Rush hour: Custer State Park

“Sometimes the only way to ever find yourself is to get completely lost.”

Kellie Elmore

You’ve seen the pictures in brochures, but until you experience it, you may not understand the rush that comes from at afternoon herd movement in SouthDakota’s Custer State Park.

Even though we’d seen pictures of massive buffalo roaming freely in and through highways and fields in the park, we never dreamed we’d be stranded for an hour and a half — partly terrorized, partly thrilled to be among giants at sundown!

We didn’t enter into this rush hour completely unaware. At the Visitor Center, a ranger had pointed to a plastic buffalo atop the topographic map showing the last-known position of the herd. (Positions are verified and updated throughout each day, we learned.)

And that herd stood between us and the state lodge where we had reservations.

No problem, we thought. We’d love to see a few buffalo. And see them we did.

At first, it was only a few grazing along the side of the road as if they knew their boundaries, and we knew ours. We quickly found out that this was buffalo territory; we were just lucky to be allowed passage through it!

Just as the rangers told us, this was a herd of mothers and babies only — about a thousand of them.

The ranger also shared this: Males are kicked out of a herd once the little ones are born. So, the only way we would see males are as singles or two males together off to themselves.

On this day, I was the driver when we happened upon the herd. (Please pardon my pictures. I was clutching desperately to the steering wheel with one hand, holding an iPhone with the other and trembling as enormous, black/brown, swiftly moving animals lumbered past our car.)

I’ll admit we did wonder what would happen if our car came between a mother and her little one, and immediately we regretted renting a small Sentra that could have been tipped over in a heartbeat!

There’s not much to compare with this experience. Rushing buffalo can come upon you quickly — and, as they move past in a blur, you can hear thumping, pounding movements and the rush of their bodies passing by. If your windows are open, you may be close enough to smell the beasts passing by. One even brushed my rear-view mirror sending my phone to the floorboard and uprighting me as I rushed to roll up the window!

After an hour of inching along through the herd, (exhilarated by this hoped-for experience yet scared at the same time) we developed a plan. Take a right turn off the main drag and escape the herd.

But the plan was flawed: The highway on the right was flanked by a ravine. So now, we had buffalo in a hurry to get to a bedding-down place for the night but anxious to avoid the ravine. That meant only one place for the herd to go: around, in front, and behind us as we poked along nervously and cautiously in the middle of the road!

A bit later a driver in a red truck — local and experienced, no doubt — motioned for us to follow his lead. He taught us this trick: keep moving, slowly, slowly. Don’t stop. Don’t speed up and scare the herd. Don’t honk. Just most slowly and steadily.

It worked. The herd crossed the highway in front and in back of us, spilling into a valley on the way to their resting place.

We began breathing again. And repositioning ourselves more comfortably in our seats. “Did you get any good pictures?” we asked each other. And then we smiled. We’d been in watch-and-try-not-to-panic mode rather than trying to compete with the National Geographic guys!

If you’re looking for wildlife in Custer State Park (usually open October 1 to April 30), visit the rangers to determine the location of the herd. Then follow the appropriately named Wildlife Loop Road with your cameras ready.

Needless to say, there’s nothing like witnessing herd movement in South Dakota!

Rusha & Bert

27 thoughts on “Rush hour: Custer State Park


    Rusha, how fortunate that an experienced Samaritan helped you through the rush hour. That’s good news for city slickers like us. What a great experience for the books. Even though I’ve always had a healthy respect for buffalo, we had a buff-experience while tent camping in Roosevelt NP that gave me even more reasons to give them their space. I’ll have to remember the slowly-keep-moving strategy – which also works in Walmart. 🙂 ~James

    1. Oh, the Places We See

      Love your Walmart reference! Bert says that if I would shop in the wee hours at Walmart, I’d be right at home in my pajamas!!! Not going, though.
      Slow and steady wins the race in SD!

  2. Pingback: Life is short, take the curves: Needles Highway, SD – Oh, the Places We See . . .

  3. WanderingCanadians

    This brings a whole new meaning to rush hour. I’ve seen bison at Yellowstone National Park and in Waterton Lakes National Park (in Alberta), but never this many and never this close to the road in such large numbers. Talk about an unforgettable experience. This definitely gave me a good laugh while looking through all these pictures.

    1. Oh, the Places We See

      It gave us a laugh as well. . . But only after we were out of harm’s way!!! Thanks for taking a look at this and other posts of ours we appreciate readers so much! Thanks, too, for following our blog!! It means a lot.

  4. Miriam Hurdle

    Beautiful photos, Rusha! What an experience you had. I’ve only seen the photos and documentary of the buffalo. We haven’t travel to places to see real ones. I would be nervous to drive with one hand and hold the phone with the other to take photos. If I did, I would worry of dropping the phone. You did a good job. It sounded like a good suggestion from the driver in the truck to keep moving slowly. I guess the buffalo could sense the movement of the car and they would move on. Thank you fro sharing this amazing experience!

    1. Oh, the Places We See

      I so wanted a great head shot of a buffalo. But they moved quickly around us. Or they came up too suddenly to photograph. It just wasn’t a picture-taking day even though I wanted it to be! Thanks for taking a look!!

  5. The Wandering RVer

    We’ve seen quite a few herds, first in British Columbia (smaller wood bison) while in the motorhome, and then again in Yellowstone while in the Jeep but if you think being in a Sentra was nerve racking, the first herd I ever saw was at Custer while riding a motorcycle. Definitely scary but also VERY cool!

    1. Oh, the Places We See

      OMG! We didn’t see motorcycles that day, but I would have been terrified. These guys are much larger and heavier than I imagined. Thanks for letting me know your encounter. It was fun, and I’d do it again. But I’d rather be in an RV!

  6. Curt Mekemson

    Okay, Rusha, that was a grand experience! Peggy and I have been along side buffalo several times (and my aren’t they big) but we have never been in the middle of a large herd. It was okay to be a little nervous. 🙂 Thanks for the tour. –Curt

  7. Peta Kaplan Pollack

    Awesome post! We felt right there with you in the car. How amazing to see SO many buffalo at one time and especially to be able to see the moms with their fuzzy babies. Interesting to read about how the males are kicked out of the herd once the babies are born. What an experience!!


    1. Oh, the Places We See

      Thanks so much, Peta. It was an experience to remember. The buffalo are enormous animals — I’d seen them at a distance before, but when they were next to the car, I knew I didn’t want to tangle with any of them. What a treasure to see so many at once and to understand briefly the term “herd mentality.” Hope your life is going well — wherever you are!

    1. Oh, the Places We See

      My hands were shaking the whole time. I thought it would just be enjoyable — like going to the zoo or watching a documentary. But it’s actually scary when they brush up against your car! Appreciate the comment!

      1. Oh, the Places We See

        There were some scary moments, all right. But I don’t remember ever seeing on the national news informs about people losing their lives while buffalo were headed home. So maybe this is a relatively safe excursion for people. Don’t know. But would probably do it again!!

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