The Midwest’s Best Winter Escape Isn’t Where You Think It Is

Have the stunning Black Hills all to yourself.

black hills
The Black Hills is sometimes a misnomer. | Photo courtesy of Travel South Dakota
The Black Hills is sometimes a misnomer. | Photo courtesy of Travel South Dakota

“They say there’s about a thousand people living in Hill City,” the barista at the Lynx Den Coffee Shop said as he gazed out the window at an empty, snowy street. “But I ain’t seen any of them. Not lately, anyway.”

It was seemingly a setup for a horror movie. A tiny, empty coffee shop set on a frozen, abandoned street in a town designed for summer travelers visiting Mt. Rushmore, manned by a guy who was just a little too eager to chat me up, right next to a place that advertised “chainsaw art.” At best, I was going to end up running down an icy street from a maniac trying to make “art” out of me.

But what I initially mistook for eeriness, I later learned is just the beautifully silent calm that comes over South Dakota during the winter, when eager road trippers, bikers, and tourists go into hibernation. The entire state takes on a snowy, pastoral quality in the winter, and while there is a certain beauty to the prairies further east, no place captures the spirit of South Dakota winter quite like the Black Hills.

The scenery that makes this state such a gem in the summer gets a snowy layer of makeup in the winter, turning the Black Hills a stunning white and transforming the glimmering lakes of western South Dakota into iridescent frozen playgrounds. The mountains, monuments, and canyons that attract thousands in the warmer months are left for you to enjoy solo. And rather than a horror movie, South Dakota suddenly feels like the sweeping opening of an epic western set on a cold, vast landscape where anything can happen.

deadwood
Deadwood gets way less rowdy in the winter. | Photo courtesy of Travel South Dakota

Warm up in one of South Dakota’s welcoming big cities

The Black Hills are dotted with cool small towns—Sturgis, Belle Fourche, Custer, and Keystone are true gems—but Rapid City is its veritable metropolis: and it has a regional airport and a Best Buy to prove it. After a day immersing yourself in a Daktoan winter, it feels like a lit-up house on a cold winter night. 

The historic streets of Rapid City are filled with friendly restaurants and breweries, where people who’ve spent the day doing much of the cold-weather adventuring you just read about strip off their winter coats and dive headlong into a piping-hot plate of chislic, South Dakota’s favorite skewered meat.

About 50 minutes through the hills you’ll roll into the Old West world of Deadwood (yes, that Deadwood), which feels a little more authentic in the winter since you’ll get a better idea of the brutal conditions the miners faced when they flocked here over 120 years ago. With that in mind, the normally rowdy saloons and casinos make a welcome respite from the cold. You won’t have summertime’s gunfight reenactments or live outdoor music, but you won’t care strolling the serenely snow-covered streets with nobody but the supposed ghosts of the Wild West heyday around.

spearfish canyon
Screw motorcycles: Spearfish Canyon is all about snowmobiles. | Photo courtesy of Travel South Dakota

Drive a snowmobile through towering canyons

From Deadwood, it’s about 20 minutes through stunning scenery to Spearfish, a seemingly small college town that’s home to some of the most expensive real estate in the state. That money has brought big city amenities like breweries (CrowPeak is never a bad idea) and top tier restaurants like Steerfish Steak & Smoke and Farmhouse Bistro. Why all this in the seeming middle of nowhere? It’s all about proximity to Spearfish Canyon.

With stunning canyon walls cascading down into tree-filled valleys, Spearfish Canyon is one of those places where a new stop-the-car view lies at literally every turn. The ATV trails that take you into the thick of the beauty during the summertime work just as well for snowmobiles in winter. You can rent one at the Spearfish Canyon Lodge and take it past Roughlock Falls into the vast wilderness of the Black Hills. 

Some places require things like “guides” and “training.” But this is South Dakota, friend. Here, personal responsibility is gospel, and what you do on your rented snowmobile is between you, the canyon, and your insurance company: You’ll speed past silver rocks and green trees blanketed in snow and vast, open prairies that glow white. Then ascend the hills and cross the border into Wyoming, where you can stop at the Cement Ridge Lookout for the best view of this spectacular region.

waterfall
Even the water here seems magical. | Photo courtesy of Travel South Dakota

Hike through ice waterfalls

Even if you’re not a daredevil, the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway is a stunner. You’ll find no shortage of canyon hikes and frozen waterfalls here, but perhaps the most unique is Eleventh Hour Gulch. There are no signs for this small side canyon off the main road, and you’ll need to find the small pullout just past the parking lot for the Devil’s Bathtub to park your car. Once you venture inside, you’ll hike through a canyon that looks like it was just touched by a pissed-off Princess Elsa. The waterfalls lining the narrow gulch look frozen in time, creating a crystalline wonderland. The hike isn’t too difficult with hiking boots on and shouldn’t take you much longer than half an hour round trip.

Terry Peak Ski Area
The closest you’ll get to a personal ski resort. | Terry Peak Ski Area

Hit the slopes all alone

Though nobody’s confusing South Dakota with Aspen quite yet, the Black Hills do boast one full-service ski resort at Terry Peak, about 25 minutes outside of Deadwood. You won’t find any murderous backcountry skiing here, so while you’ll get a rush—slopes run from beginner to black diamond—nothing is going to terrify you. Plus, since people don’t generally think of South Dakota as a ski destination, you won’t find anything resembling a crowd on the mountain: you’ll be first in line for the chairlift when you hit the bottom.

Just outside Terry Peak is the town of Lead, home to one of only two neutrino reactors in the world (South Dakota: occasionally unnerving, but always cool!), as well as Lewie’s Saloon. It’s an old, wood-covered outpost where you can end your day sipping on local beers and stuffing yourself with the Black Hills’ best burger. The crowd is an intriguing mix of hardy South Dakotans and nuclear scientists, so whatever conversation you strike up at the bar, you’re bound to learn something.

rushmore in the snow
Rushmore, minus the mobs. | Photo courtesy of Travel South Dakota

Have South Dakota’s most famous sites to yourself

Regardless of how you feel about Mt. Rushmore (and there are a lot of feelings about Mt. Rushmore), it’s kind of a must if you’re in South Dakota. And the best time to see it is during the winter, when the usual throngs of tour buses and school groups don’t dare venture out. I’ve gone twice during the winter now, and both times I was literally the only person in the park. There is something very personal about spending quality time alone with four enormous, famous stone heads. 

Ditto goes for all the other monuments that people flock to see in the Black Hills in the summer. The never-ending project that is the Crazy Horse Memorial is a solid place to learn about the region’s Lakota culture, and with nobody else at the monument the staff will have plenty of time to educate you. In nearby Custer State Park—weather permitting—you can cruise the narrow passages of the Needles Highway, without having to wait for 10 RVs to clear the road for your snow-filled photo-op at frozen Sylvan Lake. 

And if you’re feeling fisky, you can head an hour east to Badlands National Park about an hour east, whose Mars-like terrain is extra trippy dusted with snow and absent of bikers. 

From deep blue to bright white. | Photo courtesy of Travel South Dakota

Hang out on a frozen lake

The Black Hills are dotted with deep-blue lakes that turn bright white in the winter and draw skiers, ice-skaters, and hockey players. But they’re also a place to really relish in the silence, preferably in a warm shanty. 

About 20 minutes from Hill City, you’ll drive past the Deerfield Reservoir, one of many frozen-over bodies of water locals use to ice fish in the winter. To those from sunnier climates, drilling a hole in the snow and sitting next to it with a fishing pole for hours on end may sound torturous. And yes, a good number of ice fishers just use the sport as an excuse to get out of the house and drink like Homer Simpson. But there’s more to it than that. 

Setting up on a frozen lake where the sound is absorbed by the snow and all you hear is rustling trees is instantly calming (so long as the wind isn’t whipping too hard). The silence is occasionally broken by a fish biting your hook, at which point you’ll reel it up, throw him back, and begin the cycle again. You’ll be stunned how quickly a few hours can pass when you’re this immersed in winter, and you may feel the most disconnected you have in months. 

Later, on your way back to Hill City, stop at one of the handful of breweries along Highway 385 like Sick-n-Twisted Brewery or Miner Brewing—where a lonely bartender will happily pour you a pint to enjoy by the fire—or at the equally cozy Prairie Berry winery. South Dakota is, after all, a land of duality. 

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.