Buffalo thrill: the ultimate way to see America’s Great Plains
What is a buffalo roundup, exactly?
First, the roundup is a practical business – it’s undertaken by people on horses (wranglers) to assess the size and health of the herd – but it’s also one of the best days out you can have on the Great Plains.
The vibe is about as South Dakota as it gets, all state pride and local flavour: Miss South Dakota beaming for pictures from atop her horse; long lines for buns stuffed with pulled buffalo (optional baked beans and nachos on the side); the smell of horses and manure spiking the air; and wranglers in chaps strutting about, bow-legged from a lifetime in the saddle.
What’s the history of the roundup?
The roundup is also a deep insight into the country’s past. The story of these enormous beasts is one of America’s most epic. They roamed the Plains in their tens of millions before the arrival of European settlers and Native American life revolved around them.
Through the 1800s, the bison were shot for their hides and meat; for sport (including ‘hunts’ involving potshots from the comfort of trains); to make space for cattle and farming; and, shamefully, to deny Native Americans their main food source. Come the end of the century, bison numbers had dwindled to just 700 or so.
So while it was an unforgettable occasion, full of the kind of ‘authentic’ experience every tourist craves, I watched the majestic running of the animals with sadness too. The thunder of their hooves could once rival that of the vast skies above.
Image by Neil McQuillian
Wait, bison? Where are the buffalo?
It isn’t actually a buffalo roundup. It’s a bison roundup. The settlers misnamed them because of their likeness to the buffalo that roam Asia and Africa, and the tag stuck. But they’re bison.
And, in case you’re wondering, bison are also very different to cattle. The far more docile cattle were introduced by Europeans, and need a lot of care. Bison are indigenous and uncooperative, so for the rest of the year, the herd are left mostly to their own devices – they know how to take care of themselves.
Most bison herds in the USA – including the roundup’s – now have a bit of cattle in them. For ‘pure’ bison you have to go down the road to neighbouring Wind Cave National Park. The herd there has never been interbred (though only scientists can discern any difference).
Who does the rounding up?
Well, there’s octogenarian Bob Lantis, who has worked every roundup for the past 45 years – and swears he’ll be there next year too. Plus, there’s Miss South Dakota, who isn't just there to look pretty either.
The rest of the wranglers are either park rangers or volunteers. The latter are screened to make sure they’re good enough at riding – but then lots of people in South Dakota are good at riding horses, rodeo is the official state sport, after all.
Image by Neil McQuillian
So as a member of the public, what do you actually experience of the roundup itself?
The bison have already been preliminarily gathered together – loosely – before the big day, then the roundup itself takes place over a distance of about a mile, through various fields, with crowds gathered on low hills around its course.
Since you watch from a slight remove, the whip-cracks and whoops of the wranglers and the pummelling of the bison’s hooves carry to you on the wind rather than assault your senses.
But then you come to the roundup – which is free – as much for the atmosphere as for the herding itself, which takes about half an hour. And for a state with just 800,000 people, it’s a hell of an atmosphere. The figures aren’t in for this year but 2015, the fiftieth anniversary, saw 25,000 guests.
In any case, you really don’t want to get too close. This year there was one calf that had been born later than the other young, just three weeks before the roundup. During the action one of the wranglers got too close to it and its mother chased the horse away. It did make me wonder, with a little thrill, if the American bison has ever truly been conquered.
Image by Neil McQuillian
What’s Custer State Park like?
Custer State Park also offers superb hiking, biking and even driving along the otherworldly Needles Highway. Other must-sees lie within easy reach too: Mount Rushmore; the unmissable Crazy Horse Memorial; the Black Hills; and the jagged moonscape that is the Badlands National Park.
Considering the Great Plains, as an idea, evoke vast distances (as Ian Frazier’s Great Plains has it, “The sky is like a person yawned and never stopped”), you can see an awful lot in a few days in South Dakota.
Custer State Park has been in the news recently for the renaming of Harney Peak – the state’s highest point and a popular hiking destination – to Black Elk Peak. William S. Harney was the US General in command at the so-called ‘battle’ of Ash Hollow in 1855 – to Native Americans (and to a contemporary New York Times correspondent), it was simply a massacre. Thanks to Native American efforts, the peak was renamed in August 2016.
The park is packed with other wildlife too, not just bison. Cole Irwin of the South Dakota tourist board told me that the mountain lion population ‘blew up’ recently, following conservation efforts: ‘I have a friend who tracks them. He goes out into the wild, shoots them with tranquilizers and collars them. The thing is, when it snows, he can see their tracks – and they’re following him. He says it’s really creepy.’
Hear Neil's experience in episode two of The Rough Guide to Everywhere:
Explore more of South Dakota through travelsouthdakota.com and see more of the Great Plains with the Rough Guide to the USA. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Travelplanners has nine nights in the Real America state of South Dakota from £1,829 per person, based on two adults travelling, sharing room only accommodation. The price includes international return flights from London Heathrow to Rapid City and Avis car hire for the duration. Nine nights’ accommodation are also included encompassing three nights at the Best Western Ramkota (Rapid City), three nights at the Badlands Inn (near Badlands NP) and three nights at the Rock Crest Lodge (near Custer State Park).
Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners