Custer State Park
In the Black Hills of South Dakota, not far from Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park preserves the landscape and wildlife that made up the area before the encroachment of modern society. With 71,000 acres, it’s the largest state park in the nation, and it also has one of the country’s largest bison herds.
“The buffalo herd here is about 1,200 head, and about 350 of those are this year’s babies,” said Kathy Funk, a park worker who takes visitors on buffalo safari drives. “The reason that we’re here is to bring the buffalo back. In the early 1900s, there were less than 1,000 in existence in North America.”
The buffalo safari is the best way for groups to get close to the animals. Groups can split up and ride in a convoy of sport utility vehicles that have been specially modified to go off-road, over rocks and through streams in order to follow the herds.
The safaris last up to two hours; during a typical ride, guests may also see elk, deer, bighorn sheep and “begging burros,” who hang by the roadside looking for food from passing vehicles.
Custer State Park is also home to one of the state’s signature group travel events, the Buffalo Roundup. During the September roundup and accompanying arts festival, visitors can watch as dozens of cowboys from around the state help corral the buffalo, which are then tagged, treated and eventually released.
The Sheyenne River running through eastern North Dakota passes through Valley City, a destination that prides itself on outdoor activities. As part of the Sheyenne River Valley National Scenic Byway, the Valley City area offers numerous nature opportunities for groups.
“In our area, the outdoor activities that everyone loves are the North Country National Scenic Trail, which parallels the byway,” said Mary Lee Nielson, marketing coordinator for the byway and the Valley City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have close to 50 miles of certified trails right in this area.”
Some 35 miles of trails stretch along the banks of Lake Ashtabula, which sits just north of town. South of the city, a spur of the National Cross Country Trail takes visitors to a recreation area with natural springs. Further south at Fort Ransom State Park, visitors will find additional hiking and horseback-riding opportunities.
Many groups enjoy taking the City of Bridges tour, which focuses on eight interpreted bridges throughout Valley City. Most of the bridges date back to the late 1800s.
Dakota Birding, a local business, can take groups on bird-watching tours.
“They get people from all over the world,” Nielson said. “We have 328 species of birds in the Sheyenne River Valley, so you get to check a lot off of your life list.”