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South Dakota Travel Guide

10 Reasons Winter Is the Best Time to Visit Rapid City, South Dakota (Yes, We’re Serious)

The chilly months bring a certain magic to this South Dakota city.

South Dakotans are used to talking about the weather. Friends, family, and strangers to the state often begin conversations with, “How do you survive there?” They’re referring to what they assume are treacherous, bitterly cold winters. It’s true that walking around the state’s western hub of Rapid City during the winter can occasionally involve cursing gusty days below zero. However, it’s also true that winter brings many benefits to the region. In fact, South Dakotans not only survive, but thrive in the winter. Travelers willing to make the trek to Rapid City during these chilly months will be richly rewarded with local culture brimming with grit and grace. Layer up, don’t forget your winter hat, and you’ll be ready for a unique, adventurous trip through an iconic western community. Still not convinced? Here are 10 reasons winter is actually the best time to visit Rapid City.

1 OF 10

Find Lower Rates at the Historic Alex Johnson Hotel

WHERE: Rapid City, South Dakota

First imagined in 1927 by Alex Carlton Johnson, Vice President of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, and opened for business by 1928, the historic Alex Johnson Hotel in downtown Rapid City is an architectural tribute to both the region’s Native American tribes and the influence of German immigration to the area. The stunning 143-room building is on the National Register of Historic Places and offers beautiful views of the downtown area and surrounding Black Hills.

Visiting this hotel in the winter is an opportunity to splurge on a suite without needing to actually splurge. Winter rates can run around $100 less per night than booking during the summer. Since it’s cold out, there’s also less guilt in spending the bulk of your trip cozied up in the hotel. Without even stepping out onto the snowy streets, you can enjoy a cocktail at the Alex Johnson Hotel’s Vertex Sky Bar, snag a chocolate from the lobby’s Chubby Chipmunk Hand-Dipped Chocolates stand, or grab a “K2 meter” (ghost detector) from the front desk to explore the hotel’s reported paranormal activity.

INSIDER TIPThe Presidential Suite has hosted six U.S. presidents, including Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, making it great for history buffs. However, the Bridal Suite is the one that comes with a luxurious jetted tub!


2 OF 10

Go Ice Skating in Downtown Rapid City

WHERE: Rapid City, South Dakota

From late November through February, Main Street Square in downtown Rapid City transforms into a family-friendly ice skating rink. Participants can bring their own skates, or rent a pair for just $3. The ice skating rink also hosts special events throughout the season, such as yoga on the ice, a “Lights on the Ice” skating dance party, and “Skates and a Movie” nights.

INSIDER TIPBring a pair of thick, knee-high socks to wear while skating to increase your comfort and be able to stay on the ice longer.


3 OF 10

Say “Hi!” to 44 Bundled-Up Presidents

WHERE: Rapid City, South Dakota

Between Fourth Street and Ninth Street along Main Street and St. Joseph Street in downtown Rapid City, life-sized bronze statues of each U.S. president greet visitors on the street corners. Beginning in mid-November during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week and lasting through mid-March, the city invites community members to participate in a special clothing drive. They may dress the presidents up in hats, scarves, coats, and other warm clothing items. Community members in need, including those experiencing homelessness, are then encouraged to take the items to help them keep warm during South Dakota’s chilly months.

INSIDER TIPPresident Barack Obama is the most recent addition to the City of Presidents, dedicated in July 2019. Visitors can find him (along with his daughter Sasha!) on the corner of Fourth Street and St. Joseph Street.


4 OF 10

View the Snow-Dusted Black Hills

WHERE: Rapid City, South Dakota

The Black Hills, known as the “island in the prairie” due to their dark green, pine-clad granite peaks among a sea of grasslands, offer boundless natural beauty. Rapid City sits on the eastern edge of Black Hills National Forest, providing visitors with scenic views of the range. While these mountains are gorgeous any time of the year, they are particularly magical with a dusting of snow. For photographers looking to capture the uniqueness of these craggy formations, winter is the perfect time to visit and soak in the scenery.

INSIDER TIPFor the best view of the surrounding Black Hills (as well as Badlands National Park to the east on a clear day!) head to the Dinosaur Park located atop the city’s Hogback Ridge.


5 OF 10

Visit Bison in the Nearby Parks

WHERE: Custer, South Dakota

A visit to Rapid City is never complete without a day trip out to one of the nearby national or state parks to catch a glimpse of the region’s majestic bison herds. Custer State Park’s 18-mile Wildlife Loop is a perfect option for viewing the large mammals. Bison are particularly photogenic during the winter months, as their coats are thick and they stand out on the white, snow-covered prairies. It can also be easier to spot the bison during the winter because they like the salt left behind by snowplow trucks, therefore gravitating toward the roads.

INSIDER TIPIn the winter, bison may even walk right up to your car to lick salt off your tires and the car itself. It’s a wild experience! Remember, though, that you should remain in your vehicle if this happens. If out of your vehicle, maintain a distance of at least 25 yards from any bison.


6 OF 10

Attend the Festival of Lights Parade

WHERE: Rapid City, South Dakota

For over 20 years, Rapid City has rung in the holiday season with an event that lights up the dark winter night and brings over 30,000 spectators into town. Buildings and trees throughout downtown Rapid City are adorned with twinkling lights and other festive decorations, but the main event involves a parade of floats through the city center. During the Festival of Lights Parade, each float glows with thousands of creatively strung twinkle lights. After the parade, families can stick around for ice skating and hot cocoa.

INSIDER TIPIf crowds aren’t your thing, but you still want to enjoy a good Rapid City light show, head over to Storybook Island for its Christmas Nights of Light where you can walk the park’s extravagantly decorated grounds.


7 OF 10

Meet Some Actual Locals

The Black Hills region of South Dakota relies heavily on tourism. During the summer months, Rapid City is bustling with visitors from around the world. During the winter months, some shops close down, but those that stay open are filled with locals who are often ready to dish the secrets of the region to travelers willing to brave the cold to experience it. If you want to experience Rapid City as the locals do, a winter trip will give you a good flavor of this warm community within the cold climate.

INSIDER TIPIf you’re looking to strike up some good conversation with locals, grab your morning coffee at Harriet & Oak and your evening brew at Independent Ale House.


8 OF 10

Warm up With Some of the Country’s Best Nepalese and Indian Food

WHERE: Rapid City, South Dakota

Those who haven’t traveled to South Dakota may think of it as a land of meat and potatoes. In reality, it holds some of the country’s tastiest Nepalese and Indian food. Everest Cuisine is a local favorite that’s bustling in the summer, and stays open throughout the winter. It offers a quiet retreat to warm up with some soul-nourishing curry and hot masala chai. Not sure what to eat? Try the lamb curry, mushroom mutter, and an order of garlic basil naan.

INSIDER TIPIf you’re looking to stay a little closer to downtown, Kathmandu Bistro will not disappoint and is also open year-round.


9 OF 10

Take a Train Ride With Some Spiked Hot Cocoa

WHERE: Hill City, South Dakota

The Black Hills Central Railroad 1880 Train is the oldest continuously operating tour railroad in the nation and is a scenic 30-minute drive from downtown Rapid City. During the winter, the 1880 Train offers its Holiday Express tour, a one-hour, roundtrip ride to the North Pole. This cozy winter ride through the Black Hills provides passengers with hot cocoa, sugar cookies, a special story, and a visit from Santa Claus once it reaches the North Pole. For passengers aged 21 or older, the train also offers a few Holiday Express Spiked events throughout the season. This option provides everything that the Holiday Express ride does, plus a keepsake mug filled with spiked hot cocoa. It’s a fun, local experience to enjoy before heading back into Rapid City for dinner.

INSIDER TIPThe Holiday Express Spiked tour is a popular event that only runs a few times throughout the season. It sells out fast, so make sure to buy your tickets well in advance on the 1880 Train website.


10 OF 10

Get the Summer Experience Without the Crowds

WHERE: Rapid City, South Dakota

Rapid City is the best location to use as a basecamp for exploring the surrounding Black Hills and Badlands. During the typical summer travel months, many of the region’s most popular destinations experience heavy traffic. You may have to navigate crowds at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, wait in a long line for dinner at the historic Alpine Inn, or circle the blocks looking for parking in Deadwood. However, visiting in the winter will give you the summer experience without the crowds. All of the must-see spots are still around, and you may even be able to have a few just to yourself. Visiting in the winter is great for those who want to be able to walk into a restaurant and be seated right away, or hike a trail and be able to find some solitude.

INSIDER TIPWhile many places stay open throughout the winter, they may have shorter hours. To avoid making long drives only to find places closed, make sure to give the locations you want to visit a call and plan to get an early start to your day.


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