Take the grandparents on a cross-state odyssey with something for everyone – Wild West vistas, outdoor adventure, wildlife spotting, Native American landmarks, and roadside kitsch.
By Maryann Jones Thompson
The amazing thing about family vacations is that they stick with you for your entire life. The last time I was in South Dakota, Reagan was in office. I remember smacking at the wind through the window of our Malibu Classic station wagon and recognizing the striking beauty of the state’s vast prairie – even on Week 3 of the License Plate game.
Fast forward several presidents, South Dakota held just as much wonder from the front seat as it did from the back – even in off-season October. All the majestic Western vistas became real again; hits of intense geological masterpieces separated by long stretches of grasslands and sky-scapes, with layers of Native American history, pioneer life, outdoor adventure, and roadside kitsch in between.
In South Dakota, the towns are small; the storms are huge; the residents are proud; the buffalo are wild; and the dinosaurs are concrete. Sure, the cuisine hasn’t changed much from the days of Reagan and the dead-of-summer crowds can be crazy. But families looking for a car or RV road trip with delights for parents, grandparents and grandkids alike, should not miss a chance to meander up, down and around Interstate 90’s slice of South Dakota.
South Dakota Road Trip – East-West Route
South Dakota is very accessible by car, making road trips the way to go. This is no secret, but it does make the state a great place for the youngest and oldest in the family to explore together. Here’s some stops to consider on a west-to-east cross-state itinerary. (Read the list from the bottom for the reverse route 😉 )
THE FAR WEST – BLACK HILLS AREA
Explore the Black Hills – Gold was discovered here in the late 1800s, creating a series of mining boom towns. Today, drives, outdoor action, picnics, and walks through the rocky, picturesque hills are the supporting actors in an area that features several headliners.
See Mt. Rushmore & Crazy Horse – These mountain-top monuments are must-see stops on the road. Each one can take a few hours to visit and are worth the investment of time. But if you’re not super interested in the circus-like crowds, don’t pay to park/enter – just peer in from binoculars. Non-peak season visits, as well as early morning and nighttime at Rushmore are a good call.
While Mt. Rushmore is well-known, the Crazy Horse Memorial just thirty minutes away is less popular. A privately-held monument to all Native American tribes, an admission to the grounds includes access to a massive visitor center, museum, and gift store. You can view his profile from the road but it is much better to pay and drive up to the car park. Others pay $4 to take a bus to the monument’s base. The center holds an impressive array of artifacts and art, qualifying as an attraction in itself for anyone interested in Native American history and life.
The center also plays a short movie that explains the history of Crazy Horse, the man, the monument, and his sculptor. (Interestingly, the film begins by explaining that Crazy Horse never allowed his photo to be taken so no one really knows what he looks like.) After seventy years, the sculpture is still a work-in-progress that will look like this when finished.
Safari in Custer State Park – Those rusty in history might think Custer State Park is where Custer’s Last Stand took place – but that was at Little Big Horn in Montana. This state park was named to commemorate the general who marched his troops through the area as part of patrolling the Dakota Territory in the 1800s. Entry costs $20 per car for one week.
Today, Custer State Park is one of the nation’s largest. With Black Hills’ camping, swimming, fishing and more, the streams, lakes and rocky cliffs are gorgeous from the car or on foot – the Cathedral Spires Trail is an easy family-friendly walk.
The Wildlife Loop road is a pretty drive across the prairie, but one that can be almost as packed with traffic as Yellowstone in July and August. But early mornings and other times of the year can find empty roads, big vistas, and herds of bison, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, elk, and deer grazing on the 114-square miles of grassland.
Families looking for the best buffalo watching can book a trip with Buffalo Safaris, a group running jeeps on and off the roads in the park. The guides provide a historical overview of the land, as well as the background on the wildlife and the humans who inhabit the area.
The bison are owned and managed by the state. Descended from 36 head moved here in the 1930s, the herd now numbers approximately 1,400. The land can safely support 1,000 so 400 are rounded up in September and auctioned in November.
Those interested in the cowboy ways of the Old West can visit the corral and see the buffalo moved through the chutes for health checkups and branding. Animal lovers might want to skip a visit to the corral itself and just watch the herd graze up-close-and-personal on the roadsides.
Bike the Mickelson Trail – Sometimes, the best part of a road trip is parking the car. The George S. Mickelson Trail is a 109-mile former railroad route that now accommodates multi-day bike trips through the Black Hills. The rails-to-trails route is mostly flat, the views are breathtaking, and the support is ample.
Dive into Caves & Geology – The geological mischief of the region resulted in lots more than veins of gold. There are several caves to visit in the Black Hills, as well as many paleontological sites. Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Mammoth Site museum, and the Hot Springs of Hot Springs, South Dakota are all very close to the Custer State Park Lodge area.
Pet Reptiles & More – Between the Black Hills and the Badlands, there are a number of stops providing animal interaction. The magnetic “Johnny B” runs Reptile Gardens, the “largest reptile zoo” in the world first opened by his dad in the 1930s. Fans of the slithery set should not miss a visit. Other hoofed creatures await at Old MacDonald’s Farm, Caputa Alpacas, and the drive-thru Bear Country USA. And at Spearfish’s D. C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery and Archives, fishing fanatics can geek out about trout for hours.
Deadwood – Yep, that Deadwood. Fans of the HBO series/movie can walk its Wild West streets, pan for gold, gamble in the casino, view the graves of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane on Mount Moriah and a lot more.
Sturgis – If you’re a biker, a trip to the famous rally in this South Dakota town is already on the bucket list. If you’re not a biker, you might want to avoid road tripping in the state during the August week when the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally takes place, given the huge crowds it attracts.
Summer Accommodations – The area boasts family-friendly lodging across the budget spectrum. Most are only open during the months of May-September.
- Custer State Park Resort – President Calvin Coolidge’s 1920s “Summer White House” serves as the main game lodge for this sprawling set of rooms and cabins set in a wooded canyon in the Black Hills. There are a number of places to eat, get outside, and get active. The resort provides a great base for exploring the entire southwest corner of the state.
- KOA Mt. Rushmore – If you think you know KOA, think again. With everything from $30 tent sites to RV hookups to cabins to a $900/night modern cabin for 14 with a hot tub and HD TV, the KOA becomes a massive village housing thousands of families in prime summertime less than 10 minutes from the monument. You’ll find all the typical KOA services here plus a brand-new pool, trail rides, ATV rentals, a full-service restaurant, pancake breakfast, chuckwagon dinner, bouncy pillow-thing – they even host five rodeos during the summer season! (It is the state sport of South Dakota, after all…)
- Bavarian Inn – A Best Western near the edge of the town of Custer, this pet-friendly property offers nice rooms and a lot of extras, including indoor and outdoor pools. The Old West downtown of Custer is just a few minutes away, with its high-end Skogen Kitchen restaurant, Buglin’ Bull sports bar, as well as countless snack and souvenir stands – including several stores selling rocks and minerals – my sister and my favorite 😉 Who wants to go home without a small bag of interesting rocks?
THE BADLANDS TO MID-STATE AREA
Driving through the Badlands – About two hours east of Custer, the Badlands appear out of nowhere. Jutting up and slicing down from the grasslands, jagged teeth of multi-color rock march away from your feet and across the horizon.
We entered Badlands National Park and began the Badlands Loop drive from the eastern entrance, stopping first at Big Badlands Overlook and Door and Window Trails to watch the sunrise. The half-mile Door Trail walk around and through the minarets puts you in the middle of the action. The crusty ground crunched into cake-y mud underfoot in October. Other families like the Notch Trail, also nearby. (Here is the full list of NPS recommended hikes.)
A few more “oohs” and “aahs” and photo stops and you’re already on the other side. The cracks and towers disappear into the grassland of the southern horizon.
Heading west, the loop road climbs back into more Badlands, and more epic glimpses of the sun rising and dodging the clouds. The NPS recommends a few spots, in particular, if you’re aiming for “Magic Hour” sunrise or sunset photos.
Dillon’s Pass was our next favorite walk, perhaps because we found the whole site covered in October snow.
You can see bison grazing in the park, as well, but the introduction of bighorn sheep in the 1990s provided the most excitement for us.
A group of three males having words on the roadside kept us parked and watching for a good ten minutes. (Another benefit of going at sunrise? Having the place to yourself.)
If short on time and traffic is low, you can drive the Badlands Loop in under two hours, including photo stops. But there’s no doubt driving farther off the loop and staying overnight would be worthwhile. The Cedar Pass Campground is right at the southeast end of the Badlands, making a return trip into the Badlands for sunrise or sunset extremely easy.
Kitsch at Wall Drug – Grandparents will remember this famous roadside stop, dating from 1931. From its start offering free ice water to travelers, Wall Drug now attracts 2 million visitors every year – and eveyrone still gets a free bumper sticker.
Sprawling from one block of Old West storefronts, an endless warren of interconnected souvenir stores, snack shops and cafes cover the streets, with acres of parking for summer hoardes nearby and. Wall Drug is a must-stop spot before jumping back on I-90.
Dignity & The Missouri River – Overlooking the Missouri River in Chamberlain, a new monument was erected in 2016 in honor of the Dakota and Lakota cultures. “Dignity of Earth and Sky” is a fifty-foot aluminum statue of a Native American woman cloaked in a star quilt. Shimmering both day and night, Dignity is a true beauty to behold.
After, stop in at the Akta Lakota Museum after for a more in-depth look at Lakota life and at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive & Keelboat Center for a glimpse into the history of the expedition and a picnic on the grounds – or hit longtime roadstop, Al’s Oasis, for a fry bread taco or apple pie with cinnamon ice cream. More adventurous families could consider a canoe or kayak trip on the Missouri. (It’s not an easy paddle but it’s an unforgettable one.)
THE EASTERN STATE – NEAR SIOUX FALLS
Children’s Museum – The landscape in eastern of South Dakota returns to waving grasses. From the center of the state, head north off Interstate 90 to a Highway 14 route through the state’s eastern heartland. You’ll find a route through small towns with a lot to offer. First up, the town of Brookings, home to the Children’s Museum of South Dakota.
Museum visitors can harvest food and move it from farm to a child-sized market. They can also greet a life-size animatronic T. Rex (and her feathered son) or climb a two-story cloud climber on an indoor prairie. It’s the perfect mid-road-stop for children and grown-ups to get some hands-on playing, creating and discovering done.
More Brookings Action – After the museum, move on to see more of the Brooking’s Great 8: Shoot some arrows at the Adventure Center’s archery range, stroll the McCrory Gardens arboretum, or grab a classic slider at Nick’s Hamburgers.
Ingall’s Homestead – This experiential, hands-on museum is a dream-visit for all Little House on the Prairie and Laura Ingalls Wilder fans. Located on land originally owned by the Ingalls family, the Ingall’s Homestead gives families a chance to check out a sod house, ride in a covered wagon, make a corn cob doll, braid hay, and endless barnyard encounters with the typical critters.
Located in De Smet, the homestead offers some overnight lodging for families who never want to leave the late 1800s. It’s a bit north and east, en route to Minneapolis, and makes me think Laura musn’t have been kidding about The Long Winter.
Hear Music in Sioux Falls – After a week of open spaces, Sioux Falls will seem like a return to civilization. Sitting on the border with Iowa, the town is home to Levitt at the Falls, one of only a handful of Levitt music and cultural centers in the country, and one that hosts outdoor concerts all summer.
See the Falls – Yes, the town was named for the falls located smack in the center of town and surrounded by the large Falls Park. Both young and old love to hang out here to check out the quartzite rock formations and the remains of the Queen Bee Mill.
Visit the Stockyards – Near the falls, the Stockyards Ag Experience shares the history of agriculture in South Dakota and offers some hands-on activities for kids. It’s a neat spot to pop in – it’s pretty small, but it is free! And if you hit a summer Saturday, don’t miss the Farmer’s Market at the Falls.
Kayak the Sioux – The Big Sioux River in Sioux Falls is a fun, urban paddle. Some local families have been known to kayak to dinner in Downtown Sioux Falls! Sioux Falls Kayak Rentals will even drop off and pick up boats and gear for your group.
Hike & Bike Around – The area around Sioux Falls is noted as a fantastic year-round hiking and biking trails. It is easy to find a way to get out and about on one of the flat routes that surround the town. The Big Sioux River Greenway lets you bike for hours; and the Riparian Trail at Good Earth State Park is a famous family walk.
Good to Know
South Dakota is Huge Driving I-90 direct from Custer in the west to Sioux Falls in the east takes almost 6 hours.
Summer is the Season Most attractions and lodging are only open from May 1 to October 1, making it a tough spot to see off-season. But July and August are busiest.
Book Ahead Summer lodging must be booked in advance all over the state. Accommodation near Mount Rushmore and other popular attractions fills nearly a year in advance.
Convenient Airports Rapid City Airport is full-service yet compact, with flights arriving from all major hubs and car rental pick-up right out the back door. Sioux Falls offers the same convenience on the east side of the state.
Big Nights South Dakota has very little light pollution. You can still see the Milky Way on moon-less nights and service stations that look more like UFOs on the empty prairie. The state’s silence and space are still as fabulous as they were when we were kids.
Maryann Jones Thompson – October 2019
After a thousand years in publishing as a business journalist, ghostwriter, content strategist and market researcher, Maryann brings her experience traveling as a backpacker, businessperson, expat and mom to writing and editing for ROAM.
The Custer State Park Resort hosted ROAM’s Buffalo Safari jeep ride, however ROAM contributors do not accept payment or discounts for favorable reviews.
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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