When a lot of people think of winter destinations in the U.S., South Dakota may not be the first place to come to mind. That’s usually reserved for ski slope Meccas like Colorado and Vermont, while South Dakota gets much of its fame from Mount Rushmore. But the nature-packed Great Plains state, situated where the Midwest transforms into the West, contains more multifaceted winter activities than just about anywhere in North America.
In the western, hillier part of the state, Rapid City is a reliable hub for sights and activities. While the city is undoubtedly the urban hub for this portion of South Dakota, it’s also vastly untouched by city development, leaving plenty of space for outdoor adventures. In the winter, that means snowshoeing and cross-country skiing aplenty. Rapid City is home to the Skyline Wilderness Area, a sprawling swath of roughly 150 acres along Skyline Drive. With mile after mile of forestal trails to traverse, including 18 miles in Hanson-Larsen Memorial Park, it’s a popular destination for leisurely snowy excursions with family and friends.
Elsewhere in Rapid City, downtown’s Main Street Square is a crown jewel that’s home to an outdoor ice skating rink larger than the one at Rockefeller Center. The recently developed public space, home to arts and cultural events year round, is emblematic of downtown’s progressive development and its goal to engage locals and visitors alike in a shared public setting. This time of year, that means skates. Rentals are available for a small fee, and the rink even occasionally projects family-friendly movies on the Main Street Square big screen. There are fire pits for those who’d prefer not to multi-task.
Throughout the Black Hills National Forest, a short drive outside Rapid City, a favorite wintertime pastime is fat biking. It’s a type of off-road bicycling that’s got huge thick tires designed for low ground pressure and riding on any kind of unstable terrain, including snow. There are 84 designated fat biking trails throughout the Black Hills, weaving through snow-draped trees and rolling mountains to provide some of the prettiest seasonal scenery anywhere. For enthusiasts, the region also offers some competitive winter races, like the 30-mile 28 Below Fat Bike Race on March 17, 2017, through Spearfish Canyon.
Hiking isn’t the most commonplace activity during winter months, but Harney Peak is one trail that’s especially endearing for a snowy trek. The three and a half-mile trail is easily doable on a wintry day if you dress warm, winding through various terrains from panoramic overlooks to canyons. Since much fewer people hike during the winter, the solitude is refreshing and only adds to the natural beauty. At 7,242-feet in height, making it the tallest peak in the Black Hills, you can rest assured the views will be worth it.
Not all winter activities in South Dakota take place outside. Some can be found deep underground. This time of year is the best time for caving or spelunking in the state’s famous caves. Part of that is due to the caves’ stable temperature. While it may get freezing outside, the temperature in caves is the same year round, which for winter feels quite warm at around 54 F and 11 C. Wind Cave National Park, near Custer State Park, is a prime destination for such excursions. Go on a tour of the one of the largest caves in the world to marvel at the unique formation called boxwork. This highly unusual geological patchwork is unlike most anything else on the planet, almost like a grid that’s been naturally formed over millions of years.
On the eastern side of the state, just outside South Dakota’s largest city, Sioux Falls, is the ultimate family destination. Great Bear Recreation Park features 200-plus acres of outdoor activities. Centered around the Ski Valley, guests of any age can enjoy skiing, snow tubing, snowshoeing and snowboarding.
For snowmobile enthusiasts, South Dakota is heaven. The state boasts more than 1,500 miles of trails, making it one of the most expansive destinations for snowmobiling in the entire country.