It was on the 605 team’s bucket list to one day experience the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup. We were thrilled to get a media invite to the 55th annual event where visitors can watch riders as they literally round up and drive the herd of approximately 1,300 bison to the corrals.
Packing up our office, we planned an itinerary to explore the town of Custer while we were at it to make it our official road trip in late September 2020.
Open from May 25 to October 2, the Buffalo Ridge Camp Resort (more on page 50) has 86 acres of traditional (yet luxurious) campground amenities with a wide range of unique camping experiences. The amenities include a newly-built general store, a 24-hour laundry facility, a shower house, an outdoor solar-heated family pool, and an adult-only pool.
Lodging can be anything from luxury cabins, glamping teepees, camping cabins, tent camping, or RV hookups.
605 chose two glamping tents, and myself, Taylor Hanson, Jordan Cushman, and John Snyder pulled into the campground late on a Wednesday night with nothing but stars in the sky.
As we started lugging our bags and gear to the tents, we could hear animals howling from afar, and it officially felt like we were camping. But, you know, luxuriously.
Each tent had its own deck, and there were two large beds in both. The modern décor and small details (like a letterboard you could customize for messages) were well thought out. There was a fireplace, heaters, and plush bed comforters to keep us warm.
If this is camping, I need to do it more.
Early to Rise
Our alarms went off around 5:30 a.m. to get ready and drive into Custer for a hot air balloon ride with Black Hills Balloons. Flights take place at sunrise, weather permitting, and we all arrived and packed into a van to take us to the flight location.
It was almost just as jaw-dropping watching the crew prep the balloon for takeoff as two balloons were being spread out. Fire started torching out to stand them up.
As we loaded, we knew we were in good hands with pilot Damien Mahony, who has been in the commercial balloon business since 1999 and runs the business with his wife, Keely. Both Jordan and I are timid of heights, but Damien cracked jokes and put us at ease.
Stratobowl Balloon Launch
Fly in a hot air balloon from the historic Stratobowl. Dates are September 10, 11, and 12. The Stratobowl was first made famous in the 1930s when high altitude balloons launched from the site, visited the stratosphere, and made history. Now once a year pilots and their balloons flock to the site in honor of those historic figures.
Slowly going up, it was silent except for the sound of the fire. Until we watched someone from the other balloon drop their cell phone from the sky, that is. Showing the teams’ chivalry, we watched the other balloon go back down to retrieve it so they could still capture their flight.
It was a morning I’ll never forget. We saw deer running through the forest and also saw cows. Damien surprised us by clipping over the top of pine trees. Thankfully I had stopped Instagramming, or I would have lost my phone as well.
The whole point of the experience is to be present, and it was definitely the way to see the Black Hills at its best.
We landed and the team got us settled with light snacks and a champagne toast with a Black Hills Balloons souvenir cup. A flight certificate was also given to each of us, which made us feel legit.
In true 605 itinerary fashion, we were running back to back against the Bison Safari planned for media outlets. We tried to (quickly) drive to the Custer State Park office to catch the teams who were taking us out to the corrals.
As we parked to rush in, we saw them taking off. Of course.
Again we rushed as safely as possible to the corrals where we met up with Custer State Park’s Kobee Stalder and crew. They did a walk through of what would happen the following morning for the roundup and discussed the bison herd.
Media crews split up the back of different safari trucks with protective bars to keep us to stand in the truck beds safely. It was one of the top five coolest things the 605 crew has done as we cruised through the park and saw things like burros walking down the street.
We turned off the road and the trucks splashed in the water as we drove directly up to the bison. It was incredible. Some were bathing. Some were walking with their calves. Some were straight chillin, whipping flies off with their tails.
Stopping at a safe distance with bison surrounding us on the hills, we had the opportunity to get out of the trucks to take more photos and video. All in all it was a once in a lifetime morning.
And it was just the start to the trip.
A Beacon of Music and Food
“Eat, sip, gather, and groove” is the tagline for the Custer Beacon, and it fits.
Owner and event manager Louis Umbarger has renovated the large building into a modern hangout with games, a stage and professional sound system, and dining setup inside and outside. A wrap-around porch had more tables, along with the open garage door with outdoor games and seating.
The talented cook came out to say hello and brought us the soup of the day. It was Buffalo Soup, and it was the best cup of soup I’ve ever had. As we devoured the menu and drank a Crow Peak Company beer, we found out there was music happening that night, so we planned to come back.
A Break and then We Feast
Our team took a break back at Buffalo Ridge Camp Resort and rested in our tents. And by that we maybe really danced to Migos while drinking a White Claw in our western outfits.
After taking said break, we drove back into downtown for one of my South Dakota favorites, Skogen Kitchen. If you know me, I can’t stop talking about this place.
Things changed, though, with the pandemic, and the intimate eatery had recently reopened to the public with exceptional precautions with seating, including adding a tent out back with heaters.
Owner Eliza Raney sat us and did her usual hosting and greeting to each table, always checking on everyone to genuinely catch up and see how their meals were. The chef-driven menu offers innovative menu options by executive chef (and Eliza’s husband) Joseph Raney, and it was definitely the right choice to have a reservation as the restaurant is always busy.
We had wine, local beer, and toasted to a great first day. Oh, and we had dessert because you have to at Skogen Kitchen. I don’t care how full you are.
Back to the Beacon
After Taylor made me stop at a custom t-shirt shop with her to get matching Mount Rushmore sweatshirts (because when acting like a tourist, do as the tourists do) we made the short walk back to Custer Beacon. It was there that we saw Lucas Olson on the stage singing an acoustic set.
His voice was magical. We grabbed a beverage and sat down on a couch by the stage. It was probably all of the food I ate, but my shirt button popped open when he started playing Slow Dancing in a Burning Room by John Mayer. Coincidence? I think not.
We ran into our friends from South Dakota Magazine and watched a few more songs before heading back to the campground for a fire and to sit around our picnic table. It was going to be another early morning.
Our alarms went off again at 5:30 a.m. to get our fringe and Aztec shirts on to get in the spirit of the Buffalo Roundup. The event technically began at 9:30 a.m., but the parking lots opened at 6:15 a.m.
Why? Because it was going to be packed. We had a solid start to our day and it took around two and a half hours to get to the North Parking and Viewing, which had pancakes being served under a tent.
Our friends at South Dakota Public Broadcasting let us share their space behind yellow tape for our video and photography. People watching was almost just as good as gazing at Custer State Park. One woman had a plastic fork behind her ear, you know, just in case she got hungry. Our team watched a member of a bison fan club do a Facebook Live. I can’t make this up.
As 10 a.m. hit, we suddenly could hear hooting and hollering in the distance. Way up on the hill we slowly saw brown dots come around the corner, coming down the hill in a huge herd. They were followed by people on horses with ropes, and the visual of the bison reminded me of the stampede scene in The Lion King. It was epic.
The animals got bigger and bigger with dust filling the air. And as they got closer, it was mesmerizing watching them being herded by dozens of riders on horseback, some also holding flags, including Governor Kristi Noem.
And as soon as it started, it seemed to end. It took 10 to 15 minutes to get them fenced in the corral area for branding. We realized everyone would be scrambling to exit, so we grabbed our gear and sprinted to our car. We were out and headed to ironically eat a bison burger (yeah, it hurts me to write that).
Here are some suggested ways to prepare:
- Determine prior to Friday which viewing area you will be at: The North Parking and Viewing or The South Parking and Viewing. Leave early to arrive on time.
- They encourage you to not bring a camper. There is a shuttle if needed.
- Leave your pets at home, otherwise they must stay in the car.
- Bring a folding chair, cameras, binoculars, layered clothing, rain gear, and sunscreen.
- Breakfast is available starting at 6:15 a.m. Lunch is served at the corrals once the bison are rounded up. There is a fee for both meals.
And We Ended It With More Bison
Seeing that we had only shared breakfast bars that morning, we were starving and ready to try a Custer staple—Black Hills Burger & Bun.
They were very kind to save us a spot, especially with it being Buffalo Roundup week. Visitors are placed on a waiting list and have to wait their turn to try the company’s plethora of burgers.
We started with Cheese Curds made with Dimock Dairy Cheddar Cheese. It hit the spot.
More On The Menu
Hand-breaded dill pickle planks served with house sauce.
Greek Goddess Salad
Baby greens, tomato, cucumber, red onion, Kalamata olives, feta cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
The Other White Meats
The State Fair Fritter
Large tenderized pork loin breaded and deep fried and served with lettuce, tomato, and pickles on a toasted bun.
Here Fishy, Fishy
Beer battered six ounce Haddock fillet with lettuce, tomato, and homemade zesty tartar sauce on a toasted bun.
Each burger can be made with either beef or bison. We tried a mix of both, including The Hawaiian with Pepper Jack cheese, grilled pineapple, jalapeños, bacon, and teriyaki.
Filled the brim, the 605 team left rubbing our stomachs and ready to hit the road.
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