Last month, my daughter, Clare, and I had the opportunity to travel to South Dakota to learn all about what this great state has to offer and it was quite an experience. We flew in to Rapid City, and I was truly impressed to learn just how many family-friendly activities are in and around this area.
I was familiar with Mount Rushmore, but I had no idea we’d see buffalo up-close, learn about fossils all over South Dakota or ride an old-time steam train through the Black Hills. Here are 10 can’t-miss activities for a South Dakota family vacation.
1. Become a Junior Paleontologist. Take in the unique beauty of Badlands National Park, but before you leave, be sure to pick up and fill out an activity booklet at the visitors center. Best for kids ages five to 12, your little ones will love learning about fossils through word searches and drawing activities.
2. Ride on a Jackalope. Sure, a jackalope is a fictitious animal (or is it?), but you can still climb atop one at the famous Wall Drug. Makes a fun photo opp. While at Wall Drug, be sure to see the T-Rex roar, splash around in the outdoor fountains and try some of the best maple-frosted donuts around.
3. Sleep in a Log Cabin. You’ll find loads of fun places to stay in South Dakota that offer rustic log cabins with modern conveniences, like coffee makers and flat screen TVs. We stayed at Frontier Cabins Motel, near Wall Drug. Look for teepees, a playground, free continental breakfast and a fabulous sunset.
4. Pay Tribute to Crazy Horse. While still a work in progress, stop or drive by Crazy Horse Memorial, a mountain carving dedicated to Lakota leader Crazy Horse that’s been a work in progress for 65 years. During the summer, stay for an evening laser light show that gets going after dark.
5. Go on a Buffalo Safari. We paid a visit Custer State Park and spent nearly two hours riding around in an open-air jeep in search of buffalo, antelope, prairie dogs and big horn sheep. And, boy, were we able to get up close and personal. If you can, visit the park in late-September for the annual Buffalo Round-up.
6. Meet and Greet our Nation’s Past Presidents. Take a walk around downtown Rapid City and you’ll find life-size bronze statues of each of our past presidents on just about every corner. Hop on the City View Trolley to learn all about the sculptures, as well as various other attractions in Rapid City.
7. Pan for Gold. Head to Big Thunder Gold Mine and put on your hard hat for a tour deep into the mine to learn about the life of a miner and the failed attempts of many to strike it rich. Before you leave, pan for gold and take home the gold flakes you find in a tiny glass jar. A great keepsake.
8. Wrestle an Alligator. Well, maybe don’t do that, but a trip to Reptile Gardens on your way to or from Mount Rushmore is a must. Walk around in the Giant Tortoise Yard, watch prairie dogs play from the underground bubble in Prairie Dog Town and take in a Snake Show for a look at cobras and rattlesnakes.
9. Take a Ride on a Train. Pick up the 1880 Train in Keystone or Hill City for a relaxing steam train ride through the Black Hills. The open-air ride lasts just over two hours and the conductor will share fun facts about the train sounds and what you’ll see out the windows.
10. Stare in Awe at Mount Rushmore. Of course, no trip to South Dakota is complete without a visit to Mount Rushmore. Take a free ranger tour to learn how the mountain sculpture was made and how the four presidents were chosen. Pick up a Junior Ranger or Rushmore Ranger activity booklet and earn a badge.
Ready for a South Dakota family vacation? Get all the latest South Dakota hotel deals, including deals on South Dakota cabin rentals and Rapid City hotels.
Have you been to South Dakota with your kids? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.
Disclaimer: My daughter and I spent four days in South Dakota as guests of the South Dakota Department of Tourism. No compensation was received and all opinions expressed here are my own.