There are two responses I received when people heard I was going on a South Dakota family road trip with my middle child. First, was the question of why I was going to South Dakota. The other response was from those who had been to South Dakota with an exclamation of how much they loved South Dakota. So, using a very scientific formula, I concluded that there are two groups of people in this world - those who love South Dakota and those who haven't been to South Dakota yet.
For those who haven't been to South Dakota, here are 15 kid-friendly stops for your South Dakota family road trip. Which you should start planning now. Because it's all kinds of fantastic. In six days, we crammed as much as we could in as we traveled across South Dakota. But honestly, there was much more that we could have done and seen. As a little geography refresher, Rapid City is on the western side of the state while Sioux Falls is on the eastern side of the state, both along I-90. Surrounding both of these cities and in between are loads of family friendly things to do on your South Dakota family road trip.
1. Mount Rushmore National Monument (Keystone, SD)
I was one of those people that said, "I've always wanted to see Mount Rushmore." And a lot of people said that to me when they found out we visited. There is something remarkable and stirring seeing Mount Rushmore in person. Learning more about the monument in the visitor's center or by talking to a ranger, you'll find your patriotism takes deeper root in respect for what the monument represents. The visitor's center has great exhibits for all ages and your child can earn a Junior Ranger badge by completing an activity booklet. Mount Rushmore is also the only spot in the nation where you will be able to try Thomas Jefferson's original ice cream recipe. And you really must try it.
2. Crazy Horse Memorial (Crazy Horse, SD)
We did not make it to Crazy Horse Memorial because we had so much packed into our agenda but this will remain on my list of things to see for our next South Dakota road trip. Started in 1948 and still under construction, the memorial stands a tribute to American Indians, depicting Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota warrior. Once complete, Crazy Horse Memorial will be the world's largest mountain carving (all four Mount Rushmore president's heads can fit in the head of the horse).
3. Black Hills National Forest (Black Hills, SD)
The George S. Mickelson Trail was built along a former railroad corridor and stretches 109 miles through the Black Hills. With 15 trail heads, you can find the best trail to fit your family. Or, ride the 1880 Train on a 20-mile ride between Keystone and Hill City. Your train loving kids will love the historic journey as you enjoy the scenic Black Hills. If your kids love to hit the trails, you must explore the Black Hills National Forest.
4. Custer State Park (Custer, SD)
We took a Buffalo Safari Jeep Ride from the Sate Game Lodge at Custer State Park. We saw so much wildlife. And it was all up close. Meaning, a bison walked within feet of our jeep. It was incredible. During our spring visit, we got to see calves too! The unexpected surprise was seeing pronghorns. But it was absolutely delightful to see and hear the prairie dogs. Custer State Park has a wildlife loop visitors may drive. The park also offers lodging, hayrides, and horseback rides.
5. Rapid City
I have a thing for vibrant downtown cities. I could tell immediately upon arrival that Rapid City vibrant and alive. There is a huge emphasis on art - walk through Art Alley or take a Presidential Statue self-guided tour (meet 43 U.S. Presidents along the corners of the streets). Summer music festivals are hosted weekly downtown and are free and family friendly. Make sure to stop at the locally-owned shops and restaurants. The food at Tally's Sliver Spoon is phenomenal and Colonial House is perfect for family dining (try their legendary caramel rolls). For a night of entertainment with your meal, you should try the Fort Hayes Chuckwagon Supper and Show. Dinosaur Park is also in Rapid City and has a fantastic view PLUS you'll find life-size dinosaurs you're kids will love.
6. Reptile Gardens (Rapid City, SD)
Reptile Gardens opened in 1937 by Earl Brockelsby which has continued to be family-run and has grown to become the world's largest collection of reptiles. There is a botanical garden, shows featuring snakes, alligators and birds, a playground for little ones and prairie dog town. My personal favorite was meeting and interacting with the giant tortoises up close.
7. Rush Mountain Adventure Park (Keystone, SD)
Rush Mountain Adventure Park was my daughter's favorite place on our trip. I personally loved Rushmore Cave - it was stunning. My daughter loved the zip line and the brand new mountain coaster. Rush Mountain Adventure Park is very clean and well-maintained. It is obvious there is much care and thought put in to the details of the attraction. Also, that mountain coaster. Oh, I mentioned that? It's just too fun to not mention again.
8. Big Thunder Gold Mine (Keystone, SD)
I had to consult my daughter on the creation of the list and this was another of her top picks. We toured an actual gold mine learning about the conditions of the day when it was active. The highlight though was meeting Rattlesnake Randy a world champion of speed gold panning. Not to brag but I did find 3 tiny flecks of gold after 10 solid minutes of panning. It took Randy probably 5 seconds to do the same. Speed panning. It's a thing.
9. Bear Country, USA (Rapid City, SD)
You can drive through Bear Country and see 20 different species of wildlife in natural exhibits. The black bears really are what I was most excited to see up close. Those roaming bears will walk right up to your car. After you drive through, you can stop at Babyland to see the bear cubs and other small wildlife.
10. Wall Drug (Wall, SD)
I had no idea what Wall Drug was before we stopped here. But everyone else apparently does. When I posted a picture on social media, I got loads of comments. I love Wall Drug! Did you get your free water? 5 cent coffee! And it is true, the world's largest drug store is famous for the free ice water, 5 cent coffee and their delicious donuts. What I was surprised to discover among the enormous shops, backyard and dining room? The collection of oil paintings. There are over 300 original oil paintings displayed throughout the dining rooms. It was an unexpected surprise to find such a gem of a collection of Western Art. Did I mention donuts?
11.Badlands National Park
I spent almost the entire drive through the wildlife loop muttering, "This is amazing" under my breath. Within minutes, we saw bison. At our first stop, we saw families of mountain goats hopping all over and playing. One walked within feet of me. I was blown away by not only the wildlife but the backdrop of those stunning canyons, buttes and spires. Without a doubt, when you bring your family to our national parks, you can't help but be grateful to live in such a beautiful country. The hiking in Badlands is great for all ages and largely left to you to explore. So, go ahead and explore.
12. Children's Museum of South Dakota (Brookings, SD)
Right off of I-90, it is worth stopping in Brookings to visit the Children's Museum of South Dakota. The space is a former elementary school which has grown to house a spectacular museum for kids. By taking ordinary things like delivering mail or shopping in a grocery stores, kids learn by doing all while having a great time. The outdoor portion of the museum is equally impressive with nature play and dinosaur digging. We were lucky to see the opening of an art installation created by Patrick Dougherty which fits perfectly in the backyard of the museum.
13. Sioux Falls
The beautiful Falls Park, the sculpture walk on the streets of downtown and the local shops and restaurants make Sioux Falls a perfect stop on your road trip. We had dinner at Phillips Avenue Diner and after my daughter had the most delicious Dreamsickle float (orange soda and vanilla ice cream), I had to get myself a Chocomint Crush milkshake at that I literally downed within 5 minutes and didn't have an ounce of regret. Totally worth it. In the morning, we stopped by the most delightful Queen City Bakery for their homemade pastries.
14. Butterfly House and Aquarium (Sioux Falls, SD)
The Butterfly House and Aquarium is a great place for your family to spend an afternoon. It isn't super large but what is inside is plentiful. There are so many beautiful butterflies and if you are lucky, they'll land right on you. The aquarium is small but had a lot to captivate little minds. There are stingrays and sharks to touch as well as creatures in the tide pool.
15. Great Plains Zoo (Sioux Falls, SD)
In summer 2017, you'll be able to find Koala Bears on exhibit at the Great Plains Zoo. In the face-to-face farm, you can feed the goats and alpacas. We had such a neat experience seeing a week-old snow monkey. The baby was so young that even the zookeepers had no idea the gender of the baby since the mother was so protective. For your animal loving kids, put this on your list to see.
So get planning your South Dakota family road trip now! You won't be disappointed (and neither will the kids!).
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