This year's 55th Annual Buffalo Roundup took place on Friday September 25th, 2020 in Custer State Park, South Dakota. Dave and I have been looking forward to attending this event since we visited the area two years ago for the Mt Rushmore Half Marathon and missed the Roundup by only a few days. This year we planned ahead. With Covid-19 still a threat we were unsure if we would be able to make it or if the event was even still on. Well, The Roundup went on as planned and we headed to South Dakota.
Custer State Park is South Dakota's first and largest state park. In 1919 it became official. The park encompasses 71,000 acres and is home to many animals, beautiful lakes and scenic roads. The fee to get into the park is $20 per vehicle and you're good for a full week. (An annual pass will cost you only $16 more at $36) The entrance is waived for visitors the day of the Roundup which is traditionally the last Friday of September. Dave and I decided to scout out the park the day before the Roundup to find our perfect location. We found out that the days preceding the Roundup the bison get corralled towards the South side of the park. This makes it easier for the cowboys and cowgirls to round them up the morning of the event. Since the event started at 9:30am that is when we scouted out our location to check for the best lighting and closest spectator spot.
There are two viewing locations, the South and the North, with the corrals in between. You have to choose which location you want to view the event from as you enter the park because you can't switch back and forth. Once you enter the park you must take the Wildlife Loop Rd which will take you to your viewing area. After much contemplation we decided on the North viewing site.
Now, for the morning of the big event! The parking areas were scheduled to open at 6:15am and with an average of 20,000 spectators predicted to attend we decided to leave our cabin no later then 4am. Actually, that was not my decision but I went with it anyway. It should be noted that we were staying only 6 miles from the park entrance. So, we drove in and were escorted by the Park Rangers along with approximately 80 other early arriving vehicles to the North viewing parking. They ended up opening up the parking areas early, around 5:30am probably due to the high volume of vehicles and we were able to park fairly close to the event. From our vehicle we walked through open fields filled with large bison defecation to our "perfect" spot.
Now it was sit-and-wait for the next 4 hours. It really wasn't that bad of a wait even though it was 41 degrees.
The Roundup sold a pancake and sausage breakfast with coffee for $5 and there were plenty of porta potties. We got to see the sunrise and met some interesting people all while respecting social distancing.
The Roundup was scheduled to start at 9:30am however, it wasn't until around 10:30am that the action came around our way. The South viewing area was able to see the herd first. A herd of approximately 1,300 bison, down from the previous year of about a little more then 1,400. We first saw the heard on the Facebook livestream so we knew they were close by. Then we saw them, heading our way from a distance kicking up dirt as they ran with 60 cowboys and girls on horseback corralling them our way. They all ran down a hill and towards the North Viewing area where we were. They didn't always run and in fact some took a rest as they laid on the ground. I could hear the crack of the whip encouraging the bison to move on and then off they went again until finally they were all in the corrals. An interesting note is that one of the cowgirls this year was South Dakota's Governor Kristi Noem, she also rode last year. It was a pretty amazing experience to see these large animals weighing between 1,000-2,000 pounds all running together. There was one bison at the end who ran in the opposite direction but was quickly ushered into the pens.
Once the bison were all rounded up they were counted, vaccinated and branded. The females were checked to see if they were pregnant. Although this process is open to the public we did not attend. They would then decide how many bison would be up for auction in November and eventually the rest would be released back out into the park. Custer State Park can only sustain a certain number of bison and the annual Roundup and auction ensure that the herd continues to thrive and not get overpopulated.
Once we were ready to leave we headed back to our car. Since we arrived so early in the morning our car was parked towards the front of the event which ended up being the back of the parking area. It ended up taking us 2 hours to get out of the park and back to our cabin. But it was all worth it! Plus, we got to wear the masks I made just for the Roundup.
The Buffalo Roundup is accompanied by the annual Arts Festival, this year was the 27th. It lasts 3 days and there are over 100 venders plus live entertainment. It is held outside at the State Game Lodge within the park. We attended the fair on Thursday, the first day. There were so many nice things that we could have bought if we drove up but that would have taken 32 hours each way and that was not going to happen. Instead, I bought a pair of earrings, a Christmas ornament and we both got Roundup shirts. On the evening of the Roundup they lit up 7 hot air balloons for display. We were way too tired and couldn't stay up to the late hour of 7pm but I did see pictures and it looked pretty awesome.
The day after the Roundup we returned to Custer State Park and were able to see the whole herd of Bison comfortably enclosed in a large field by the corrals, minus a few rogue males that were intentionally left in the park. The entire Buffalo Roundup weekend was a great experience. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen it before. It is an event for people of all ages to enjoy.