Where to See Bison in the Wild

America's national mammal is even more majestic in person.

By: Jed Portman
American Bison

American Bison

Photo by: ©iStockphoto.com/CarbonBrain

©iStockphoto.com/CarbonBrain

Ever dreamt of spending an afternoon where the buffalo roam?

You’re in luck. There hasn’t been a better time to see our national mammal in the wild in a hundred years. The bison, a.k.a. buffalo, is back from the brink of extinction — and thriving, in fact. Most bison today live on commercial ranches, where they’re raised for burgers and steaks, but the country is dotted with free-roaming wild herds descended from the few hundred lucky animals who survived the mass slaughter of the nineteenth century.

Bison ranged from northern Mexico to northern Canada in their pre-1800s heyday, and from Oregon in the west to New York in the east — but today, the bison heartland overlays eastern Montana and the western Dakotas.

It includes the only place in the continental United States where bison have been grazing uninterrupted since prehistoric times: Yellowstone National Park, home to a herd of almost 5,000. Bring your camera and your patience to Yellowstone, because you’re likely to see astonishing numbers of bison — while contending with astonishing numbers of tourists if you visit in the summer. It’s worth the trouble, at least once. For best results year-round, head to the park’s Hayden and Lamar valleys. (In the winter, you might also have luck around warm hydrothermal features.)

American Bison

American Bison

Photo by: Jed Portman

Jed Portman

Before, during or after your bison-watching expedition, stop for a bison burger, bison meatloaf or a bison sloppy joe at the iconic 1904 Old Faithful Inn, one of the largest log structures in the world.

To the north, Montana’s 18,800-acre National Bison Range, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been a safe haven for bison — and other native animals including elk, black bears and pronghorn — since 1908. Although the bison population is 10 percent or less than that of Yellowstone at 350-500, Fish & Wildlife keeps a close eye on its shaggy residents.

Start at the visitor center, where you can get the rundown on recent bison activity, and then get back in the car to see the refuge via the one-mile West Loop drive, where you can often see bison in the summertime, the 14-mile Prairie Drive or the 19-mile Red Sleep Mountain Drive, which winds its way up 2,000 feet in elevation to breathtaking views.

Just across the Montana-North Dakota border outside little Medora, is one of the country’s most underappreciated gems: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, with a herd of 200-400 bison in the South Unit and 100-300 in the North Unit. You won’t have to fight crowds there — especially not early in the morning, when the bison are on the move, and you can find family groups or lone bulls around every other corner on Scenic Loop Drive in the South Unit.

American Bison

American Bison

Photo by: Jed Portman

Jed Portman

The park is a must-visit for any wildlife lover, with abundant populations of elk and pronghorn and prairie dogs densely settled across the landscape.

A few hours to the south in South Dakota, two more parks contain hundreds of wild bison: Wind Cave National Park near Hot Springs, and Custer State Park in Custer.

Wind Cave’s main attraction is the eponymous cave, which is the sixth-longest in the world and festooned with elaborate natural frostwork, boxwork and popcorn formations. Several hundred bison, though, graze the native prairie on the surface.

To keep its bison numbers in check, ensuring a healthy population, Custer State Park auctions off a portion of its 1,300-strong herd each November. That means a group of cowboys and cowgirls have to corral the herd on horseback each September for an inspection. A mix of locals and tourists swarm the designated viewing areas for the dusty, ground-shaking Buffalo Roundup. It starts at 9:30 a.m., but you’ll want to be there around 6:15, when the parking lots open up, for the best view of the Old West spectacle.

South Dakota's Must-See Attractions

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Mount Rushmore

Completed in 1941, Mount Rushmore is undoubtedly one of the most recognized memorials in South Dakota, and in the US. Each year, more than 3 million visitors come face-to-face with the likeness of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Plan a visit to Mount Rushmore in 2016 when it will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Badlands National Park

Located 75 miles east of Rapid City, SD, Badlands National Park spans across 244,000 acres of prairie grassland, and boasts beautiful landscape views of unique and rugged geologic formations. Visitors from around the world visit the Badlands to camp, hike and view wildlife like bison, bighorn sheep and black-footed ferrets roaming throughout the park.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Deadwood, SD

Once home to Wild West legends like Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Seth Bullock, Deadwood, SD, was named a National Historic Landmark in 1961. Located in the northern Black Hills, visitors can experience the rich history of the Wild West at family-friendly museums and attractions, test their luck gambling at one of the casinos, or get a taste of South Dakota at Belle Joli or Schade Winery.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Crazy Horse Memorial

A short distance from Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial -- the world?s largest mountain carving -- stands as a tribute to Crazy Horse, a Lakota warrior and one of the most important Native American tribal leaders. Construction on the memorial began in 1948, and has been in progress since; once complete, it will stand 563 feet tall. Other attractions located at Crazy Horse Memorial include the Indian Museum of North America, a cultural center, restaurant and gift shop which showcase the culture, tradition and heritage of North American Indians.

Photo By: Thinkstock

Custer State Park

Seventy-one thousand acres of breathtakingly beautiful scenery awaits the outdoorsy and adventurous at Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. From hiking and mountain biking to fishing and wildlife viewing, the park offers a little bit of everything for everyone. In addition to camping, the park offers a variety of accommodations, including the historic State Game Lodge and Blue Bell dude ranch.

Photo By: AWL Images / Getty Images

Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

Each September, thousands of people travel to Custer State Park to experience the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup when a group of cowboys and cowgirls roundup and drive a herd of approximately 1,300 buffalo. After the roundup, grab a small bite to eat at the Dutch Oven or Chili Cook-off then stop by the Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival for arts and crafts vendors and entertainment.

Photo By: Robert Harding World Imagery / Getty Images

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Named a National Historic Site in 1999, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site stands as an ongoing reminder of the Cold War Era. Learn about the history and significance of the Cold War and nuclear weapons development on a tour throughout the Minuteman Missile Silo launch facility and control room.

Photo By: National Park Service

Akela Spa of Deadwood

Designed with luxury and serenity in mind, Akela Spa of Deadwood -- the area?s only destination spa -- uses Native American treatments to calm and soothe its guests. Book the spa?s signature massage, Akela Hante, which uses cedar oil -- a sacred element in the Native American culture -- to purify and heal your mind and body.

Photo By: Greg Valladolid

The Midnight Star Casino

Test your luck at the Midnight Star casino. Situated in the heart of historic Deadwood, this casino is owned by actor Kevin Costner and includes a 2,500-square-foot casino floor with numerous slot machines and game tables. Afterwards, feed your appetite at Jake?s Fine Dining -- one of the best restaurants in South Dakota -- inside the casino.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

I-29 Cultural Corridor

The I-29 Cultural Corridor in east South Dakota features a variety of attractions including the South Dakota Art Museum, National Music Museum and Children?s Museum of South Dakota. 

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Ingalls Homestead

Experience life on the prairie with a visit to Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, SD. This is where author Laura Ingalls Wilder once lived, and the inspiration began that sparked her popular Little House books. Travelers of all ages will enjoy an old-fashioned day on the prairie with a covered wagon ride, an authentic 1880s school session, pioneering activities and more.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

The Corn Palace

Opened in 1921, the Corn Palace -- the world?s only palace built entirely out of corn -- is a popular attraction visited by more than 500,000 people each year. Some visitors return to see the new theme of the mural on the outside of the palace, which changes annually. In addition to being a tourist attraction, the palace is used for a variety of events, including exhibits, performances and the annual Corn Palace Festival.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

National Music Museum

It?s music to your ears. The National Music Museum, located at the University of South Dakota, features a collection of more than 15,000 musical instruments from various cultures and centuries. A designated ?Landmark of American Music,? the museum has one of the largest collections of its kind in the world, attracting thousands of visitors each year.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Get ready to hit the pavement at the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally -- one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world. Welcoming almost 400,000 bikers and biking enthusiasts each year, the 7-day rally takes place the 1st week of August in Sturgis, SD, and includes scenic drives, concerts, races and more.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Tabor Czech Days

Experience the rich Czech culture of Tabor, SD, at the annual Tabor Czech Days celebration. The 3-day event includes music entertainment, dancing and traditional Czech cuisine, as well as parades and craft fairs that showcase the town?s heritage.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Children’s Museum of South Dakota

You?ll find fun for the whole family at the Children?s Museum of South Dakota, located just off the I-29 corridor in Brookings, SD. Here, children?s minds will run wild as they sing, dance, craft and play throughout the museum?s 21,000-square-foot interactive exhibit space and 1.5-acre outdoor exhibit space.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

If you can’t get to the Plains this year, other parts of the country have wild herds, too — from Kansas’s Tallgrass Prairie herd, consisting of around 2,100 animals, to the bison at Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. Utah has two large herds, including one on Antelope Island near Salt Lake City. There's also 150 wild bison, rumored to be remnants of a 1920s film shoot, that live on California’s Catalina Island.

Forty-nine states have commercial operations, where you can often observe fenced-in but undomesticated bison — and pick up steaks and burgers for the freezer.

Wherever you see bison, keep in mind that they’re more dangerous than they look. Although tourists often assume that they’re docile, like cattle, they’re unpredictable wild animals with sharp horns that can move their thousands of pounds of mass at 35 miles per hour and jump six feet in the air. Always give them space, and treat them with the respect they’re due.

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