South Dakota's Custer State Park   (page 1 of 1)

I often photograph in the western United States, and have made the long drive west from Ohio countless times. I became aware of Custer State Park as a place on the map about two decades ago and I have occasionally heard it mentioned in conversations. I finally decided to take about a week on my way through South Dakota to check the place out for myself. In spite of doing some pre-trip research on the Internet, I was not quite sure what to expect. People have taken some wonderful photographs in Custer, but it is not known as a photographic hot spot. Perhaps it was a little known gem? My photographer friends were of little help because none of them had ever diverted to Custer from their usual trips either. Several of them said "If you stop there, let me know what it's like".  The following are my impressions.

A shy and rather shaggy antelope rests in the cover of some low brush in Custer State Park, South Dakota. This image was taken in June, when most adult animals have not yet completely shed their winter coats.

A Managed Environment

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Do not expect to find the wild and natural conditions you would expect in a national park or wilderness area. By comparison, Custer State Park is more like a gigantic ranch. Custer's forests are thinned regularly and are full of stumps. There is a distinct absence of very old trees, snags, and fallen dead wood. Species that require these old growth forest attributes are also largely absent. This tree thinning makes conditions more favorable for species like grazing animals at the expense of others. It also reduces the forest's susceptibility to mountain pine beetle infestation and fire. Environmental issues aside, it produces a forest that looks groomed and somewhat artificial. Trees are widely spaced, and the huge patches of dense closed-canopy forest that existed before European settlement are missing. The park's forestry literature makes me wonder how forests survived before we were here to manage them.

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There are plenty of bison, and all are branded with a date on their hind quarters. Park management rounds up all the bison every year to brand the new calves and sell off surplus bison at an auction on the third Saturday of each November. Populations of other animals are controlled with periodic hunts.

This family of young prairie dogs plays and learns in the prairie dog town along Custer's wildlife loop road.

Park Roads

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Driving the winding roads that traverse Custer is a great experience, especially early in the morning before most people are out. The paved 18-mile long wildlife loop road and the Needles Highway are the most popular routes. They are also the most productive routes for photography. Inside the wildlife loop, narrow dirt roads cross the parkís interior providing a sense of adventure and exploration along with some good photographic opportunities. Even these dirt roads are well marked and their condition is usually good enough for the family sedan.

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Morning and evening drives along the wildlife loop and dirt roads in the same area are often rewarded by sightings of deer, pronghorn, prairie dogs, wild turkey, birds of prey, and other wildlife. Many of these animals will flee at the first sight of a human, even at great distance. Photographing from your vehicle can net good images in some cases. Animals that run at the sight of a distant human will often wander close to an automobile. Bison are frequently seen along every road in this section of the park, and they are not at all shy. There is a large prairie dog town on the loop that is loads of fun to photograph, especially in the spring when young ones are running about. 

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The needles highway provides awesome views of Custerís most rocky and rugged terrain. In this area you can sometimes find mountain goats and big horn sheep on the rocky outcroppings. This area is a "must see" if you visit the park.

This photograph was taken along the Needles Highway, and represents Custer's most rugged terrain. The dark sky behind the pinnacles signals an approaching storm.

Overall Impressions

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The employees and volunteers who work in Custer State Park are the most friendly people you are likely to meet anywhere. They are knowledgeable, informative, and always have a smile to share. If you have questions, don't hesitate to ask them. They are the best ambassadors South Dakota, or anyplace else, could hope to have.

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If you are looking for a place to take the family for some camping, horseback riding, fishing, relaxing, and exploring, Custer State Park could be your place. Nature photographers will find that it is a good place to stop for a couple days if you are in the area and have extra time. It is a fun place to explore that offers some photographic opportunities along the way. 

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Copyright 2003 Dean M. Chriss

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