It’s been a few years since the kids and I took a road trip through South Dakota but I was looking through some old photos recently and they reminded me what a fun time we had here. One of the first National Parks vacations that I took with the kids, it holds many wonderful memories for us. We road tripped during June for our month long 4,000 mile road trip across the great plains to Wyoming and Montana (click here to view our itinerary) and we all loved exploring the unique landscapes, historical sites and strange beauty of the area.
Road Trip Through South Dakota:
Our road trip started in Cincinnati and we spent our first night after a long day’s drive in beautiful Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Staying at the Sioux Falls Club House Suites, the kids were in heaven since they have a fun water playground in the pool area and also had an onsite Carino’s Italian Restaurant which offered room service straight to our suite. We rarely splurge for room service, so when we do the kids are especially excited. If I am ever in Sioux Falls again, I would definitely stay here as the room was comfortable, the kids had a blast in the pool and the free breakfast offered in the morning was delicious and much better than a typical continental breakfast. In the morning we visited Falls Park to see the beautiful waterfalls that the city is named after before getting back on the road.
Driving through South Dakota may sound long and tedious but it was actually quite fun as unique diversions are spread out at convenient stopping points along the way and we took an extended break at Mitchell’s Corn Palace around lunch time. Decorated each year since 1892 with murals made of corn, grain and grasses, the Corn Palace is a must see tourist stop with over 500,000 yearly visitors. It’s free to go inside and look around and there is also a gift shop with regional crafts that we browsed through.
Only 3 hours away, our next stop was the famous Wall Drug Store. Part shopping destination and part tourist trap, Wall Drug will be a stop your family remembers. The history of the Wall Drug’s start adds to the allure. At the height of the Great Depression, as hoards of families were traveling west but few were bothering to stop at their drug store, Dorothy Hustead had the idea to plaster the highway with signs offering “Free Ice Water.” From the start, this brought more and more visitors into the store who not only enjoyed the free water but also started buying other things and business took off. What began as a struggling drug store originally opened in the 1930’s by the Hustead Family in the small town of Wall, is now a 76,000 square foot tourist mecca (click here for the map) with over 2 million annual visitors. Largely kitsch, there is no end to the silly displays and the kids LOVED it here. There is also a cafe with good diner type food which still serves 5 cent coffee. Gotta love that! We spent a couple of hours here exploring the crowded store, posing for pictures, and eating at the diner. Wall Drug is a definite must see.
From Wall Drug, we just had a half hour drive to Badlands National Park where we stayed for a couple of days exploring the area. There are two campgrounds in Badlands, but we chose to stay at the Cedar Pass Lodge located inside the park where we rented a comfortable cabin. I love staying inside the park boundaries when visiting a National Park so we can be right in the center of things at the beginning of the day. We filled our visit with several hikes and also attended interesting ranger led programs. The kids felt proud to earn their badges by participating in the Junior Ranger Program. A highlight of our trip was taking the Highway 240 Loop Road scenic drive where we not only saw beautiful views of the landscape, we were lucky enough to see a bobcat slinking away behind a bush along with countless prairie dogs and a bighorn sheep herd. Not very crowded during our visit, Badlands is a park you can freely explore to enjoy the quiet and rugged beauty of the area and we were sad to leave.
Once we left Badlands National Park, we only had a two and a half hour drive to the Mount Rushmore KOA located in the Black Hills near Custer State Park. This huge campground is a destination in and of itself and the kids loved all of the activities. With two pools, a water slide, horseback riding, a bounce pillow, bike rentals and on and on, there is a ton of things to do to keep you busy here and we spent our first evening setting up camp and exploring the campground. We especially enjoyed how our large wooded campsite was backed against the horse runs where the horses traveled to the corrals each morning and evening. It is also a convenient location to tour the area attractions so we stayed here for 4 nights which allowed us enough time to explore.
I am not sure why I had the impression that South Dakota was going to be a brown and barren wasteland, but I was happily surprised to find the Black Hills area to be lush and green. It was unexpected to find it to be so beautiful! Our first stop was Mount Rushmore which was as wonderful and awe inspiring as I had hoped. We spent several hours at the Visitor Center learning the inspiring history of the giant stone sculpture by watching the park video and browsing the exhibits before heading out to the hiking path that allows for various viewpoints. The kids also earned their Junior Ranger Badges by completing the activity booklet we picked up at the Visitor Center.
We also spent a day at Wind Cave National Park where we enjoyed a picnic lunch before taking the Ranger-led Natural Entrance Cave Tour. Since I was by myself with the kids, and Sophie learned she DID NOT like being in caves, this was a little less enjoyable than it could have been, but we still found it interesting. I find cave systems like this to be amazing because the land above ground gives you no clue of the crazy trails under your feet. The kids completed the Junior Ranger Program here as well. They were accumulating quite a collection of badges during this road trip!
Located nearby, we loved Custer State Park and the wildlife we saw here was unbelievable! Bison, pronghorn, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep were all out and about and the kids and I were fascinated. Again, the area is green and lush and absolutely beautiful. We could have spent many days just at this park alone.
While driving through South Dakota is definitely a long trek, there is so much to see and do that the time passes quickly. Even on my own with 4 young kids the journey was completely enjoyable and while I was looking forward to Dave flying in to Cody, Wyoming when we finally made it to Yellowstone, I would do it again in a heartbeat!
If you go:
To help plan our trip I read Insider’s Guide to Badlands National Park and the Black Hills of South Dakota which was a great resource. I also kept handy two of my favorite National Parks books- Fodor’s The Complete Guide to the National Parks of the West and Frommer’s National Parks of the American West. These books have been invaluable in trip planning for many of our National Parks vacations and my dog eared and well worn copies sit on my night stand for trip inspiration.
Make sure you plan for any type of weather. During out trip in June, some of our days were smoking hot and sometimes we needed jackets and pants. Dress in layers and you will be fine.
One of the ways we pass the time on road trips is to listen to books on tape. For this trip we had picked Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie series because parts of it take place in South Dakota. This was a perfect choice as they took many hours to listen to them all but the stories are still wonderful and we enjoyed listening to the books that I had grown up reading.
I also make “Busy Bags” for long road trips and fill them up with car appropriate activities like small toys, coloring books and books about the places we are visiting. For this road trip I packed M is for Mount Rushmore: A South Dakota Alphabet which is a beautiful picture book that all the kids enjoyed. Other fantastic books for kids about Badlands and other National Parks include Wildlife Watching in America’s National Parks: A Seasonal Guide and they enjoyed coloring the National Parks Coloring Book. National Geographic Kids National Parks Guide U.S.A.: The Most Amazing Sights, Scenes, and Cool Activities from Coast to Coast! is a great resource as well.