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.

winter day at mount rushmore national memorial with snow and no crowds

Hiking around these two popular parks in the winter is a unique experience. Both Badlands and Mount Rushmore are virtually free of crowds and the landscapes can be transformed with a dusting of snow or some seriously vibrant winter sunsets. Blackberry Trail allows you to explore the natural beauty of the hills with delightful peek-a-boo glimpses of Mount Rushmore. The hiking trails, like Notch Trail, in the Badlands are a great way to soak up more of this park beyond the visitor center. 

Winter wildlife can also be spotted in both parks. In the Badlands you could stumble upon bison, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and more. Mountain 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

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 - depending on weather. 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

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. You can view a map of the trails, discover trail conditions, and 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.

Wind cave park ranger on a guided tour with flashlight pointing at cave formation

Caving in the winter! Many don’t realize the impressive underground landscapes of our area cave systems. Jewel Cave is the fifth longest cave in the world and Wind Cave is the seventh longest. Caves stay at a constant temperature all year-round regardless of what weather is like on the surface. For Wind Cave that’s a nice 54 degrees Fahrenheit, and Jewel Cave sits at 49 degrees Fahrenheit. Both parks reduce the number of guided tours they offer in the off-season so be sure to check ahead before arriving at 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 want any expert advice on exploration. As always, if you encounter wildlife please be respectful and maintain a safe distance of at least a 100 yards.