South Dakota: An American Safari Experience

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If you had told me going into this trip that South Dakota would have been one of my favorite spots in the 12 states visited, I wouldn’t have believed it myself. It had never ranked high on my “states to visit” list, and truth be told, if I weren’t currently at state number 49 (South Dakota came in at number 46), I might never have visited. But man oh man oh man, one afternoon in Custer State Park and I was hooked—I felt like I was on my own self-guided safari.

As one friend commented on Facebook: “it’s the Serengeti of America!” Truer words have never been spoken. Who needs Africa with this sort of wildlife in your own backyard?

Custer State Park in South Dakota
Custer State Park in South Dakota

(Though I highly doubt the wildlife in the Serengeti approach tourists to be pet.)

We arrived via the southern border from Nebraska and overnighted in Hot Springs, a quirky little town outside the vast majority of state parks with ample RV parks and South Dakota cabin rentals. It was the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, but you wouldn’t have known it in South Dakota—much like in Nebraska, we would drive for miles and miles (even in the parks) and not pass another car. I have a lingering suspicion this has to do with the Missouri River flooding and the wonky weather the Midwest has been experiencing all spring. I’m sure many vacationers in the area abandoned their plans entirely last minute; I don’t blame them—we have been through some crazy storms. (Good thing tornadoes aren’t frequent visitors in this part of the country—can you imagine our little trailer being swept up in a twister?!)

Custer State Park in South Dakota
Custer State Park in South Dakota

Which was all the better for us (the lack of people that is, not the flooding)—we had the parks to ourselves! Who cared if it was a little overcast and sprinkling periodically. We were safari-ing and drive-by shooting (with a camera, not a gun) from the protection of a truck, after all.

My favorite of the critters, hands down, were the prairie dogs. Those of you who live in the Rockies or Midwest probably dismiss the prairie dogs like us Southerners do coons or deer. But I’d never seen these little sentinels until my visit to Colorado in March, and they were everywhere in Custer.

Everywhere we drove, there would be field after field of dirt mounds. If you looked closely enough, atop each mound would sit a prairie dog—or 10. They make these funny little chirping noises when intruders, like us, walk into their domain and start dropping down into their holes as if someone was playing Whack-a-Gopher over the top of their homes.

Buffalo and prairie dogs aside, pronghorns run rampant and wild burros are scattered here and there.

What I loved the most about the whole experience is that the vastness of the park—the herds of animals grazing in untouched pastures completely oblivious to the camera-toting tourists snaking their way through the park’s slow, bumpy roads—made commonplace animals like deer, of which we’d see half a dozen in my backyard routinely growing up, seem exotic.

Custer State Park in South Dakota
Custer State Park in South Dakota

Ditto to the donkeys (excuse me, the wild burros).

The great thing about South Dakota is that many of its major tourist attractions—Wind Cave National Park, Hot Springs, Custer, the Black Hills and Rushmore—are clustered together in a pocket in the southwestern corner of the state. You can very easily base yourself in the area for three or four days and do it all, as we did. We had also allotted two nights in the Badlands, but due to the flooding and the upside-down weather that has followed us everywhere we’ve gone, many of the roads we had planned to take were closed. Instead, we wound up camping out in Rapid City for two nights amid the downpours, where Ella chased geese at her will and SVV and I caught up on our movies ($5 to see a flick=unreal in the world we come from!). I was super bummed not to get to see the Badlands or visit Wall Drug or ride the jackalope. Such is life and the unpredictability of travel, I suppose. All the more reason to go back some day, am I right?


 

Week 2 Overview: May 22-28

Distance Driven: 1068.2 miles

Total Trip Distance: 2078.2 miles

States Visited: Utah, Colorado, South Dakota

Gas Used: 95.3 gallons, $359.71

Cheapest Gas: $3.70/gallon; Hot Springs, South Dakota

Most Expensive Gas: $3.80/gallon; Fruita, Colorado

Best Gas Mileage: 14 miles/gallon

Worst Gas Mileage: 9.8 miles/gallon

Lodging/Campground Fees: $144

Number of Doctors Visits: 1

Roots Beers Consumed: too many to count

(Week 1 totals here)

COMMENTS
  • June 13, 2011
    Ris

    Doctors visit? Uh oh! Hope everyone is ok…

    • June 13, 2011
      Kristin

      Ha, yeah, I’m fine. Some sort of weird allergic reaction that (still) won’t go away! Went to an emergency doctor, and shocker, she prescribed me the same allergy medicine I’ve been taking for a year. Glad I paid $150 for that =)

  • June 13, 2011

    The prairie dogs are cute but I like the wild burros best. Those bison really do look different than the beefalo we have here.

    Weather aside, this has been a memorable adventure.

    • June 13, 2011
      Kristin

      I get so confused about what’s a bison and what is a buffalo–every state we’ve been in, they seem to call them something different!

      • June 14, 2011

        Bison is the correct term for the animals found here in the U.S. (scientific name Bison bison) — they aren’t true buffalo as are those found in Africa or Asia, such as the cape buffalo or water buffalo.

        Also, love the prairie dogs — I spent one summer catching and tagging pdawgs in CO/UT (we were monitoring prairie dog populations for possible reintroduction of black-footed ferrets into the area) — part of our job was to collect fleas to check for bubonic plague in the colonies. Even though I got bit once (at the time I happened to be on the same antibiotic that is used to treat the plague, so I wasn’t worried), I still love the little guys.

        • June 14, 2011
          Kristin

          Ah, I love having smart readers who stop by here to set the record straight! Funny, most of the people in Montana and Wyoming use the terms interchangeably it seems…I’ve been calling them bison for the most part (because I’ve seen “bison storage” frequently and eaten a lot of “bison burgers”) but I thought maybe they were both found in the West and that I was calling them wrong. Thanks for the info! Can’t believe you studied bubonic plague in prairie dogs…sounds like a really cool job!

  • June 13, 2011

    How cool! I’m pretty impressed just by the pictures, so I can see how you felt like you were on a full-blown safari seeing all those animals up close and personal.

    • June 14, 2011
      Kristin

      What, you don’t have prairie dogs and free-roaming bison in Santiago? 😉

  • June 13, 2011

    Loving seeing the animals – no bears?

    • June 13, 2011
      Kristin

      I don’t think they have bears in South Dakota? I could be wrong. We did see one black bear cub and three grizzlies in Yellowstone, though!

  • June 13, 2011
    JeJe

    love the “sentinels” too!

  • June 13, 2011

    I always thought prairie dogs were cute, too, until the day a few years ago that I went to the local dog park with my woofuses and there was a big ol’ sign posted out front that the park was closed till further notice because the local prairie dog population had been found to be carrying the plague.
    *blink*
    Now, I’m not so much a fan!
    I do love South Dakota though…I spent a month in Rapid City for work a few years ago and fell in love. I was able to spend some time sightseeing… It was early fall, so the drive through Spearfish Canyon was outstanding. I also spend a fun afternoon taking pictures at Dinosaur Park in Rapid City…everyone loves a giant cement T-Rex, right?

    • June 13, 2011
      Kristin

      Yeah, funny how a mere fact can ruin an image of an entire species for you! It’s like the first time I went to Italy and went hiking and encountered a huge herd of mountain goats, complete with long horns and bells around their necks–only to later find they carry a parasite that gives all infected some weird skin disease!

      Thanks to the rain, we didn’t go to Dinosaur Park, though we were camping just a couple blocks from there!

  • June 13, 2011

    So who’s been doing most of the driving? SVV? Or has it been an even split?

    • June 13, 2011
      Kristin

      Haha hardly. I’ve driven, um, once. Actually, the only time I drove with the trailer attached was this day in Custer State Park! I’ve offered, but I think that thought scares him =) All the better, I like being a passenger!

  • June 13, 2011

    I’m heading to SD in August and I will definitely add Custer SP to my list!

    xox

    • June 13, 2011
      Kristin

      Yes, do! And take nice photos of the Badlands for me since I missed it =(

  • June 13, 2011

    Texas has those, as well, and we LOVE them. The best one we’ve been to yet is privately owned with a company that has quite a story.

  • June 13, 2011

    LOVE prairie dogs! They are super cute! The MPG makes me cry a little though – 14mpg? Good lord!

    • June 13, 2011
      Kristin

      And that’s the best we’ve had so far in a month! Usually, we average more like 12mpg and sometimes it’s as low as 8mpg in the mountains. That’s because we’re towing a trailer, though. My little Altima in San Francisco usually gets more like 25mpg. Ah, I miss that ol’ gal.

  • June 13, 2011
    k

    So awesome – reminds me of North Dakota – Teddy Roosevelt NP!

    • June 13, 2011
      Kristin

      Sadly, we tried to go there but failed—due to the flooding, Teddy was closed =/

  • June 13, 2011

    The prairie dogs are super cute, but why does it look like the buffaloes have leprosy?

    • June 13, 2011
      Kristin

      I wondered the same! It was far from warm so they can’t be molting already….

      • June 14, 2011
        Joy A

        Maybe “warm” is relative. Winter temps in SD are routinely below zero. I’m madly in love with those prairie dogs (despite rumors of plague, which by the way is now entirely treatable with modern medicine) and with the burros. Any way you can smuggle one of those burros out? Might fit in the back of the pickup, if you take the top off. I’m sure SVV’s folks won’t mind if you just leave the top by side of the road somewhere. 🙂

  • June 13, 2011
    sbc

    SD has been on my list for awhile, mainly want to see badlands np. Problem is the husband isn’t too jazzed about SD. I enjoy uncrowded places so SD stays on the list 😉

    • June 14, 2011
      Kristin

      Scott knew nothing about SD either and wasn’t so stoked, but it wound up being one of his favorite stops of the 11 states we’ve visited!

  • June 14, 2011

    Hmm, so the American bison and buffalo are the same thing? Wiki mentioned something to that effect but I figured I’d check with you too. They remind me of gaur.

    Btw, love picture#7. In my eyes, it’s a bit of a fairy tale. 🙂

    • June 14, 2011
      Kristin

      I’m confused by that as well, because in one state they’ll call them bison, then right over the border the same animals are buffalo. Hrmmmm.

  • June 14, 2011

    Prairie dogs! They’re cute. Loving these stories from states I’ve always wanted to visit.

    • June 14, 2011
      Kristin

      Well, by August, I will be up to 50 so once you’re planning your trip to your remaining states, I should be able to answer most questions =)

  • June 14, 2011

    It’s so cool that unspoiled land like that still exists in the US!

  • June 14, 2011

    I’m really enjoying this series, particularly all the stats at the end!

    When Sean and I drove through Kansas once, we kept seeing signs for “The Largest Prairie Dog in the World!” We had no idea what a prairie dog was, but we pulled off the freeway and stopped anyway. It turned out to just be a really big statue of a prairie dog, which we paid $5 for the pleasure of seeing. I even bought the t-shirt: it said “I saw the Largest Prairie Dog in the World!” Everyone in England was perplexed when I wore it there.

  • June 15, 2011

    I heart animals no matter where in the world I am!!!

  • June 15, 2011

    Looks naturally peaceful. Thanks for sharing your experience Kristin.

  • June 16, 2011

    It amazes me how much of the United States I have yet to visit. I’m finally visiting Yellowstone National Park this month and I’m SO excited. These photos make me want to go to South Dakota now!

  • June 18, 2011

    South Dakota has a surprising amount of awesomeness. I’m making it the August featured travel destination on my site because there’s so much to do. Great pics, my prairie dog shots are much less impressive 🙂

  • July 27, 2011

    I had some friends in high school that drove across country through South Dakota to work in Yellowstone for a summer. I still remember very clearly their vivid description of South Dakota and this is one of the reasons t is high up on my bucket list. It’s nice to see the animals are still abundant and approachable. Love the photos 🙂

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