Friday, August 31, 2012

Custer State Park - Wildlife Loop

Custer State Park, named after George Armstrong "last stand" Custer, is South Dakota's largest state park, covering more than 71,000 acres.  There are three scenic drives in and around the park, the Wildlife Loop, Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road.   There is a $15 automobile charge to enter and use the park, and it is good for 7 days, so it is well worth it if you are going to truly enjoy the Black Hills.  

Today we decided to do the Wildlife Loop.  We traveled east on highway 16, entered the park and paid our fee, then took highway 87 south where 6 miles later there is a sign for the wildlife loop going to the left.  The loop will go to the east, then head north and connect back up to highway 16.  It is a simple route, nice drive, and we did see some wildlife, though not as much as we had hoped for.

After we passed the toll both, we immediately saw signs that told us that wildlife was certainly in the area....
....oh, look there, our first wildlife warning sign!  I wonder what it will be?  Bear?  Buffalo??  Elk???  Nope, only a sign my sister would love....
 ...a Turtle Crossing sign!   That one is for you Sis....
The turtles seem to, at certain times of the year, pass between the small marsh to the north of the road over to the vast Stockdale Lake.  There is a highway which goes around the lake, but we did not take it today, perhaps another day.  It is a pretty lake.....but we saw zero turtles.
 After we turned on highway 87, the road just goes through this hilly, tree covered area, a real pretty 6 mile drive, with one turnout which, if you don't mind a little over a mile long dirt road, you sure want to take.  It is the turnout to the right to the Mt. Coolidge Lookout. 

There is also a turnout to the left, but it requires a small hike, and you are not able to get the 360 degree view as you do up at Mt. Coolidge.  On a clear day, you can see to the north and east the following locations: Crazy Horse, Needles, Karney Mountain, Mt. Rushmore, Ellsworth Air Force Base and the Badlands.  Today was not real clear, so the Air Force base and the Badlands were not visible. 

Above is the Fire Tower Observation deck.  You can walk up a small flight of stairs and they have information signs, and 2 or 3 telescopes which cost 25 cents to use.
Unfortunately, they decided to allow phone and radio or other transmission towers to sit up on top of the mountain too...which puts a damper on the view for photos....
They also provide information about the 1988 fire, which consumed nearly 17,000 acres.  Caused by lightening, it was totally contained within a week...but due to high drought, it spread fast and caused much damage to the forest, but did not hurt any buildings.
The best camera view is actually from the parking lot looking out to the north...there are no "wires" from the many antennas obstructing the view here.  You get a good look of the Black Hills, and fortunate for us, there are two scenic drives through those mountains which look very promising as far as pictures go.
We continued down the road, and just before we turned onto the Wildlife Loop, we saw a nice herd of Pronghorn sitting off to the right.
Off to the left was a herd of buffalo.  We skipped that shot figuring that we got our "close up" pictures of these beasts while in Yellowstone, and I figured we would see much more Buffalo along the drive since there is an estimated 1,400 head in the park...but I was wrong.  That was all there was.

The drive offered some very nice views, as you can see above and below.  Many open meadows, trees, hills...
 ...and from time to time some very nice rock formations too.
But alas, we did not see anything but Prairie Dogs on our drive to the east.  But as the road got ready to turn to the north, we came upon this large turnout, and it was full of Pronghorns.
We thought these two below might come a bit closer, but there was around a dozen people at this turn out, and they just teased us a bit, then turned off to the left away from everyone.
The Pronghorn is an animal which unique to North America, found in the west and upper central part of the United States and Canada.  Since they resemble antelopes, many people refer to them as such.  It can run very fast, to speeds around 60 mph, and is probably only surpassed in speed by the cheetah, although it can maintain the high speed much longer than a cheetah.

After stopping at the small visitor's center for a "no-water" facilities stop, and place for the dogs to roam the grass and leave their little presents, we continued on to the north.  Quickly we came to the Buffalo Corrals area.  This I found to be a bit disturbing...only because it is a State Park, which I would think would be refuge to the animals, not a ranch....
So here the buffalo find a place of refuge, until they are big enough to slaughter and they are sold on the open market.  We are less than a month from the "yearly round-up", and we plan to be far away from here when that happens....  Below is the corrals they use.
 
 We continued to drive north and I thought I saw something out in the distant hillside....
Wow!  This is a big old male...just laying there keeping alert, and getting a good rest.

We also saw some Wild Turkeys and around six deer, both Mule and White Tail, but did not get a picture of any of them.  It was a nice, pleasant drive, and well worth the couple hours of our time.  

For lunch, we pulled over along one of the picnic areas along Highway 16 as we headed back to Custer.
It was a nice, peaceful area....
 ...no one else in site...
 ...if there was only grass to play on, and we all would be happy.

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