The magic of off-season traveling! Imagine visiting a national park to find that you are the only one there. Is it possible? It can be. It was for me. Driving toward the Mt Rushmore National Memorial in unmarked snow covered roads, leading to a large parking lot of unlimited spaces, walking in serenity toward the entrance.
On this off-season tour of the Badlands to Black Hills, we landed in Rapid City (RAP), South Dakota on December 26th with a temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit. We came prepared in our parkas, boots, hats and gloves – but wow – was it cold!
We stayed in Rapid City, which provided a central location between the Black Hills, with Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse and Custer State Park to the south and to the east the Badlands. Rapid City has a charming downtown. The local families were ice-skating in the central rink, while the few tourists shopped the trinket stores.
As it neared 7pm and we had nothing to do. We decided to drive 45 minutes to Mt Rushmore – which is open everyday through 9pm, except for December 25th. There was not a car insight as we drove up the curvy mountain road to the Memorial park. The park was dusted with fresh snow as we made tracks leading up to the Presidential monument, which sparkled under the full moon and starry night.
It was a magical evening, alone in the park that receives over 3 million visitors a year.
Back in Rapid City, we stayed at the Grand Gateway Hotel for $49 a night. It was clean and warm. Most importantly we slept really well. One thing to consider is when you travel off-season in a tourist-rich area, many of the national-brand hotels operate in the high-season. It took us a while to find and settle on the Grand Gateway Hotel for our stay, and we were very happy with our decision.
Both nights, we dined at The Dakotah Steakhouse, which catered to the local flavors and decor of South Dakota.
EXPLORING THE BLACK HILLS
The inspiration for the trip was to see the Buffalo roaming in Custer State Park. Did you know that in the US, there are no Buffalo? I didn’t. Across the 71,000 acres of Custer State Park are a herd of 1,500 free-roaming Bison. That’s right, Bison! While Bison and Buffalo are both from the Bovine family (Cows), the Buffalo roam Asia and Africa, while the Bison roam the United States.
Each September, Custer State Park has an annual bison roundup which attracts around 10,000 visitors to the area.
As you drive to Custer State Park to see the bison, the scenic road is called Needles Highway. Similar to horses who adore their salt licks, the bison too enjoy a bit of salt. As you are driving through the park and slow to view the bison, it will be only a matter of minutes before the bison approach your vehicle to lick the street salt from your car! In the summer, you would never have such an intimate experience – which is another reason to consider touring the Black Hills of South Dakota in the winter.
But, we wanted more than a drive through the park to see the bison. We wanted to see them in their habitat as they roamed the range. At 10 degrees Fahrenheit, we bundled up in blankets to take a open-air jeep safari tour!! It was a crazy thing to do in December, but worth the loads of laughing as we viewed the bison and the grass plains in the freezing open-aired jeep.
After the Bison tour, we were more than freezing! From here, we drove further south to Hot Springs, South Dakota. We imagined a town sprinkled with hot springs to pick from for a de-frost! It wasn’t quite like that, but we came upon Evans Plunge pool. For a few bucks entrance fee, we enjoyed a few hours in an 87 degree in-door hot spring swimming pool. The experience was amazing – Hot Springs has a population of only a few thousand people, of which about one-third of them were, like us, trying to warm up! The South Dakotan people are so friendly and we very much enjoyed their company as we swam and relaxed in the community hot spring pool.
From Hot Springs, we drove back to the Black Hills to view Mt Rushmore in the daytime – which did garner a few dozen tourists this time!
Lastly for the day trip, we visited Crazy Horse Memorial, which contrasts from Mt Rushmore as a solely private venture by a family who was inspired to protect and preserve the North American culture, tradition and living heritage.
When completed, the Crazy Horse mountain carving will be the world’s largest sculpture at 563 feet high, and 641 feet long.
EXPLORING THE BADLANDS, SOUTH DAKOTA
On our second full-day in South Dakota, we drove west to the Badlands National Park. The Badlands National Park, over 240,000 acres of gothic pinnacles, cones and rock spires, is a paleontogical home to a unique bed of fossil evidence dating back 35 million years.
Take a few hours to slither through the scenic wildlife driving tour loop.
Copyright: naughtynut / 123RF Stock Photo
In late December, the roads were icy and slick, so we took it very slow as we drove the loop and visited the tourist center halfway through the park. Along the way we saw many animals grazing and watching us as we were watching them. We say bighorn sheep, bison, prairie dogs, a porcupine and deer. You may see,
- badger, bighorn sheep, bison, black-billed magpie, black-footed ferret, black-tailed prairie dog, bobcat, coyote, elk, mule deer, pronghorn, prairie rattlesnake, porcupine, swift fox, white-tailed deer
Either on your way to The Badlands or on the way back, you must stop at Wall Drug. You will see countless signs of this must-see tourist trip! It’s good to stretch your legs and grab a cup of joe while meandering through the souvenir shops.
There are many more things to do and see near to Rapid City that if you have more time to explore, then check out these resources on cave and fossil activities as well as learning about the rich history of this beautiful piece of country.
RESOURCES FOR YOUR BADLANDS TO BLACK HILLS WINTER ADVENTURE
See for yourself the diversity of things to do in South Dakota.
To plan your activities and learn more about the Black Hills and The Badlands, check out this tourist center at blackhillsbadlands.com
Everything you need in one spot if you are planning a vacation through South Dakota at http://blog.travelsd.com/
Learn about The Badlands Park, view the map and check out the activity calendar at https://www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm
Want to know the history of what is know known as Wall Drug? Check out this site, where you can even shop online! http://www.walldrug.com/