This post was produced in partnership with Travel South Dakota.Our recent trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota only lasted a few days but we saw two seasons, snow, rain, abundant sunshine, and the most spectacular views and experiences we could have hoped for.
We happened to fly in just following a freak snowstorm, but that doesn’t stop anyone in South Dakota from getting outdoors and into the parks, so it wasn’t going to stop us either.
After breakfast and checking into the beautiful, historic Hotel Alex Johnson in downtown Rapid City, it was time to explore. Given the weather, a lot of that exploring included shopping, and we won’t complain about that! Prairie Edge Trading Co. and Gallery in downtown Rapid City offered a view into what makes South Dakota so special.
The top story was a gallery of primarily Native American paintings for sale. It was beautiful to walk through, and next to each artist’s work is a brief bio, which I always find more endearing.
The lower half of the store had multiple rooms, some dedicated to Native American artifacts, herbs, quilts and handmade jewelry. You can also purchase a wooden frog that “croaks” when you scrape a wooden rod down its ridged back.
Some more shopping coupled with amazing food (scallops and bread pudding) and a walking tour of the bronze statues of presidents that are on every street corner closed off the first full day.
Day two kicked off with a drive to Mount Rushmore. And while, yes, it had snowed, the roads were fine and the snow-capped president heads were stunning. While the snow made it so the trails were mostly closed, we were able to check out the informative and interactive museum inside the visitor center. It’s really mind-boggling to imagine and see how one man, with lots of workers, was able to hand-craft this memorial.
As the day went on, the weather started to clear, and the sun began to poke out just in time for the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park. Being from a city, I was doubtful I’d see much wildlife — thinking it must be too cold for them to be roaming or maybe it’s an only-if-you-get-lucky thing. That was wrong. First I saw a turkey crossing the road, but then the buffalo!
There were so many buffalo, it really almost moved you to tears because they are gorgeous creatures. And what’s better than buffalo? Baby buffalo! These furry little guys were in that precious baby-animal stage where they look like they’re standing on stilts and still learning how to walk. We saw one doing what looked like play with its mom, and others were being led to water by mama buffalo.
We were immediately glad that we’d visited in the spring to get to see these little guys. As we were driving through Custer State Park, you could see ahead where cars would start to slow and stop to take photos of wildlife or to let it pass in front of them.
While it can be so tempting to get out of your car and approach a buffalo, DON’T! They’re wild animals that can be dangerous doing their thing. Just photograph them from your car and let them continue to walk and graze in peace.
It had started to warm up by the time we finished the Wildlife Loop, and that made for a perfect time to stretch the legs and try to find a little hike. We stopped off at the trailhead for Rankin Ridge Trail, which leads to a fire lookout tower. We maybe hiked a half-mile before the snow got too deep to navigate well but, man, was it gorgeous. While walking this trail, you could hear chipmunk squeaks as they popped their heads in and out of their holes. Now they are some cute little things!
Since it was starting to feel like spring, that offered a perfect excuse to sit outside after the outings of the day, sip a drink on Hotel Alex Johnson’s amazing rooftop bar, and prepare for the next day of adventure.
Day two was sunny and glorious, albeit quite windy. Driving to the Badlands was incredible. From downtown Rapid City, it’s about an hour drive, but the wide open, bright blue skies make it seem like a quicker trip.
First was a helicopter ride, which was so beyond amazing that words don’t do it justice. There is nothing like seeing the beauty of nature from a bird's-eye view, and we were lucky to have that opportunity. If you can ever do it, we highly recommend it with Black Hills Aerial Adventures.
Had it been warmer out, we imagine the helicopter could’ve been quite warm inside, but with the weather a perfect springtime temp, it was a very pleasant experience. Then we headed into Badlands National Park, and wow! The deep canyons and spires reaching into the sky were breathtaking. There’s no better word for it. Beauty like that has to be experienced at least once in a lifetime, and springtime is the perfect time to do it because it isn’t too hot and you can take all that beauty in without being too cold or sweating bullets.
This kind of weather also makes for fantastic hiking conditions, and there are so many trailheads to explore at Badlands National Park, including a wide range of strenuous and easy hikes for all adventure types.
While we didn’t see any mountain goats hopping around, we hear those sightings are fairly frequent, so that’s on the to-do list next time around. What we did see next was pretty amazing, though — a bighorn sheep and its baby! Springtime really is magical here.
Our final outdoor experience may have been our favorite — horseback riding with Hurley Butte Horseback on the outskirts of the Badlands. Our guide, Casie, made everything so easy and comfortable and really treated us like a friend. And then that view, wow. Again, this springtime weather made for a perfect ride — not too hot, the horse was comfortable and not swatting flies the whole time, but not too chilly either.
Between (generally) moderate temperatures, plenty of sunshine and daylight time, beautifully blue skies and baby animals, it’s clear we picked the right time to visit this gorgeous part of the country.