Have you been to South Dakota? It is a special place for my family. Not only does it hold the plants, animals and material culture my husband has spent the last decade studying, two of our best family vacations were spent in South Dakota’s hills. Why? Every drive is scenic. Sunsets and storms roll in over the hills and it’s impossible to not feel awe. Dinosaur and mammoth bones are plentiful in every museum. Wildlife is right there and right over there! Paleontology, wildlife, hiking, museums, horseback riding, if your family is like ours and enjoys the outdoors, South Dakota is a place you will love. Travel with kids to South Dakota, where buffalo roam, the rocks have faces, and there is plenty (too much for one trip) to see and do.
Travel with Kids to South Dakota
Sites to See~
Mount Rushmore– You can’t go to western South Dakota without seeing Mount Rushmore. Literally. It’s huge. The presidents can be seen without entering the national park, but for the best views and to learn about the history, presidents, and how the sculpture was created, you really need to spend a few hours inside the park. We found the Junior Ranger Program made the experience a lot of fun and probably more meaningful for our kids!
Needles Highway– This is a gorgeous drive. There are plenty of places to pull over, get out, and take pictures. People tend to drive pretty slow. Our kid who gets car sick was okay, but know it is a VERY twisty drive. Needles Highway is inside Custer State Park and is one of the many beautiful places in South Dakota to take a drive.
Custer State Park– Another great place to drive, if your family loves animals this is the place to view them! We saw herds of buffalo and a few solitary males. (Note: Some were really close to the side of the road. Do stay in your car! They are not friendly and many people have been hurt and killed thinking they were gentle.) We also saw a coyote, a ton of prairie dog towns, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, deer, and elk.
Custer State Park is also a great place to hike and swim. They have an outdoor education center, wildlife station visitor center, and offer a Junior Ranger Program for kids.
Now that our children are getting older and can do longer hikes, next time we’ll spend a lot more time in this park. See below for places to stay while in Custer State Park.
Bear Country– A drive through safari in the Black Hills, this is one of my kids’ favorite stops. Most of the animals roam free, while people are in cages (cars). The bears come close to cars and you can often see them being fed. There are also a number of other animals, a walking section that is more like a zoo experience, and a fun gift shop.
Reptile Gardens– Also in the Black Hills, this animal encounter experience gets you up close and personal with crocodiles, turtles, snakes, and lizards. You can also see birds of prey, insects, and amphibians. Reptile Gardens is committed to conservation and education which made me and my family feel a lot better about going there.
Wind Cave– Located in Hot Springs, South Dakota, Wind Cave National Park is one of our favorite places to visit. It is also one of the longest and complex cave systems in the world. My children loved their Jr. Ranger Program and how much the tour guides encourage questions. The hour and a half long tour was perfect for our family both times we ventured there. There are many tours to choose from and they leave fairly often. There is a museum within the visitor center, 30 miles of hiking trails, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing.
The Mammoth Site– Also in Hot Springs, the Mammoth Site is an active paleontological dig. It hosts the largest amount of Mammoth remains in the world. They have currently found 61 Mammoths. You’ll see paleontologists dig, can sign your children up (well in advance) to be part of the dig, and learn all about the site on a guided tour. And you’ll learn that every single mammoth they’ve found is of one gender. Hmm…
Other Places we loved-
Storybook Island– A huge, free playground in Rapid City centered around Storybook characters. Really great for little kids.
Dinosaur Park- Another free playground of sorts located in the Black Hills has huge statues of dinosaurs are every where. Also great for little ones.
Prairie Edge– One of our must stop in stores in the Black Hills, Prairie Edge is known for having the most extensive collection of Plains Indian Art, crafts, and jewelry. Plan to spend at least an hour. It’s huge and there are so many great things to see and buy!
Crazy Horse Memorial– A memorial that first began in 1948, the Crazy Horse Memorial continues to be built today. We really enjoyed their laser light show and museum. The story is fascinating and the site offers good information about indigenous people in the area.
Places to Stay ~
Rapid City/Black Hills
Our family stayed at the same camp ground/resort on both of our trips. We highly recommend the Palmer Gulch Mount Rushmore Resort and Lodge. My family has camped, rented a tiny bunk only cabin, and rented a large fully furnished cabin. All were wonderful! They also have a lodge and a variety of different cabin options.
The Palmer Gulch Resort has pretty much EVERYTHING: swimming pools, playgrounds, horseback riding, restaurants, coffee shops, outdoor pancake breakfasts, laundry facilities, bike rentals, a splash pad, fishing. . . the list can go on and on. It’s affordable, clean, convenient to Rapid City, Custer State Park, and Mount Rushmore, and is set in the beautiful Black Hills.
Custer State Park– While my family has not stayed in Custer State Park, the next time we travel to South Dakota, it is one of the places we’d like to spend a lot more time. They also offer camping and have a number of resorts to choose from within the park. We drove by Sylvan Lake during our last visit and I’m still kicking myself we didn’t stop to swim.
My husband is currently living at the Badlands Interior Campground. He had no intention of spending that long in one place, but the owners’ hospitality, the ease of location, accommodations, and amenities kept him there for the entirety of his two-month research trip.
We haven’t spent a ton of time in Sioux Falls since we spend most of our time farther west, but the Dakota Lodge has become a favorite stopping place. Clean, affordable, a water park, it is PERFECT after a long day of driving and a great place to stay if you’re going to take in the many sites Sioux Falls has to offer. Make sure to check out the trolly and falls!
I’ve written about our time in De Smet before, but it was such an amazing experience, it’s worth mentioning again! De Smet, South Dakota is where the Ingalls family had their last homestead. It is also one of the settings in By the Shores of Silver Lake. The Ingalls Homestead is not only a wonderful place to explore and learn, it is a REALLY fun place to sleep. Rent a covered wagon or camp on the prairie, both are extremely affordable and you can explore the homestead grounds on your own all evening.
Books to Read
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South Dakota is a state my family will travel to again and again. There is so much we have yet to see and so much we hope to see again! Travel with your family to South Dakota and let the adventures begin!