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Who knew the mysterious outcrops of South Dakota’s Black Hills loom only six hours from Denver—or that the best time to visit might be when summer’s hectic Mt. Rushmore season is long over?
Black Hills National Forest
Thanks to 416 miles of trails that are groomed nightly, the snowmobiling experts at SnoWest magazine have ranked Black Hills National Forest as one of the best places in North America to spin snow. If you’re an expert who wants to create your own tracks, though, almost all of the massive forest’s 1.2 million acres of terrain are open to off-trail riding. Whichever path you take, procure full-day rentals (starting at $200, including helmets and gas) inside the forest from Mystic Hills Hideaway.
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Custer State Park
Bison crave salt as much as the rest of us, except they can’t go to McDonald’s when they need a fix. So along Custer’s Wildlife Loop, the park’s more than 1,000 bison seek sodium another way. After it snows, the furry beasts congregate along the 18-mile route—also home to elk and bighorn sheep—to lick road salt off vehicles. To take part in the winter ritual known as the Custer State Park Car Wash, drive slow and keep your windows rolled up. Don’t expect a brilliant shine, either.
Hotel Alex Johnson
After a day of adventuring, sleep where six presidents have snoozed—and for less than $100 a night during the offseason. The 91-year-old Rapid City building’s German Tudor architecture pays homage to the many German immigrants who settled the area in the 19th century. Other decorative touches, such as a sacred four directions symbol etched into the lobby floor, honor local Lakota tribes. That doesn’t mean the hotel lacks modern flourishes: The Vertex Sky Bar features expansive views of the city skyline as well as cocktails like the Anti-Oxidant Mojito ($11), made with Cruzan silver rum, raspberries, pomegranate juice, and simple syrup.
In the 1870s, Russian immigrant John Hoellwarth introduced the Black Hills region to “shashlyk,” a simple dish of grilled and skewered meat. South Dakotans immediately took to the shish-kebab-like fare and even created their own iteration, called chislic, which is traditionally lamb or beef served with saltines. At Rapid City’s Dakotah Steakhouse, visitors can try chislic ($11) with a side of cilantro-lime sour cream and a glass of Buffalo Trace Single Barrel Bourbon, bottled specially for the restaurant.
Spearfish Canyon’s Community Caves
During winter, water pouring over the Community Caves in Spearfish Canyon, at the northern edge of Black Hills National Forest, freezes into towering ice columns. To reach the dramatic scene, access the trail near mile marker 13 along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway and trek half a mile to the shallow limestone caverns. Microspikes and poles are necessary during snowy conditions, but the massive icicles are worth the quick, steep ascent.
(MORE: A First-Timer’s Guide to Black Hills National Forest)