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.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.”

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

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.”

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

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.

Needles Eye Tunnel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

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.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 at Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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)

10 Amazing Places to RV in September

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in September

Now that September is here, many RVers are looking to extend their summer fun as long as they can. Summer may officially end on September 23 but your vacation season is far from over. Whatever your September plans—quick trips, long weekends, a staycation, sitting by the pool, or one last big journey—we have gathered some great destinations and road trips to help you enjoy the season. Summer is calling . . . still!

September is the unsung hero of travel months: The busiest vacation season has come and gone and places are less crowded because kids are back in school. It’s the perfect time to pay a visit to locations that are usually swarming with tourists and enjoy some serious natural beauty, luxury RV resorts, outdoor adventures, and a few glasses of wine. So what are you waiting for? Here are the 10 best places to travel in September, from Vermont to San Antonio.

It’s almost autumn and if you didn’t join the summer rush back to traveling it’s time to think about September when things calm down a bit. Crisp temperatures, fall colors, and fresh mountain air make Stowe, Vermont and the Blue Ridge Parkway perfect destinations where you can enjoy the scenery, hiking, and apple cider.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in June, July, and August. Also, check out my recommendations from September 2020.

Stowe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stowe, Vermont

This classic New England village is known for skiing but it’s also one of the best places in the country to see stunning fall foliage. From early September through late October, the weather and colorful backdrop are perfect for outdoor activities like hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and scenic drives.

Zig and zag your way to the summit ridge of Mount Mansfield—Vermont’s highest mountain—along the historic Toll Road where stunning views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains await you. The road up Mount Mansfield is 4.5 miles of awe-inspiring natural beauty. You can park at 3,850 feet, relax and take it all in. RVs are not permitted on the toll road.

Or get on top of autumn splendor the easy way—in the refurbished Stowe Gondola SkyRide. From the top of Mount Mansfield, you can access hiking trails and a sweet treat at The Waffle. The Gondola SkyRide is open through October 17. And plan ahead for the Stowe Foliage Arts Festival in early October (38th annual; October 8-10, 2021).

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy a Scenic Drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway

America’s Favorite Scenic Drive winds its way through North Carolina and Virginia. The 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway connects Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are numerous entry points to the parkway (which is free to access) in southern Virginia and northern North Carolina but if you want to admire some of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi River you’ll want to traverse the parkway near Asheville.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Popular stops along the parkway include Craggy Gardens (known for its 360-degree views and abundance of wildflowers), Mount Mitchell (the highest peak in the eastern United States), and Linville Falls (a three-tiered waterfall that cascades into the Linville Gorge). When you’re ready to stretch your legs, there are multiple hiking trails easily accessed off of the parkway including the family-friendly Graveyard Fields. This nearly 3-mile-long loop trail takes hikers to two waterfalls. If you’re up for the challenge there’s also the more strenuous 2.6-mile out and back Mount Pisgah Trail which features views of Cold Mountain from its 5,721-foot summit.

Sugar cane harvesting © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hi Sugar!

Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival: The sweetest time of year! The annual Hi Sugar festival in September in New Iberia is the place to be to satisfy your inner sweet tooth and child-like sugary desires. Offering a rich history of the sugar found in the area, entertainment, and lots of sugar-filled treats, you’ll soak up a sweet time! 

What could be more fitting a cause for celebration than the tall, green, sweet sugar cane? And so it is that the last full weekend of September (79th annual; September 23-26, 2021) as the growth of the succulent sugar cane reaches its pinnacle, New Iberia hosts the twenty-four sugar producing parishes of Louisiana.

Sugar cane harvesting © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To the Jesuit Fathers goes the distinction of introducing sugar cane to Louisiana. Because of its rapid growth due to the semi-tropical climate and the ingenuity of a young Frenchman, Etienne De Bore who discovered the secret of granulated sugar, the economy of South Louisiana changed and the era of large plantations came into existence.

At the conclusion of a successful harvest, the planters rejoiced with a celebration called “apres la roulaison”, meaning to grind or to roll as in crushing the cane to extract the juices. In its infancy, the festival took place “after grinding” and although the celebration now comes at the end of September, the spirit of the occasion is the same…one of thanksgiving and joyful anticipation of fun-filled, carefree days.

Ripe chiles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chile Capital of the World

It’s been 100 years since horticulturist Fabián García publicly introduced his hybrid chile, “New Mexico No. 9,” the grandmother of all New Mexican chile peppers today. To pay homage, consider a visit to Hatch, a small agricultural village in southern New Mexico known as the “Chile Capital of the World.” The oh-so-flavorful Hatch pepper is named after Hatch Valley where the bulk of Hatch peppers are grown. This is thanks to its unique terroir which includes fertile volcanic soil.

As summer cools down, the Village of Hatch heats up. Labor Day weekend heralds the annual Hatch Chile Festival, a two-day celebration of their world-famous crop. Despite the town’s tiny size, Hatch swells to more than 30,000 people during the two-day celebration. The event features chile ristra contests, artisan and food booths, and a carnival. This year marks 50 years since the festival’s inception. The pandemic thwarted last year’s celebration making the 2021 gathering extra-special.

Chile ristras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The scent of roasting chiles permeates the air in late summer and early fall along Hall Street, Hatch’s main thoroughfare where mom-and-pop shops sell chile peppers in all forms. Ristras—decorative dried chile pods that are both edible and a good luck symbol—hang on the patios and in doorways of places like Chile Fanatic and Hatch Chile Sales beckoning visitors to shop for chile powder, salsas, and ristras of their own.

Red chiles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chile peppers keep their star status when it comes to dining, as well. For a quarter of a century, the family-owned Pepper Pot has been serving up Mexican American dishes like green chile stew and red chile enchiladas (a favorite of late food personality, Anthony Bourdain, who said that their red enchiladas were the best ever). Then there’s Sparky’s, a roadside eatery and attraction that’s known as much for the fiberglass statues dotting its rooftop and lining the street (including Ronald McDonald, Yogi Bear, a Roswell-inspired green alien, and a towering Uncle Sam) as it is for its cuisine. Sparky’s green chile cheeseburgers are a talked-about phenomenon though this beloved counter-service spot also whips up the wood-fired barbeque, espresso drinks, and a wide array of shakes.

Hatch is just nine miles north of the entrance to Spaceport America, the first purpose-built commercial spaceport on the planet and testing grounds for Virgin Galactic’s human spaceflights. Final Frontier Tours offers private pre-scheduled tours of the facility, including the chance to experience a rapidly accelerating G-shock simulator, comparable to what astronauts feel in flight.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Port Aransas, Texas

With 18 miles of beaches, Port Aransas, located on Mustang Island on the Gulf Coast, is a haven for anglers and beachgoers. Fishermen can cast a line from the surf, a public fishing pier, or take an off-shore excursion for various fish species. If you visit in the summer, you’re bound to see a fishing tournament or you can try surfing, kayaking, or kiteboarding with a local guide. Visit Farley Boat Works to partake in building a boat or head out on a bird-watching expedition—Port Aransas has six sites along the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail with hundreds of bird species frequenting the area. The arts community here is also thriving with numerous studios, galleries, the Port Aransas Art Center, and the Port Aransas Community Theatre. Nightlife is also popular, with numerous bars and restaurants regularly hosting artists.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Feel the Thunder

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. The 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.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the last Friday in September and feel the thunder and join the herd at the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup (September 24, 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, it is also a critical management tool in maintaining a strong and healthy herd.

Marshes of Glynn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Simons, Georgia

The largest barrier island in the Golden Isles, St. Simons Island lies across the immortalized Marshes of Glynn made famous by poet Sidney Lanier. Moss-draped oaks line the winding island streets creating a picture-perfect image worthy of a Faulkner tale.

St. Simons Island is dotted with exceptional historic sites and attractions from the St. Simons Lighthouse Museum—a working lighthouse built in 1872—to the Bloody Marsh Battle Site where in July 1742, British and Scottish soldiers protecting colonial Georgia defeated a larger Spanish force in a battle that helped end Spanish incursions outside Florida.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the island’s north end, Cannon’s Point Preserve contains middens dating back to 2500 BC. Fort Frederica National Monument which preserves archeological remnants of the local British colony and its defense against Spain and historic Christ Church, Frederica—one of the oldest churches in Georgia with worship held continuously since 1736—is also located on the island’s north end. History buff or not, you won’t want to miss Christ Church’s picturesque and somewhat haunting grounds.

Hummingbird at Paton Center for Hummingbirds © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watch hummingbirds in Patagonia

The Paton Center for Hummingbirds was closed due to the pandemic but has since reopened.

This birding hotspot captures the laidback charm of Patagonia. The Patons put out backyard feeders in the 1970s and hummingbirds swarmed the property. The family soon began welcoming strangers who came to enjoy the colorful show. After Marion Paton died in 2009, neighbors kept the feeders stocked until 2014 when the Tucson Audubon Society took over.

Vermillion flycatcher at the Patton Center for Hummingbirds © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The place hasn’t changed much over the years. There are chairs beneath a shade awning and a big board to list recent sightings. Folks have come from all over the world just to sit quietly in a small Arizona yard and watch clouds of hummingbirds. Hummingbird visitors to the Paton Yard are at their highest numbers during spring (March-May) and fall (August-October) migrations. They also have many breeding hummingbird species throughout the summer. In the winter, hummingbird numbers are lower but you may still find rare species such as the Violet-crowned Hummingbird.

It’s a lovely carefree way to spend an hour and I hope to get to do it again soon.

Greenville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Greenville’s River Walk

Greenville’s recent history is defined by a series of game-changing public access initiatives beginning with the formation of Falls Park on the Reedy, a 32-acre park in the heart of downtown. The signature waterfall is best viewed from the pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge, a single-cable suspended path that extends 345 feet as it curves around the waterfall below.

Live music, delicious cuisine, and impressive outdoor art installations are just a few of the standout attractions along Greenville’s river walk. Check out Papi’s Tacos (300 River Street) and ask for the “Travelin’ Taco”—shredded chicken, lettuce, Pico De Gallo, Crema in a bag of Fritos corn chips, and a fork. It won’t disappoint and it’s only $4.25 or three for $12.

Greenville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Next, stop at the picturesque Art Crossing. The Shoppes at Art Crossing, nestled in the lower level of Riverplace, house over a dozen local artists and offer the public a great variety of art in every medium. Here you will find local award-winning artists at work in their gallery/studio as they create realist and abstract paintings, photographic art, watercolors, illustrations, pottery, batik, and mixed media treasures. Art Crossing at Riverplace is in the heart of downtown Greenville right off South Main along the Reedy River and is open from 11 am to 6 pm Tuesday through Saturday.

Greenville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Public space extends north and south along the Swamp Rabbit Trail that parallels the Reedy River as it rambles for 22 miles over the converted railway. The path moves south to the freshwater marsh at Lake Conestee Nature Preserve and north to Travelers Rest, a bedroom community where eateries like Upcountry Provisions offer a delicious breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Two miles north of downtown, the Swamp Rabbit Cafe and Grocery marks an appealing waypoint with its park-like outdoor seating, sandwiches on house-baked stecca bread, and homemade pastries. Other fan-favorite eateries include UP on the Roof (250 Riverplace) and The Lazy Goat (170 Riverplace), both of which are perfect to pop in for a delicious meal.

San Antonio River Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Antonio, Texas

The River Walk, or Paseo del Rio, is one of the city’s best-known attractions. Visitors can stroll along the walking path or cruise in a river barge to explore the 15-mile urban waterway. Shop at La Villita, Market Square, or the Shops at Rivercenter. The Alamo is another favorite with tours and exhibits of the complex that was the site of the Texas Revolution battle in 1836. Further south, immerse yourself in history at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the San Antonio Missions along the Mission Reach. Families enjoy the San Antonio Zoo and Six Flags Fiesta Texas.

Windseed Farns near Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Add a scenic road trip to the Texas Hill Country characterized by tall, rugged hills of limestone and granite. You’ll pass through small towns, boutique farms, Texas-sizes ranches, and refreshing swimming holes. Many towns also have monthly markets where you can buy everything from earrings to stained glass: Gruene Market Days (Gruene is at the edge of New Braunfels), Trade Days near Fredericksburg, Boerne Market Days, and Wimberley Market Days. Wildseed Farms is a haven for gardening accessories, seeds, and local specialty foods. Explore Enchanted Rock State Natural Area with a hike, picnic, or climb to enjoy the view.

Worth Pondering…

We know that in September, we will wander through the warm winds of summer’s wreckage. We will welcome summer’s ghost.

—Henry Rollins

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

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

Round ‘Em Up: The Ground Rumbles & The Dust Flies

Feel the thunder and join the herd at the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

Feel the earth tremble as the hooves of more than 1,300 American buffalo pound through the valley in Custer State Park. At the annual Buffalo Roundup in the Black Hills of South Dakota, herdsmen on horseback spur them over the ridge, down the hill and into corrals for sorting.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each fall, the ground rumbles and the dust flies as cowboys, cowgirls, and park crews drive the thundering herd of approximately 1,300 buffalo (number of animals vary depending on rangeland conditions). Up to 20 volunteer cowboys and cowgirls are selected each year through an application process.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clouds of dust and flying turf envelopes the 1-ton animals as they come running by, a mass of horns, hooves, and muscle on the move. You would think such large, lumbering animals would be slow, but they can stop on a dime and easily jump a 5- or 6-foot fence. Your jaw will drop at their speed and agility.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Riding herd on the stampede takes both organization and an understanding of bison intellect. The herd moves easily from prairie grasses to asphalt and into the holding pen. Over the years, there had been numerous runaways trying to turn back.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The big bull bison are not included in the Roundup because they are more aggressive and are simply hard to round up. Because of this, visitors may see them scattered throughout the park during the Roundup weekend.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, it is also part of the park’s management plan to maintain a healthy balance between the number of bison and the available rangeland forage. The park can only sustain a certain number of bison, based on the condition of the grassland and how much food is available.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Buffalo Roundup also allows for some of the animals to be sorted out of the herd. The excess animals are then auctioned off to buyers in November wanting to supplement their herds or start new ones elsewhere in the country.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The annual roundup, held the last Friday in September, is open to the public. In 2019, the 54th  annual Roundup is scheduled for Friday, September 27.

Wild burros also via for attention © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no admission fee for the event and a park entrance fee is not required the day of the Buffalo Roundup. Parking lots open at 6:15 a.m. (but be prepared to wait in line). Visitors who are in the park by 7:00 a.m. will have plenty of time to get to the viewing areas. The Roundup does not start until 9:30 a.m.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pancakes, sausages, and beverages are available at 6:15 a.m., in both viewing areas. Lunch is served, until 2:00 p.m., at the corrals once the buffalo are rounded up. There is a fee for both meals.

Pronghorn antelope share the range with the buffal0 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Both viewing areas have unique vantage points and visitors get great views from either location. Visitors may not move between viewing areas.

Wild burros also via for attention © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Roundup is generally over by 11:30 a.m., but visitors need to be prepared to stay in the viewing areas until the bison are safely in the corrals. Shuttles are available after the Roundup for visitors wishing to visit the corral area.

Fun activities continue the entire weekend following the Roundup. The Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival, with up to 150 vendors, is held Thursday, Friday, and Saturday near the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center. Saturday features the annual Cabela’s Challenge Dutch Oven Cook-off.

Pronghorn antelope share the range with the buffal0 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re not in the mood to browse or buy and you want to escape the crowds, there’s plenty of daytime wildlife viewing along Wildlife Loop Road and other scenic byways. September is the rut season for the elk and the pronghorn antelope. With the elks’ mating calls and sparring, along with the antelope racing after each other, wildlife watching is quite entertaining.

The spectacle of these animals moving across the plains is a thrill rarely seen elsewhere. So is the silence that shrouded the hills once the beasts are corralled.

Buffalo Roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once placed in the corrals, park staff sorts out approximately 200 animals to be sold, vaccinates the new members of the herd, brands the new calves, and checks the cows for pregnancy. It takes about four days to work the entire herd.

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)