(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2006)
I GUESS IT WAS INEVITABLE that gold would take control. Who am I to escape the force that has driven the destiny of Native Americans, soldiers, miners and big corporations in South Dakota's Black Hills for more than 130 years?
White gold (tourism-dependent locals' term for snow) fell this morning, leaving me no choice. The new powder drew me out to race up Little Spearfish Canyon on a black snowmobile. A numbing jet of cold wind pounds my throat through a gap in my jacket, but I push the Arctic Cat faster. I dart out of the pine forest into a pasture and squeeze the throttle until snow on either side blurs into a sparkling streak of crystals. The speedometer shows I’m hitting interstate speeds, but I don’t slow down until looming trees demand it. I realize it’s official: I’m caught up in a white gold rush.
Fresh snow in the Hills doesn’t create quite the same buzz as rumors of a golden flash in some miner's pan, but it’s close. A new blanket sends locals out to play, pausing to say a quick thank you for the snow and the visitors sure to follow. The snow’s boom-and-bust unpredictability fuels much of the excitement; it seems like any resident's description of winter fun includes, "if there’s snow."
But the northern Hills do average almost 200 inches per year, providing plenty of chances to explore 325 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, two downhill ski areas and several cross-country ski trails; plus, there's legendary Deadwood's nightlife. All at prices that let you cover most of a day's expenses for the cost of a Colorado lift ticket.
The richest vein of white gold usually surrounds Lead and Deadwood. Here’s the Meteorology 101 explanation: The Black Hills (including Harney Peak, the highest U.S. point east of the Rockies) interrupt northwestern winds, causing the air to rise and dump moisture as snow in the northern Hills. The air warms and dries as it flows down the Hills, creating a balmy "banana belt." In March 1998, for example, 115 inches of snow fell in Lead. Rapid City, 35 miles to the southeast, got 2.
"You can come out here and ski on Terry Peak and then go down to Hot Springs (65 miles south) and play golf the same day," says Susan Sanders, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Rapid City.
If there’s snow, the buzz of snowmobile engines rules the Hills. On winter weekends, trailers loaded with bullet-nosed "sleds" fill the region’s parking lots. During Presidents Day weekend last year (the busiest sledding time), an estimated 18,000 riders raced through the Hills; South Dakotans own only about 12,000 snowmobiles.
This scene’s unofficial headquarters is Trailshead Lodge, a roadhouse-looking joint on US-85 near the Wyoming line with plywood floors, a short-order cook, rental cabins and sleds and an impressive display of shoulder patches left by snowmobile clubs.
The lodge anchors four trails, and during the last Presidents Day weekend, it sold 1,700 burgers and a tanker truck full of sled fuel. A more luxurious snowmobile magnet is the Spearfish Canyon Lodge, a classic log hideaway on the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, where guests dine on dishes like trout amandine but still park sleds outside their rooms.
On the canyon trails running out of the lodge’s parking lot, it’s obvious why so many snowmobilers consider Black Hills riding some of the country’s best. The trails hug the canyon walls and ramble along sparkling trout streams, and they are smoother than some sidewalks, thanks to crews that groom nearly the entire system each night. Reflective diamond markers appear every 100 yards or so, and at each junction, a map of the trail system includes a "you are here" arrow.
Two Ways to Ski
The woods are quieter outside the town of Spearfish. Except for pines sighing in the wind, the only sound may be the shush-shush-shush of another cross-country skier passing. The Big Hill cross-country area's series of ever-widening loops wanders through stands of evergreens, birch and aspen, leading nearly to the dizzying 1,000-foot drop at the rim of Spearfish Canyon.
For rental gear and lessons, skiers visit a house-turned-ski-shop one block south of the Spearfish Pizza Hut. Here retired professor Ev Follette runs Ski Cross Country with his wife, Joann. They’ve been skiing the trails in winter and picking berries along them in summer for more than 30 years, ever since, Ev says, "we decided that before we died, we should try skiing."
For advice on trail conditions and a loop that fits your skills, Ev has long been the man to ask.
On clear days, the view alone is worth riding a chair lift to 7,052-foot Terry Peak, the Midwest’s highest downhill ski area. The Black Hills roll to the south; Bear Butte rises to the east, shouldering into view on the endless prairie's shore. Terry Peak, about 20 miles south of Spearfish, offers multiple runs and lifts and enough snowboarding terrain to satisfy the Mountain Dew-swigging crowd. Nearby, Deer Mountain is known for family-friendly tubing runs and lighted nighttime skiing.
When I turn from the view and head down Terry Peak’s busy slopes, skiers zip by in stylish coats and goggles that appear fresh off the pro shop’s rack. They’re quickly followed by bearded guys wearing camouflage coveralls that look like they’re leftover from deer season. For a low intimidation factor, these are the slopes to visit.
At sundown, outdoor adventurers look for a place to pass the night, which often means heading to the historic buildings stretched along Main Street in Deadwood Gulch. The 2004 debut of HBO’s gritty Deadwood series recharged the mystique of this infamous mining town that's now home to 1,300 people and more than 80 gambling establishments. The local visitors bureau hired extra staff to answer inquiries, and the Adams Museum staff won an honorary Emmy Award for technical advice to the show. Half the town has a story about partying with Deadwood actors during cast visits.
The town thrives on its lawless legacy, led by iconic, long-haired gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok. He still inspires look-alikes who hang around town waiting tables, nursing drinks and even playing cards at the No. 10 Saloon, where Wild Bill was gunned down in 1876, while playing cards. With such a history, many visitors are surprised at the town’s respectable concentration of quality hotels and top-notch restaurants, including Kevin Costner’s Jake’s, located above his Midnight Star Casino.
Costner, Black Hills visitors soon notice, became South Dakota's patron star when he fell for the place while filming Dances with Wolves in 1989. He later launched the Midnight Star and other ventures. Winter brings a memorable opportunity to follow Costner’s steps about three miles up snowmobile trail No. 4 from the Spearfish Canyon Lodge, where a small sign announces a Dances film site. Limestone cliffs studded with pines and powdered with snow rise overhead, clearly recognizable from the final scene.
When I pull up to the sign and kill my snowmobile’s engine, the air is full of huge, ragged snowflakes that hang like down suspended in a still room. Only a wayward flake hissing against the hot engine breaks the silence. My mind returns to something I read on the website of Bill Markley, an extra who played a soldier in the wintry canyon scene. He recalled a perfectly timed snow fell the day before filming and melted away on the last shooting day.
Even Hollywood, it seems, can use a lucky strike when it comes to the Hills’ white gold.
FOR GENERAL INFORMATION, contact the Black Hills, Badlands & Lakes Association (605/355-3600; www.black hillsbadlands.com) or the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau (800/999-1876; www.deadwood.com). Black Hills Central Reservations offers winter vacation packages; many include two nights' accommodations, one-day rental of a two-seat snowmobile and discounts to area museums and restaurants for $105/person (866/601-5103; www.blackhillsvacations.com).
TRAILSHEAD LODGE Restaurant, rental snowmobiles from $125 and cabins from $65 (605/584-3464; www.trails headlodge.com).
SPEARFISH CANYON LODGE Rental snowmobiles from $110 and rooms from $79 (877/975-6343; www.spfcanyon.com).
BULLOCK HOTEL Opened in 1895 by Seth Bullock, the town’s first sheriff. Now restored to its original Victorian splendor. Rooms from $41 (800/336-1876; www.heartofdeadwood.com).
DEADWOOD SOCIAL CLUB Italian steak house above the infamous Saloon No. 10 (800/952-9398; www.saloon10shop.com/dsc.asp).
DEADWOOD THYMES CAFE & BISTRO An inventive menu and surprisingly continental atmosphere (605/578-7566; www.deadwoodthymes.com).
JAKE’S Elegant dining above Deadwood’s Midnight Star Casino (800/999-6482; www.themidnightstar.com/dining.htm).
LATCHSTRING RESTAURANT Owned by Spearfish Canyon Lodge, specializing in trout and walleye (877/975-6343; www.spfcanyon.com).
ADAMS MUSEUM & HOUSE Deadwood. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays in winter. Donation suggested (605/578-1714; www.adamsmuseumandhouse.org).
DEER MOUNTAIN SKI AREA Lead. Open late November to April 1. Open Wednesdays–Sundays. Night skiing Fridays and Saturdays until 9 p.m. Lift tickets: $27 for adults. Rentals and lessons available (888/410-3337; www.skideermountain.com).
MIDNIGHT STAR CASINO Deadwood (800/999-6482; www.themidnightstar.com).
SKI CROSS COUNTRY Spearfish. Rental equipment, lessons available with advance scheduling (605/722-3851).
TERRY PEAK SKI AREA Lead. Open late November to April 1. Lifts run daily. Lift tickets: $35 for adults. Rentals and lessons available (605/584-2165; www.terrypeak.com)