Family Vacations to Black Hills, Badlands, and Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

Mt. Rushmore South Dakota
Mt. Rushmore (PhotoDisc)

South Dakota makes for an intriguing family vacation, offering a fun-filled combination of natural beauty, unusual geological features, and distinct Native American and Westward Expansion heritage.

A good starting point in Rapid City is the Journey Museum, which recounts two versions of Great Plains history: a scientific explanation based on fossils and geologic cross-sections as well as the mythological explanation from the Lakota Sioux. Check out the Native American exhibit with its hologram of a woman talking in a tepee for an especially revealing glimpse of regional folklore.

Nearby, the Black Hills region of South Dakota, approximately 65 miles wide and 125 miles long, includes five national parks and memorials. The most well-known is the Mount Rushmore National Monument, with its 60-foot-long chiseled faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, embedded in the American psyche as much as they are the granite of Mount Rushmore. The best time to view these iconic busts is between sunrise and ten o'clock. The half-mile Presidential Trail gets you up close to the carvings.

Balance the history lesson by visiting a fifth face at the nine-story Crazy Horse Memorial, a monument to the leader of the Lakota Indians. When complete, the sculpture will be the world's largest mountain carving at 563 feet wide by 641 feet tall. June 3 to 4 marks the only time in the year that you can walk the 6.2-mile round-trip path onto the arm and take in the panoramic valley views. Stay for the evening laser show of images projected onto the stone.

Custer State Park, situated on 71,000 acres of rolling grasslands and pine forests 40 miles southwest of Rapid City, is home to about 1,500 head of buffalo, one of the largest herds in the U.S. Jeep safari drives, which depart from the State Game Lodge, get you out into the backcountry to see these living icons of the West. Then head south to Wind Cave, the highlight of Wind Cave National Park, which is reputed to be the fourth-longest U.S. cave with nearly 120 miles of mapped passages. Guides lead you through a half-mile tour that takes about 75 minutes and features abundant boxwork—thin calcite fins resembling honeycombs, for which the cave is known.

In the nearby town of Hot Springs is the indoor Mammoth Site, one of the richest mammoth finds in North America, with 53 skeletons, many of them in situ as when they were first uncovered. With the Junior Paleontologist Excavation, kids ages four to 13 can dig for fossil replicas. Note: it only runs from June 1 through August 15, so reserve well ahead for a space in this popular program.

Known for its unusual calcite formations, Jewel Cave National Monument is the third-longest cave in the world with 133 miles of mapped passages. Ninety-minute guided tours are available. The monument is 55 miles southwest of Rapid City.

Wind and water created the wild assortment of pinnacles, cones, peaks, canyons, and ridges you see at 244,000-acre Badlands National Park. Drive through the park and keep an eye out for bison, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep, but be sure to walk around, even a short way, for a different perspective. The quarter-mile Fossil Exhibit Trail, a wheelchair- and stroller-accessible loop, has replicas of area fossils.

Tip: Custer State Park's buffalo roundup occurs the first Monday in October. Book months ahead for park lodging or arrive very early that morning to watch the herd come thundering into the corrals.

Recommended Side Trips: Sturgis, Pierre's resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 17 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »