Most people know that Mount Rushmore is in the Black Hills of South Dakota, but many do not realize how much more there is to do and see there. If you love history, scenery, wildlife, caves, hiking, fossils, shopping, the Old West or delightfully kitschy tourist traps, then the Black Hills have something for you. Many consider it the ultimate road trip.
South Dakota is also a good option for families looking for an affordable alternative to expensive theme park or resort vacations. Many Black Hills attractions are free or inexpensive. Low-priced admissions to national and state parks are valid for a week. There are also many reasonably priced lodging and dining options, including camping.
Most visitors to Mount Rushmore have seen many pictures of the iconic sculpture, but no picture compares to the feeling of seeing it in person. Spend part of a day exploring the monument and then return in the evening for the patriotic lighting and flag ceremony. You'll also see the Crazy Horse Monument in your travels through the Black Hills. Even from a distance, this work-in-progress is an impressive tribute to another American legend.
Spend some time wandering the streets of downtown Rapid City. On every corner is a life-sized bronze statue of a past president of the United States. In between, browse the unique shops, galleries and restaurants in Rapid City's walkable historic district.
Fans of the Old West will not want to miss the legendary city of Deadwood. Drive up to Boot Hill Cemetery, where Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane and other colorful characters are buried, and enjoy a view of the town and its mountain setting. Downtown Deadwood offers a string of quaint hotels, shops and casinos.
The Mammoth Site is located about 60 miles south of Rapid City in the city of Hot Springs. The paleontological dig site was discovered in 1974 and now houses a museum where studies are still being conducted. It is the largest Colombian mammoth exhibit in the world, and the 30-minute tour and additional exhibits are worthwhile.
Drive the wildlife loop in Custer State Park for a chance to see elk, bison, deer, big horn sheep and prairie dogs. It's hard to miss the park's famous begging burros on this drive. These wild burros stand near the road waiting for treats from tourists. Bring a bag of carrots or apples and keep the camera ready. Needles Highway to Sylvan Lake and Iron Mountain Highway are both excellent scenic drives.
Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument sprawl underneath the Black Hills. Despite their proximity, the two offer different experiences and cave lovers will want to see both. Visitors to Wind Cave will see one of the best displays of boxwork in the world. The walls of Jewel Cave sparkle, and visitors are treated to formations such as cave bacon and cave popcorn.
Badlands National Park is about an hour's drive east of Rapid City. In Badlands, a colorful and rugged landscape seems to grow right out of the prairie. The park is also the source of many preshistoric fossils, including a saber-toothed cat fossil. Keep your eyes open for living animals too, such as the adorable and endangered prairie dog.
Just for fun
Storybook Island may be the best public play park you'll ever see. Watch for Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall as you enter the castle gates. Inside, kids play on imaginative toys based on classic children's literature. The park is best for children under age of 12 and is open only during the summer. Admission is free.
The Reptile Gardens boasts a collection of over 225 species of reptiles. Hug a giant tortoise, see a rare kimodo dragon and get a close-up look at exotic venomous snakes. Be sure to ask for a vacation pass when you purchase admission. It will allow you to return as often as you want during your stay in the Black Hills.
If you go to Badlands, stop by Wall Drug in nearby Wall, S.D. Wall Drug is the kitschiest, craziest collection of gift shops, photo ops and curiosities you may ever see. Be sure to visit the animatronic T-Rex, take photos of your kids astride the giant jackalope, buy souveniers and top it off with an ice cream cone from the soda fountain.
There are many chances to see wildlife in the Black Hills, but if you want a slam dunk, visit Bear Country U.S.A. Drive through a 250-acre loop to see elk, reindeer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, bison, bobcats, cougars and black bears roaming freely around your car in their own enclosures. Afterward, park and walk around Babyland to see grizzly bears and small mammals, such as foxes, badgers and skunks, and a whole yard of playful baby bear cubs. Go early in the day to avoid crowds and see the animals at your own speed.
Most national parks and many state parks offer free Junior Ranger Programs for children between the ages of 5 and 12. Stop by the ranger desk early in your visit to get a fun and educational activity booklet. Go back to the desk when the activities are completed, and a ranger will swear your kids in as rangers and give them souvenir badges. Collect Junior Ranger badges at Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave, Jewel Cave and Badlands. Custer State Park also has a fun book for kids.
When to go
Summer is peak season in the Black Hills. School is out and the mountain air is at its balmiest. Visitors seeking to avoid huge crowds will steer clear of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August, when half a million motorcycle enthusiasts descend on the Black Hills each year. Spring and fall are great times to find hotel bargains and lighter crowds, though the weather may not be as pleasant.
Where to eat
Beau Jo's is a pizza chain with only one location outside of Colorado, in Rapid City. If you stop in on a night when the pizza and salad buffet is on, don't even look at the menu. Just order it. Pizzas are loaded with a "mountain" of flavorful toppings. All of the traditional offerings are excellent, but Firecracker Chicken Pizza is the way to go for adventurous diners.
Philly Ted's is also a good choice. The cheesesteak sandwiches are outstanding and so large that you might eat them for two meals. There is no children's menu, but picky kids will like the hot dogs and fries at Philly Ted's. This tiny restaurant is located in a strip mall and has an unmistakable hole-in-the-wall ambience. There is no air conditioning, so claim a table on the sidewalk in front or do take-out like the locals.
The Black Hills is a true American experience.
Allison Laypath is an expert on family travel and author of the family travel blog, tipsforfamilytrips.com. With her family, Allison especially enjoys road trips, national parks and local field trips. Email Allison at [email protected].