South Dakota has struck gold twice.
The state made the Fox News list for top 10 worldwide destinations to see wildlife because of the bison, bighorn sheep, elk and mountain goats in Custer State Park. The list, posted this week, puts South Dakota in company with Africa, Alaska and the Amazon Valley among the best havens to see animals.
The state scored a second honor when Fox News named the Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills as the seventh-best bicycle ride in the world.
Fox News in New York did not return a phone message to explain the lists. But state officials sensed something afoot when a correspondent requested video to go with a travel report.
“I’ve always thought Custer was one of the top places to view wildlife in the U.S. But when you look at the context of the world, that really is impressive,” said Doug Hofer, South Dakota director of state parks.
Fox notes the sloth and mantled howler monkey in calling Costa Rica the top destination and cites the Amazon’s river dolphins and whales swimming in for lunch off Antarctica.
Wildlife sightings common at Custer
Custer can’t match the exotic species, but it offers a high concentration of sightings, Hofer said.
“You can see more wildlife in the time you’re here than you can hope to see just about anywhere. We kind of take it for granted, but I don’t think the ranking is exaggerated,” he said.
The free splash in the news becomes an instant tool for the state tourism department, which spends $6 million a year to promote South Dakota’s scenery, wildlife and recreation. Wanda Goodman, deputy secretary of tourism, said the ratings were not a total surprise, because the buffalo roundup at Custer Park gives the state international press each fall.
“So no, not in that sense. But yes, we don’t expect to be part of such a prestigious list,” she said.
Goodman is part of a team of three on their way to Chicago next week on a promotional tour previously planned but now conveniently timed with the Fox ratings.
“We’ll be speaking with the Chicago Tribune and the Sun Times. To bring this ranking with us and say, ‘Look at this,’ it shines a bright light on the state,” she said.
Tourism is South Dakota’s second-biggest industry, after agriculture, with 8 million visitors a year. Custer State Park, 30 miles south of Rapid City, is no secret to the biggest group of them. It draws 1.8 million people a year, almost double the total at Lewis and Clark Recreation Area, which is second with about 1 million a year.
Custer State Park opened in 1919 as a result of Gov. Peter Norbeck’s effort to create a sanctuary for wildlife. President Calvin Coolidge liked the park well enough to make it his summer home and use it as the stage, in 1927, to announce he would not seek re-election in 1928. Fox News correspondent Kasey Austin liked it well enough to praise its “burly, brawny bison ... and peeking, passive prairie dog.” Austin also notes the begging burro, an outsider once brought in to haul visitors to the top of Harney Peak, then invited to stay after the rides ceased.
Mickelson Trail may add 18-mile spur
The Mickelson Trail opened in 1998. It runs 114 miles along an old Burlington Northern rail bed from Deadwood to Edgemont on a route that includes forest, valley and prairie while crossing 100 old train bridges and passing through three tunnels. The Legislature is considering a proposal to support construction of an 18-mile spur starting at Hill City to connect the trail with Mount Rushmore. That would cost about $8 million, Hofer said. The hope is secure $500,000 in state money, to raise $2 million in donations and seek grants for the rest.
World travelers with local roots said the Fox ratings put South Dakota in heady company.
Dylan West, 21, a senior at Augustana College, spent a month of interim study last year at another site on the Fox list, the Galapagos Islands off the Pacific coast of Ecuador. West swam with the jelly-fish and saw sea lions, sharks, penguins and Lonesome George, a 150-year-old tortoise. He’s also been to Custer State Park, which he calls “beautiful in its own sense, and right in your own backyard.”
Andy Bliss, 33, has made a living in two places on the Fox list. He’s been to Antarctica four times and now lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. Bliss is a 1997 graduate of Lincoln High School who earned degrees at the University of Chicago and Cal-Berkeley. He studies glaciers for a living. To him, the Taylor Valley of Antarctica is the most beautiful place in the world with its stark tans and browns set against white ice and a white sky. Alaska also is impressive. A bus trip for him to Denali, also known as Mount McKinley or “The High One,” resulted in the immediate sighting of 10 grizzly bears and an emotional response. “The word might be fear rather than amazement,” he said.
South Dakota offers a remarkable stretch from the Badlands west to the Black Hills and Custer State Park, he said. The Badlands, lacking trees to provide a sense of pictoral scale, resemble Antarctica to him. Custer is part of “that whole wonder of things,” he said. “All of South Dakota has a certain aesthetic that is beautiful in some way.”