Experience the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup 1
The herd starts to file through the gates into the corrals.

By Robin EH. Bagley

If you’re on the lookout for new, memorable experience, point your compass toward the Black Hills of South Dakota. Every September, Custer State Park rounds up their herd of 1,300 buffalo, not something you see every day. Disclaimer: the proper name for these animals is American Bison; however, they are colloquially referred to as buffalo throughout this region.

In fact, it’s something that might not have happened at all if hadn’t been for conservation efforts in places like Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. Prior to the 1700s, 30 – 60 million buffalo roamed the Great Plains. Their numbers started to fall as settlers pushed west, and by the late 1800s, they were nearly extinct. They were killed for their hides as well as to make way for railroads and settlers, and to deprive Native American tribes of their food source, thus making it easier for the government to force the tribes onto reservations.

It’s estimated that only about 1,000 animals, out of tens of millions, remained. Some brilliant ones hid out in what would become Yellowstone National Park, and they survived. A few were shipped to the Bronx Zoo, and that herd had a huge role in repopulating the western buffalo herds. The rest existed in tiny pockets dotted around the plains, and were saved by a handful of people, including Scotty Philip, who built up a herd after purchasing five buffalo calves in 1901. These five buffalo calves are the ancestors of today’s Custer State Park herd.

Buffalo are matriarchal and follow the lead cow.

Today the park tries keeps the herd at 900 – 1300 animals. The park is 71,000 acres, but it’s fenced and resources are finite, so managing the herd’s numbers are important for the animals’ health. If the herd grows too large, food becomes scarce. So every fall the herd is rounded up, vaccinated for brucellosis (a bovine disease that can travel between buffalo and cattle), and a number of them are sold at the annual auction in November.

Over 10,000 visitors travel to this remote corner of South Dakota every year to watch the roundup. This year the event is Friday, Sept. 29 and it will be Sept. 28 in 2018. The roundup is held in Custer State Park, which is located five miles from Custer, SD and about 45 miles from Rapid City, SD, which is also the location of the nearest commercial airport. Normally there is a fee to enter Custer State Park, daily and weekly permits available; however, there is no entry fee on the day of the roundup.

This is a morning event, so go to bed early, and set that alarm clock. The roundup itself happens at 9:30 am, but the viewing area parking lots open at 6:15 am. Yes, you read that correctly. Allow yourself plenty of time to get there, leave early because traffic will get heavy as you approach the park and sometimes come to a complete stop. Don’t worry, it will start moving again, just be patient. Personally, I recommend that you leave Custer by 5:30 am. Audio books, podcasts, or plenty of music will help get you through the drive. And once the sun comes up, you can enjoy the scenery.

Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup 3
There are two viewing areas, equally good.

This is an outdoor event where you will park your car and walk to the viewing area, so it’s nice to have a camp chair or a blanket to sit on. Wear plenty of layers as late September can be very cool in the Black Hills. And it’s nice to have rain gear just in case. It should go without saying to bring snacks, but in case you forget or want a hot breakfast, the park serves a pancake and sausage breakfast at both the north and south viewing areas.

Usually the morning starts cool but heats up once the sun rises, so be sure to have sunscreen. Binoculars are also a good idea to watch the herd as it starts moving in from a distance. You won’t need the binoculars once the herd approaches the corrals. And it’s just fun to absorb the whole spectacle. Bring your camera.

If you stay in Custer, there are a couple of shuttle services that will drive you out and back to the roundup, so you’re free to enjoy the scenery. Many of the hotels also offer an extra-early breakfast as well. And camping? Campgrounds are abundant in the Black Hills.

Camping reservations go quickly in Custer State Park, but there are a number of commercial and Forest Service campgrounds in the area. Helpful links are www.visitcuster.com; https://gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/custer/, and https://www.fs.usda.gov/blackhills.

No two roundups are the same, and everyone experiences it differently. Go with warm clothes, plenty of snacks, and an open mind. See what you experience.

A bull buffalo taking a snooze.

 

Multiple Contributor

Robin EH. Bagley is a freelance writer and social media manager who spent most of her years in South Dakota, from the prairies to the granite spires near Custer. She loves to camp, hike, and paddle but is a reluctant mountain biker. She has recently relocated to Sheridan, WY near the Bighorn Mountains and is getting accustomed to hiking in bear and moose country as opposed to buffalo country. If you meet her on the trail, you can hit her up for a granola bar or Band-Aid.

56 thoughts on “Experience the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

  • September 21, 2017 at 3:14 pm
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    Wow!! So many buffalo there. I haven’t seen buffalo in my entire life in look closely. That was a great and memorable experience. Nice!!

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  • September 19, 2017 at 1:31 pm
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    This would be such an awesome experience! My kids would love it!

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    • September 20, 2017 at 11:43 pm
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      Your kids would have a ball, except maybe getting up so early lol.

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  • September 18, 2017 at 7:28 pm
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    Omg! I don’t think I’ve seen any animals in such a huge herd… 1300! Wow!!! 2 centuries and from near extinct to these many? That’s a pretty good conservation work from the park officials….

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    • September 19, 2017 at 4:21 pm
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      It really is amazing that the numbers have bounced back so well. There are now thousands of buffalo around the country, including several other herds in South Dakota, and the big herd in Yellowstone National Park. Montana also has the National Bison Refuge. But the roundup is impressive because it’s an opportunity to see nearly the whole herd all together at once. Thanks!

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  • September 18, 2017 at 2:13 pm
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    This sounds great, a true thing to add to your bucket list, but boi would I be crapping rounding up this heard, but would give it a go nonetheless.

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    • September 19, 2017 at 4:18 pm
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      Hahaha! I know, right? Many of the people involved in the roundup do it year after year, so they’re used to it, as are their horses. But when watching it, there’s a big fence between the buffalo & the spectators.

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  • September 18, 2017 at 1:53 pm
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    Woah so many buffalo! I’ve never actually seen one in person but I would love to. Your photography of them is amazing.

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  • September 18, 2017 at 1:14 pm
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    Bet you really had an amazing experience with these buffalos or American Bison rather.

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    • September 19, 2017 at 4:15 pm
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      They are amazing creatures, but you have to watch them from a distance. They are wild animals & are very unpredictable. And they’re fast!

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  • September 18, 2017 at 12:19 am
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    I have never seen a buffalo in person but this history I didn’t know and it’s incredible! This is such an interesting read!

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    • September 18, 2017 at 2:48 pm
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      Thank you! They are very majestic animals, and to think they almost went extinct is unbelievable, but true. Pretty sad.

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  • September 17, 2017 at 10:26 pm
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    What a magical experience this must have been. I would love to see it for myself. Love the photos here.

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    • September 18, 2017 at 2:49 pm
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      Thank you! Hopefully you can attend one someday. Truly unforgettable.

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    • September 18, 2017 at 2:50 pm
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      Thank you!

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  • September 17, 2017 at 6:58 pm
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    I actually stayed in Rapid City, so I know exactly in which part of the world Custer State Park is. The buffalo round up sounds like a fascinating event and the time to go! The round up looks like something from the Lion King. Your photo with all the people watching in the background shows how popular it is. I would definitely get there early to get a good viewing spot although it sounds like a well organized event.

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    • September 18, 2017 at 2:51 pm
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      It’s very popular, people from all over the world attend. But the park does a great job of organizing it & it’s all very orderly. It does kind of remind you of the Lion King – I never thought about that!

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  • September 17, 2017 at 6:29 pm
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    yeah, I am so excited to read this post. Pass on the itinerary to me as well, i would love to join this girls gang. Exploring experiences like this is always on top of my list. It also gives us the opportunity to make new friends.

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  • September 17, 2017 at 4:51 pm
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    I’ve seen buffalo before, but during my travels to Southeast Asia! That said, this buffalo roundup would be very interesting to watch, and the Black Hills sounds like a scenic place to do it in. Very sad to hear that the American Bison is slowly decreasing in numbers, I guess I should try to see them while they’re still around.

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    • September 18, 2017 at 2:56 pm
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      Well that would be interesting! Actually due to conservation efforts, like Custer State Park, the buffalo population has bounced back. It will never be what it was, but there are now thousands of buffalo roaming the plains again. Custer State Park’s herd is around 1300 by itself. And the Yellowstone herd is very large – those few that escaped the slaughter back in the 1800s went on to produce a large herd today.

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  • September 17, 2017 at 4:00 pm
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    Its never occurred to me to visit South Dakota before but what an incredible sight to see while you’re there. I’ve not seen Bison before so it’d be great to go there.

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    • September 18, 2017 at 2:58 pm
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      South Dakota is a great place to visit, especially if you want to see buffalo! There are also herds in Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park & Bear Butte State Park.

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  • September 17, 2017 at 1:37 pm
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    Such a shame that only 1000 of tens of millions of these bisons remain. It’s a delight that every year thousands of visitors visit this park to see the roundup event. I’ll try to visit it sometime if I get to visit South Dakota around this time.

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    • September 18, 2017 at 3:20 pm
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      Thanks – South Dakota is a great place to visit. And there’s so much to do – Custer State Park is just one thing. Actually due to conservation efforts, like Custer State Park, the buffalo population has bounced back. It will never be what it was, but there are now thousands of buffalo roaming the plains again. Custer State Park’s herd is around 1300 by itself. And the Yellowstone herd is very large – those few that escaped the slaughter back in the 1800s went on to produce a large herd today.

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  • September 17, 2017 at 6:24 am
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    1300 buffaloes sorry American Bison that too walking in herd must be so lovely sight. It is very sad that some got killed during construction of railroads and good that many of them survived and pushed other side. Hopefully these species should be preserved as American bison are rare though simple buffalos are seen at many places. I loved the snooze photo. So cute.

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    • September 18, 2017 at 3:19 pm
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      Thanks! Yes, luckily they have been preserved. The Custer State Park herd of 1300 is just one herd in the nation. You can also see them nearby at Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park and Bear Butte State Park. These are all in South Dakota. Other states have buffalo herds too now, like the herd in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

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  • September 17, 2017 at 5:29 am
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    I always find it interesting naming a park after a leader who lost a major military battle. But the buffalo there do look absolutely marvelous. I am glad that they are maintaining the population but being careful about overgrowth at the same time.

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    • September 18, 2017 at 3:17 pm
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      Custer spent just a few weeks there in 1873, and the town and park are both named after him. He was dead by 1876, so yeah, interesting choice. The park is doing a good job. They didn’t used to do a roundup every single year, but eventually realized it was the easiest way of maintaining the numbers and conserving the natural resources.

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  • September 17, 2017 at 4:31 am
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    First things first, that snoozing buffalo is so cute!! Secondly, I don’t enjoy hiking and camping as often as I would like, but this seems like a really interesting thing to do!

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    • September 18, 2017 at 2:59 pm
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      Thanks! And you can easily stay in a hotel if you want – plenty of those in the area. 🙂

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  • September 16, 2017 at 10:21 pm
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    This looks like an amazing event to witness. I love to travel to places off the beaten track and this is the perfect reason to try and get to South Dakota. I’m actually going to look into trying to go this year!! Thank you for posting

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    • September 18, 2017 at 3:00 pm
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      Thanks ! I hope you get there & have a great time!

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  • September 16, 2017 at 8:27 pm
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    I hardly visit zoos but i don’t mind the idea of sitting to watch these buffaloes. They would make a lovely view. The thought of seeing these buffalo in multitude excites me

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    • September 18, 2017 at 3:02 pm
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      I hear you about the zoos, not my favorite thing either. But with the park being 71,000 acres, the animals roam free. And it’s quite amazing to see the herd all gathered. You can also see buffalo near by at Wind Cave National Park; it’s a smaller herd, but kind of neat to see them too since the ones in Custer State Park are being rounded up into the corrals. The ones in Wind Cave will be just doing their thing at this time.

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  • September 16, 2017 at 2:18 pm
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    I never knew the numbers were so small in the repopulating herd. 1000 animals hardly seems like enough to have genetic diversity. I have contemplated coming to Custer State Park (and Wind Cave) and have wondered about an iconic event to anchor the trip. Now I have the buffalo roundup on the radar to guide me to the park.

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    • September 18, 2017 at 3:05 pm
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      It was tremendously small! The CSP buffalo came from Scotty Philips herd; the Wind Cave National Park herd actually came from buffalo that had been captured (instead of killed) and transported to the Bronx Zoo. When the zoo population got large, and finally people were worried about the buffalo becoming extinct, they shipped some of those buffalo to what is now Wind Cave National Park. They just celebrated the 100th anniversary of the return of the buffalo a couple of years ago. And then the Yellowstone herd was entirely separate – it survived on its own and is the most genetically pure herd. Fascinating history for sure.

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  • September 16, 2017 at 1:30 pm
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    I love to travel and have since I was 3 years old. This would be a new experience and fun trip.

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    • September 18, 2017 at 3:14 pm
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      You should definitely put it on your list. Custer State Park is a great spot all the time, well worth a visit even if not for the roundup.

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  • September 16, 2017 at 12:23 pm
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    I am not a traveler and I love to stay indoors most of the time. But, by seeing your pictures and reading your post I can imagine it must have been an awesome experience. Maybe I should add such a place for travelling in my bucket list.

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    • September 18, 2017 at 3:06 pm
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      It’s a great addition to a bucket list!

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  • September 16, 2017 at 10:18 am
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    What an amazing experience! It reminds me of visiting state parks in Oklahoma, where we’ll often see bison roaming–never this many at once, though! What a cool thing to do in South Dakota.

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    • September 18, 2017 at 3:08 pm
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      Yes, I believe Oklahoma was home to one of the first buffalo refuges when conservation efforts started early in the 20th century. If I remember correctly, I think the Oklahoma refuge got some buffalo from the Bronx Zoo, just like Wind Cave National Park did. Sounds crazy I know, but the zoo got some animals that were captured instead of killed. It played a big part in repopulating the West with buffalo.

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  • September 16, 2017 at 4:18 am
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    Wow, seeing all those buffalo sounds incredible. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like before they were wiped out. Thanks for the info, what a great place to explore!

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    • September 18, 2017 at 3:10 pm
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      I can’t imagine it either. There are old stories told of how when the great herds migrated, it could take days for them to pass. I can’t even imagine what that must have looked like. At least people, included Teddy Roosevelt, realized they were in danger of going extinct before it actually happened. Getting down to 1000 animals was pretty darn close!

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  • September 16, 2017 at 2:56 am
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    What a cool spot for wildlife spotting. I always love visiting national parks to sight-see but it is always nice to come across their inhabitants, which in this case is in the form of the bisons. I can’t believe there are so many of them. I’m sure this would be a great park to bring your kids to, they would love this!

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    • September 18, 2017 at 3:12 pm
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      Custer State Park is great park for kids. There’s a lot to do & see. You can drive the Wildlife Loop road to see the buffalo, plus other wildlife, and feed the “wild” burros, aka the Begging Burros. Plus there are lakes & trails. And a lot of interpretive information to teach about the history & biology, very interactive.

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  • September 16, 2017 at 2:00 am
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    Such a great post. I’ve been hiking and camping in Custer and seen the herds but never seen the roundup. Must have been a cool experience

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    • September 18, 2017 at 3:13 pm
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      It is pretty cool, but with it only being 1 day per year, it’s easy to miss. But it’s very enjoyable to see the buffalo just hanging out doing what they do the rest of the year.

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  • September 16, 2017 at 1:43 am
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    1300 American Bison’s wow, I would for sure love to view this when I go South Dakota sometime. The photos were intriguing enough for me to explore.

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    • September 18, 2017 at 3:13 pm
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      Thanks! I hope you get there; you won’t regret it!

      Reply

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