My family’s trips are affected by two major factors: 1) my constrained vacation time; and 2) the cost of hauling 4 people. Hence, we tend to fly sporadically and when we drive, we want to drive somewhere in a day. This makes South Dakota a perfect vacation destination from central Iowa. But South Dakota is an excellent vacation destination in its own right, as you will see.
After a visit to the amazing Grotto of West Bend, our first South Dakota stop is Sioux Falls. Here we spent a couple of hours at Falls Park. I have seen many a water fall in my time, and while these falls do not have a long drop, the multiple tiers of rocks, falls, and rapids are breathtaking. The kids had a great time climbing on the rocks and we learned how industrialization ruined a little island that was perfect for courting.
The plains of South Dakota await with a sea of grass that extends to all horizons. The landscape can be completely flat and featureless save for a few billboards advertising Wall Drug. We broke up the expanse with a stop at the Corn Palace in Mitchell. Everyone agrees the Corn Palace is not much to see “but you have to see it”. You do not have have to see it. We did buy a couple of interstate bingo games for the kids and enjoyed a nice lunch at a grocery store. I suppose if you are going to stop in Mitchell anyway, a trip to the Corn Palace is not detrimental.
Wall Drug is one of those tourist traps that you might want to visit just for the sheer enormity of it. At the very least, Wall Drug has a giant animatronic dinosaur. Again, if you need a place to eat anyway, you can do worse than Wall Drug.
Just south of Wall Drug lie the Badlands of South Dakota. The is National Park offers spectacular, seemingly impossible views. The craggy expanse is one of dirt and clay, and not rock. See it now before it erodes away in another 100,000 to 500,000 years. The kids loved climbing and walking close to the edge of not so deadly cliffs. Luckily, we found a cabin available at Cedar Lodge. Staying in the park is much more fun than a hotel.
After a brief visit to the historically innacurate Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, we finally entered the famed Black Hills. What the Black Hills lack in altitude, it makes up for with attitude. Rocky cliffs and needles surround you. The contrast to the prairie and the Badlands is stark. Is this really the same state I was driving through yesterday? Again, the kids could not contain themselves when it came to climbing on the rocks. Their favorite destination is Mount Rushmore, where they both earned Junior Ranger badges for displaying their knowledge of the four presidents carved on the mountain.
Custer Park and Wind Cave National Park are the wonderful places for animal viewing. We passed a bison on Needles Highway but this was the tip of the herd iceberg. Bison herds, prong horns, deer, prairie dogs, and mules are all readily visible. Back in the Badlands, we also saw Big Horn Sheep, 11 striped squirrels, and Antelope. In the Black Hills, were saw fat Marmonts scurry under boulders.
The kids loved Wind Cave mostly because Dad had to duck where they did not. Of the 140 miles of cave found so far, we traversed less than a mile. And my son earned another Junior Ranger badge for his knowledge of the rock formations in the cave.
Our last day in the park was spent with some little hikes like the one around the man made Sylvan Lake and a trip to the Mammoth Dig site in Hot Springs. We finally let the kids have an afternoon off, and they very much enjoyed the pool and waterslide at Palmer Gulch. We were lucky again to find a nice little cabin at the edge of the forest, where we could enjoy a bit a privacy.
Sad to see South Dakota go, we made only three stops on the way way home, the Presidential Wax Museum, Reptile Gardens, and the Lewis and Clark interpretive display at the rest stop near Chamberlain. The wax museum was better than expected, though our 6 year old really did not care that much about presidential history. My son was resistant to the Reptile Gardens until I told him we would only stop for about 45 minutes. We stayed there over 2 hours. Well worth the admission price. The Lewis and Clark exhibit was closed before we arrived, so we had to glean what we could from staring through the windows. The fun did not end their. Before we embarked from our Holiday Inn Express in Mitchell, we played for an hour in the pool and the very fast water slide. One last hurrah before the long drive to central Iowa.