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Custer's Four Seasons
Oct 15, 2012
Custer State Park in the southwestern Black Hills is a place of superlatives. South Dakota’s first and largest state park boasts one of the largest publicly-held herds of wild American Bison in the world. The scenery is also some of the best you will find in our state. Thickly forested heights in the north give way to windswept prairie valleys in the south, providing a unique crossroad of geography as well as ecology.
I’ve spent as much time as I could in the park the last few years. Although I love the high country that includes scenic Needles Highway and Sylvan Lake, my favorite part of the park is in the southeastern half among the grassy valleys and prairie hills. I especially love the interior gravel roads that crisscross between points northeast and southwest along the wildlife loop road. I’m a sucker for wildlife photos. The wildlife loop is our state’s version of the Serengeti with all the wildlife that can be seen outside the car window.
My ultimate goal is to get shots of a wild mountain lion. I haven’t seen one yet. A couple summers ago, I thought I hit the jackpot. About dusk driving north on Highway 87 from Wind Cave National Park I rounded a bend in the road and saw the shape of a large feline casually strolling across the road. I hit the brakes and grabbed my camera. By the time I got my prize in the viewfinder I was only able see his rear end disappearing into the pines. I also noticed the tail was bobbed and the ears were pointed. So what I saw was not a mountain lion, but probably a very large bobcat or maybe a Canadian Lynx (if there are any of those roaming the Black Hills). Not my goal, but the rush of seeing the cat was exhilarating.
It’s that kind of adrenaline that drives me to cruise the back roads of the park in evenings and early morning. I’ve also learned the hard way that I need to stay on those roads. On Memorial Day weekend of 2010, an unseen rock punched a hole in my oil pan when I made a turn on what I thought was flat ground in the Fisherman Flats area. Dumb move. Thankfully I had enough cell coverage to reach the park headquarters and even more thankfully, the park ranger was a nice guy with good stories to tell as we waited for a tow truck to arrive from Custer. I’m sure I was now on his list of “things boneheads from East River do” stories. Oh well. Because I was without a vehicle the next day I hiked all around Stockade Lake and found my first shooting-star flowers high up along the trail.
Up until this September, I had visited the park in every season except fall. This time around, I was able to spend a couple days cruising the park as the fall colors were reaching their prime. Vibrant reds, yellows and oranges along the creek beds and canyon floors accented the already scenic views. My main goal was to shoot some of the wildlife amongst the autumn colors. With the abundance of wildlife used to vehicle traffic in the park, this goal wasn’t as challenging as I thought it might be. I was able to get bison, pronghorn and deer all with fall colors in the shots.
My last morning in the park, I drove up Needles Highway and waited for the clouds to clear so the early sunlight would hit the cathedral spires. While I waited, I heard a few weird calls in the valley below and then noises of wildlife scrambling in the rocks and then away and out of earshot. My mind imagined a mountain lion pursuing an elk or deer, but I really don’t know what it was. Soon the sun came out from behind the morning clouds and I got my photo. It was a good end to another successful stay in Custer State Park. Any time I have a chance to visit the granddaddy of all South Dakota state parks, I do. It is truly a priceless treasure nestled within our great state. I’ll be back…but not soon enough.
Christian Begeman grew up in Isabel and now lives in Sioux Falls. When he's not working at Midcontinent Communications he is often on the road photographing our prettiest spots around the state. Follow Begeman on his blog. To view Christian's columns on other South Dakota state parks and recreation areas, visit his state parks page.