When my husband first told me he was offered a job in Spearfish, South Dakota, I cried.
At the time, we were ranch sitting near the Wind River Range in Wyoming, after having spent a season working in southwestern Colorado - now we were moving to South Dakota? Does anyone even live there? Where are the mountains? What if we hate it?
Needless to say, I had a lot of concerns and preconceived notions about what western South Dakota was like - none of which made me want to move there.
However, it was a permanent job that would open the door to permanent jobs elsewhere - and by elsewhere I mean somewhere beautiful with mountains, forests, and charming little towns, anywhere besides windswept South Dakota where the cattle population is greater than the human population.
Doubts and dithering aside, my husband and I decided we better take the opportunity while we had it. We packed our things and moved to South Dakota, with absolutely no clue of what to expect.
Whitewood In March
We arrived in the frozen, forgotten town of Whitewood at the beginning of March, found an apartment to rent, and settled in.
Whitewood, located about thirteen miles from Spearfish, is a small town centered around the still-active railroad. It was a happening place when the Chicago and North Western Railway first extended to that point in 1888.
Today, if you stop at Howdy’s for gas and cheese curds on your way down Interstate 90, it appears to be a lonely ghost of a town. You might see a cowboy filling up his pickup and, perhaps, tumbleweed rolling down Laurel Street.
If you look a bit closer though, you will see kids playing in the park across the road, people sipping coffee and enjoying a pasty at the Mill Iron, or having breakfast for dinner at the Hideaway. If you look a bit closer still, you might see how this town could be charming.
It was cold and the wind blew the snow sideways while we settled into our apartment with the windows looking out over Laurel Street. I remember staring out those very windows thinking, what are we doing in this frozen wasteland?
I had not looked close enough yet.
Summer At Last
I was beginning to think winter would never end. It snowed until mid-May, but, at last, the sun broke through the snow heavy clouds and the first wildflowers started popping up on the prairie.
I have a picture of the first flower I saw. I was so happy I danced.
For the summer and fall, I got a job doing vegetation monitoring. I spent my days under the open sky in the vast grasslands of The Mount Rushmore State. From a distance, the prairie looks remarkably monochrome - a canvas of undistinguishable green and brown. Up close, however, I began to see the subtle intricacies and the diversity of life that make a prairie ecosystem special.
I learned the names of all the grasses, forbs, and shrubs. I dug my hands into the South Dakota soil. I knew which birds were singing, simply by listening to their song. The prairie drew me in, in a way I never expected.
I began to see the beauty in the rolling hills and rocky outcrops. Sure, they were not the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains or the dense, green forests of Appalachia, but they were magnificent in their own right.
You may not have time to learn all the plants, but if you are passing through western South Dakota on your way to elsewhere, take a drive on Highway 85 (which leads to a wonderful destination - Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the lovely town of Medora, North Dakota), stop by Crow Buttes historical site, grab a huckleberry milkshake at the mercantile, and stand for a while in the middle of the open prairie. There is nothing both so desolate and transcendent as a vast expanse of grassland, no civilization in sight.
Maybe you will see what eventually brought me to love long days under the open sky- as long as it was not hailing. If you are traveling here in the summer, be prepared for hail and the likelihood of a cracked windshield or dented hood. Not to scare you away, but the hail there is no joke.
Exploring The Black Hills
One of the first places I wanted to explore after the weather broke was Spearfish Canyon. The drive alone,
winding through the canyon and alongside the river, offers some of the most beautiful scenery in the Black Hills. You will also find access to many hiking trails.
An easy, yet scenic hike to do is Roughlock Falls. The relatively flat trail traces the edge of Little Spearfish Creek to a multi-tiered waterfall. It can be quite busy, as there is also a parking area above the falls which provides quick, easy access. On a quiet day, though, Roughlock is a tranquil place to sit for a while and listen to the water as it flows over the stones.
A longer, but equally lovely trail I enjoyed walking in the Little Spearfish Creek trail. It provides great views of the canyon while it meanders along the creek, through stands of ponderosa pine, eventually leading into the towering spruce forest. The campground closest to the trail is a beautiful place to spend the weekend if you do not mind primitive camping.
South of Spearfish on Interstate 90 lies The Badlands National Park. From a distance, this rugged country might not look that interesting unless you are a geologist, but if you take a closer look I am certain you will find the Badlands as magical as I did.
Hiking through and around the oddly shaped geological deposits feels otherworldly - at any moment I expected the Millennium Falcon to land and Chewy to emerge with the rest of the rebel alliance. Sorry, I just could not resist a Star Wars reference here.
Now that I have that out of my system - Badlands National Park is also a great place to view wildlife. Bison and bighorn sheep roam the surrounding prairie and steep, rocky bluffs. Pay attention as you walk and perhaps you will spot a snake - just be aware of rattlesnakes. They may look cool, but they are poisonous and can be aggressive. Give them their space.
My favorite time to be in the Badlands is after a rainstorm. The layers of sediment in the geologic formations go from dull to vibrant, showing off variations of red, orange, yellow and even shades of blue. You are also likely to see a rainbow arching over the park, adding to the magic.
Feeling At Home
One of the best ways I have found to connect to a new place outside of exploring its natural areas is to find a spot, or two, in town where I can become a regular - somewhere to have coffee on a Saturday morning, grab a beer after a long week at work, or somewhere to get the best ice cream after a hike.
I was worried I would not find a place like this in Spearfish or Whitewood. I was worried it would never feel like home.
As I would soon find out, though, I was wrong.
Spearfish turned out to be one of the most enjoyable towns I have ever spent time in; boasting flavorful coffee, local brews, and delicious homemade ice cream. Apparently the three pillars that form my idea of what makes a great town.
Spearfish is also quite lively. There was something going on every weekend in the summer, whether it was Downtown Fridays Nights or an all weekend art festival in the park. The town came alive with music from local artists, savory scents wafting from food trucks, and the bustle of people visiting the many vendors’ booths.
After work on Thursdays my husband and I would usually drive into Spearfish to attend trivia night at Flanagan’s, a charming Irish pub with exactly the atmosphere I hoped to find - people of all ages packed around rustic wooden tables and bar stools, almost louder and more crowded than what is comfortable.
There is nothing quite like testing your pop culture knowledge against the locals to make you feel at home in a place. Whether you are just driving through or are settling in to stay for a while, stopover at Flanagan’s on a Thursday night at six o’clock for a Smithwick’s and a rollicking game of trivia.
The Spearfish Brewing Company is another great place to grab a drink. The atmosphere is more modern and typically quieter. They offer some unusual flavors, so put on your adventure pants and give ‘em a try.
Indulge Your Sweet Tooth
Leone’s Creamery is right across the street from the brewery. If you have a sweet tooth I cannot recommend their ice cream enough. It is homemade with fresh ingredients from local farms and businesses, which adds a unique flair to this old fashioned delicious desert.
It is fantastic after a hot South Dakota summer day or any day for that matter.
Perhaps the most delightfully unexpected discovery we made while getting to know our new home was a little place called The Chubby Chipmunk. My husband and I were driving through Deadwood (yes, the very same Deadwood from the television series) for the first time and we came upon a tiny little building with a giant chipmunk out front advertising hand-dipped chocolates. I am a sucker for chocolate, so of course, we had to check it out.
The Chipmunk offers an assortment of chocolates including a plethora of decadent truffles. Even if you are not interested in any other sights in Deadwood, do yourself a favor and try the truffles. You will not regret it.
The Charm of a Coffee Shop
For coffee, Blackbird Espresso was my go-to while in Spearfish. However, if you do not mind a short drive to Whitewood, it does not get any better than The Mill Iron. The coffee is good, the atmosphere is even better. This cozy and welcoming cafe was a refuge on the days' winter seemed eternal and the first place that made western South Dakota feel like home.
Grab a hot drink, browse the selection of local honey, jams, and beautiful handmade wooden bowls, then find a seat by the fire. Winter will end and the hail storms will begin, but western South Dakota is a beautiful place to stick around for a while.
My husband and I no longer live in the state where blizzards and hail storms reign supreme.
The proverbial wind has blown us elsewhere, but not due to a lack of beauty or charm. Western South Dakota was everything I did not think it would be. Nowhere has this been more prevalent - that there is often far more to a place than what first meets the eye. So, if you find yourself passing through on your way elsewhere, I encourage you to stop and take a closer look.