Visit the park during the annual bison round-up to get a real feel for the old American West

General George Custer may have suffered an ignominious defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but his name has been given to an exquisite area of rolling hills, rocks and grasslands - Custer State Park in South Dakota, US.

Visit the park during the annual bison round-up to get a real feel for the old American West.

Visitors throng there to hear the thunder of hooves, and feel the ground shake underfoot, as the burly beasts thunder down to the huge paddock, where they are then corralled, ready for counting and selling.

If you are not able to be there for this moment, you can view a spectacular movie about the park - narrated by Kevin Costner (of Dances with Wolves fame) - in the visitor centre. The actor has long been an avid fan of Custer State Park.

A tour guide let us into a little secret. “When the bison, which are scattered about the park, are rounded up by cowboys on horseback, they are walked at a sedate pace to a point just behind a rolling hill overlooking the spot where tourists throng against a protective fence.

“To add drama, they are then stampeded as they come over the hill,” he said. Smoke and mirrors but how emotive.

Although I had come to take in the sight of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln carved out of the rock face at Mount Rushmore, as well as the enormous Crazy Horse memorial (still a work in progress), for me Custer Park was the jewel in the crown.

You can drive around the park in a car, but the best option is to join one of the Jeep tours.

Along the Wildlife Loop Road, in addition to bison, you are likely to spot mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep, mountain goats, coyotes, elk, and prairie dogs.

But it’s not just wildlife. Among the firm favourites are a group of wild burros (donkeys), which have become habituated to tourists, who feed them treats through their car windows. For many, this fun encounter is the memory they take away with them.

Tourists can stay in different log cabins, swim in a series of crystal-clear lakes, paddle a canoe, hike the scenic terrain and take a drive along the spectacular Needles Highway (which, incidentally, was once dubbed the Needless Highway by locals who felt it was a waste of money).

Here the rocks are eroded into a series of needle-sharp protuberances.

In Mount Rushmore Park, the pig-tail bridges and tunnels are thrilling. These curve back around themselves as you drive ever upwards - just like following the tight windings of a pig’s tail.

There are old mining villages and mines. One is the Holy Terror, named by a prospector in honour of his formidable wife.

A visit to the Mount Rushmore museum is fascinating. Learn through a movie and exhibits how the presidents’ faces were carved. Blasting experts meticulously placed charges in exact positions so that when the dynamite exploded over multiple blasts, tons of rock fell away, leaving the required facial outlines.

The workers certainly didn’t have an easy time. Summer and winter they had to climb an arduous staircase with more than 700 steps up the mountain face, to where they chipped and chiselled.

They were not "clocked in" until they reached their workstation. Tour guides tell of the shameful treatment of the Lakota Indians, on whose land in the Black Hills Mount Rushmore is located.

They pepper their talks with fascinating anecdotes and history. The nightly lighting show of the mountain is worth a visit. When it is finally complete, the Crazy Horse Memorial is expected to measure 172m x 195m.

This tribute to the Indian chieftain, who many honour as a fine general in his own right, will be awe-inspiring. Many find it even more evocative than Mount Rushmore.

Proceeds from visits to the memorial go towards uplifting the American Indians. If you can’t stay in the park, Rapid City is a great spot. It’s my favourite small town in the US.

This surely is how many towns in the West must have looked before the population soared. The streets are wide, the buildings low, and the large Memorial Park has a lake and fountain, where locals walks their dogs along winding paths.

The park is a reminder of how, in 1972, the placid creek which meanders through the town, became a snarling, turbulent monster, bursting its banks and flooding much of the town.

It was decided never to build on this land again - hence the wide open spaces. Outdoor concerts are held in various parks in summer; in winter, one lake is turned into an ice-rink.

The Alex Johnson Hotel, which dates back to 1928, has plenty of character, and is ideally located in the middle of the town.

Affordable Adventure Tours offers some fascinating day tours.