rocky with thick grasses and cacti hidden among everything. Everyone set out their chairs and blankets and admired our friendly visitors—the Custer State Park burros, going person to person in search of healthy snacks and attention.

Meanwhile, as traffic continued to filter in, the riders warmed up their horses and visited with each other about the prospects of the day’s roundup. We all waited anxiously, many of us pacing around. Despite the overcast morning, it was promising to be a great roundup.

While the sight of cattle herding is a routine part of life for many rural Americans, watching over 1,400 head of bison corralled by dozens of experienced riders and cowpoke is an event that awes visitors from all walks of life. People gather in Custer, SD from all over the globe to watch this one-of-a-kind experience take place. There were visitors from just a few miles down the road as well as those from several states over.

Many are unconsciously searching for living remnants of the old west, but whether spectators are experienced riders in their own right or city folk that have traveled thousands of miles and a handful of continents, it is clear that it is a sight unlike any other.

After all, there is no other place in the world where you can watch 1,400 bison herded by genuine cowpoke, but certainly no other state with a governor riding her horse in the roundup. Kristi Noem rode alongside the riders and Miss Rodeo South Dakota, showcasing her skill as a rider and her ability to work the herd with the best of the best. 

It is quite the sense of victory once the first bison finally makes its way into the corrals —the crowd, feeling the mounting tension, gasps with every move of the herd and cheers when the riders have successfully directed the beasts into the corrals.

Knowing most adults weigh well over a ton, it is incredible how fast and elegant they are, thundering over rocky terrain. The riders and their horses have to be exceptionally skilled to keep up with them and hold their own when they run at top speed around the herd.

Keeping these lumbering beasts in line is no joke, but it is tradition and an essential part of caring for the herd. After they are safely corralled, the bison are given health checks, administered vaccines and branded. The park must then determine how many need to be auctioned from the herd to sustain it over the winter. While 71,000 acres is quite a bit of land, it must be able to feed the bison, antelope, deer, elk, and all the wildlife that lives within the park.

It is a tradition and process born of necessity from efforts of conservation, but more than anything it is a phenomenal event that keeps western rituals and lifestyles alive in the minds of people globally. It reminds us of our roots and humbles us to see those large animals, once almost nearly extinct, thunder past us. I recommend the experience to everyone, as it won’t be one you soon forget.

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