Tips and things to do in South Dakota: Star attraction bigger than Kevin Costner

Growing up with a mum who had a soft spot for Kevin Costner, I sat through plenty of epic Costner movies in my childhood. And they didn't come any more epic than Dances With Wolves, in which Costner played a US Civil War soldier "adopted" by the Lakota Sioux, one of the largest native tribes of the American Midwest. Despite winning seven Academy Awards, it wasn't the most thrilling flick for a pre-teen me. It had a running time of more than three hours and subtitles galore (swathes of dialogue was in the Lakota language). There were, however, some genuinely exciting moments, not least when Costner and his Lakota pals thundered across the prairies on horseback, chasing tons of stampeding bison.

These movie-memories come flooding back as we spot herds of bison – also known as American buffalo – grazing, dozing, running and pottering around Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Much of Dances With Wolves was shot in this sparsely-populated Midwest state, where we're spending the week touring with Collette. Almost 30 years after starring in and directing the movie, Costner remains involved in various initiatives to help preserve the region's nature and heritage, and he regards Custer State Park with special affection.

A beautiful expanse of prairies, lakes and woodland, etched with other-worldly granite outcrops, and some majestic animals, the park offers "a window back in time", according to Costner who, in his Californian surfer drawl, narrates a cinematic film in Custer's visitor centre. Also here we find exhibits on the park's geology and wildlife, including an interactive game that reveals how the bison react if you approach them. Get within 40 metres, and they'll charge you, nostrils flaring – and you don't want that.

Male bison (bulls) weigh up to 900 kilograms and move at speeds of 60 kilometres an hour. During mating season, their bellows can be heard five kilometres away. We enjoy our park safari within the safe confines of our tour bus, driven by Jerry, a Midwesterner dressed strikingly in jeans, leather waistcoat and wide-brimmed cowboy-esque hat. On the edges of our seats, cameras pressed against the windows, we navigate a 30-kilometre wildlife loop and glimpse mountain deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and burros (whom we pull over to feed).

It's the free-roaming bison, though, that generate the most excitement. Jerry tells us that up to 60 million of these formidable creatures – North America's largest land mammal – once migrated across the continent's vast grasslands, known as the Great Plains. Bison were sacred to the native people and a key source of food, clothing and shelter, but by the 1890s, they were almost extinct. Commercial bison hunting boomed with new settlers flocking to the old Wild West, capitalising on the huge demand for bison hides both at home and in Europe. They were encouraged by the authorities, who fancied the quicker the bison were snuffed out, the easier it would be to kill off the "Indian" way of life, pack the natives off into reservations and continue their territorial expansion (a popular mantra back then was "Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone").

However, helped by characters such as James "Scotty" Philip, a Scottish-born American rancher and South Dakota politician, bison conservation became fashionable. The bison we're seeing today are direct descendants of a herd bred by Philip, who earned the nickname "The Man who saved the Buffalo" for restocking herds across America at the turn of the 20th century. One of the ironies of Custer State Park is that it's named after a general who, albeit indirectly, helped speed up the bison's demise.

George Armstrong Custer had led an expedition into the uncharted Black Hills in 1874, which led to the discovery of gold and a flood of pioneers and fortune seekers trespassing on lands the Great Sioux Nation had earlier secured in a treaty with the US government. As conflict flared, Custer was killed by the "Indians" at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, fought over the border in what is now the state of Montana and dubbed "Custer's Land Stand".

The most thrilling time to visit Custer State Park, says Jerry, is for the annual bison round-up, when about 60 saddled-up cowboys and cowgirls gather together the resident bison, apart from the more aggressive big bulls, who are left well alone. This is done to keep the park's 1300 bison population in check – there's only so much grassland to forage – and about 200 are taken away and sold at auction (this year's round-up is scheduled for September 28). So well have bison numbers recovered – both in the park and nationwide – that you'll find it on many South Dakota restaurant and diner menus. Buffalo tenderloin, ravioli and burgers are served at Custer Park's State Game Lodge, a quaint stone and wood retreat where we lunch, following in the boot-prints of two US presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and Calvin Coolidge, who both took holidays here.

Coolidge went trout fishing when he visited in 1927 and also attended the inaugural carving of Mount Rushmore, that nearby landmark that depicts the heads of four revered US leaders, including Theodore Roosevelt, a keen conservationist and honorary president of the American Bison Society. We spot Roosevelt, and the other Mount Rushmore heads, poking out of the pine-forested Black Hills, several times during our South Dakota travels, which come to a rip-roaring conclusion at Fort Hays. Situated out in the sticks, off US Route 16, or Mount Rushmore Road as it's known, this Old West-themed draw is based around the original film set of Dances With Wolves.

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You can tread boardwalks and nose inside timber buildings, including one containing a life-size model of Kevin Costner – perfect for selfies, mum – plus video footage of him discussing the trials and tribulations of making his magnum opus. Workshops are manned by people in period costume who reveal the tricks of the old-fashioned trades – blacksmithing, saw-milling and lasso rope-making. In the mornings, Fort Hays' barn-like restaurant lures truckers and tourists for its 99¢ all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts. We've come for the evening Chuckwagon show and supper, which promises "a foot stompin', belly shakin', good time". It derives from the Old West's chuck wagons, which were used for storing and transporting food, catering to settlers or travelling workers like loggers and cowboys.

Seated around long, picnic-style wooden benches, we eat (off tin plates) beef brisket simmered in barbecue sauce, jacket potatoes and baked beans, before the folks who'd served our meal hop on a stage decorated with a giant stars-and-stripes flag. Over the next hour, this cowboy-hatted quintet treat us to rousing country tunes (think: Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson), quirky fiddle versions of Beethoven and Vivaldi, comic drum solos and lots of yee-haws! Sure, it's a bit corny, but what a fun, uplifting way to cap off our South Dakota adventure.

FIVE MORE SOUTH DAKOTA HIGHLIGHTS

1. EMBRACING LAKOTA CULTURE

As well as visiting Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where about 40,000 Lakota reside, to varying standards of living, today, we also check out Kevin Costner's Tatanka: Story of the Bison. It flaunts a large bronze sculpture of Lakota hunters chasing bison over a cliff-edge, and an interpretive centre that explains the importance of bison, practically and spiritually, to the native people. It also has Dances With Wolves outfits on display.

2. DEADWOOD

Another enjoyable Costner-backed venture is a tour on an old yellow school bus through Deadwood, which began as an illegal mining camp during the 1870s Gold Rush. We hear tales of gold, gambling and gun-slinging as we judder past the town's saloons and casinos, and up to the mountain-top cemetery where famous former locals such as "Calamity" Jane and "Wild" Bill Hickok are buried (Hickok was shot dead here while playing poker).

3. BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK

Jutting from the prairies, the Badlands look like something from Star Wars, though its trippy pinnacles, buttes and canyons actually featured in Starship Troopers and Armageddon. Adding to the Badlands' drama is a Cold War nuclear missile site and wildlife like prairie dogs and rattlesnakes.

4. WALL DRUG

This quirky slice of Americana started life as a pharmacy in the small town of Wall in 1931, offering "free" water to road-trippers. It has expanded into a vast labyrinth comprising a cafe-diner, souvenir shops and eclectic Wild West-flavoured attractions.

5. RAPID CITY

Our base for the duration of the tour, Rapid City boasts pleasant downtown parks, fine arts and crafts stores, a microbrewery in an old fire station, eye-catching graffiti and, on its pavements, bronze statues of every US president (apart from Obama and Trump, whose time will come, apparently).

Steve McKenna travelled as a guest of Collette.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/usa

travelsouthdakota.com

FLY

To reach Rapid City, South Dakota from Sydney or Melbourne requires two stops. United Airlines flies via Los Angeles and Denver. See united.com

TOUR

Collette's seven-day Spotlight on South Dakota tour is available on several dates between May and October, priced from $2439 per person. See gocollette.com

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