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Custer State Park’s Annual Buffalo Roundup: An Honest Review and Helpful Tips from a Local

Picture of roundup

If you, like me, are in awe of the majestic bison or have ever wondered what it would be like to hear the rumble of a stampede of buffalo while sitting safely on the sidelines, then this is something to check out.

The annual buffalo roundup in Custer State Park is a dramatic display of cowboys and cowgirls driving a herd of roughly 1400 buffalo through the park and into the corrals for testing, branding, and sorting. It is a unique experience.

My family and I had the opportunity to finally see what the buffalo roundup was all about this fall.  The weather was perfect and we arrived at the best possible time to avoid the traffic. 

Keep reading to find out what we did and helpful tips!

When is the Roundup?

The roundup is the last weekend in September every year. The roundup itself is always on a Friday but the events of the festival take place Thursday through Saturday.

Why Do They Do the Roundup?

The roundup is part of the yearly routine to keep the buffalo count aligned with the available rangeland forage so it all stays within a healthy balance.  The park can only sustain about 1,000 buffalo. The excess then gets auctioned off. 

Buffalo

What Time Does it Start?

The roundup starts at about 9:30 am, however, anything can happen to delay the time so don’t be shocked if it starts a bit later.

When Should I Arrive?

The gates open at 6:15 a.m. and close at 9 a.m.

We arrived around 7 am and that worked out perfectly because of the entrance we came in. But if you don’t want to wait in a long line of cars I would suggest getting there as early as you can. On the plus side, you can catch the sunrise!

finding a spot to sit and watch the roundup
Arrive early and watch the sunrise

Where do Spectators Park?

There are two viewing areas, North and South.  Keep in mind, if you park in North parking you will be directed back out the same way you came in from. The same applies to South Parking.

map of Custer state park
Map of the Buffalo Roundup

To get to the North parking and viewing, head South from the Game Lodge area on Wildlife Loop Road.

To get to the South parking and viewing, head east on Wildlife Loop Road near Blue Bell Campground. We came in from Lame Johnny Road, off Hwy 79. It dumped us right into the South parking and viewing. 

I recommend the South viewing area because we had a full view of the buffalo coming in and they passed directly in front of us a bit closer than the North side.  Getting out of the parking was much faster here as well.

South parking area
South parking area
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How Much Does it Cost?

This event is free and they even waive the state park fee for the day which is extremely generous. Take advantage and drive the park and check out the lakes while you are there.

Restrooms

There are plenty of porta potty’s available as well as hand sanitizer stations.

Food

They sell breakfast and lunch at both viewing locations.  We packed our own lunch which was good because the food sold out quickly and they closed early.

Souvenirs

They sell shirts and sweatshirts but they also closed early — before the roundup even started. Purchase souvenirs early if you want any.

Things to Bring

  • Camera
  • Binoculars
  • Chairs
  • Ice chest
  • Coffee/cocoa
  • Food/snacks
  • Blankets (watch the weather and dress accordingly, layers are recommended as it does get windy)
  • Sunscreen
  • Rain gear
  • Patience! (For waiting)

Can I Bring Pets?

The rules say to leave your pets at home. However, we saw plenty of dogs on leashes.  I personally would not bring my beast with me but use your discretion. 

Where Can I Stay?

There is no shortage of places to stay in or around Custer State Park. There are plenty of hotels and campgrounds in the general area and beyond. Check out our article on The Best Campgrounds at Mount Rushmore and the Surrounding Area.

If you are interested in camping visit www.CampSD.com for a comprehensive list of campgrounds.

For lodging inside the park visit www.CusterResorts.com.

Can I Participate in the Roundup?

Yes, you can actually participate in the roundup! You will ride along with the other cowboys and cowgirls, driving the herd about 5 miles to the corrals.

You must submit your application by June of the year you are applying for. If you meet all the requirements, then it is possible you will be selected. Keep in mind, only a small number of people are selected each year. Also, note that you must provide your own horse.

What Else Will I See?

The Governor

You may see the South Dakota Governor.  When we were there, Governor Kristi Noem walked along the fence line, shook hands with spectators, and took pictures.  In previous years she has ridden with the roundup as well.

Custer State Park Bison Center

The new Custer State Park Bison Center is an excellent bison experience for those young and old. It tells the history of the bison herd in Custer State Park. This is a must-see!

The Bison Center is beautiful and you can walk along the buffalo corrals and get some good pictures up close as well as browse the gift shop for bison-themed souvenirs.

After the roundup shuttles are available to take visitors to the Bison Center and then back to the parking areas.

Sunrise

If you arrive early enough like us, you will see a glorious sunrise over beautiful Custer State Park.

Wildlife

If you have a keen eye for spotting wildlife, you just might spot some wildlife on your way to the parking area.

Some of the animals you might see are pronghorn, whitetail and mule deer, elk, coyotes, burros, prairie dogs, and various birds.

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What Else is Going On?

Arts Festival

Arts and crafts will be at the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center. Cruise on over there after the roundup. There will be over 150 vendors. It lasts from Thursday until Saturday.  

Enjoy watching the Native American Dancers perform — or do some dancing yourself while listening to some live bluegrass and country music.

Volksmarch

The Crazy Horse Memorial hosts its annual fall Volksmarch the Sunday after the Roundup. 

The Volksmarch is a riveting 6-mile round-trip hike up to the face of the Crazy Horse carving. 

The Volksmarch only happens twice a year. Otherwise, you can only view Crazy Horse from the visitor center or by taking a bus to the base of the memorial.

I recommend this hike. It’s phenomenal to see the memorial up close and in person! Visit the Crazy Horse Memorial website for more information.

volksmarch
Volksmarch

My Experience

I was so excited to get to experience this event.  We arrived in plenty of time and were astonished at the number of people pooling in for the next two hours.  The line of cars never stopped.  

Waiting for the buffalo to come seemed to take forever but the excitement never waned.  It was thrilling to see the stampede round the corner as the dust filled the air.  I will admit I expected them to run faster and feel a rush from the pounding earth but they were not as frantic as I thought they would be. 

It was still a sight to behold as the cowboys and vehicles tailed the back end, ushering them along the path. A lone cowboy, on horseback, held an American flag. It was a picture-perfect sight amongst the other horses and the buffalo.  

roundup and cowboys

All in all, this was a really cool experience but I prefer seeing the buffalo in their natural state, roaming Custer State Park. Nearly 20,000 people enjoy this event every year, so maybe I’m in the minority on that thought.

While this event is really unique, it makes for a really long day.  You will be waiting a long time to see the buffalo, then waiting around more after they go by.

Bring some snacks and maybe a deck of cards to pass the time while you wait for the parking to clear out.

A close up of a Bison on the street

Looking for More Information on the Black Hills?

The Buffalo Roundup is just one of the many things you can do in, and around, the Black Hills. In fact, the area can be overwhelming to plan out on your own. It can take hours or even days to figure out.

Our Mount Rushmore/Black Hills Travel Guide is just for you! Our travel guide comes as a super-simple daily itinerary and comes complete with audio. You’ll get 2 hours of fun stories and interesting information about Mt. Rushmore, Custer, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and more.

Let us take the guesswork out of planning your trip. We will get you to all the right places at the right times. Get your travel guide today!

MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO THE BLACK HILLS

BLACK HILLS TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about the Grand Canyon, check out our Black Hills Homepage

AREAS: The Black Hills is home to some amazing national parks and monuments: Mt. Rushmore, Wind Cave and Jewel Cave National Parks, Badlands, and Crazy Horse.  Plus, the amazing Custer State Park

THINGS TO DO: There is much more to do than hike and look at Mt. Rushmore.  Explore the 1880 train, Reptile Gardens, slip down a natural waterslide, or go on a scenic drive

GREAT CITIES TO STAY OR CHECK OUT: Explore some amazing mountain towns including Deadwood, Keystone, Hill City, and Rapid City.

GET QUIRKY: Want something REALLY different? Check out Devil’s Tower and Wall Drug

WHERE TO EAT: Check out the best places to eat in and around Mt. Rushmore plus where to eat in each city

WATCH: Enjoy videos of the amazing Black Hills while learning our best tips for visiting by watching our Black Hills YouTube Playlist

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