Bob Willis | The Coloradoan
I saw a few yellow leaves on the ground a few days ago and that tells me it's just about time for my wife, Gloria, and I to make plans for our annual trek to the Black Hills of South Dakota for the Governor's Buffalo Roundup at Custer State Park, just outside of Rapid City.
It's about the most exciting event that you'll find anywhere, and the best part is it's free. Every year, on the last Monday of September (9:30 a.m. Sept. 26 this year), thousands of people from all over the country and many foreign countries gather on the hillsides at dawn to witness the exciting spectacle of more than 1,500 bison (buffalo) being herded into a vast valley then into corrals for their annual physicals, inoculations, branding and culling. The latter is done to maintain a healthy sustainable level within the park.
About a month later, those bison that have been culled are put to auction. Funds from the auction help pay for maintenance of the herd. The excess animals increase herds around the country. The Black Hills herd is about three times the total number of bison that existed in North America in 1905.
It's hard to imagine a sight as magnificent as this. As the roundup begins, the earth virtually rumbles with hoof beats and the dust rises as park rangers and local cowboys using only yelps, whistles and whips bring the herd directly beneath and past the assembled spectators. Nowhere on earth can you see an equal to this spectacle, unless you'd be able to turn the clock back some 200 years.
Once all the bison are corralled, the line forms for a hearty chuck wagon luncheon adjacent to the pens.
During the weekend preceding the roundup, there's an arts and crafts festival on a large field adjacent to the State Game Lodge within Custer State Park. The event includes music, cowboy church on Sunday morning and a chili cook-off.
The Black Hills region, which is nearly a seven-hour drive from Fort Collins, is a compact area for touring and is well-suited for families with a variety of attractions, plenty of history, events and lots of nature.
You must plan to visit two of the nation's most spectacular mountainside carvings - Mount Rushmore and the nearby lesser known but equally magnificent Crazy Horse Monument.
A drive through the Black Hills this time of year is pleasantly rewarding to camera buffs. The drive through Spearfish Canyon with its bends in the road and fall colors reminds me of the brilliant fall colors of New England.
If you want to turn back the clock, head over to the arts-oriented community of Hill City and board the 1880s steam train that takes you through the hills to Keystone.
And don't forget about nearby Deadwood. The economic lifeblood of this community has become one of gambling and casinos but make sure to pay a visit to Mount Moriah Cemetery where Wild Bill Hickok is interred just a few feet away from where is buried his admirer, Calamity Jane. The Number Ten Saloon is the site of Wild Bill's murder. They still keep the beer mighty cold here.
As an aside, not far from Deadwood is the home of my longtime buddy Jerry Croft. His log home and saddle-making shop on Tepee Creek is not an attraction, but Jerry and his wife, Duffy, keep the welcome mat out. Jerry's an old-time authentic cowboy who makes all of Tom Selleck's film saddles and is one the world's most respected saddle-makers.
Also in Deadwood, Kevin Costner has created an interesting mini-theme park Tatanka, which is a tribute to the buffalo. Tatanka is the Lakota Sioux word for buffalo. Here, you'll witness 13 larger-than-life bison in bronze being driven off a cliff to a pishkun. This was a technique used by the plains American Indians where the bison were stampeded of a cliff to their deaths. Below, the tribeswomen would begin dressing them for food, skins and other needs. Virtually no part of the animal went unused by the natives.
In Rapid City, there are two must-see attractions. First is Prairie Edge, a huge museum-like store featuring the authentic works of American Indian craftsmen, mostly the regional Lakota Sioux. You can easily spend a few hours browsing and buying. Just a few blocks away is the Journey Museum that traces the history of the region from prehistoric times to the troubled times of the Ghost Dance craze to the settlement of the western plains.
Near Rapid City are two roadside attractions definitely worth visiting. At first glance you may think of them as typical roadside attractions, but once inside you'll be pleasantly surprised, especially if you have youngsters. Bear Country USA is a drive-thru natural park that has a wide variety of wildlife indigenous to the region. It's a great spot for photographers. Nearby Reptile Gardens probably has the nation's largest collection of reptiles, including a 127-year-old Galapagos tortoise, giant Komodo dragon and virtually thousands of other specimens. There's an interesting prairie dog town where you can actually go underground and pop up in their midst via a plastic dome.
If that's not enough, you're within close driving range of the famous Wall Drug. One stop that we always make in that area is to Wounded Knee. It was a tragic day in American history and we always feel it's important to pay our respects to the victims of this unnecessary massacre.
There's plenty of camping in Custer State Park along with some limited lodging space within the park. There also is lodging in nearby Custer, Keystone, Deadwood, Sturgis and Rapid City.