Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park in South Dakota’s Black Hills is plumb perfect for drawing out your inner cowgirl or cowboy. Nestled among tall, tall Ponderosa pines, Blue Bell is one of the main resorts in the 71,000-acre state park where 1,300 buffalo do roam. As you check in you feel as if you are stepping into ranch life (or perhaps a great Ralph Lauren ad depicting ranch life) and the friendly general manager Jason immediately makes you feel welcome and ready to have fun.
The resort features a main lodge that is rustic and charming with cowboy art and artifacts adorning log walls, plus a bar with saddle stools. Nearby there is a banquet hall, gift shop and staging area for the chuck wagon suppers (more about that later), a campground, a riding stable and the 29 adorable sleeping cabins. There are also a few larger luxury cabins including the Ponderosa which sleeps 24. Lodge cabins range from $235/night for the sleeping cabins to $1,300/night for the Ponderosa.
Our cabin (above) was clean and comfy with an ADA entrance and bath, two queen beds, a fireplace, dining area and a small kitchenette. We had a nice front porch, a picnic table and fire ring.
Soon after we arrived Dan made a fire – just right for the chilly mid-September evening. We felt far away from civilization and we noticed a sure sign a buffalo had been by in the not-too-distant past. The next morning 29 wild turkeys were feeding outside our cabin which definitely interested Hope’s dog Tabor. We later spotted a massive lone buffalo bull munching his breakfast just up road, our likely visitor.
Speaking of breakfast, ours in the Tatanka Dining Room in Blue Bell’s main lodge were relaxing and tasty. A real fire in the large stone fireplace created a woodsy coziness complemented by the classic country tunes playing in the background. Dan enjoyed the Old Timer’s Special with eggs over easy, bacon, hash browns and toast one morning and flapjacks the next. Hope stuck with biscuits and gravy each day and I was hooked on the rustic veggie skillet with eggs, spinach, zucchini, tomatoes and Hollandais sauce and hash browns.
Our days at Blue Bell were spent taking walks exploring a few look-outs and driving the 18-mile wildlife loop. We saw prong horn antelope, donkeys, big horn sheep, white tail deer, prairie dogs, and a herd of buffalo (Tatanka) being moved by park cowboys on horseback. That was a treat. At one point we pulled up to the corrals where the buffalo are worked. My own cowboy Dan’s former life as a livestock magazine editor sprang forth and he spent a couple minutes talking with herd manager Chad Kramer about details of herd management. Breeding season (the rut) takes place in July and August with calving season the following April and May. In late September, Kramer and his crew round up all of the park’s herd, except for about 50 older bulls they leave alone, for vet work and sorting. The roundup is a major event that attracts about 10,000 people to watch. Online auctions throughout the year and one main sale is held later in the fall to disperse about 250 head annually. For the fall sale, buyers congregate at the park’s new visitor center to watch videos of the sale animals and participate in the bidding. Last year’s average price was $2500/head. By the way, the visitor center just opened this past spring and it has several interesting displays about the buffalo and other park attractions. There is also a 20-minute movie on the park’s history that is narrated by Kevin Costner. It was well done and I’m glad my cousin tipped me off to visit.
A highlight for Hope was visiting the Begging Burros, a band of about 50 donkeys that hang out on a high meadow on the wildlife loop. They are hilarious and eat ANYTHING, including an Altoid that Dan fed one he felt sorry for after exhausting our supply of apples, carrots and sugar cookies. Perhaps the next car back noticed how fresh that donkey’s breath was after he left our car. Hope laughed as hard as I’d ever seen her when one nipped playfully at her hand.
Hope also loved the Blue Bell’s Chuckwagon Supper that started with a hay rack ride hosted by two kindly hands, including singer Keith Burden. As we rode to the dinner pavilion, Keith sang cowboy folk songs like Home on the Range, Cool Water and lots of classic country tunes. He also sang some of his originals about the Black Hills and he even tossed in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Jingle Bells at Hope’s request. After our 45 minute ride, a dinner of steak, cowboy beans, coleslaw, potato salad, cornbread and watermelon tasted great and the hot chocolate was a welcome hand warmer. It was cold!
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