In Custer State Park in western South Dakota, it seemed I’d been waiting hours for something to happen. Then the seismic shaking of the earth signaled that the main show was about to begin.
Riders on horseback fanned out across the top of the hill, while below in the valley the rest of us in rack trucks waited for our cue. As if a director had yelled, “Action,” 1,300 American buffalo came careening down the hill, with both riders and trucks taking up their positions to help herd them into corrals.
I was at the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup, an event that interrupts shaggy bison from their usual noshing on the park’s lush grasslands for several days of sorting, branding, testing and tagging.
Overseeing one of the largest American bison herds in the world, park staff members use the roundup to keep the population in balance with available land and resources — checking them out thoroughly before returning most of them to their grazing a few days later.
Our group’s driver volunteered that sometimes the bison, annoyed with the forced move, get pretty upset and refuse to cooperate. This year — with the exception of one frightened calf that went AWOL with its mother in hot pursuit — the herd was downright docile. In no time at all, it was safely corralled, and both participants and spectators headed off for a chuck wagon lunch of brisket and beans.
Along with a group of national and international journalists, I had been invited to take part in the roundup, and to say that we were right in the center of the action is no exaggeration. The herd’s headlong rush to the corral was a sight I won’t soon forget.
The general public is not left out, either. While they are not allowed in the thick of things, they can stake out a spot for optimal viewing as the herd comes thundering down the hill.
About 14,000 people attend every year; the roundup is held on the last Friday in September (Sept. 27 this year).
The Black Hills
The bison roundup was my main reason for coming to South Dakota this time around, but a previous visit showed me the Black Hills region has an embarrassment of riches, both natural and man-made. But it’s the natural wonders of the state that hold a special appeal for me. On the drive to Custer State Park, I went through the Needles of the Black Hills. Aptly named, the Needles are granite pillars and spires that reach up to stab the sky. The 14-mile Needles Highway, with its twists, turns and tunnels, is a scenic sight not soon forgotten.
Deadwood and Rapid City
No two cities could be more different than Deadwood and Rapid City, but they represent the yin and yang of the state — the former a peek into its wild and woolly past, and the latter a symbol of its vibrant present.
Fans of TV westerns know that Deadwood in its heyday was about as wild as the West got. Gamblers and gunslingers, lawmen and ladies of the evening, cowboys and cattle barons all played their parts in making Deadwood the most colorful town between Dodge City and Cheyenne.
The two most famous names associated with it were Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, whose graves can be seen in the hillside Mount Moriah Cemetery, along with those of murderers, madams and pillars of the town’s society — such as it was. After touring the cemetery, a historic walking tour of Deadwood’s 19th-century buildings will help put their stories in context.
Be sure to arrive early at Saloon 10 to grab a seat for the Wild Bill re-enactment (believe me, they fill up fast). Although the saloon was a favorite watering hole for colorful types such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Poker Alice and Buffalo Bill Cody, it was Hickok who gave it its lasting fame.
On the afternoon of Aug. 2, 1876, he sat down for a game of poker with three friends. It was to be his last. Positioning himself behind Wild Bill was a sidewinder named Jack McCall, who without warning, drew his gun and shot Hickok in the back of the head.
That dramatic scene is re-enacted several times daily and campy as it is, never fails to draw enthusiastic responses from the assembled patrons.
After you’ve watched Wild Bill meet his maker, you can adjourn upstairs for dinner at the Deadwood Social Club, whose specialties are South Dakota buffalo and beef.
Finally, you can try your luck at one of Deadwood’s myriad casinos, including those in two of its historic hotels, the Bullock and the Franklin.
If Deadwood is a paean to the past, Rapid City is modern and makes a perfect base for exploring the Black Hills and Badlands. Dubbed “The City of Presidents,” it features life-size bronze statues of all past U.S. presidents scattered throughout the downtown streets.
One of these — Franklin Pierce, the 14th president — stands like a bronze barker outside the door of Murphy’s. He appeared to be urging me to enter the iconic Rapid City restaurant, located in a renovated 1911 city garage building.
Murphy’s is known for buffalo meatloaf, but also try to wheedle the code from someone to get into its companion speakeasy, the Blind Lion. This place is a find — that is if you can find it, and the Smoking Barrel (mint gin, rum, scotch and bourbon with a hint of tobacco smoke) is a libation worthy of its name.
Other not-to-be missed attractions include the Journey Museum, a trek through the 2.5 billion-year history of the Black Hills and Badlands, and Prairie Edge Trading Co. and Galleries, where you can shop for the highest quality Plains Indian arts and crafts.
A second visit to South Dakota only emphasized what I had learned the first time. From Deadwood to Rapid City, shootouts to scenic wonders and bison roundups: Western South Dakota has it all.