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A Bald Eagle perches above the edge of a prairie dog town. Click to enlarge photos.
A Bald Eagle perches above the edge of a prairie dog town. Click to enlarge photos.
Dig for your dinner — this pronghorn searches for a prickly pear on a cold, snowy February morning.
Dig for your dinner — this pronghorn searches for a prickly pear on a cold, snowy February morning.
A yearling deer in deep winter.
A yearling deer in deep winter.
Deep blue skies allow for dramatic black and white photography in the high country, as shown by this photo of Sylvan Lake.
Deep blue skies allow for dramatic black and white photography in the high country, as shown by this photo of Sylvan Lake.
Spring flowers along the creek just outside of the park's eastern entrance.
Spring flowers along the creek just outside of the park's eastern entrance.
Blue Flags (Wild Iris) wave in the wind in the prairie hills of southern Custer State Park.
Blue Flags (Wild Iris) wave in the wind in the prairie hills of southern Custer State Park.
Shooting-Star flower in bloom.
Shooting-Star flower in bloom.
A Mountain Bluebird rests on a fence on the edge of the park.
A Mountain Bluebird rests on a fence on the edge of the park.
Prairie dog pups peer out from their home — the dog town located on the park's border with Wind Cave National Park.
Prairie dog pups peer out from their home — the dog town located on the park's border with Wind Cave National Park.
A Wood Lily in bloom.
A Wood Lily in bloom.
Grace Coolidge Creek is the home of this Red-naped Sapsucker.
Grace Coolidge Creek is the home of this Red-naped Sapsucker.
A blue jay on the wildlife loop.
A blue jay on the wildlife loop.
Custer State Park's high ground: Little Devil's Tower, the Cathedral Spires and Harney Peak.
Custer State Park's high ground: Little Devil's Tower, the Cathedral Spires and Harney Peak.
Morning light on the Cathedral Spires.
Morning light on the Cathedral Spires.
Autumn color along Grace Coolidge Creek.
Autumn color along Grace Coolidge Creek.
Watch out for bison on the wildlife loop! This big fellow was crossing near the buffalo corrals.
Watch out for bison on the wildlife loop! This big fellow was crossing near the buffalo corrals.
A lone pronghorn poses against a brilliant fall backdrop.
A lone pronghorn poses against a brilliant fall backdrop.
A doe watches traffic as she grazes along the edge of a park road.
A doe watches traffic as she grazes along the edge of a park road.
This sharp-tailed grouse huddles amongst the colorful undergrowth.
This sharp-tailed grouse huddles amongst the colorful undergrowth.
A lone coyote stalks prairie dogs just across the southern border of Custer State Park.
A lone coyote stalks prairie dogs just across the southern border of Custer State Park.
White-tailed buck in the evening light.
White-tailed buck in the evening light.
Fall color found along Highway 87 on the park's southwest side.
Fall color found along Highway 87 on the park's southwest side.
The last of the year's wildflowers, the hoary aster, still in bloom in late September.
The last of the year's wildflowers, the hoary aster, still in bloom in late September.
Sunset over Stockade Lake.
Sunset over Stockade Lake.

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



Comments

03:21 pm - Mon, October 15 2012
Lisa said:
Great shots, Christian!
10:33 am - Tue, October 16 2012
Heidi said:
Those prairie dogs are so cute!
01:41 pm - Fri, October 26 2012
arlo pear said:
Good Stuff!
06:27 am - Thu, November 8 2012
Chad Coppess said:
Great stuff from one of my favorite places too.

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