South Dakota often gets overlooked when it comes to planning a family vacation. This Midwest state is actually an ideal place to explore history and have fun, regardless of your age. Between Mount Rushmore, The Badlands, Rapid City, Crazy Horse, and Custer State Park, it will turn into the trip of a lifetime.
1. Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore is perhaps one of the most amazing sites your family will see on vacation. Three million people a year come to see the four former presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln –carved into the granite of a mountain.
As if the sculpture itself isn’t enough to enthrall, there’s plenty more to do at Mount Rushmore National Park. Check out the film about Gutzon Borglum and his carving of the mountain and then see the Sculptor’s Studio where he worked. You can also walk the Presidential Trail to get closer to the actual mountain. If you are still in the park at dusk, an Evening Lighting Ceremony is held each night from the middle of May until the end of September.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial has no entrance fee, but there is a parking fee. The park is open every day beginning at 5:00 a.m.
2. The Badlands
You can easily spend an entire day exploring the Badlands. One of the richest fossil beds in the world is contained within these geological deposits. The glorious formations spread over 244,000 acres. Along this vast prairie, many ancient mammals, including the saber-toothed cat, were once roaming the land.
Today, you can hike through one of the many trails for all levels of experience. You’ll also see animals such as bison, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, and black-footed ferrets. You can make a stop at the Ben Reifel Visitors Center to learn about the park and plan a meal at the Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant, where the Buffalo Indian Taco is a must.
The Badlands National Park is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. A $15 fee is required for entrance, however, you can be an annual pass for only $30 if you are planning multiple visits.
3. Rapid City
A trip to South Dakota should definitely include time in Rapid City, located just about an hour from The Badlands. First, you should learn about the history of this part of the state at The Journey Museum before you head to the downtown.
A walk through Rapid City is quite a lesson in history itself. Throughout the streets, you’ll see statues of every President of the United States. The Presidential Street Walk is just one of the free and easily accessible attractions here. Take a look at The Sculpture Project, which is the largest publicly funded art in the U.S. Also take some time to check out the alleyway between Saint Joseph and Main Street from 6th to 7th Streets where you’ll see some amazing paintings.
If you can make it to Rapid City on Thursdays, live musical performances take place along the streets of the city on that day each week.
4. Crazy Horse Memorial
Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear summoned sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to create a memorial to Crazy Horse in 1948. The memorial, which is dedicated to the heritage and culture of North American Indians, is the world’s largest mountain carving. It is also still a work in progress.
The Crazy Horse Memorial is a privately funded project that relies on donations and admission fees. Within the campus you’ll find the Welcome Center, the Indian Museum of North America, the Native American Educational & Cultural Center, and Korczak’s Studio and Home. You’ll also want to take some time to watch the video on the building of the monument.
Crazy Horse is open every day of the year. Admission is $11.00 per person, or $28.00 per carload. There is no charge for Active-Duty Military Personnel, Native Americans, Custer County Residents, or Boy Scout and Girls Scout troops, if they are in uniform.
5. Custer State Park
The breathtaking drive along Needles Highway alone makes it worth a trip to Custer State Park. The road is not for the faint of heart, as the granite formations guide you on one side while you can see the drop below quite clearly as you take the winding roads and one way tunnels.
The park is one of the largest in the U.S. and includes numerous hiking trails, most of which are designed with the experienced climber in mind. Still, everyone in the family can find something to do at Custer, where there are granite peaks and huge evergreen trees between the lakes filled with canoes and kayaks. If you only have one stop to make, Sylvan Lake should be it for an easy, scenic hike.
Custer State Park is open 24 hours a day every day of the year. You can purchase a license for up to seven days for $15 a car.
Keep in Mind… The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally takes place the first week of August every year. Unless you don’t mind sharing the roads of South Dakota with tens of thousands of motorcyclists, you might want to plan your vacation a different week.