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Family Trip to the Black Hills: Reflections, Reviews and Recommendations

With a family of 10, traveling can be complicated. But with the right planning, there's no reason it can't be a blast!

Four presidents, and our four boys and four girls

Four presidents, and our four boys and four girls

A Family-Friendly Road-Trip Vacation

Our daughter suggested we take a trip to the beautiful mountains of Colorado. Instead, I suggested taking our family to experience the beauty and attractions of the Black Hills, explaining that it is just as picturesque and yet family-friendly. I wanted our children (ages 5–18) to experience some of the moments I had when my family drove there when I was in high school.

Preparing for Trip to the Badlands

I gathered input from my wife and children as well as friends who have made the trip to the Black Hills. The consensus was that Mount Rushmore is a must (especially in the evening), the Corn Palace is fine for a brief visit and Wall Drug is entertaining enough to warrant a quick stop. We were also determined to get out and hike the Badlands and do some additional climbing in the Black Hills.

As for our family's personal wants, my wife suggested dinner and show, so I found a chuckwagon shootout show near Rapid City. Most all of my children wanted to explore a cave and take a zip line. I wanted to include some time for spiritual reflection as well. With all that in mind, getting our road-trip destination map in order was quite the task. Here was our final list:

  • Trinity Heights Shrine (Sioux City, IA)
  • Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center (Sioux City, IA)
  • Badlands National Park (SD)
  • Wall Drug (Wall, SD)
  • Cosmos Mystery Area (Rapid City, SD)
  • Rushmore Tramway Adventures (Keystone, SD)
  • Crazy Horse Memorial (Crazy Horse, SD)
  • Custer State Park (Custer County, SD)
  • Jewel Cave National Monument (Custer, SD)
  • Circle B Ranch Chuckwagon Show (Hill City, SD)

A Basic Map View of Our Road Trip

Travel Costs for a Family of 10

With a family of 10, I had to figure a tight budget. I imagined food, gas and lodging would probably be the most expensive, and they were. We took two vehicles and had to rent two rooms wherever we went.

Booking hotels with free breakfast and purchasing food from grocery stores to prepare other meals (donuts, muffins, instant oatmeal, macaroni and cheese, ramen noodles, fruits, nuts, etc.) helped to cut down costs.

I used Expedia for hotel rentals. The entertainment costs were fairly low, with one exception: the chuckwagon show. I figured the final cost to be somewhere near $3,000 for 6 days.

Here is the actual cost breakdown:

  • Gas: $449.45 (two vehicles, approx. 1,500 miles each)
  • Lodging: $1256.12 (one night in Sioux City, two rooms; three nights in Rapid City, two rooms; one night in Sioux Falls, two rooms)
  • Food: $884.28 (Subway, pizza, store-bought grocery items)
  • Entertainment: $447.73 (park entry fees, zip line, chuckwagon show, etc.)
  • Miscellaneous: $44.87 (souvenirs, etc.)

Total: $3,082.45

Family poses as explorers with Lewis and Clark at the Interpretive Center in Sioux City.

Family poses as explorers with Lewis and Clark at the Interpretive Center in Sioux City.

Day One: Sioux City

The trip from central Iowa to Rapid City is about 9.5 hours. I wanted to make this trip quick and efficient—yet enjoyable—with a few special stops. At 3.5 hours away, Sioux City seemed like a good "stepping stone" en route to Rapid City. This would reduce the next day's travel time down to six hours, allowing time to visit the Corn Palace and the Badlands.

The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center

In Sioux City, you can visit the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. It commemorates the historic exploration of the Mississippi and Missouri river valleys through interactive programs and activities.

One of the activities allows children and guests to try and balance cargo on a small-scale riverboat. Taking in the movie in the theater room and exploring all of the art, both inside and outside the building, was rewarding.

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Trinity Heights Shrines and Gardens

We also visited the Trinity Heights Shrines and Gardens. It is a peaceful setting with shrines, memorial gardens and quiet corners for prayer and reflection. There are two magnificent statues present: the Immaculate Heart of Mary Queen of Peace and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The life-size carving of the Last Supper was impressive.

We prayed a rosary in the chapel and snapped a photo of a relic of Saint Faustina. We enjoyed the bubbling fountains at the Lourdes Shrine. People of all faiths visit Trinity Heights. There is no fee, but free-will offerings are accepted.

Hampton Inn, North Sioux City, SD

We stayed at the Hampton Inn, North Sioux City, SD. It had a pool and free breakfast for $130 per night. The Stoney Creek hotel in Sioux City was recommended and appeared to be more of a 5-star hotel, but they raised their price from $150 to $170 per night when I called to change the date of our stay. So I shopped around and saved $40 per night (times two hotels = $80) by booking at the Hampton. It was clean and the breakfast was satisfying.

Corn Palace, Mitchell, SD

Corn Palace, Mitchell, SD

Day Two: Corn Palace, Badlands, Wall Drug & Rapid City

The next morning, our family enjoyed the hotel breakfast buffet consisting of sausage, cheesy eggs, a selection of cereal and the ever-famous do-it-yourself waffle irons. There was fruit and toast and other items available, all very satisfying.

The Corn Palace

After breakfast, we headed for the Corn Palace in Mitchell, about a 2.5-hour drive from Sioux City. It is a large souvenir shop with corn-related items for sale. There were stuffed animals, Native American goods and food items native to the prairie.

Our son Michael bought some hot sauce and our daughter Noelle purchased a microwave corn on the cob. The corn was still on the cob and you place it in the bag supplied and pop it in the microwave. Friends advised not to spend a lot of time there. I agree.

We had lunch at the Taco Johns, where we enjoyed a couple of the six-packs of beef tacos and a pound of Potato Oles. It was very economical and satisfying.

Badlands National Park

The Badlands was the pinnacle of our trip, and it had hardly begun. Who can describe this work of creation? It is like the Grand Canyon of the Midwest! We explored the trails and climbed the peaks.

Our older children challenged me to the top of one of the slopes. I arrived at the peak first. Many have described the feeling and emotions of mountain-top experiences; this was truly one of them. As my other children neared the top, a cloud began to roll in. There was a soft rumble of thunder and a gentle breeze. Eventually, we could see a few bright spots in the clouds as small flashes of lightning made an appearance. It was not a threatening storm. Rather there was a gentle breeze and it was peaceful.

The scene was reminiscent of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings:

"Behold, a cloud as small as a man's hand is coming up from the sea.... Prepare your chariot and go down, so that the heavy shower does not stop you.... Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by...but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper, a still small voice."

I certainly could feel the presence of the Lord, a gentle whisper in this mountain-top experience. My children soon joined me and began snapping additional photographs. Although the cloud was small and seemed rather innocent, we decided to descend the peak and depart in our "chariot.” As we drove off, a light shower started. I looked in the rearview mirror and noticed a brilliant double rainbow. We pulled over to get a photo. It was as though we were getting a sign from God.

There was an abundance of prairie dogs popping up out of their holes and yipping. After snapping a few more photos, we moved onto other parts of the park. We were rewarded once again when mountain goats made their appearance. They came right up to our vehicle.

Wall Drug, South Dakota

Wall Drug is about a half-hour drive from the Badlands. It is a shopping attraction with a restaurant, pharmacy and gift shops with unusual items for sale. Although there is no admission fee, there are plenty of ways to spend money.

There are mechanical animals like a jackalope, a coin-operated gorilla playing a piano and a dinosaur that moves and roars. The kids enjoyed the animals, the coin-operated shooting gallery and the items in the souvenir shops.

The restaurant was a little pricey and the food marginal, and I wondered whether we should have found another place for our evening meal. There were not any national fast-food chains visible within walking distance of Wall Drug. We spent a little over an hour there and decided to head for our evening place of rest in Rapid City.

Guest Housing With Peaceful Setting at Terra Sancta Retreat Center, Rapid City

Guest Housing With Peaceful Setting at Terra Sancta Retreat Center, Rapid City

Terra Sancta Retreat Center Rapid City

The Terra Sancta Retreat Center was a hidden gem in the Hills. It is located on a 200-acre wooded property. There are hiking trails, sand volleyball courts, patios, courtyards, amphitheaters, fire pits and an outdoor altar with the stations of the cross.

Inside, the rooms consisted of two queen beds, air conditioning and a private bath, just like a hotel. We were allowed to use their kitchen space, complete with microwave, refrigerator, coffee machine and tables.

Although there was no pool, the kids enjoyed the game room, which offered two ping pong tables, a pool table, foosball, a chess table and board games. There was also an exercise room and washer and dryer available.

At $90 per night, it was very reasonable. Most of the area attractions were within driving distance of this location.

Our son Isaac in the Cosmos Mystery Area truth chair with legs suspended in mid air.

Our son Isaac in the Cosmos Mystery Area truth chair with legs suspended in mid air.

Day 3: Cosmos Mystery Area, Rushmore Tramway Adventures & Mount Rushmore

Though we did less driving on the third day, it was still packed with adventure—culminating in a visit to the amazing Mount Rushmore.

Cosmos Mystery Area

Cosmos Mystery is located in between Rapid City and Mount Rushmore. I had fond memories from my teenage years of the optical illusions and mysterious phenomena like water, cans and bottles rolling and flowing uphill. There is a shack that is built on the incline of the mountain lending to the strange illusions.

Our son Isaac volunteered for the "truth chair," where the back legs are on a ledge and the front legs hang out in the air. The guide asks a series of questions. You might fall forward if you don't tell the truth. The admission is similar to taking a family to the movies. They gave us a coupon for a dollar off ice cream, which we enjoyed.

Rushmore Tramway Adventures

The Tramway Adventure Park is located near Mount Rushmore. In fact, when you take the chair lift to the top, you can see the four presidents. We enjoyed the zipline and Alpine Slide.

They also offer a package called the Aerial Adventure Park, complete with suspended bridges and ladders, trapezes, ziplines and nets. The slide and ziplines were worth the cost of admission: $15 for zipline and a package of 10 rides for $80 down the alpine slide. It includes the chairlift to the top. This is a must for teenagers, but the Alpine slide allows for children as young as age two to participate.

The entrance to the Mount Rushmore National Monument includes all the state flags.

The entrance to the Mount Rushmore National Monument includes all the state flags.

Mount Rushmore

You can't visit Washington, D.C. without visiting the White House and you can't visit the Black Hills, Rapid City area without visiting one of our nation's most treasured monuments: Mount Rushmore.

The faces of four presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln—are carved in granite on a striking cliff. Most of the initial work was done with dynamite explosives.

The monument is striking during the day in full sunlight, but we are told that the evening program includes a light display and program honoring those who serve our nation that is worthwhile. There is a museum with displays and a theater for viewing a movie regarding the history of the monument. The fee to park at the memorial is $10.

Day 4: Crazy Horse, Sylvan Lake & Chuckwagon Show

Day four of our adventure held much in store for us, including a spectacular visit to the Crazy Horse Memorial and Sylvan Lake, though the dinner show that rounded out our evening was mediocre at best.

Crazy Horse Memorial

The sculptor for the Crazy Horse memorial, Korczak Ziolkowski, had a large family like me. I have four boys and four girls, while he had five boys and five girls. He passed away in 1982 and his wife passed away in 2014. However, seven of his children still carry on his dream by participating in some way towards finishing the project.

When completed, the memorial will be several times larger than Mount Rushmore. The project is funded by private donations and entry fees. The vision of the sculptor is to honor Native Americans and offer academic scholarships to young Indigenous peoples.

There is a museum with souvenir shops. Admission is $30 per car.

Sylvan Lake and Little Devil's Tower

Sylvan Lake is one of the most beautiful spots in the Black Hills, with impressive rock formations and breathtaking pines. Our kids loved climbing the rocks jutting out into the lake and dipping their toes in the water. The older ones hiked nearby Little Devil's Tower and reported that it was quite rewarding.

Circle B Chuckwagon Show

This is a dinner and show located in Hill City, SD. There are a couple of similar shows in the area and research seemed to indicate that this was one of the better ones. I was, however, disappointed. The food was marginal at best. The singing and entertainment were OK. The cost was $225 for the whole family. We could have spent that money on another day at the Rushmore Tramway Adventures and still had money left over.

Although there were a couple of road signs to guide visitors, they were not clear and it was hard to locate this place. It had rained and the outdoor kids' activities were shut down early, including the pony rides. In the end, the kids were still able to pan for gold, try their hand at a lasso and pet a pony.

Day 5: Jewel Cave and Custer Park Wildlife Loop

The last day of our big road trip was a busy one, and it certainly didn't disappoint!

Jewel Cave National Monument

With a sense of discovery and exploration, the children wanted to go on a guided lantern tour in the third-largest cave in the world. With over 145 miles of mapped area, Jewel Cave has an estimated 5,000 miles of uncharted territory.

The tour was marked as "moderately strenuous," but there were two other levels that were less strenuous and suitable for smaller children. I went on the lantern tour with my older children. It was a little challenging for me at first, not so much for the crouching and stooping but for the enclosed space.

There was a narrow passageway that triggered claustrophobia, but it opened to a larger cavern and I regained my composure. One of my children also exhibited a mild form of anxiety, but it washed away once we were able to get to the main room. There was plenty of light and a moving breeze that helped to provide comfort.

The tour guide did an excellent job describing the history and the potential for discovery. When he asked the crowd of about 20 people who would be interested in volunteering to explore the uncharted cave areas further, most of my children raised their hands. The Parks are always interested in forming the next set of cave explorers!

Tips for Visiting Jewel Cave:

  • If you are claustrophobic, avoid the lantern tour.
  • Purchase your tickets early (either that morning or the day before). Tour times sell out quickly!
  • Wear close-toed shoes and prepare for 49-degree temperatures. I would recommend jeans and a sweatshirt.