Mount Rushmore is the reason most people visit the Black Hills. But those presidents’ heads are Lilliputian compared with the Crazy Horse Memorial. Another behemoth, Tyrannosaurus Rex "Sue," was discovered in the nearby Badlands. Her remains now reside at Chicago's Field Museum while those of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane can be found in Deadwood. Alive and well in Custer State Park are bison, antelope, and lots of other wild things.
Diversity is the name of the game in western South Dakota. With an abundance of history, wildlife, natural beauty, and attractions, no one has time to get cranky or bored. It’s perfect for a multigeneration family vacation. Here are some Black Hills charms:
Four great presidents, Georgie, Tommy, Teddy, and Abe — as local Suzette Ainsworth refers to them — peer out at visitors from atop the rocky hills. What better place to give your grandchildren the skinny on a little American history? Five- to 12-year-olds can join the Junior Ranger program or you can walk with them on the half-mile Presidential Trail.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Since 1948, the late Korczak Ziolkowski and family have been blasting away at Crazy Horse Mountain. Crazy Horse’s nearly completed head stands nine stories tall. When will it be finished? "Probably be on a Tuesday," says the sculptor’s octogenarian widow, Ruth. Some day, the Lakota leader on his steed pointing to the land where his people are buried will cover the mountain.
Custer State Park
Take the grandchildren on a buffalo safari in a 1984, rag-top Jeep. They will see bison, prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, mule-eared deer, and coyote. If you are lucky, you’ll get octogenarian Dean for your guide, who, by the way, went to church down the road with Calvin Coolidge.
What kid wouldn't want to visit a Wild West town? The old gold camp, the place where Wild Bill Hickok was shot, has been totally restored. Stroll the streets, gaze at the renovated architecture, ignore the casinos, and take the little ones to Kevin Costner's Tatanka: Story of the Bison museum. Costumes from his movies hang on its walls. Atop the Midnight Star casino, his upscale restaurant, Jakes, serves some of the best eats in town.
A giant sinkhole sits about 60 miles south on Highway 18 in Hot Springs. About 26,000 years ago, creatures like wooly mammoths came here to drink. Often they got trapped. Mammoth Site was built over this giant graveyard. Research continues. During the summer months, kids, ages 4 to 13, can do a simulated dig in the Junior Paleontologist Excavation Program.
The Badlands lunar landscape is composed of such soft sedimentary rock, that its 60 miles of spires, layered pinnacles, ridges, and canyons change after every rain. North of Badlands National Park is the place you’ve seen mileage markers for all around the world: Wall Drug. Kids and adults come to the world's largest, kitschy drugstore to gawk at the attractions rather than to have their prescriptions filled.
Your first thought might be, "Yuck!" But it’s not all creepy crawlers. True, Maniac, the 16-foot, 1,250 pound croc, is better seen behind glass, but Marilyn, the Albino Burmese python, doesn’t mind posing with visitors. And what's not to like about seeing giant tortoises plodding alongside visitors, spending time in an indoor jungle, and taking in kid-friendly shows? Anyone can get up close and personal with an eagle at the bird show, pet an alligator at the Crocodilian, and touch a nonpoisonous snake at the snake demonstration.
Bear Country U.S.A.
Down the road at Bear Country U.S.A., you are in a cage — your car, that is. Elk, Rocky Mountain goats, mountain lion, buffalo, Arctic wolves, lynx, skunks, otters and more than 100 bears roam freely. Magpies flit overhead. Of course, the big bears are stars and it's a good idea to keep your windows closed if you’re not snapping pictures. Park your cage and stroll over to Babyland to see wolf pups and bear cubs romp. This place is so cool, the late Steve Irwin filmed a Discovery Kids show here.
Kids love the steam train that goes round-trip from Hill City to Keystone. It’s just like the trains that helped settle the West. When it labors up the six-percent grade — one of the steepest in the country — conductors bring the past to life with tales about how the Holy Terror Mine got its name, for one. (It was aptly titled after the discoverer's wife.)
Don’t forget to explore Rapid City; it’s a sweet little town. Stop by the Journey Museum to review the area’s 2.5 billion-year saga, from its geology and archaeology to Native American and pioneer history. Browse the Prairie Edge store’s collection of Native American arts and crafts like dolls, buffalo robes, and jewelry. It is a wealth of treasures — like the rest of the Black Hills.
Northwest, Delta, Alliant Air, Frontier, and United fly into Rapid City Regional Airport.
From east and west, take I-90; from north and south take Route 79.
Most attractions are within a one-hour drive of Rapid City.
Getting around: The City View Trolley, which runs late spring to early fall, offers narrated tours and unlimited on and off service. Fare is $1.00 for children and adults, 50¢ for seniors.
Where to stay: For local atmosphere, the Hotel Alex Johnson is your place. Calvin Coolidge, F.D.R., Carl Sagan, Kevin Costner, and Guzon Borglum, sculptor of Mount Rushmore, thought so.
Where to eat: Come early to the hokey but fun, Fort Hays Chuckwagon Supper & Cowboy Music Show. Stroll around a film set from Dances with Wolves, where craftsmen work just as they did more than a century ago. Cowboy and cowgirl wannabees chow down on barbecue, baked beans, and biscuits served in tin plates. Then it’s western music and variety showtime.
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