SOUTH DAKOTA, BLACK HILLS AND MOUNT RUSHMORE – Southwestern South Dakota is known primarily for one thing, and while you won’t want to miss your chance to see that massive monument carved into the side of a mountain, you may be wondering what else there is to do in the area–especially if you’ll be visiting Mount Rushmore with kids?
With over 5 million acres of hiking and cycling trails, rock climbing, caves, and paleontological sites, you won’t run out of options as you explore nature’s playground in South Dakota. In fact, I suggest you begin your vacation planning early and be sure to give yourself plenty of time to enjoy these highlights of a Black Hills family vacation.
Activity 1: Visit the Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Nearly 3 million tourists visit the Mount Rushmore National Memorial each year, making it South Dakota’s most popular attraction. It’s awe inspiring to view in person, each granite head as tall as a 6-story building, gazing over the Avenue of Flags below.
But there is more to a visit to this monument than the view. If you’re visiting Mount Rushmore with kids, be sure to pick up your Junior Ranger booklets first. Then begin your tour in the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, where the tools used to carve the mountain are displayed. Kids will love the ‘hands on’ cranes and the chance to virtually blow things up.
Then move on to the studio space of Gutzon Borglum, where you can view the scale model of the sculpture while seeing the finished project on the mountain. It’s surreal. Finish your visit with a stroll along the half mile Presidential Trail. Stop often to enjoy the views and the informational plaques that help bring the monument to life.
Tip: Many tourists rush to visit as the gates open. If your schedule allows plan your visit later in the day and stay for the evening lighting ceremony (during the summer months).
Activity 2: You’ll Dig the Mammoth Site
The world’s largest Mammoth research facility is just an hour south of Mount Rushmore, yet only a small percentage of visitors to the Black Hills know about The Mammoth Site near Hot Springs. This ongoing archaeological dig has unearthed 61 mammoths so far, and it’s the only place in the world where both Columbian and Woolly Mammoths have been found together.
Each visit begins with a 30 minute tour. Your guide will ‘introduce’ you to Elvis, Clem, and Beauty, as well as lead you through the geology that created the sinkhole that captured so many mammoths, as well as other Ice Age creatures. After the tour you can wander the site for yourself. Because this is an ongoing dig you’ll see volunteers hard at work with brushes, spray bottles, and tiny picks, slowly unearthing fragments from the dried mud.
As you leave the dig wander through the Ice Age Exhibit Hall. Replica skeletons of Ice Age animals look miniature next to the full sized mammoth model. One of the most intriguing displays is the mammoth bone hut, a replica of dwellings found in the Ukraine. It may put you in mind of prehistoric Lincoln Logs. A paleontology lab is on site, and the Children’s Room adjacent to the gift shop offers young children a chance to ‘dig’ for fossils and do crayon rubbings.
Tip: Junior Paleontology programs are available for children 4-12, and advanced programs are offered for kids 10 and up, from Jun 1 thru mid-August. Book this in advance to avoid disappointment.
Activity 3: Go Deep in the Caves
Beneath South Dakota’s vast prairie are two of the longest cave systems in the world.
Jewel Cave National Monument is the third longest cave in the world with over 195 miles of mapped and surveyed passages. Its calcite crystals sparkled like jewels in the lantern light of early explorers, thus giving it its name. Jewel Cave was developed as a tourist attraction before the National Park Service purchased it in 1908.
At Wind Cave National Park your cave tour begins with a 20-story elevator ride straight down. As stairs and pathways wind through caverns 204 feet beneath the earth, visitors are introduced to cave formations with names like boxwork, frostwork, and popcorn. If you’re traveling with small children or have limited abilities, this cave has both easy and moderate tours.
Guided cave tours are offered daily on a first-come-first-served basis at both sites. Arrive early to book your tour as they often sell out during the summer months. Know that you may have a long wait between your arrival and your tour.
Tip: Since both of these caves are part of the National Park Service, you can grab your Junior Ranger books and earn your badges during your visit.
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Activity 4: Visit All the Animals!
The Black Hills are an incredible spot for animal encounters. Custer State Park is known for their large herd of bison and friendly burros. From the Wildlife Loop Road you may also view big horn sheep, pronghorn, and elk. And, of course, prairie dogs.
If you prefer horses you can visit Windcross Conservancy where they work to preserve the nearly extinct Spanish Mustang or make a reservation for a tour with the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary where the herds run free. You’ll also find plenty of trail riding opportunities across the Black Hills.
Take a three mile drive through Bear Country USA, a drive-thru wildlife park that has bears, wolves, bobcats, badgers, porcupine, otters, and other animals who roam the Great Plains.
Tip: The animals look cute and bison look slow but remember these are wild animals and should not be approached.
1 Great Place to Stay: Go Glamping at Under Canvas
Pitching a tent was never like this! Under Canvas offers luxurious camping with views of Mount Rushmore on the site of an old gold mining settlement. Luxury tents have room for four with plush beds. Need more room? Consider a tent with an adjacent tipi (AKA teepee). Wood stoves keep the tents warm at night and many have ensuite baths.
Tip: Book a custom package which includes lodging, meals, and activities.
1 Great Place to Eat: The Hitchrail in Pringle
Don’t let the exterior of this one-time biker bar scare you away. Inside, you’ll find the best food to be had in the Black Hills. Award-winning chef Dennis Boitnott creates his menu from scratch daily based on availability of ingredients, so everything is fresh and local. This isn’t a spot to visit if you’re in a hurry, but it is the perfect place to relax. Take your time and kick back on the patio, and enjoy the flavors of South Dakota. Check the Hitchrail Facebook page for daily specials.
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