So, you enjoy wintry weather but don’t like to climb on ice, are not a fan of sitting in a tire and schussing down a hill, and are somewhat unsure of yourself on skis. That’s okay. Snowshoeing is an ideal way to move around in the wintertime, taking a relaxing walk through the forest and encountering views you may not be able to get any other way. A person can go snowshoeing virtually anywhere there is snow and room to walk. When you’re in the northern latitudes, you quickly discover that South Dakota is one of the most attractive places in America to snowshoe.
Early on you should familiarize yourself with the basics of snowshoeing. These include dressing in layers. Temperatures in South Dakota can fluctuate mightily. Be prepared for a variety of winter conditions. Bring more food and water than you’ll think you’ll need. Drink plenty of water—snowshoeing makes you sweat, sometimes profusely. With regards to breaking trail, if you are on a trail after a fresh snow has fallen, take turns with your buddies breaking trail. Developing a new trail where snow has recently fallen is, a person quickly learns, hard work. If you are new to the activity, start on flat land. Once you have mastered that, try some small hills and gradually progress to more challenging terrain.
The webbed snowshoe that is in wide use today has ties to North American indigenous peoples, particularly the Huron and Cree. Plains Indians wore snowshoes on winter bison hunts before horses were introduced. Snowshoes were one of the relatively few cultural items common to all tribes wherever winters were snowy.
The manufacture of snowshoes for recreational purposes began in the late 19th century, when recreational snowshoeing began. The number of snowshoers tripled during the 1970s. Ski resorts with available land offer multiple snowshoe trails to visitors. Some popular hiking areas today are about as busy in the colder months as they are on warm summer weekends.
A person can snowshoe most anywhere, as long as you have a place that is covered with at least four inches of snow. Within a 10-mile radius of Spearfish, South Dakota, residents and visitors enjoy easy access to three main recreational areas, according to Bonnie Jones, a U.S. Forest Service recreation specialist. “Spearfish Canyon, Big Hill, and Crow Peak are the main areas that both visitors and residents who are serious about snowshoeing head for,” Jones has observed.
Big Hill is a trailhead located eight miles southwest of Spearfish on Tinton Road. The trailhead provides entrances for anyone wanting to snowshoe up Higgins Gulch. Crow Peak is a mountain used mainly by experienced snow hikers.
Nestled in the northern Black Hills just outside of Lead, South Dakota, Terry Park Lodge encourages snowshoeing. Custer State Park is a mountain range that extends over an area of 6,000 square miles. The natural surroundings of this state park are inviting to hikers and snowshoers.
At Dakota Nature Park and Center near Brookings, South Dakota, what began as the city landfill is today a multi-purpose park with many opportunities for visitors and locals to get out and explore nature. The Nature Park is open to the public for many activities, including snowshoeing.
Hiking trails and state parks are great places to snowshoe. Some of these were expressly made for snowshoeing, adorned with markers to indicate directions or the level of difficulty of a particular trail.
An ideal area in South Dakota to explore on snowshoes is one of the state’s longest trails, the George S. Mickelson (11361 Nevada Gulch Road, Lead). The Mickelson Trail originally was the Burlington Northern rail line that took trains from Edgemont, S.D. through the northern Black Hills. Its gentle slopes and easy access allow people of all ages and abilities to take in Black Hills scenery.
The rail line was abandoned in 1983. A group of outdoor enthusiasts recognized the trail’s potential, and, with the support of then Governor Mickelson, it became the state’s first rails to trails project, completed in 1998.
Keep in mind: many cross-country ski areas have separate snowshoe routes in the same area. Snowshoers trekking down the same path can mess up carefully groomed cross-country ski trails very quickly. Stated differently, skinny cross-country skis don’t exactly agree with the big, round tracks made by snowshoes. So, if you chose to explore ski areas on snowshoes—be sure to pay attention to any separate routes or tracks that might be available to you.
If you do not own your own snowshoes, you can borrow them from South Dakota State Parks. The parks have snowshoes that fit most anyone and are free to check out for a day or a weekend. Should you really get into the activity, you may decide to buy your own.
But remember, if you do: while it’s OK to fudge your weight on your driver’s license, it’s important to be honest and accurate when measuring yourself for snowshoes. The more you weigh, the more surface area you need to float in the snow. Wearing the proper size snowshoe, you’ll still sink into fresh powder, but not nearly as deep as you would in boots alone. Snowshoes come in a variety of lengths; the heavier you are, the larger they should be.
And now a word about snowshoe poles, which are virtual necessities if you really get into snowshoeing. Adjustable poles are best. They can be shortened for uphill travel, lengthened for descending when crossing slopes, and can be extended for the downhill side and the other shortened when going uphill. Pole length should be adjusted so your arm is bent at a right angle. Pole straps are being used properly when you can put your hand up through the strap from below. This allows you to rely on the strap alone at times to give your hands a rest.
Snowshoe walking in South Dakota is a good way to realize peace with yourself and with others in this world. Snowshoeing is a fun activity that will motivate you to combat the winter blues. It burns more calories than walking or running and can help ward off colds. Snowshoes can be the ideal ticket for wilderness-friendly winter recreation. Enjoy.