Tourist + Moron = Touron… And National Parks Have A LOT of Them

Invasion of the idiots

Ever see a video of a tourist at a National Park and all you can do is shake your head?

I mean, what is with these folks?

They go into completely wild environments and act like they know what’s going on.

No ma’am, that bull elk will kill you, the bison will hit you like a truck, and that grizzly bear is not a teddy.

It’s funny, annoying, and scary all in one when you see a tourist do some stupid crap trying to get a photo of wildlife. We all know you’re not a professional photographer so please tell me why you’re putting your life on the line for a few photos for the ‘Gram?

It just ain’t worth it, not even a little…

On a typical internet search for all things wildlife, a video surfaced on my feed. The video itself was nothing special but I came across a term I hadn’t seen or heard before, touron.

Don’t be a touron! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s pretty simple… Tourist + Moron = Touron!

Urban Dictionary defines it as “any person who, while on vacation, commits an act of pure stupidity.”

Not only does touron roll oddly smooth off the tongue but it also really is just the perfect description of all the people who ignore the painfully obvious signs of what to do and not do with the wildlife.

However, wherever there is a touron with a cell phone, there’s probably someone else close by capturing the stupidity.

These videos are living proof of the kind of idiots that walk into National Parks on a daily basis. It is not a zoo, there are no cages for a reason, and these animals have the ability to seriously harm you…

The one with a fella trying to scare a mother black bear off is insane. Rule number one is stay away from a mother and her young. You are just asking to get attacked.

Don’t be a touron! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can see a mother bear and her three cubs. The man walks around a vehicle to try and scare a bear. Two big no-no’s! Don’t approach a mother bear or try to scare any bear. That’s a good way to, oh, I don’t know… die?

In this case the man got off lucky. She just bluff charged and slapped at the man as he ran off.

Grade A Touron.

Here is some more helpful information on bear safety: You Come Across a Bear. Your Next Move Is Very Important. Do You Know What To Do?

Once you’re aware of the word touron, it seems to come up everywhere. There’s an entire subreddit dedicated to visitors who hike off trail, get too close to wildlife, and bathe in the hot springs at Yellowstone National Park.

The popular Instagram account @touronsofyellowstone which posts videos and photos of park visitors misbehaving has amassed 486,000 followers while @touronsofnationalparks has 176,000 and dozens more accounts have popped up (there’s @touronsofhawaii, @touronsofthepnw, and @tourons_of_joshuatree just to name a few).

Instagrammer Jackie Boesinger Meredyk (@jaboes) posted video footage of a tourist getting too close to a herd of bison that caused a road blockage near Bridal Veil Falls at Yellowstone National Park.

The video was reposted on @touronsofyellowstone and the caption describes how the person got out of their vehicle about 20 cars back and walked along the mountain road, all while holding an iPad to get a unique picture.

The park’s law enforcement was trying to get the herd moving and they were stunned to see the tourist getting unreasonably close. After calling for the man to follow the park’s rules by standing at least 25 yards away, he retreated.

Don’t be a touron! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The comments section was not impressed.

“Entitled seems fitting,” said one Instagrammer with another adding, “The ranger needs to fine him.”

While getting in the personal space of bison is unwise at the best of times, this bunch featured a couple of calves increasing the risk to anyone who approaches.

“They had their babies with them,” another observed. “He’s lucky he’s still alive.”

The Government of the Northwest Territories advises never to get within a herd of bison or to come between two of the mammals, especially between a mother and calf.

Bison can be unpredictable and charge at any moment and threatening behavior from humans is sure to make this more likely.

Don’t be a touron! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Male bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, according to Yellowstone National Park while females can be as heavy as 1,000 pounds. Being charged by either isn’t likely to end well. The park says bison have harmed more people at the park than any other animal.

There are plenty of other reasons to be respectful of wildlife. Yellowstone has noted that feeding animals in its parks can lead to them getting too familiar with humans and reliant on the food they offer meaning they can become aggressive when trying to get it.

We can observe nature from a distance and still be amazed by what we see. Getting too close can be a recipe for disaster.

These reckless actions by uninformed or careless tourons put themselves, park resources, and others at severe risk of injury or death. Responsible behavior and respecting all park rules and regulations is crucial for safety.

These accounts and numerous news stories reveal that touron activity is often found in national parks and according to the Topical Dictionary of Americanisms, the term is considered “park ranger slang.” Urban Dictionary agrees. “The term has its roots in the resort, park service, and service industries and can easily be dated back at least as far as the mid-1970s,” the entry states.

Don’t be a touron! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lists could go on and on…

Either way, I’m very happy to have stumbled upon the word Touron, it’s just so perfect.

Friggin’ Tourons….

Here are a few great articles to help you stay safe in national parks:

Worth Pondering…

I love the term touron. It’s a delicious portmanteau.

—Aspen Daily News

The National Parks Urge You to Keep Your Distance from Wildlife

A recent bear attack has prompted the NPS to remind visitors about its wildlife safety rules

Last year, a slew of TikToks showed visitors of Yellowstone National Park attempting to take selfies with, pet, and otherwise harass the bison in their natural habitat which prompted the National Park Service (NPS) to chime in in with a warning for all visitors thinking of getting cozy with wildlife in the parks:

Wildlife Petting Rules

1. Don’t

2. See rule number one

3. Brace for landing

Almost exactly one year later, the story isn’t much different—except now it is the relationship between bears and humans that we’re talking about. The NPS recently issued another warning after a man was seriously injured by a bear at Grand Teton National Park.

Bison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the NPS, investigation has led officials to believe the man was caught up in a surprise attack by two grizzly bears with one of the bears injuring the man. Reportedly, the man was rescued by helicopter and ambulance and despite the injury he is expected to make a full recovery. 

While this is undoubtedly wonderful news, nobody wants to risk witnessing such an encounter again—especially the NPS. In order to prevent such attacks from happening again, the NPS issued a news release with guidance on human-bear conflict prevention providing a list of tips and helpful advice. The complete alert and guidance can be found at the end of this post.

As the NPS advises, it is important that visitors never leave food unattended and that they try to keep a clean camp to the best of their abilities. That includes storing all attractants such as coolers, pet food, toiletries, and cooking gear inside proper bear boxes which are containers that are bear-proof. Eating or cooking inside your tent is also a no-no and garbage should always be disposed of in a bear-resistant dumpster.

Most importantly, you should stay away from bears as well as other dangerous wildlife. “If you see a bear, please give it space,” says the NPS advisory. “Always stay at least 100 yards away. If you choose to watch or photograph the bear, use a spotting scope, binoculars, or telephoto lens.” 

Rocky mountain goat © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In case of close encounter, make sure to slowly walk away from the bear and definitely avoid running. You should also always carry bear spray—and don’t forget to learn how to use it properly. 

This definitely isn’t the first time the NPS has had to remind visitors about important wildlife rules. Last year, after the bison petting shenanigans, the NPS took to Instagram and via a cheeky post (See Wildlife Petting Rules above) the organization gave visitors a guide to petting the wildlife in national parks with the consensus being, DON’T

The caption goes into more detail reminding visitors that “wildlife in parks are wild and like your ex, can be unpredictable when they’re disturbed or surprised.” The page has even changed their Instagram bio to address the onslaught of visitors infiltrating the bison’s space at Yellowstone; it reads “Don’t pet the fluffy cows.”

While the NPS advice and posts might seem all fun and games, they actually come from very not-fun situations. Yellowstone has previously called on visitors to maintain distance from and respect the wildlife due to a number of recent incidents.

Elk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In mid-May, the NPS released another warning, this time urging visitors to be extra careful when in the presence of elk. Elk calving season has reportedly just begun and as the NPS explains, “Cow elk are much more aggressive towards people during the calving season and may run towards you or kick.”

Elk attacks are unprovoked and unpredictable and they may start running towards you for no apparent reason. In this case, if you see an elk running towards you, you should also be running away. To prevent this from happening, it’s good practice to always be keeping at least 25 yards of distance from them (roughly equivalent to the length of two full sized busses).

If a sassy Instagram post and ardent pleading from the National Park Service aren’t enough to get you to give their wildlife some well-deserved space, it might be time to revisit the golden rule, “treat others as you would like to be treated.” In this case, if you have no desire to be poked and prodded at, chances are wildlife feel the same.

Bison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

NPS News Release

Visitor Injured in Incident with Bear

Visitors reminded to be bear aware when visiting Grand Teton National Park

On the afternoon of Sunday, May 19, Teton Interagency Dispatch received a report of a 35-year-old male visitor from Massachusetts who was seriously injured by a bear in the area of the Signal Mountain Summit Road. Grand Teton National Park rangers and Teton County Search and Rescue personnel responded to the scene to provide emergency medical care and air lifted the patient via helicopter to an awaiting ambulance where he was transported to St. John’s Hospital. The patient is in stable condition and is expected to fully recover.

Based on initial reports from the injured visitor and preliminary information conducted as part of an ongoing investigation of the site, law enforcement rangers and park biologists believe the incident was a surprise encounter with two grizzly bears with one of the bears contacting and injuring the visitor.
The Signal Mountain Summit Road and Signal Mountain Trail are currently closed to all public entry.

Rocky mountain sheep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To prevent human-bear conflicts, visitors are reminded to:

  • Never leave your food unattended unless it is properly secured.
  • Keep a clean camp and adhere to all food storage orders. Store all attractants including coolers, cooking gear, pet food, and toiletries inside a bear-resistant food locker (i.e. bear box) or a hard-sided vehicle with the windows rolled up.
  • Properly store garbage until you can deposit it into a bear-resistant dumpster.
  • Do not eat or cook in your tent and never keep food or other scented items in your tent.
  • Please respect all wildlife closure areas.
  • If you see a bear, please give it space. Always stay at least 100 yards away. If you choose to watch or photograph the bear use a spotting scope, binoculars, or telephoto lens. Park in designated areas, and never block travel lanes. Follow the directions of staff in places where bears are sighted.

If you are exploring the backcountry:

  • Be alert and aware of your surroundings.
  • Make noise, especially in areas with limited visibility or when sound is muffled (e.g., near streams or when it is windy).
  • Carry bear spray, know how to use it, and keep it readily accessible.
  • Hike in groups of three or more people.
  • Do not run. Back away slowly if you encounter a bear.
Elk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some posts to help you learn more about bear safety:

Looking for more travel tips?

Whether you need help finding low cost activities while RVing, tips for driving in windy conditions, or ways to keep your RV clean and tidy, I’ve got you covered. Keep reading for amazing places to RV and best camping this month to help you plan your next big adventure.

Also check our recent RV manufacturer’s recalls just in case your RV is on the list.

Worth Pondering…

GOD IS GREAT, BEER IS GOOD, and PEOPLE ARE CRAZY!

Highlights of a Fall Adventure to Custer State Park: Needles Highway and Bison Roundup

When the Black Hills turn golden, magic happens

Few truly wild places remain in the U.S. Custer State Park is one of them. Nearly 1,300 bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres which they share with pronghorn antelope, elk, mountain goats, and a band of burros. Trail rides, scenic drives, bike rides, and safari tours are perfect ways to explore this impressive South Dakota attraction

Below are two highlights of a fall visit to Custer State Park: Needles Highway and the legendary Bison Roundup.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway

The Needles Highway is a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains.

As names go, Needles Highway does the job well. Along this winding 14-mile stretch of South Dakota Highway 87 in South Dakota’s Custer State Park, eroded granite spindles and pillars tower all around, hundreds of rocky splinters stitching the sky. 

The Needles Highway is more than a 14-mile road—it’s a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains. The road’s name comes from the needlelike granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway.

Needles Eye © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On foot and horseback in the early 20th century, South Dakota Gov. Peter Norbeck mapped out the entire striking, spiking passage of what is now known as the Needles Highway. All you need are four wheels. Set aside an hour for a scenic drive through forests of ponderosa pine and spruce, past meadows of aspen and birch, around hairpins, next to rock walls, through tight tunnels.

Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing, and thawing. The route includes the not-quite-9-foot-wide (8 feet 9 inches wide by 9 feet 8 inches high) Needles Eye Tunnel; creeping through it feels like threading its namesake.

Cathedral Spires Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take it easy

Winding drives throughout the park are most enjoyable at a slower pace. Allow ample time to travel at a safe speed—generally 25 miles per hour or slower. Expect a travel time of about 45 to 60 minutes to enjoy Needles Highway.

If a coveted parking spot remains at the cramped Cathedral Spires Trailhead near the tunnel, grab it. Even the view from the lot is pretty but sure-footed visitors can get even bigger, more dramatic vistas from the trail. 

This trail features areas unique to the Black Hills area such as the Cathedral Spires/Limber Pine Area, a Registered National Natural Landmark. This is a one-way trail and does not connect to the Black Elk Peak Trail System.

The 2.3-mile out-and-back starts gently enough. Soon, though, hikers encounter steps, switchbacks, and steep scrambles. The trail ends in a flat mountain valley, spires rising like a Gothic holy place—albeit the kind with mountain goats flaunting their fleet feet. Keep a camera close at hand. Goats give great faces, their spindly little horns right on brand with the well-named scenery.

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sunday Gulch Trail offers perhaps the most unique scenery of all the park’s hiking trails. Descending into Sunday Gulch the trail crosses the stream several times while passing over large boulders and near magnificent granite walls. Sunday Gulch presents a variety of unique plants rarely seen in other areas of the park. Spruce, pine, and a mixture of hardwoods line the trail.

The Sylvan Lake Shore Trail offers passing motorists an opportunity to stretch their legs on a leisurely walk the whole family will enjoy. This trail makes a complete loop around Sylvan Lake and is among the easiest trails in Custer State Park. Enormous granite formations line portions of the lake making it one of the most picturesque in the Black Hills. While most of this trail is relatively flat, a portion contains steps and crosses exposed rocky areas. Sections of the trail are not suitable for strollers.

The Needles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take it slow

Don’t worry about cramming everything at Custer State Park into one day. A $20 park pass allows entry for seven consecutive days. Annual passes are available too.  The park’s lodging offers a choice of four resort areas with plenty of activities and camping sites.

Take it steady

Mountain goats have four appendages helping them stay upright in this craggy landscape. No shame in doing the same with a good pair of hiking poles.

Bison Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bison Roundup

On a fall trip to South Dakota, feel the thunder of bison on the move at Custer State Park’s annual buffalo roundup and arts festival.

It is the quiet before the thunder. The morning sun has further gilded the golden grasslands of Custer State Park, spread over more than 70,000 acres in western South Dakota. Cowboys and cowgirls mill on their mounts, dotting ridgelines above a sprawling valley. Riders chat; horses whiny. Most eyes fix on the sight below—hundreds of cocoa-hued bison, grunting, wandering, and waiting. 

Bison Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then, a hoot. A whipcrack. More shouts. Riders begin to move in an annual choreography to gather the herd from the open range, check its health, and chart its future.

The annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival attracts more than 20,000 spectators who edge the vistas the last Friday of each September (September 28-30, 2023) to watch riders corral the beasts. But this isn’t herding cattle. (And, if we’re getting technical, they aren’t buffalo.) The bison is North America’s largest mammal. Bulls can weigh up to a ton and reach 6 feet tall. And they can move, running 35 mph with the ability to turn on a dime.

Around 1,300 head of bison call the park home. But they don’t just live here. They are the lifeblood, the heartbeat of this place. Once 30 million strong and the cornerstone of life for Native Americans who used them for food, fuel, shelter, and spiritual celebration, bison were driven to the brink of extinction by settlers.

Bison Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer bison descend from the private herd of a South Dakota rancher named James Scotty Philip whose wife was part Cheyenne. Philip and his family worked at the turn of the 20th century to rescue the dwindling species and eventually sold a few dozen animals to the state of South Dakota.

More than a century later, the herd thrives, freely and at home on this range in the Black Hills, a sacred landscape to the Lakota, Cheyenne, and other peoples. However, the park holds only so much grass, disrupting the bison’s instinct to roam. With bulls consuming dozens of pounds a day, it’s critical to manage the population so that all have enough to eat. 

Riders work in teams to guide the animals, collecting wayward groups and stragglers. The crews are alert and watchful, striving for balance. Pushing but not driving. Finding flow, not forcing it. Hundreds of hooves pound the ground in a musical rumble. The bison move as one, like flocks, like fishes. Dust rises, billows, drifts. 

Bison Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After several miles and several hours, the herd is contained and visitors can gather at the corrals outside the new-in-2022 Custer State Park Bison Center to watch crews work. Calves get shots, ear tags, and brands. Cows are checked for pregnancy. A few hundred heads depart for auction. After a few days, the remaining animals are released. 

The sun is now bright overhead, the dust continues its unhurried return to the earth. But the history here still thrums, long after the thunder has quieted.

Bison Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Game plan

Before you go, decide on the North or South viewing area—they’re both great but not close together. Arrive early to stake out a good spot. Parking lots open at 6:15 a.m. and the roundup starts around 9:30.

What to eat

You can buy breakfast and lunch on-site: pancakes and coffee in the viewing areas and a hearty chuckwagon-style lunch at the corrals.

Keep your distance

Don’t be the one who goes viral for trying to befriend a bison. Admire these huge animals from afar.

Enjoy the fest

An arts fest lasts all weekend. Sip a beer and browse bison-themed art, hand-woven bullwhips, and turquoise jewelry.

Pronghorns along the Wildlife Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your fall trip

There is much more to see and do in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Let’s explore further:

Worth Pondering…

My first years were spent living just as my forefathers had lived—roaming the green, rolling hills of what are now the states of South Dakota and Nebraska.

—Standing Bear

The Ultimate Guide to Custer State Park

With spectacular towering rock spires, gorgeous lakes, scenic drives, and abundant wildlife, Custer State Park is a world of beautiful nature

Encompassing 71,000 acres in the Black Hills, Custer State Park is home to plentiful wildlife and adventure; camping, hiking, biking, swimming, fishing, or relaxing, there’s something here for everyone.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over 2 million people from around the world visit Custer State Park every year and it’s easy to see why. With its combination of rolling hills, stunning granite peaks, and abundant wildlife, Custer is a uniquely beautiful location. The park itself can be seen and enjoyed in two to three days but I suggest a longer stay to enjoy the area around the park and all it has to offer.  If you are planning a trip to South Dakota or want to be inspired, read on to find out all you need to know about this beautiful and unique destination.

History of Custer State Park

Custer State Park was born in 1919. Governor Peter Norbeck had long admired the beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota and once elected governor of the state, he set out to permanently preserve the area. Once the park was created, Norbeck himself helped to plan the layout of roads and scenic vistas throughout the park. The twisty turns and narrow granite tunnels of the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road are designed to offer breathtaking views while blending with the scenery they traverse.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When asked about the routes he had planned throughout the park, Norbeck famously said “You’re not supposed to drive here at 60 miles per hour; to do the scenery justice you should drive at no more than 20. To do it full justice you should just get out and walk it.”

During the summer of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge spent three months visiting the Black Hills and Custer State Park in particular. He and Mrs. Coolidge stayed primarily at the State Game Lodge during this time, earning it the nickname the “Summer White House.”

Related Article: Into the Hills: Can’t Miss Spots for Your Black Hills Tour

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was responsible for many of the projects we currently enjoy in the park. From 1933 to 1941 they built the dams, bridges, and buildings that makeup Stockade Lake, Center Lake, Wildlife Station Visitor Center, the Mount Coolidge Lookout Tower, and most notably the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Location of Custer State Park

Located in southwestern South Dakota, Custer State Park is a 30-minute drive from Rapid City, South Dakota. The drive south from Rapid City on Highway 79 is an easy and pleasant one offering impressive views of the Black Hills. Turn right onto Highway 36 and the main entrance to the park. Once you enter the park gates, the highway name changes to Highway 16A which can be a little confusing. Turning right onto Highway 16A takes you north on Iron Mountain Road to Mount Rushmore National Monument while continuing straight on Highway 16A takes you west on the park’s main road.

Two of the Park’s lodges (State Game Lodge and Legion Lake Lodge) and three of its campgrounds (Game Lodge Campground, Grace Coolidge Campground, and Legion Lake Campground) are located along this route. Turning south just past Legion Lake, one encounters Highway 87 which takes you to the Blue Bell Lodge and campground and Custer’s famed Wildlife Loop Road.

The area immediately surrounding the park is a tourist playground with scenic drives, national monuments (Mount Rushmore), and private attractions such as the Crazy Horse Monument. The town of Custer is located just outside the west entrance to the park and is convenient for restocking on fuel and groceries or for grabbing a bite to eat.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Geography of Custer State Park

Granite spires, stunning mountain views, and rolling grasslands all combine in this very special and scenic location. Located in Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park encompasses approximately 71,000 acres of land.

The change in topography in this area is one part of what makes Custer so unique. Toward the south of the park there are rolling grasslands that provide a home for over 1,500 bison as well as pronghorn antelope, elk, wild burros, and prairie dogs. Toward the north part of the park, the elevation increases dramatically and tall granite spires appear to shoot out of the ground dozens of feet into the air. The sheer sides and steep drops from the spires create a magnificent landscape.

Woven throughout this landscape are several streams and lakes that further add to the beauty and ambience of the area. Taken together, Custer State Park offers a unique landscape that creates a stunning palette of colors, shapes, and textures that many consider to be unparalleled in its scenic beauty.

Related Article: Custer State Park: A Black Hills Gem

Bison along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife in Custer

Wildlife in Custer is abundant and includes bison, deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, coyotes, burros, and prairie dogs. While wildlife can be viewed throughout the park, the Wildlife Loop Road in the southern region of the park is known to have an abundance of animals that can be seen without even leaving your car. During our visit, I observed (and photographed) bison, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, and Custer’s begging burros during our drive along the road.

The begging burros (as they are known) have inhabited the grasslands of Custer for nearly a century. Originally, these donkeys were used as pack animals to shuttle visitors between Sylvan Lake Lodge and Black Elk Peak (the highest peak east of the Rockies). When their services were no longer needed these animals were released into the wild to roam freely in the park.

Begging burros along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The begging burros are extremely friendly and easily approachable. They’ve even been known to poke their heads into the windows of passing cars that stop long enough on the side of the road. Although park officials don’t recommend it, visitors enjoy feeding the burros that are eager to accept almost any handout that is offered.

Pronghorns along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The big wildlife draw in Custer is their herd of over 1,500 wild bison. The herd roams freely in the grasslands in the southern part of the park and has thrived in this area. Visitors on the Wildlife Loop Road are almost guaranteed to see bison during their drive. And it’s not uncommon to be caught in a “buffalo jam.”

This unique experience occurs when the bison herd stops on the roadway or crosses the roadway in the park. Don’t be surprised to find a car or truck surrounded by bison almost like a metal island in a sea of brown hides and horns. While not tame, the bison are also not easily intimidated by people or automobiles. This is truly a unique experience that would be hard to duplicate anywhere in the world outside of Custer State Park.

Related Article: Explore the Black Hills

How to explore Custer State Park

Scenic drives

Almost every road in Custer can be considered a scenic drive! But, there are three that stand out above the others.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway 

The Needles Highway (also known as Highway 87) is a beautiful drive that runs from Highway 16A in the park up to the northwest corner of Custer where Sylvan Lake is located. This 14-mile road is part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway and was once thought to be impossible to build by many engineers. However, through hard work and dedication, it was completed in 1922. This spectacular drive twists and turns its way through forests of pine and spruce, across sunny meadows, and up rugged mountains.

The highway’s name is derived from the rugged granite spires (tall granite towers) that rise majestically into the air. The road terminates at Sylvan Lake after passing through Needles Eye Tunnel, a one-lane tunnel carved into a mountain of granite that measures only 8 feet 4 inches wide by 11 feet 3 inches tall. With the many twists, turns, and narrow tunnels, this highway is definitely not RV-friendly so leave the rig at the campsite while enjoying this drive. Expect a 45-minute drive one-way from end to end.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iron Mountain Road

Iron Mountain Road is the portion of Highway 16A that travels north after one enters the park from the east on Highway 36. This 17-mile stretch of highway is yet another example of determination and ingenuity. The road was specifically designed with 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, and three one-lane tunnels to force visitors to go slow in the hopes that they would enjoy and take in the scenery during their drive.

The southern portion of the road begins in Custer then leaves the park after a few miles and ends at Mount Rushmore National Monument. Along the way, visitors are treated to the scenic beauty of the Black Hills including many overlooks and beautiful pine forests. On your journey toward Mount Rushmore, you will cross over wooden “pigtail” bridges (bridges that loop over their road as they climb). As you near the end, be on the lookout for Doane Robinson Tunnel. This tunnel carved through the mountain is 13 feet 2 inches wide and 12 feet 2 inches tall and was designed to perfectly frame Mount Rushmore while you’re heading north. It is quite an impressive sight. This beautiful drive is not an RV-friendly stretch of highway so once again you’ll want to leave your rig parked while exploring this road. Expect a 60-minute drive one way along this route.

Along Wildlife Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife Loop Road

As mentioned before, this 18-mile scenic loop travels through the south end of the park and winds through open grassy meadows and hills dotted with pine and crosses clear flowing streams. Depending on the day, you can see pronghorn antelope, deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, and the begging burros on your drive. But, perhaps the most well-known feature of the drive is Custer’s bison herd. At over 1,500 animals strong, this herd roams the grasslands in the park’s southern end and can almost always be seen from the road. We have seen and experienced cars completely surrounded by bison and it makes for an extremely unique experience. Depending on “buffalo jams,” and whether you stop to feed the burros, we recommend planning around 1 hour to 1½ hours for this drive.

Related Article: The Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

Hiking

The park offers many hiking opportunities that allow visitors to get off the beaten path and explore the park in an up close and personal way. In addition to the designed and marked trails, off-trail hiking also is encouraged in Custer and visitors are allowed to hike wherever they would like. Depending on the area of the park in which you hike, the trails differ greatly in their topography and geography.

Camping in Custer State Park

Camping in Custer

Custer features 10 campgrounds, each with a unique feel, throughout the park:

  • Blue Bell Campground
  • Center Lake Campground
  • French Creek Horse Camp
  • French Creek Natural Area
  • Game Lodge Campground
  • Grace Coolidge Campground
  • Legion Lake Campground
  • Stockade North Campground
  • Stockade South Campground
  • Sylvan Lake Campground

Most campgrounds offer electric sites with water available at various locations throughout the campground. The lone dump station in the park is located at Game Lodge Campground. 

Other activities

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake is a beautiful body of water located in the northwest corner of Custer State Park. It can be accessed via the Needles Highway if you’re in the Park or by Highway 87 from the north. The Sylvan Lake area offers many activities to visitors; you can rent canoes or kayaks or try your hand at fishing for the trout, panfish, and bass found in its waters.

The loop trail that goes around the lake is 1.1 miles in length, mostly flat and comprised of packed gravel making it a relatively easy hike for most individuals. The views from the trail can be stunning as it traverses the shoreline and there are several large boulders along the way that kids and adults alike will enjoy scrambling to the top of in order to enjoy the breathtaking views from that vantage point. There is even a small swimming beach at the lake for those that are interested in cooling off on a hot summer day.

Related Article: Needles Highway: National Scenic Byway in the Black Hills

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The nearby Sylvan Lake Lodge offers visitors a chance to grab lunch in the restaurant or stock up on drinks, snacks, and souvenirs while they are there. Due to the many activities and its scenic beauty, Sylvan Lake is quite popular and parking can be somewhat limited. So, we suggest arriving at the lake early in the day when crowds are somewhat minimized.

Custer State Park is home to a number of other activities as well. The streams in Custer are teaming with trout waiting to be caught. The trails and roads in Custer are perfect for biking and walking. Eagles and other birds fill the skies and are waiting to be seen by all those who are interested. And the lakes in the park are waiting for you to take a cool refreshing dip.

Truly Custer is a magnificent destination unlike any other we have experienced!

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they roundup and drive the herd of approximately 1,500 buffalo. Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, it is also a critical management tool in maintaining a strong and healthy herd.

The Buffalo Roundup begins at 9:30 a.m. with the parking lots opening at 6:15 a.m. Guests must stay in the viewing areas until the herd is safely in the corrals, generally around noon. Breakfast is available at 6:15 a.m. in both viewing areas. Lunch is served at the corrals once the buffalo are rounded up. There is a fee for both meals. 

Related Article: South Dakota: Fly Over State? Not a Chance!

Testing, branding, and sorting of the buffalo begins at 1 p.m. and lasts until approximately 3 p.m.

At the Annual Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival, up to 150 vendors offer their fine arts and crafts for sale including many South Dakota made products.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start your morning with a pancake feed and enjoy on-going Western and Native American entertainment under the big top. All events and vendors will be located on the festival grounds across from the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center.

The annual roundup, held the last Friday in September, is open to the public. In 2022, the 57th annual Roundup is scheduled for Friday, September 30.

Details

Park Size: 71,000 acres

Camping: 10 campgrounds with 341 campsites and 50 camping cabins, horse camp

Park entrance fees: $20 per vehicle (valid for 7 days); $36 for annual pass; vehicles traveling non-stop through the park on US Highway 16A do not need an entrance license

Operating hours: Open year-round (between October 1 and April 30, showers, flush toilets, and other water systems may be closed; vault toilets usually remain open)

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearest towns: Custer, Rapid City, Hill City, Keystone

Note: GPS can be unreliable in the area

Read Next: Doorway to Forever: Badlands National Park

Worth Pondering…

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.

—Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)

Custer State Park: A Black Hills Gem

Custer State Park offers forest, meadows, mountains, and wildlife including a herd of 1,300 bison

Custer State Park in the beautiful Black Hills of western South Dakota is famous for its bison herds, other wildlife, scenic drives, historic sites, visitor centers, fishing lakes, resorts, campgrounds, and interpretive programs. In fact, it was named as one of the World’s Top Ten Wildlife Destinations for the array of wildlife within the park’s borders and for the unbelievable access visitors have to them.

Bison herd in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of America’s largest state parks, Custer has been home to diverse cultural heritages for thousands of years and has provided an array of scenic beauty and outdoor recreation for visitors since the early 1900s. Custer State Park is full of lush forests, quiet and serene meadows, and majestic mountains. Few truly wild places remain in this country. Custer State Park is one of them.

Thirty to sixty million bison once roamed the great plains of North America. By the close of the 19th century, it’s estimated that less than 1,000 bison survived. Historically, the animal played an essential role in the lives of the Lakota (Sioux), who relied on the “Tatanka” for food, clothing, and shelter.

Today, nearly 1,300 bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres of mountains, hills, and prairie which they share with a wealth of wildlife including pronghorn antelope, elk, white-tailed and mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, coyotes, wild turkeys, a band of burros, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs.

Bison herd in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bison herd roams freely throughout the park and is often found along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road in the southern part of the park. Bison seem docile but can run very fast and turn on a dime. Weighing as much as 2,000 pounds, these animals are forces to be reckoned with. Visitors should stay inside their vehicles when viewing the bison and not get too close. Most wildlife can easily be seen from your car. Bear in mind, they are wild. Keep your distance.

Visit the last Friday in September and feel the thunder and join the herd at the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup (September 24, in 2021). Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they round up and drive the herd of approximately 1,300 buffalo. Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, but it is also a critical management tool in maintaining a strong and healthy herd.

The Buffalo Roundup begins at 9:30 a.m. with the parking lots opening at 6:15 a.m. Arrive early to pick your spot. Guests must stay in the viewing areas until the herd is safely in the corrals, generally around noon. Breakfast is available at 6:15 a.m. in both viewing areas. Lunch is served at the corrals once the buffalo are rounded up. There is a fee for both meals. Testing, branding, and sorting of the buffalo begins at 1 p.m. and lasts until approximately 3 p.m. Crews will work the remainder of the herd in October.

In addition to wildlife, the park features several historic sites, including the State Game Lodge, the Badger Hole, the Gordon Stockade, the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center, and the Mount Coolidge Fire Tower. The Black Hills Playhouse, which hosts performances each summer, is also located within the park, as are four resorts, each offering lodging, dining, and activities.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park also has four mountain lakes. These lakes, along with several streams, offer many water recreation and fishing opportunities.

In March 1919, Custer State Park was named the first official state park. In 2019, South Dakota’s oldest state park celebrated 100 years of outdoor tradition. Each year, more than 1.5 million visitors enjoy the numerous and varied activities, attractions, and events found year-round within Custer State Park.

The park is a driver’s delight. There are three scenic drives—Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, and Wildlife Loop Road—which are part of the extensive network of backcountry lanes on the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway for 70 miles, the route threads its way around pigtail bridges, through one-lane rock-walled tunnels, and ascends to the uppermost heights of the Needles.

The Needles in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The needle-like granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon in Custer State Park, known as the Needles, are truly see-it-to-believe-it phenomena. Drive Needles Highway to see for yourself just how majestic these outcroppings are in person. The Needles Highway is much more than a 14-mile road—it’s a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains.

The adventurous should carve out time to hike Cathedral Spires Trail. This moderate 1.5-mile trail offers spectacular views of these unique rock formations. You’ll likely pass rock climbers hauling gear in or out of the trail, as the spires are home to some of the most sought-after climbing routes in the Black Hills.

Wild burros seeking handouts in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other top trails include Sunday Gulch Trail, Little Devils Tower Trail, Lover’s Leap Trail, and Sylvan Lake Shore Trail. You can begin your trek to Black Elk Peak at one of two trailheads within the park.

The roadway was carefully planned by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, who marked the entire course on foot and by horseback. Construction was completed in 1922.

Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing, and thawing.

The 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road takes visitors through open grasslands and pine-speckled hills that much of the park’s wildlife call home.

Mount Rushmore from the Iron Mountain Road in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 18-mile Iron Mountain Road winds between Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the junction of U.S. 16A and SR 36. Constructed in 1933, only a portion of this road lies within the park, but it is a must-see.

The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway complements the park’s three scenic drives and includes some of the most dramatic natural and historic features in the Black Hills.

Camping in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following an action-packed day, sleep under the stars in Custer State Park. There are nine campgrounds tucked away in ponderosa pine forests, alongside fresh flowing streams, or near a mountain lake. The choice is yours! Campsites accommodate RVs and tents. Each campsite offers gravel or paved camping pad, a fire grate, and a picnic table. Electric hookups are available in most campgrounds. Or, you can relax in a one-room, log-style camping cabin or historic lodge located throughout the park.

The clear mountain waters are inviting and the open ranges are waiting to be discovered. Bring your family to Custer State Park and let yourself run wild.

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

5 Proven Places to Spot Wildlife Today

The U.S. and Canada are home to some incredible and unique wildlife

The United States and Canada have incredible diversity in both landscapes and natural life. From glaciers, geysers, marine ecosystems, and rich plant life that sustains incredible flora and fauna, there are so many ways to explore both nature and wildlife. Most travelers tend to gravitate toward the most popular and known areas. But there are many lesser-known areas that are a wildlife lover’s delight like epic bird migrations to viewing endangered species like manatees in the wild. And the best part is that many of these places are on public lands, accessible to all.

Pronghorns in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1 of 5: Pronghorn Antelopes

WHERE: Custer State Park, South Dakota; Upper Green River Basin, Wyoming, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota; along I-15 in southeastern Idaho and south-central Montana

Traveling at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour across the sagebrush country, pronghorn is the fastest land mammal in North America. Although pronghorn are not as fast as cheetahs, they can maintain a fast speed for a longer period of time than cheetahs.

Pronghorns in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pronghorns are generally reddish-tan in color with white patches on the chest, neck, underbelly, and rear-end. Pronghorn have large eyes and fantastic vision. Their large eyes can spot predators from very far away which is helpful on their flat grassland habitat. Both males and females can have horns although female horns are much smaller reaching only 4 inches in length whereas male horns can be as long as 20 inches.

Sagebrush leaves are an important source of food and water for most pronghorns particularly in winter. They are plant eaters feeding on flowering plants, cacti, and grasses.

Pronghorn in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Their natural range extended from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Today pronghorns are mainly found in the United States in the Great Plains, Wyoming, Montana, northeast California, southeast Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico and in Canada in southern Alberta. Some of the highest numbers of pronghorn are in Wyoming in the Red Desert and Yellowstone ecosystems. Pronghorn like open plains, fields, grasslands, brush, deserts, and basins. Between the summer and winter, pronghorn migrate between feeding grounds to survive the harsh winter.

INSIDER TIP: On a clear day, you will be able to spot pronghorn in herds along the highway. However, with their light-brown coloring, they blend very easily with the landscape.

Bison in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2 of 5: Bison or American Buffalo

WHERE: Custer State Park, South Dakota; Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota; Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming; National Bison Range, Montana; Elk Island National Park, Alberta

Custer State Park is South Dakota’s first and largest state park. It spans over 71,000 acres all around the Black Hills area. Custer State Park is also home to one of the largest bison herds in North America and is the best place to spot these animals outside of Yellowstone National Park.

Bison in Elk Island National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Through the early 1700s and1800s, bison were hunted to near extinction by the white settlers. But over the past century, bison reintroduction programs—like the one in Custer State Park—have paid off. Now the herd in the park is around 1,300-1,400 strong and they are visible all year round. But springtime is super special because it brings cute baby bison into the mix. The annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup (September 23-25 in 2021) is a popular event. Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they round up and drive the herd.

Bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

INSIDER TIP: The number of bison at Elk Island National Park fluctuates year-to-year; there are generally around 400 plains bison and 300 wood bison.

Prairie dog in Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3 of 5: Prairie Dogs

WHERE: Badlands National Park, South Dakota; Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota; Greycliff Prairie Dog Town State Park, Montana

Prairie dogs are closely related to the common ground squirrels and chipmunks both of which live in areas around Badlands National Park and the Great Plains of the West. The prairie dog species found in the Badlands is the black-tailed prairie dog which also happens to be the most common prairie dog species overall. Prairie dogs tend to be around 14-17 inches in length and weigh 1-3 pounds each. Some of their bodily adaptations have made them excellent at what they do. Their short, strong arms and long-nailed toes help them to dig burrows. Although their legs are short, prairie dogs can run up to 35 mph at short distances to escape predators for the safety of their burrows.

Prairie dog in Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prairie dogs live in underground colonies sometimes referred to as “towns”. Prairie dogs build their homes underground to protect against larger predators like hawks and coyotes as well as to protect their homes from flash flooding. One unique aspect of prairie dog life is communication. You can often hear them “talking” to each other via barks, squeaks, or yips. They use this method of communication to warn each other about the dangers and predators around.

INSIDER TIP: Because prairie dogs are so small compared to some of the larger animals in the area, they tend to get overlooked easily. Your best bet is to pull over onto one of the shoulder outlooks and just watch the landscape for any movement in the burrows.

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4 of 5: Sandhill Cranes

WHERE: Bosque National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico; Whitewater Draw, Arizona; Lodi, California; Platte River, Nebraska

Those of us who have experienced any kind of animal migration event know it is an experience of a lifetime. While Nebraska might not seem a likely place to see a migration event, it is home to one of the most epic bird migrations on the continent. And sitting in a bird blind with small cutout windows with just enough space for binoculars and cameras is the best way to watch the majestic sandhill cranes during their annual migration. These cranes can be found by the millions along the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska.

Sandhill cranes at Bosque National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the day, thousands of birds forage for food in the cornfields around Gibbon and at night they roost along the Platter River. Cranes are elegant in the way they dance among each other. And the moment they take flight in unison is simply breathtaking. Once you have experienced this, you might find yourself making the annual trip to Gibbon just to see them again.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

INSIDER TIP: The best place to see sandhill cranes along their migration route is along the Platte River about 20 miles east of Kearney, Nebraska along I-80. And the best time to visit is March to Mid-April during sunrise or just before sunset.

Manatee at Manatee Park, Tampa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5 of 5:  Manatees

WHERE: Along the Florida Coast

Manatees are one of the most popular marine life attractions in Florida and people travel from all over the world to see them in the wild. Known as gentle sea cows, manatees roam the waters of Florida from April through October. And when the temperature drops, they head to places with fresh water where temperatures are constant year-round. Manatees need waters of around 70 degrees to survive (and thrive).

Homosassa Wildlife State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Citrus County which is along Florida’s Gulf Coast north of Tampa is the world’s largest natural winter refuge for manatees. Manatees are attracted to the area because of the abundance of freshwater springs. Citrus County has many observation points to safely see these animals and it is also one of the few locations in Florida where you can legally observe manatees within the water. So, swimming with manatees is a popular activity here.

Homosassa Wildlife State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

INSIDER TIP: The manatee is one of Florida’s most iconic symbols and wintertime is the best time to see them. When the temperatures dip, manatees gather in springs and the warm-water outflows of power plants in large numbers.

Worth Pondering…

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.

—Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)