A First-Timer's Winter Experience in the Black Hills & Badlands | Black Hills Travel Blog

A First-Timer's Winter Experience in the Black Hills & Badlands

  • Brayden Hall
    Brayden Hall
By : 
Black Hills and Badlands

Oh, South Dakota. You are a hidden gem that’s just waiting to explode. When the chance came to make my first trip to South Dakota, I was instantly stoked. I turned to my girlfriend, Errin, and said, “Wanna come to South Dakota?”

“Yeah, sure!” she replied. “But…uh…what’s in South Dakota?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer. I’d heard there were epic adventures to be had in the state, and I knew about Mount Rushmore and the Badlands. Everything else was uncharted territory for me. I guess there was only one way to find an answer to her question.


Day 1 – Frozen waterfalls, hidden treasure, and BANDITS!

We started the day off with a quick bite to eat before meeting up with the lovely Stephanie Palmer from the South Dakota Department of Tourism. Steph introduced us to her friend and local adventurer Jesse Brown Nelson. We hit the road and soon found ourselves entering Spearfish Canyon. That’s where the fun began.

We bundled up, secured our gear, and began the hike to Community Caves. As we marveled at the absolutely unreal cave formations, we learned how bandits once used them as hideouts back in the day. Legend has it that the bandit known as Lame Johnny still has treasure hidden somewhere in the Black Hills to this day.

Errin explores the Community Caves – Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota

After we finished exploring Community Caves, we made our way to the next cave in Spearfish Canyon. We scaled high above the highway along the hillside and stumbled into Baker Cave. It had a waterfall frozen over the mouth of the cave! The frozen waterfall gave the cave an otherworldly feel. I have honestly never seen anything like it.

The frozen waterfall made the inside of the cave light up with the most mesmerizing blue hue I’d ever seen – Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota

As we scampered out of Baker Cave and started making our way back down to the car, we all agreed it would be faster to just slide down the hill. My awesome idea to film the descent resulted in me spending 15 minutes looking for a lost phone. (I eventually found it in a snow bank.)

The last stop in Spearfish Canyon was majestic Spearfish Falls. Unlike the last waterfall we’d seen, this one was only partially frozen, meaning that the light rays beamed through the mist and absolutely blew my mind.

Magical sunrays burst through the mist of the partially frozen waterfall – Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota

We left after a very successful day in Spearfish Canyon. It was only my first day ever in South Dakota and I’d already seen things like nothing I’ve ever encountered in any of my past adventures. We ripped it over to catch the sunset at our last stop of the day: Bear Butte.

The South Dakota countryside is home to some absolutely magical sunsets – Bear Butte, South Dakota


Day 2 – Mount Rushmore, a South Dakota traffic jam, and the tallest peak east of the Rocky Mountains

Given how unreal our first day was in South Dakota, I woke up thinking that it might be impossible to top. That’s because I had no idea how the events of our second day would pan out.

We began with a classic: watching the sun rise over the incredible Mount Rushmore. I’d seen thousands of photos of this place before, but I quickly realized that this place was something that had to be experienced in person to be fully appreciated.

Watching a Mount Rushmore sunrise means you’ll see the stone turn different colors – Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

After starting the day at the magnificent Mount Rushmore, we made our way to Wind Cave National Park. We spent a few hours searching the park for bison. Along the way, we made friends with some antelope and—my personal favorite—the prairie dogs.

After adventuring through the beautiful Wind Cave National Park for about an hour, we finally found some bison. Not just a couple. A massive herd. We stopped the car and I began photographing them with my telephoto lens. It turned out that I didn’t really need it because the bison started coming up to the car! I started snapping pictures like a maniac, pumped that the massive animals were so close while we were safely inside the vehicle. Before I realized what was happening, we were surrounded by approximately 50 bison that were all excited to lick every inch of salt off of the vehicle. It was our first experience with a “South Dakota traffic jam,” and it was awesome.

We definitely made friends with the locals – Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

After our amazing bison encounter, we scooted off, intent on ending the day with a sunset hike. We put our hiking boots on and began the ascent up Black Elk Peak, the tallest point east of the Rockies and west of the French Pyrenees Mountains. Once we hit the peak, we had the whole place to ourselves. The sunset and views were absolutely amazing.

The views were never-ending on the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains – Black Elk Peak, South Dakota


Day 3 – High-speed snowmobiling adventures and Badlands National Park

We kicked our day into high gear in Deadwood by hopping onto some snowmobiles and ripping around the South Dakota countryside. We rode through some powder, saw some wildlife, and even found a couple of abandoned cabins.

The SoDak countryside is a winter sports paradise – Deadwood, South Dakota

After the snowmobiling adventure, we bolted out to one of my favorite spots of the entire trip: Badlands National Park. The geological formations of this place completely blew my mind! We were only there for a couple of hours, but I could have spent days exploring this park. Around every bend in Badlands NP there are new views and trails just waiting to be explored…but it would definitely take more than one day to do so!

Behold an incredible sunset from the Pinnacles Overlook – Badlands National Park, South Dakota


Day 4 – An unforgettable sunrise in Badlands National Park

It was our last day in South Dakota, and we wanted to end it with a bang. We caught back up with our new friend and local adventure photographer Jesse Brown Nelson and his awesome adventure pup, Marley. Together, Jesse and Marley brought us to one of their favorite sunrise spots in Badlands National Park.

When we arrived, my mind was blown all over again! The whole sky slowly lit up, bringing out all of the details in the incredible Badlands landscape. The colors caused by the sunrise were so bright and vivid. It was truly one of the greatest sunrises I have ever witnessed.

Four days earlier, I hadn’t had a clue what to expect from South Dakota. Now, I didn’t want to leave. South Dakota is truly a hidden outdoor adventure paradise that will certainly explode in popularity as word of its beauty spreads. Visiting in the winter added an otherworldly feel to the drastic and unique landscapes. I’m already craving another adventure to this beautiful state. So is Errin.

I guess we answered her question.

Blog content and images provided by:
Brayden Hall
Instagram: @braybraywoowoo

About the Author

Black Hills & Badlands Tourism Association is a private, nonprofit corporation dedicated to promoting the region as an all-season travel destination. It is a destination marketing organization (DMO), with a focus on programs that members can be both proud of and confident in.