For us "city folk", South Dakota is the ULTIMATE escape. It has gorgeous blue skies, majestic landscapes, and diverse wildlife (something we don't have in LA!!). It is here, away from the hustle and bustle, that you can enjoy silence, nature, and an epic bison burger (another thing we don't have!). While you may desire to avoid your alarm clock in favor of rest, we STRONGLY advise that you spend one of your mornings in Custer State Park on the Sunrise Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour. You can do this tour throughout the day, but the sunrise (or possibly sunset) tours are the best for seeing wildlife - and totally worth the 5am wake up call!
During our time in Custer State Park, we stayed at the Custer State Park Game Lodge. It is a beautiful stone and wood lodge built in 1920 that served as the “Summer White House” for President Calvin Coolidge! It's recently been updated and is a truly stunning property. (While we're at it - we highly recommend having a glass of wine on the porch before dinner!) The Jeep tours originate here at the lodge, and for the sunrise tour you have to get there quite early.
We found our guide waiting for us outside of an awesome open-air jeep. If you go at sunrise like we did, be sure to bring a jacket because it was definitely chilly until the sun came up. While the tour is called “Buffalo Safari”, we really were in search of a LARGE assortment of critters: buffalo, deer, elk, pronghorn, wild turkey, pronghorns, prairie dogs... and more!
When everyone arrived, we set off. The air was brisk, but our coffee in hand definitely helped. Within about two minutes we saw our first elk and deer, as well as a beautiful Mountain Bluebird.
Shortly after, as the sun was just peaking over the Black Hills, we saw our first herd of buffalo. You never know how many buffalo you are going to see, so every opportunity is a great time to take a photo... but little did we know, we were about to see a LOT of buffalo. The first herd we saw was a little farther away, and at our closest point we were maybe 50 feet from the nearest buffalo.
We continued on, and came upon another big herd of buffalo. This is where we want to pause and mention our #1 reason for taking this tour. The Buffalo Safari Jeeps ARE THE ONLY VEHICLES ALLOWED TO GO OFF THE MAIN ROADS. That being said, this next herd was maybe 300 feet off of the main road. There was a couple sitting in their truck looking at the buffalo, and we went right past them, off the road, and headed in for a closer look. We preceded to drive THROUGH the herd.... So close that we could have touched them! It was INCREDIBLE (and mildly terrifying)! At one point we just stopped the Jeep and sat in the middle of this herd. Many of the buffalo were staring at us, while others were just doing their thing, not bothered by us at all! This was probably one of the coolest moments of our trip. No joke.
Following this unforgettable buffalo encounter, we came upon our first prairie dog “town”, which we learned is what you call a prairie dog community. Apparently prairie dogs are highly social animals, and they live in towns full of extensive underground burrows, tunnels, and chambers. They’re cute little critters, but according to the locals, highly annoying!
Throughout the tour our guide shared tons of fun facts and details about the animals and parks. Like, how did the “Black Hills” get their name? The Lakota Sioux Native Americans named this area “Hills that are black” because of their dark appearance from a distance, since they are covered in trees.
The Sunrise Buffalo Safari was truly the highlight of our trip to South Dakota... it was a morning we'll never forget! (And we have about 2,000+ photos to make sure we never do!!) ;) So get over to South Dakota, sign up for the sunrise tour, and make sure to have a warm jacket and charged camera. It will be an epic adventure!
Thank you to South Dakota Tourism for sponsoring this post!