This summer, take a trip north into a wild state filled with mountains, forests, roaming buffalo and so much American history that your family may feel it has stepped back in time. If you are looking for the perfect family vacation, it can be found in South Dakota.
Millions of Americans have discovered the fun and adventure in this unique place. Tourism is the second largest industry in South Dakota, and it is a destination that offers deep outdoors fun, a glimpse into history, a chance to pan for gold and parks where you can ride up alongside buffalo as they graze the pristine flatlands.
While you could spend an entire month exploring the family-fun activities in South Dakota, chances are you may only have three or four days. So, here are five places you don’t want to miss—all great reasons to visit South Dakota this summer.
An almost eerie landscape of strange columns and peaks, the Badlands National Park (www.nps.gov/badl) is one of the most unique sights in North America. Formed by soft sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils eroded by wind and water, the rugged beauty of the Badlands also contains some of the world’s richest fossil beds.
The Junior Ranger’s Program for children allows youth to uncover ancient fossils while learning about the geology of the area. A daily fossil talk takes dinosaur-obsessed kids on a 15- to 20-minute walk through the history of fossils and why fossil preservation is important. The program is a 30-minute adventure that allows kids to walk, play games, explore the Badlands and, at the end, every kid earns a Junior Ranger badge or patch. Parents are welcome. Families can also explore the Badlands by hiking, taking a GPS adventure, camping and more.
The Badlands have new, updated cozy cabins located near the Visitor’s Center and a restaurant serving Indian tacos and buffalo burgers. The restaurant’s extensive gift shop sells local cheese and made-in-South Dakota items.
Wall Drug—North America’s #1 Roadside Attraction
Nestled next to South Dakota’s Badlands is one of the largest and most advertised roadside attractions in North America. Famous for its billboard advertising and antlered jackrabbits called jackalopes, Wall Drug Store (www.walldrug.com) is a huge working pharmacy featuring souvenirs, Native American artifacts and one of the state’s most extensive Western art collections.
Wall Drug got its start during the Depression years by offering free ice water to thirsty travelers in 1931. Today, the family-owned and run business still offers five cent coffee. Don’t miss the Wall Drug Donuts. These sugary, dense beauties are practically irresistible.
The kids will love watching the roaring animated T-Rex and giant jackalope, and mom and dad will enjoy gourmet coffee and shopping in this 76,000 square foot wonderland. Free admission means your family can explore a panning and mining experience, props in the outdoors picnic area, South Dakota jackalopes, a Train Station Water Show and more.
Whether you’re flying or driving to South Dakota, make Rapid City (www.visitrapidcity.com) your home base. This city of roughly 69,000 offers a short drive to everything you need to see in the Black Hills country, but has amusing family-friendly attractions of its own. Indoor and outdoor water parks, the City View Trolley (www.rapidride.org/city-view-trolley.php), interactive museums, galleries and wildlife parks are just a few of the exciting activities your kids will love.
Be sure to take a trip to the Outdoor Campus West (http://gfp.sd.gov/outdoor-learning/outdoor-campus/west), which provides outdoor education experiences such as learning to fish, discovering the native animals and hiking for youth and adults. Funded by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, Outdoor Campus West includes a large pond stocked with trout and bass, perfect for any age or level of angler.
While in Rapid City, check out Reptile Gardens (www.reptilegardens.com), which is home to more reptiles than any zoo in the world, including everything from rare and dangerous snakes to lumbering ancient tortoises. Reptile Gardens includes a walk through a rainforest with native lizards and free-flying birds and daily shows featuring alligators, snakes and wild birds.
Need a place to eat after a full day of fishing and discovering reptiles? Check out the popular Americana restaurant Sanford’s Pub and Grub (www.thegrubandpub.com) at 306 7th Street or the famous Firehouse Brewing Company (www.firehousebrewing.com) at 610 Main Street.
Custer State Park
Nestled deep in the Black Hills, Custer State Park (http://gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/custer) is home to one of the largest publicly-held buffalo herds in the world. With its clear mountain streams, towering pine forests and miles of undisturbed wilderness, the park offers hiking, exploring and gorgeous scenery.
Four lodges at the park offer accommodations ranging from rustic to upscale, and each can arrange on-site activities including fly-fishing and chuck wagon suppers.
This park, located on 71,000 acres of spectacular terrain, also has several scenic drives your family can take, including exploring the granite spires of Needles Highway and the animal-rich Wildlife Loop Road. It’s not uncommon to see the dainty antelopes or majestic buffalo roaming free in the park. To get a closer view, take a Jeep Safari Adventure at the park. Open air Jeeps take you to herds of buffalo, elk and deer while the driver shares historical and educational information about the park. Tours begin at the State Game Lodge.
Custer State Park is also home to the annual Buffalo Roundup in September when the ground shakes with the thunder of thousands of buffalo. Families can watch cowboys and cowgirls herd the buffalo into corrals for annual vaccinations and herd management.
Historic Mount Rushmore
No trip to South Dakota is complete without visiting the awe-inspiring and patriotic vision of Mount Rushmore (www.nps.gov/moru/index.htm). Visited by nearly three million people a year, Mount Rushmore was the dream of Danish-American Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum. The sculptures took 14 years to complete and Mount Rushmore became part of the National Park Service in 1933.
Mount Rushmore features 60-foot sculptures of the heads of four United States presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. A short but steep hike brings visitors to different viewing areas at the park. In the summer, rangers also lead families on interpretive walks. The park includes a gift shop, bookstore and an ice cream shop.
If those attractions aren’t enough for you, don’t worry. The Black Hills Country has hands-on activities that bring kids deep inside the gold mining era and chugging along in a real 1880’s train in the town of Keystone (www.keystonechamber.com). A popular stop for those visiting Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park, this little town is home to the Big Thunder Gold Mine (www.bigthundermine.com). Family-friendly tours explore an authentic 1890’s gold mine and children can learn to pan for gold—and every child is guaranteed to find a treasure.
Also, don’t miss taking a two-hour round trip ride on the 1880 train (www.1880train.com). This vintage steam train winds through the Black Hills between Keystone and Hill City, bringing back the romance of traveling in a bygone era.
Ready to pack your bags and explore all that South Dakota has to offer? Head to www.travelsd.com for more information, vacation guides and tools to plan your perfect summer trip.