When traveling to a new part of the country for the first time, I want the scoop on two things: The best places to eat and where to catch a good sunrise. Mount Rushmore usually comes to mind when people think of places to visit in South Dakota, but the western part of the state boasts both an impressive food scene and all kinds of wild landscapes. While the temps are a bit chilly in January, there was so much warmth in each town I visited, the locals made me feel right at home. I’ll definitely be back this summer, and I’ll be on the lookout for some of the best car camping sites around…
1. Get yourself to Rapid City
The main airport is here, as are all kinds of breweries, bars, restaurants, hotels and shops. The population has grown quite a bit over the last few years, and it’s easy to see why. It has everything you could possibly need, but minus the big city traffic and prices. (Rapid City is a little over an hour from Badlands National Park, 30 minutes from Custer State Park, and 45 minutes from Deadwood, Lead and Spearfish, making it the perfect place to stay while exploring the western region of the state.)
After checking in to Hotel Alex Johnson (fun fact: it’s haunted!), we walked three blocks down the street to Murphy’s to try their world famous meatloaf. It’s wrapped in bacon and served with garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus, but the portion is massive, so it’s best to split this with a friend and order an app to start. After stuffing our faces, we headed back to the hotel and grabbed a drink at the Vertex Sky Bar, which offers a view of twinkling city lights and a wide range of cocktails.
As far as breweries, Firehouse Brewing Co and Hay Camp have great vibes, and if you’re craving the best pizza in town, you absolutely must visit Independent Ale House. I tried the mashed potato pizza and Nicole ordered Bob's Popper, and not much was left over when we were done. If you’re looking for a fancy dinner out, head over the Tally’s Silver Spoon for some incredible gourmet cuisine, like fried rabbit ravioli or buttered scallops. If you can’t decide, the chef will create a tasting menu for you as well.
2. Explore the Badlands
The rock formations in Badlands National Park are nothing short of incredible, and they are especially stunning at sunrise. We stopped at the Big Badlands Overlook, and we also took a walk down the Window and Notch trails, which are a few minutes down the road on the Badlands Loops State Scenic Byway. After driving around the park, we were hungry and eager to try Wall Drug's famous doughnuts, and this was easily one of the best ones I've ever had. They're not covered in sprinkles and there are only three flavors, but trust me -- these are so good I want a dozen mailed to me. (Also, the signs on the highway advertising the five cent coffee at Wall Drug are not a joke, either.)
3. Hit the trails in Custer State Park
Whether it’s a scenic drive, a heart pumping hike or wildlife viewing, Custer State Park has it all. Despite the recent snow, the 6-mile trail to the top of Black Elk Peak was packed down and easy to navigate, and we only needed micro spikes and make it to the summit. The views of the spires were incredible from the top, and at 7,242 feet, Black Elk Peak is the state's highest point.
In the winter the Needles Highway is closed, but the wildlife loop is open, along with a number of other vistas, which offer stunning places to capture sunrise and sunset. If you're really set on getting into stretches of Highway 87 during the winter, you can park outside of the closed sections and snowshoe in, but that was a bit more effort than we wanted to put in on this particular trip.
4. Yup, you can ski here, too!
I went skiing for the first time last year, and while I love it, I’m still learning — and looking to get as many solid reps on green runs as I can. Due to my lack of experience, I’m always looking for easy slopes without crowds, and Terry Peak offered just that. Rentals were reasonably priced as well, and it’s a very short drive from the towns of Lead and Deadwood, if you're looking for lodging and services.
You can grab some grub on the mountain when you're done, but if you're seeking a satisfying burger and a brew, head back towards Lead and stop by Sled Haus. If you're staying in Deadwood, Legends lives up to the hype, with great steak and service.
As far as unique accommodations, I highly recommend booking a few nights at Sheep Hill Chalet, which might be one of the best cabin rentals in the area. It sleeps eight people, and from the fire pit to the hot tub (and laundry!) this pad has it all. The owners knocked it out of the park with funky decor, and watching the sun rise from the master bedroom was the perfect way to start the day.
5. The waterfalls are gorgeous all year round…
Spearfish Canyon is home to all kinds of incredible waterfalls and trails, and the mighty Spearfish Falls (pictured above) are just .25 miles from the parking lot at the Latchstring Inn and Restaurant. Spearfish Creek runs along Highway 14, and there are a ton of pullouts along the road if you aren't keen on putting in the miles. Before catching blue hour at the nearly frozen Spearfish Falls, we hiked up part of the Iron Creek trail, and we also stopped by Bridal Veil Falls, where we saw several ice climbers making their way up the frozen pillar of water.
Winter can present challenges with transportation and activities, but I found every spot on our itinerary to be accessible and safe, thanks to planning and the right gear. Always check the weather and road conditions, and when in doubt, opt out. I'll definitely be back to see these same spots in the summer -- and hopefully to find some new hidden gems in this beautiful state.
This project was produced in partnership with the South Dakota Department of Tourism.