South Dakota Family Trip

Doug Mageski
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My family and I just got back from our annual family trip to South Dakota. Our kids range from 10 to 2 years old, so we always plan a little bit for everyone. A few years ago we decided we were going to commit to at least one family trip a year. Life is too short and you never want to look back and wish you made those memories before they grow up and have schedules of their own.

On our trip I always love to fill our time with as many things as possible. My wife absolutely hates this, she would rather relax, but I feel that when you take a road trip to a destination far from home, you can always rest in the car! We list in southeastern Wisconsin, and we drove as far as Keystone, South Dakota. In all, the drive was about 11.5 hours long, but we also broke it into two days to and from home. However, even during the broken days, we filled the days with destination stops. Here is the breakdown of how the trip went:

  • Day 1: Drove 6.5 hours to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We arrive around 1 pm and thought this would be an opportunity to get out of the car and take a break. In Sioux City they have a nice little zoo called Great Plains Zoo. This was quite an affordable zoo, especially if you have an annual zoo pass (depending on your zoo/state), they have reciprocity and give you 50% off each ticket of admission. When we left the zoo (meandered around for about 2-3 hours) we stumbled upon the USS South Dakota Museum. This was a free stop and paid homage to the USS South Dakota and its crew. It is fairly small, but inside the building was a lot of great artifacts and information, while outside, there is a outline replica of the ship and a few real pieces from the ship for the kids to run around. After we left we dined at Sickies Garage. This was a fun "garage themed" burger place that was great for families. Then we took off to stay at a small hotel in Murdo, SD. This was another 3 hour drive, but, it brought us to within 1 hour of the Badlands. *Keep in mind, just down the highway (maybe 15 minutes) the time changes to Mountain Time. We forgot about that! (:
  • Day 2: We got up early (to avoid crowds and heat) and took the hour drive west towards Cactus Flat. You want to catch SD-240, which is a great loop that takes you through the best parts of the Badlands towards Wall, SD. on This loop we stopped at several trails and the visitor center. The trails are all great and there are MANY lookouts with impressive views to take family pictures. I would plan to bring lots of water and sunscreen, because shade is hard to come by. In particular, check out Notch trail, Window trail, and the Big Badlands Overlook. They all offer very beautiful lookouts and scenery. The loop took us about 3 hours (just because of the constant stopping and meandering on trails), but make sure to start at Prairie Dog Ranch. It is at the entrance of the park and it is a free spot to check out a whole parking lot/field of prairie dogs. The kids loved it and you can even buy bagged peanuts in a shop that oversees the property and feed them. When we arrived at Wall on the end of our trip, we stopped and ate/checked out the Wall Drugstore. It is a bit of a tourist trap, but, it is an iconic stop and I will see it was worth at least checking out. Make sure to try their homemade donuts and grab a cup of 5 cent coffee! When we finished up here, we made our way 1 hour west towards Rapid City. We rented a cabin near Keystone, SD and stopped by and then made our way to Mt. Rushmore. Before heading to Mount Rushmore, we stopped at Big Thunder Gold Mine in Keystone, SD. We enjoyed the gold mine tour and gold panning. This was quite a unique experience and the kids each left with a few flakes of authentic gold. We were worried about getting there so late, but, it was perfect. We arrived around 6 pm and had 2-2.5 hours of good daylight to take the short hikes, watch a few demonstrations, and enjoy some ice cream in their café. The lighting ceremony started at 9:30 and we thought this was well worth it. To get into the park it just cost $10 for parking. The gift shop is where they get you!
  • Day 3: This day we decided to head towards Custer State Park. *Good note is to make sure you fill gas as you see gas stations. They are few and far between in the Black Hills area. When you drive out to these parks, you might be very secluded for hours on end. Custer State Park was full out great views of open prairie, wildlife (such as bison, prairie dogs, etc.), and the wandering wild donkeys. After we finished here to jumped on the Needle Tower Highway north towards Sylvan Lake. This highway is very narrow at places and navigates through the very sharp rock points of the Black Hills. It was beautiful, but be aware this drive is very slow and winding. Once we arrived at Sylvan Lake, we had time to jump in the water (beautiful and clean) and hike around the lake. There are an assortment of trails (short and long), and you could easily spend half a day there. After we wrapped up here we took a drive to Hill City, SD to jump on the 1880 train ride. This was a great opportunity, but I recommend (rather than buying round trip tickets) taking the train one-way and then reserving the shuttle back to where you came from (it is an hour train ride, but about a 15-20 minute drive). After we finished here, we quickly stopped at Crazy Horse Memorial. This was probably our least favorite part because it cost about $35 and there is not a whole lot to see unless you love Native American history.
  • Day 4: This was our last day. We decided to head north and check out Tatanka: Story of the Bison museum. This was a neat experience where you can listen to a Lakota man share about his culture and see some great artifacts and statues to commemorate the Lakota culture and celebrate the film "Dances with Wolves" (1990). When we finished, we walked around downtown Deadwood and enjoyed a meal at Buffalo Bodegas. The meal was great, but the atmosphere is even better. I also highly recommend the West River Whiskey. I enjoyed an awesome whiskey taste-testing here ($23) and you even get a free glass to take home. The whole downtown is full of fun restaurants, saloons, stores, etc. When we wrapped up here, we started home.

*Few good tips we wish we thought of or that we planned for:

-Bring LOTS of water. You will be walking a lot and stores are hard to come by.

-Grocery stores are hard to find west of Rapid City. Gas stations can get expensive and have limited items. Bring a big cooler and try to buy either in Rapid City or ahead of time. This saves a lot!

-Make sure to buy gas when you can. Gas stations can be far and few between in the Black Hills area or on the stretch in the Badlands.

-Stop at the visitor centers in the parks. They have great guides, maps, trail descriptions, etc. They helped us decide what trails would be appropriate for our family, animals to look for, etc.

-Check Groupon for ticket discounts. We were able to do this at Big Thunder Gold Mine at it saved us about $50 for our family.

-Plan on LOTS of time at the Badlands. We thought we planned enough time (3-4 hours), but we probably could have spend most of a day there navigating more trails.

-The hike around Mt. Rushmore is only listed as a mile (or less) hike, BUT, there are a LOT of stairs. Just be aware.

-Keep some cash on hand. Many places now are "cash-less", but, we ran into a few places (1880 train, Custer Park) that cash was needed.

All in all we really loved this trip. We agreed after that we wished we had an extra day or two to meander west or south a bit (Devils Tower is 2 hours west, Hot Springs was 1 hour south (mammoth digs)). Driving is a big part of this trip, but if you break it up right, the drives are 30 minutes or less most of the time and a perfect opportunity to rehydrate and cool down.

Hope you enjoy!

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