In the wide-open valley of Hill City’s High Country Guest Ranch, an eclectic blend of American Indian rhythms, techno and rock thrummed through the audience at the outdoor Buffalo Moon Theater. Onstage, two performers dancing in Lakota regalia took armfuls of hoops and deftly whisked them into an interconnected chain. Within seconds, the hoops formed a globe as the audience broke out in applause.
The Grammy-winning group Brulé, which began almost 20 years ago, knits together heritage, music and dance with the energy and poignancy of “Riverdance” and the vibrant spirit of a powwow. Founder Paul LaRoche, a southwest Minnesota adoptee who discovered his Lakota roots as an adult, shares his story of Lakota culture and history, with a few jokes between songs. That gives performers time to change into their vibrant garments sewn with ribbons, feathers, jingles and beading, accented with shawls to fit the dances. They spin to intense drumming, mimic game birds strutting across open prairie and move like eagles in flight.
Performances, given throughout the summer, start near dusk and stretch into the night as the moon rises above the surrounding Black Hills National Forest.
The permanent stage, built in 2013, made sense for Brulé, which has performed across the world, in hundreds of shows at Branson, Mo., and for PBS-broadcasted concerts at Mount Rushmore. It let the group (which includes LaRoche’s grown son and daughter) settle into South Dakota, where their tribal roots are.
Music lovers can enjoy a double feature if they arrive at the ranch early enough before the Brulé concert. The Circle B Chuckwagon’s combination of dinner and cowboy crooning has been a Black Hills attraction for 40 years, but it moved to the Hill City ranch in 2012 for a weatherproof indoor dining hall and stage.
LaRoche dryly jokes, “This is the one place in America where the cowboys and Indians get along.”
Things to do
Brulé tickets: Performances run from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday throughout the summer. A grill with Indian tacos, wood-fired pizzas and South Dakota wine was added this season ($8-$13 for kids 4-11; adults $20-$28; 1-605-574-9003, www.highcountryranch.com).
Giddyap: High Country Guest Ranch offers 45-minute trail rides with about a dozen horses that head into the surrounding Black Hills National Forest. Groups are small, so reserve early to get your pick of days and times. The wranglers welcome kids as young as 6, and the ride is gentle enough for first-timers ($30/person; 1-605-574-9003; highcountryranch.com/trailrides.htm).
Hum with cowboys: Young kids eat up the goofy shtick that precedes the Circle B Chuckwagon dinner with a biscuit bandit on the loose and a sheriff trying to catch him. The small crew dishes up hot dogs, chicken, brisket and buffalo roasts with beans, biscuits, potatoes, applesauce and dessert before heading up to the indoor stage, where adults most appreciate the homey harmonizing and cowboy crooning. (It helps to watch “Toy Story 2” to get into the cowboy mood.) ($25-$30 per adult; $5-$15 for kids; 1-605-574-2129; www.circle-b-ranch.com)
Bike the Mickelson: You can bring your own bike or rent one for the 109-mile packed-gravel Centennial Trail, which runs past the ranch on its way from Deadwood to Edgemont, S.D. ($3 daily at self-service stations; 1-605-584-3896, gfp.sd.gov).
Take the train: Listen for the most evocative time-tripping sound in Hill City: the chug and wail of a restored steam engine. The 1880 Train runs between Hill City and Keystone, giving tourists a taste of the Old West ($10-$22; 1-605-574-2222; www.1880train.com). The South Dakota State Railroad Museum near the Hill City boarding platform serves up more history for train buffs.
Explore Dakota dinosaurs: While the Museum @ Black Hills Institute isn’t huge, the folks who found a T. rex named Sue (housed at Chicago’s Field Museum) packed Hill City’s former auditorium with an impressive collection that includes Stan the T. rex, a triceratops, an extensive collection of ancient sea fossils, plus meteors, minerals and Fairburn agates (the state rock). If nothing else, pop into its Everything Prehistoric gift shop for its rock, fossil and science-themed books, activity kits, jewelry and specimens ($4-$7.50; 1-605-574-3919, www.bhigr.com/museum).
Stroll downtown: Take an easy amble through Hill City’s downtown with its rumble of motorcycles passing through and a dose of the Old West in its buildings. Don’t miss “Iron Star,” a life-size metal horse on Main Street sculpted by John Lopez using found objects such as utensils, shovels and wrenches. Look for other Western art in Warrior’s Work and Ben West Gallery, Dakota Nature and Art Gallery and other shops on Main Street (1-605-574-2368; www.hillcitysd.com).
Where to sleep
Avoid traveling to the Black Hills during the first week of August, when the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally jacks up rates and fills most hotels, cabins and campgrounds. Summer rates typically drop after Labor Day.
High Country Guest Ranch: Grab a camping cabin if you’re on a tight budget and want to be by the pool ($129-$139 a night includes bunks, a kitchenette and a built-in bathroom), one of the basic cowboy cabins ($139-$189 a night) or one of 12 vacation homes that range from two to seven bedrooms. One home comes with a secret passage for kids. All rates drop after Labor Day. The ranch also includes a small but well-stocked grocery store (1-605-574-9003; www.highcountryguestranch.com).
Coyote Blues Village B&B: This lodge tucked away on 30 acres has a European feel with owners from Switzerland who have 10 rooms (some of which can accommodate children). (1-608-574-4477; www.coyote bluesvillage.com).
Horse Thief Campground & RV Resort: This private campground offers a heated pool, playground and picnic pavilion with grills about 3 miles north of Sylvan Lake. Lodging options range from tent and RV sites ($22-$45 a night) to camper cabins that sleep three to eight people for $53-$80/night (1-800-657-5802; www.horsethief.com).
Where to eat
Desperados Cowboy Restaurant: Soak up the Old West atmosphere in South Dakota’s oldest hand-hewn commercial building, dating to 1885. You can feast on a heaping Second Breakfast (biscuits and gravy, eggs and bacon), salads with huckleberry vinaigrette, a buffalo burger or roast and chunky muleskinner chili with a side of cornbread and tasty walnut pie for dessert (1-605-574-2959).
Alpine Inn: Time a visit to this German-influenced restaurant for lunch, when it serves smoked pork chops, schnitzel, Kaes Spaetzle (dense little dumplings with cheese) and roasted apples topped with ice cream and a triangle of puff pastry drenched in caramel sauce. It’s open for dinner, too, but serves only steaks (1-605-574-2749; www.alpineinnhillcity.com).
St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.” She blogs at 10000Likes.com.