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How To Experience Winter In Our Parks and Monuments

Raised in Rapid City and lucky to call it home, this outdoor enthusiast loves to explore the Black Hills with her husband and two dogs. When she’s not at work you’ll find her out hiking, at a local ice cream shop, or perhaps home taking a nap.

January 14, 2022

Winter at our area parks and monuments brings on entirely different experiences compared to the warmer months. With fewer crowds and a stillness settling over the area, it’s the perfect time to explore at your pace. Here’s a few reasons why our parks and monuments are worth exploring in the winter:

*If you’re new to any or all outdoor winter recreation, plan a visit to Outdoor Campus – West in Rapid City. They offer free hands-on classes where you can learn the basics of tackling many winter activities.


Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore: Room to gaze…go on, keep gazing.

Sunset over a snow covered Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park ©Travel South Dakota

 

  • Hiking in and around these two popular parks in the winter offers a whole new experience. The frequent summer traffic they see in the warmer months is nonexistent and the landscapes are transformed with a dusting of snow and some seriously vibrant winter skies. Blackberry Trail allows you to explore the natural beauty of the hills with delightful peak-a-boo glimpses of Mount Rushmore. The hiking trails of the Badlands are a great way to soak up more of this park beyond the visitor center and a scenic drive with wildlife viewing.
  • Winter wildlife can also be spotted in both parks. In the Badlands you could stumble upon bison, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and more. Mount goats frequent the rocks around Mount Rushmore and are absolutely thrilling to encounter. 

Custer State Park: Get a buffalo car wash and explore Needles Highway.

Custer State Park buffalo in the winter surrounding the wildlife loop road
Custer State Park

 

  • Wildlife Loop is one of the more popular experiences in the park and cruising in the winter offers unique experiences for visitors. The herd is often close to the road in search of irresistible road salt, and the traffic cruising through the park is significantly lower than in the warmer seasons.
    • The popular Buffalo Jeep Safari rides also take place all winter long, but advanced reservations are required.  
  • Another unique winter experience is navigating the famous Needles Highway by foot, snowshoe, fat tire bike, or on cross country skies. The highway closes to motor vehicles in the winter, and opens back up to traffic in the April. It's an awesome experience to witness the beauty of this scenic stretch without a car in sight. 
  • Other outdoor activities in this 71,000 acre park include:
    • Snowshoeing and hiking the vast collection of stunning hikes, including the trek to the tallest peak east of the Rocky Mountains.
    • Ice fishing takes place at all five lakes within the park once the water freezes to four inches and above. Most of the lakes are stocked with rainbow trout, but brook and brown trout can also be found.

Black Hills National Forest: Your winter playground.

Snowmobiling through the Black Hills of South Dakota
Black Hills National Forest ©Travel South Dakota

 

  • Snowmobiling is one of the most popular winter activities in our area. There are 416 miles of trails groomed for a good time in the Black Hills. The season starts on December 15th and goes through March 31st with trails weaving all throughout the Northern Hills. You can view a map of the trails, trail conditions, along with area rules and recommendations on the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks website
  • Ice climbing also takes place in the forest and the best spot is between the walls of Spearfish Canyon. Here the popular frozen falls provide an extra place to play in the winter. With easy access to many of the climbs it’s a great place to learn a new skill or enhance your abilities further. 
  • Other experiences not to pass up:
    • Ice fishing! The mountain lakes of the Black Hills not only freeze into picturesque landscapes, but they also provide the perfect place to ice fish. Ice fishing is permitted on all the lakes in national forest when the ice has reached a minimum of four inches thick. The three largest lakes in the Black Hills are deemed by many to be the best spots for this activity and are all within an hour’s drive from Rapid City: Pactola Reservoir, Sheridan Lake and Deerfield Lake. For more information on ice conditions and fishing reports ice fishing you can visit local fishing and bait shops or visit the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks website*You will need a South Dakota Fishing License.
    • Snowshoeing and hiking allow you to explore deeper into the forest to witness untouched blankets of snow. The national forest offers a few systems of groomed trails you can enjoy for snowshoeing along with multiple places that offer snowshoe checkout. Check out this blog for more details about where to explore and what you need to get started. There are 450 miles of trails to choose from for hiking, so you’ve got a large variety when it comes to the length, difficulty, and scenery you want to explore. Search a long list of trails from the Black Hill National Forest website, or head over to our Top Ten Trails list to see a list of area favorites.
    • Fat tire biking is also a thrilling activity in the Black Hills. The national forest has three trails that are groomed for fat tire biking that are all located in the northern hills. You can find out more about these trails here. Fat tire biking can also take place on the mountain bike singletrack trails throughout the forest, but only if the snow isn’t super deep. 
    • Cross-Country Skiing can take place on many of the hiking trails throughout the national forest. You can find a list of trail systems to explore along with trail maps on the Black Hills National Forest website


Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park: Staying warm underground.

Family on guided tour of Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park @alliebast

 

  • Caving in the winter! Many don’t realize the impressive underground landscapes of both these cave systems. Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the world and Wind Cave is the seventh longest. During the winter cave temperatures stay the same so tours can be offered year-round with no temperature impact. Both parks reduce the number of tours they offer in the off-season so be sure to check ahead before arriving to the park. 
  • Snowshoeing and hiking are both popular ways to explore the rolling hills and winter landscapes of both these parks. Two trails can be found within Jewel Cave National Monument: Roof Trail which is an easy quarter mile loop, and Canyons Trail which is a moderate 3.5-mile loop. Hell Canyon Trail is a third hike that can be enjoyed near the park and is moderate 5.3-mile loop. Wind Cave offers a variety of trails to choose from in each category of difficulty. You can view a full list of hike options on the national parks website here. Easy to moderate hikes are great options to get into the groove of snowshoeing. 

With all outdoor activities, it’s important to dress appropriately (wear layers), bring all the right equipment with you along with snacks and lots of water. Locally owned outdoor gear store Roam’n Around is a great place to stop if you need anything, or if you just want to shop a cool store. As always, if you encounter wildlife please be respectful and maintain a safe distance of at least a 100 yards.