Custer State Park in South Dakota is the fifth largest state park in the country. With so much to do in its 71,000 acres, Custer is a popular park. Aside from granite peaks, water activities, and horseback riding trails, one of its draws are the free roaming bison that call the area home. After hearing about the park’s available Buffalo Safari Jeep tour we decided to give the adventure a try. We’ve seen lots of bison in Yellowstone and Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve, but this experience took it to a whole new level.
Buffalo Safari Sunrise Option
The park offers Buffalo Jeep tours throughout the day, with the earliest one called the Sunrise Safaris. We opted for this excursion for several reasons. First, selecting such an early time allowed us to have the rest of the day open for exploring. This tour heads out around 6:00 am and returns close to 8:00 am. Secondly, I was excited to capture the early morning golden light in our photos. Finally, wildlife in the park are more active early in the morning and right around dusk. I had hopes that selecting the sunrise option would allow us to see more animals. If we were to take this tour again, I would definitely select the sunrise option without hesitation.
From our campground in the city of Custer it took about half an hour to arrive at the Creekside Lodge within the state park. The park requires an entrance license, even if arriving in the early morning before park gates open. At the time of our visit it was $20 for a 1-7 day pass. One convenient option is to bring cash and pick up a pass from the self-serve kiosk at the park gates.
The safari departs from the Creekside Lodge, near the State Game Lodge on the east side of the park. We checked in at the lodge front desk and completed the required waivers. There are no restroom stops during the tour, but there are some available in the lodge before heading out. Additionally, we were excited to find we could bring our travel coffee mugs with us. After the short check in process we headed out with our tour guide to the jeep.
Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour Experience
Each open-air jeep has 4 rows allowing amazing views for everyone on board. With the luck of our timing we were the only guests on the tour. This made for a wonderfully personalized experience. Our guide answered questions we had about the park and offered to linger at locations so we could take our time with our photos. There is an onboard microphone so even if the tour is full, the guide can interact with everyone on board.
One part of the tour we loved was the access to off-road trails that other vehicles are prohibited from driving on. One of my favorite stops was such an area, the old cowboy camp. Years ago, Custer State Park offered overnight horseback riding adventures. Guests would travel out to this camping location, sleep under the stars, and return by horse the following day. The excursion is no longer offered; though, and cars are prohibited from driving the roads. As such, most visitors do not have access to the area. However, the tour guides are allowed to bring guests to this picturesque section of the park and we discovered it’s a favorite resting place for the bison.
In this one area, among the trees and secluded meadow were hundreds of buffalo. We saw all ages, ranging from full grown adults to calves less than a month old. It was reassuring to know that our driver had such a knowledge of the animals to safely take us through the region. He explained a bison’s vision and how they interpret nearby objects. He moved the jeep in-sync with the bison so they would assume we were a part of the herd. With so many of these massive creatures in such close proximity to our vehicle, it was a beautiful opportunity to view them but not feel like we were in danger.
This wasn’t the only area of the park we found bison, there were a number of other sightings as well. Some allowed up close glimpses and others farther away. Each time, our guide would slow down or stop the jeep to share fascinating facts about the animals. He pointed out groups of younger bison and explain their “teenage” personalities. Another time, he showed where a mother was calling out to her younger calf that had wandered off. At one of the locations we saw a calf less than a week old and learned how to tell the age and gender of the bison. Our guide was so knowledgeable and excited to share information about the park. And we loved getting to learn so much!
Beyond buffalo, we saw a number of other animals as well. Our tour guide took us to see pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, and the park’s famous Begging Burros. These adorable donkeys are descendants of ones that used to take visitors to the top of Harney Peak (since renamed Black Elk Peak). They are the only animals in the park that guests are allowed to feed, which also makes for a fun experience. Additionally while driving around the park we came across mountain bluebirds, coyote, and deer.
Overall, the Buffalo Safari Jeep tour at Custer State park was probably one of our favorite experiences at the state park. This intimate excursion was a great way to see so much of the park and wildlife in a single outing. We would definitely recommend to anyone visiting the area, especially the sunrise tour!
Custer State Park Creekside Lodge
Custer, SD 57730
Website: Custer State Park Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour