(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.