Their presence is felt whether they're visible or not. They have visitors' respect. They rule the countryside so many people come to explore each year. The Lakota call them Tatanka. Hikers, bikers and people like me, horseback riders, come to the Black Hills of South Dakota and Custer State Park each year, in part, to see buffalo, or bison, up close and personal.
Wildlife is plentiful in the 73,000-acre park in western South Dakota. During our one week visit, my travel companions and I saw mule and whitetail deer, antelope, mountain goats, Big horn sheep, coyotes, and of course, buffalo.
The buffalo are the most visible. Signs and park literature warn visitors that wildlife should not be fed and that buffalo are unpredictable and should be viewed from safe distances. After hearing stories of buffalo goring horses and charging horseback riders, we obliged. We diverted our course on several occasions to leave them undisturbed. This usually meant forging through deadfall or over streams to bypass the one-ton animals. As I write, a single bull grazes 100 yards away in an open field. The same bull passed directly through my campsite at the French Creek Horse Camp the evening before.
The French Creek Horse Camp is the only horse facility in Custer State Park. It is located three miles from Blue Bell Lodge and Campground, which is about an hour south of Rapid City, and about one-half hour east of Custer. The campground has 31 campsites and corrals for horse people and their mounts.
Unfortunately, our horses caught a bug from the horses previously contained in their stalls. The alternative -- having horses on a picket line and vulnerable to buffalo -- was less appealing. With running water, flush toilets and hot showers, French Creek Horse Camp provides amenities I've rarely found at riding destinations. French Creek, which flows through the southeast side of the camp, provides ample water for the horses. Campers can purchase ice, film and souvenirs at the nearby Blue Bell convenience store.
There are four marked horse trails accessible from the campground, but riders are encouraged to venture off the beaten path. The French Creek and Mount Coolidge trail takes nine hours, if you ride it in its entirety in one day. The trail, however, is dissected by Centennial Trail, a 22-mile trail that runs north-south through Custer State Park, which allows riders to easily split the French Creek trail into two days.
We chose to ride the French Creek portion of the trail on our first day, and the Mount Coolidge segment on our last day. The French Creek portion of the single-file trail winds through sloping wooded areas, scenic bluffs, and back and forth across French Creek. The frequent stream crossings are fairly shallow, although rocky.
The Mount Coolidge ride brought us along a wider path through countless acres of downed trees on rocky hillsides. Our ultimate destination, the lookout and firetower at Mount Coolidge, is at 6,000 feet and provides seemingly unending vistas across the peaks and valleys of the park.
On our way down from the lookout, two coyotes playing on the hillside darted by. Farther along, we came head to head with a buffalo napping in the pathway. We trounced across a small stream, up over a rock hill and through deadfall to give him space. We eventually found our way to Centennial Trail to progress back to camp. This segment of Centennial Trail provided the most challenging riding of the week. The trail is narrow and rock laced, climbing and then descending with hairpin turns that taxed the horses.
We ventured out on Trail #2, Big Tree & Robbers Roost Draw, on day two. A disappointing ride, the trail loops around on roads south of the horse camp towards the buffalo corrals used for the herd's annual roundup in the fall. The highlight of the ride was stumbling across the vacant buffalo feeding area with salt licks, a pond and feed buckets. It was a four-hour ride that presented little challenge.
The Parker Canyon Trail was an enjoyable leisurely ride -- except for the three encounters with buffalo along the way. They all appear so docile, we sometimes wondered why the alarm and change of direction every time we saw one. The trail brought us along a small creek to open valleys and rolling hills conducive to a casual lope.
Overall, the riding in Custer State Park is pleasurable for riders of varying skill levels. The French Creek and Mount Coolidge trail is the most daunting for less experienced riders, however, the open prairies and road rides still offer them a chance to see beautiful country.
Custer State Park also is a great destination for kids. There are many kids' activities within the park such as gold panning, guided nature hikes and horse rental. Kids in our group went to Mount Rushmore, Flintstone Land, Wind Cave National Park, and a water park in Rapid City during our weeklong stay.
We had near picture-perfect weather when we were there in mid-June. Daytime temperatures ranged in the 80s, evening temperatures dropped into the 40s and 50s.
Planning A Trip
For horse camp reservations, call 800-710-2267 or go online to www.campSD.com. Campsites are $16 a night. There is a park entrance fee of $10 per vehicle or $5 per person. Campsites for the season are swallowed up on the first day the park takes reservations in January.
Horse owners must feed only certified weed-free hay or alfalfa cubes. I'd recommend purchasing weed-free hay at the Blue Bell Lodge ($6 per bale during our trip), in order to placate horses' boredom in a 13-foot-by-13-foot corral. Non-South Dakota horses must have a brand inspection in order to leave the state. Every horse must have a current health certificate and negative Coggins.