By Jenny Peters
If you’ve ever thought of channeling your inner cowpoke and heading to the wilds of Western South Dakota to check out everything from the Badlands to Deadwood, then September is the time to hop in your trusty steed (we suggest a car or airplane) and go West.
That’s because in addition to finding good weather, September is the time for the 56th Annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup, an Old West spectacle that will boggle your mind.
HEAD ‘EM UP, MOVE ‘EM OUT
The Buffalo Roundup happens at 9:30 am on September 24th this year, as a phalanx of horseback-riding cowboys and cowgirls join park rangers and pickup-truck wranglers who work together to round up the over 1400 buffalo that live in the park all year round. The point of the yearly roundup is twofold. First, this annual event serves to cull the healthy heard of 400 beasts sold off to farms. And second, it allows the rangers to inoculate and observe the health of the rest of the herd, then set them loose to live another undisturbed year.
Arrive early to get a good spot on one of the hillsides that overlook this wild, massive roundup, as wranglers push the buffalo from all directions over the surrounding hills. The thundering of hooves, the whooping of the riders, and the cheers from the spectators create an overwhelming cacophony and visual swirl that is genuinely a one-of-a-kind life experience that’s free of charge.
There is also the three-day Arts Festival that coincides with the roundup (September 23-25), featuring local South Dakota artists. You’ll pay a park entrance fee for that, but park admission is free on roundup day.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Stay inside Custer State Park at the classic Sylvan Lake Lodge for a rustic experience within a wooded landscape on the shores of the lake, as a home base for doing the roundup and visiting the landmark sites. There’s water sports, hiking, and horseback riding to get your blood moving here. Or stay in Rapid City, where numerous modern hotels beckon and sophisticated restaurants, shops, and statues of U.S. presidents dot the easily walkable downtown area.
From either place, go up into the Black Hills to visit Deadwood, that silver-rush town that Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane helped make famous. Visit Wild Bill’s Bar, the spot where Hickok died holding aces backed by eights, the Dead Man’s Hand.
Both Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial are also located in the Black Hills and are must-see stops. If you love caves, discover both Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. They are colossal cave systems with fascinating histories and spelunking experiences.
Make time to head east as well, to see the breathtaking Badlands National Park, where buffalo roam and craggy sandstone/limestone/shale rock formations offer up dinosaur and other paleontological finds. Don’t miss Wall Drug, where thirsty travelers began stopping in the early 1930s and still do, for water, their famous donuts, and photo ops on top of the vast “jackalope” statue outback.
When hunger strikes, put Lintz Bros. Pizza in Hermosa on your eating list, for they are making great pizza in that small town and don’t miss the Three Little Pigs pizza. In Custer, check out both the Sage Creek Grille and Skogen Kitchen, two top-notch eateries; in Rapid City, enjoy the Firehouse Brewing Company’s beers and casual fare, served up in the town’s quaint old brick firehouse.