Over the years we’ve taken many vacations with the kids to visit family in western Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky and Florida and we’ve done Disney, but this is only the second trip we’ve taken that I would consider to be a true “family vacation”. Like the Chevy Chase, National Lampoon’s Vacation kind. Last year we did Mackinac Island, which was amazing, and this year we decided to venture a bit farther to see Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. It ended up being a great family trip, which I would highly recommend. Especially as a “starter trip” if you aren’t ready to go all the way out west to Montana, Arizona, California or etc. Our girls are 8, 10 & 12–with one who gets carsick–so this road trip was manageable and was without carsick incident. (The seabands seem to help, and of course, no reading or writing for her when in the car.)
I can’t take much credit for planning this trip. I basically stole most of our itinerary from a coworker who told me everywhere we should visit and the best town to stay in. And my husband found the lodging and pretty much planned our daily outings, so major props to him. He is now in charge of all future family trips! 🙂 Since I’m not a “camper” and we have 3 girls who aren’t really into bugs or dirt, this was about the closest my husband was ever going to get us to camping. He found a lodge with these awesome little cabins, so we went “Glamping” and it was great!
When we told the girls we were going to be roughing it for this trip, they weren’t too excited at first. They didn’t like the idea of not having a bathroom in the cabin and weren’t so sure about no TV or pool. But they all ended up loving the cabin, as did I. I definitely recommend this spot for families. It’s the Buffalo Rock Lodge, located in the Black Hills of Keystone, South Dakota–only a few miles from Mount Rushmore. In fact, it’s one of the only spots that can boast a night-time view of Mount Rushmore–from the porch of the lodge you can see Mount Rushmore lit up in the distance. Currently they have a B&B in the lodge and 3 one-room cabins surrounded by natural landscapes. One morning the girls saw a doe and her fawn bedded down in the front of our cabin from the porch and as we drove to & from our cabin each day we had to watch for cattle crossing the road as it is a free-range ranch area. We stayed in Cabin 1 and it was adorably decorated in a contemporary southwestern style. It had a king bed and bunk beds (twin on top, full on bottom), so it could sleep 5. However, since our girls are not good at sharing their sleep spaces, we brought along a cot for one of the girls to sleep on and it worked out great–everyone had their own space just like at home! It was equipped with a mini fridge, a window A/C unit, fan, table & chairs, microwave, hot plate, coffee maker, water cooler and plastic dishes, cups & utensils. They have free wi-fi, too, but it doesn’t work too well inside the cabins. (If you really need it, just step outside to use it.) They covered all the little details, too, with a roll of paper towels, hand sanitizer, a fly swatter, lantern/flashlight, mirror and broom/dustpan in the room. Each cabin is assigned to a bathroom in the shower house, so while the bathroom isn’t in your cabin, you aren’t sharing it with others or waiting in line to do your business. The shower house was a short walk up the hill and was very new and nice. It had a large shower, toilet and double sink. They provided plenty of towels and washcloths as well. You just need to bring your own soap/toiletries. In the middle of all the cabins is a shared pavilion which we also enjoyed. You can use this space to grill your own food (grill provided), have a campfire in the fire pit and there are lots of yard games for the kids/family: badmitton, volleyball, ladder toss, a swing and corn hole/bean bag toss. (There is also a porta potty in close proximity to cabins 1 & 2 in case you don’t want to walk up the hill to the shower house in the middle of the night.)
But enough about the lodge, more about our trip. Here’s an overview of what we did each day, in case you want to copy our itinerary:
Day 1 (Travel)
10 hour drive from western Wisconsin (Eau Claire area), 12 hours with stops
Stop 1: Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota (with a picnic lunch in the park by the Jolly Green Giant Museum).
Stop 2: The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.
Stop 3: Dignity Statue on the east bank of the Missouri River in Chamberlain, South Dakota (with a stop at the local Pizza Hut for dinner).
Stop 4: Final destination–The Buffalo Rock Lodge in Keystone, South Dakota.
-The Rushmore Borglum Museum in Keystone to watch the Gutzon Borglum Movie. The movie was only about 20 minutes long and was a good preface to seeing Mount Rushmore, giving us the historical background of the project & sculptor. ($7 for movie only per adult, kids free)
-Mount Rushmore ($10 parking fee)
-Crazy Horse–drove by, didn’t stop/tour
-Custer State Park ($20 per car for a 1-week pass): Needles Highway & The Wildlife Loop. The Wildlife Loop is hit or miss depending on the time of day and etc. We didn’t see a whole lot, some people see tons of wildlife. We saw a small bison herd, donkeys and pronghorn. (Beware of the donkeys! They will come right up to the car and stick their head in the window looking for food!)
After our day of sightseeing we went back to the lodge and took advantage of the pavilion and grilled burgers, had a campfire to make s’mores and played badmitton, volleyball & corn hole/bean bag toss with the kids.
We didn’t have a lot planned for Day 3 other than Bear Country, and the weather was great, so we thought it might be a good day for swimming. The lodge doesn’t have a pool, but they recommended a nearby place called Center Lake with a beach. It was free to enter with our Custer State Park pass. It looked pretty nice but was a little too rustic for the girls and I, so we ended up finding a public pool to enjoy.
-Bear Country ($65 max per family). Bear Country was amazing. I hadn’t heard of it but one of my husband’s coworkers recommended it and it was awesome. It’s basically a drive-through zoo where the animals roam freely so you stay in your car with the windows rolled up at all times and you get to see lots of cool animals. There are TONS of bears, obviously. At the end there is a smaller zoo area that you walk through. We got our lunch from their concession stand which was very nice.
-Swimming in Rapid City at Parkview Public Pool ($40 for the whole family). It was a very nice and clean pool. It had a zero entry area with sprinklers as well as deeper areas for older kids to swim. There was also a diving board and a fun twisting slide for the kids to enjoy.
-Dinner at Pizza Ranch. It was great. Pizza Ranch is now one of our new favorite family dinner spots.
We did a lot of driving around this day…
-Drove to the Mt Coolidge lookout which is about 6023 ft elevation (we could see Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse & Badlands through their binoculars for 25 cents)
-Went to the town of Custer for lunch & pie at the Purple Pie restaurant. This was recommended by a friend…the pie was good, but the food seemed a bit over-priced.
-Visited Deadwood where we walked the main street of the old west town and got to see the reenactment of a gun fight.
-Drove through Lead, Sturgis and Rapid City…there wasn’t much to see. Despite being there 1 week before the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally there really weren’t too many bikes in any of the towns yet.
-Back in Keystone we ate dinner at The Powder House Lodge, which was very good, and then walked the main strip of Keystone and did some shopping.
Day 5 (Travel)
All good things must come to an end. It was our last day, but we still had some sights to see. On our way back home we stopped at the famous Wall Drug and enjoyed their homemade donuts & free ice water and the kids played in the Wall Drug Backyard for a bit. Then we drove through the Badlands ($25 per carload or FREE with a 4th grader “Every Kid in a Park” pass), which are a wonder to see up close and it was a beautiful drive. There are several lookout points where you can stop and explore and take pictures or have a picnic.
After leaving the Badlands we were on our way home. We stopped at a rest area and had a picnic lunch somewhere in South Dakota before continuing on the rest of the way back to my husband’s hometown near Eau Claire. As for dinner, I’m pretty sure I ate a candy bar and the kids got some lunchables to eat in the car from our last gas stop.
I felt 5 days was plenty of time to see all the sights in the area. You could probably even shorten it to 4 days and get everything in. The only thing we didn’t see that others might want to squeeze in would be Wind Cave National Park. (We went to some caves in Kentucky last summer, so we weren’t too interested in doing that on this trip…if you’ve seen one cave you’ve seen them all, in my opinion.) And there’s Devils Tower in Wyoming, which would add a few more hours of travel to the trip. Of course there are also lots of other tourist attractions in the area like zip lining, helicopter tours, reptile gardens, indoor waterparks and etc, but you can do those things just about anywhere–it’s up to you how much time you want to spend and what you want to do while you are there!