The Black Hills: Budget Friendly and Family-Friendly
If you’re looking for a safe, budget-friendly, and family-friendly destination, the Black Hills of South Dakota are calling you. The scenery is breathtaking, and there are endless open spaces and a plethora of attractions where you don't need to stand in line or jostle through crowds.
If you want to delve into a distinct culture without traveling abroad, I suggest you take a family trip to the stunning Black Hills of South Dakota and visit these five unique and memorable places.
1. Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore is one of our country's most recognizable landmarks, with the faces of four presidents carved in the mountain: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. No trip to the Black Hills is complete without a visit to this national treasure. It will make you feel like a proud and patriotic American—less cynical and more hopeful.
Mount Rushmore is a family-friendly stop with a café, ice cream shop, and gift store. At the visitor's center, families can watch the film, Mount Rushmore, The Shrine, which tells the story of the artist, Gutzon Borglum, who spent 14 years creating his masterpiece with the help of 400 workers and lots of dynamite. Borglum died before finishing the job so his son took over the mission.
After sitting for the informative film, parents and children will be eager to stretch their legs by taking a walk on the scenic Presidential Trail to get up close to the mountain sculpture. Families can also take guided tours led by knowledgeable park rangers. Kids can stay engaged by completing a Mount Rushmore activity book and earning a Junior Ranger Badge.
2. Crazy Horse
Mount Rushmore is not the only awe-inspiring sculpture in the Black Hills that commemorates our country's history. The Crazy Horse Monument, a work in progress, is another. When completed, it could well become the world's largest mountain carving.
Unlike Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse is somber and thought-provoking as it represents a contentious part of our nation's history—the conflict between Native Americans and white settlers. Visiting the Crazy Horse Monument gives parents the perfect opportunity to talk with their children about America's not so pretty past. Like Mount Rushmore, it is a family-friendly stop with a welcome center, a restaurant, theaters, the Indian Museum of North America, and the Native American Educational and Cultural Center. During the summer months, there's a nightly laser show.
Crazy Horse was a notable Lakota Indian leader who battled the US federal government's encroachment on Native American territory. Wanting to uphold the Lakota way of life, Crazy Horse refused to back down as white explorers came to the Black Hills in search of gold. He won a huge victory by leading united tribes to defeat the US Army at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Rejecting life on the reservation, Crazy Horse came to symbolize the free, independent spirit of Native Americans.
In a state with little racial and ethnic diversity (84% of its residents are white), South Dakota struggles with its prejudices. The divide between Native Americans and whites is glaring and sad. If visitors want to learn more about what caused this chasm, I highly recommend they read Crazy Horse: A Life by Larry McMurtry (the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove and Brokeback Mountain). In his book, McMurtry presents Crazy Horse as a real man, not a glorified legend, and this makes it all the more fascinating and moving. It's difficult to imagine that we'll make headway with recent racial strife in our nation when this old wound is still so raw and unresolved.
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation
If you’re the rare but admirable kind of family that wants to see the underbelly of a community and not just its tourist attractions, I recommend you visit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It’s located at the southern end of the Badlands and is the size of Connecticut, with 18,000 residents. It’s located in the poorest county in the US, with high rates of infant mortality, alcoholism, and suicide. It shows how Native Americans continue to suffer in our nation but are largely hidden from view and forgotten.
On a family vacation, parents may want a break from kid-centric activities to enjoy some adult entertainment. The historic town of Deadwood in the Black Hills is the ideal place to satisfy that need. Loaded with Wild West charm and looking like a Hollywood movie set, Deadwood offers gambling and fine dining minus the Las Vegas glitz and sleaze. It's safe, wholesome, and welcoming to all ages.
In the late 19th century, Deadwood was known as a lawless town that attracted its share of eccentric (and sometimes desperate) characters. Children will be thrilled while watching actors perform daily shootouts on Main Street and re-enact Wild Bill Hickok's assassination as he played poker. They'll be intrigued by Calamity Jane, another frontier folk hero, who drank hard and lived fast. She made a name for herself while performing in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show where she demonstrated her sharpshooting skills on horseback. Families can visit the graves of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane at Mount Moriah Cemetery.
Although the entire town of Deadwood is a Registered National Historic Landmark, its casinos offer modern-day fun. They have the latest slots, round-the-clock gaming, Roulette, Keno, and Craps. Actor Kevin Costner, who filmed Dances with Wolves in South Dakota, owns the Midnight Star casino on Main Street. It houses Jakes, a fine dining restaurant that's decorated with memorabilia from his decades-long movie career.
4. Custer State Park
When kids are clamoring for a day of outdoor adventures, Custer State Park is the place to go. It has plenty of hiking trails, climbing rocks, picnic spots, and scenery to photograph. Named after George Armstrong Custer (who lost to Crazy Horse in the Battle of the Little Bighorn), it includes 71,000 acres of pristine terrain with native animals roaming wild. They include bison, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, mountain goats, and wild turkeys. Families can ride horses, rent boats, and go fishing.
From the time that they were toddlers to now as teenagers, my sons have adored the Hayride and Hoedown at Custer. It's a 45-minute old-fashioned hayride that takes visitors along the park's beautiful back-roads. Best of all, it culminates with a stick-to-your-ribs chuck-wagon feast.
5. Reptile Gardens
My sons would never be content with a trip to the Black Hills unless it included a visit to Reptile Gardens. It's the largest reptile zoo in the world and a truly one-of-a-kind destination. While overpriced tourist traps are sprouting up in the Black Hills, the Reptile Gardens, founded in 1937, is not one of them. It offers hours of entertainment at a fair price, including a crocodile show, snake show, and bird show.
Located on the road to Mount Rushmore, Reptile Gardens is easily spotted because of its famed three-level glass Sky Dome. The Dome houses tropical plants from many locations, the largest collection of snakes in the world, amphibians, lizards, and bugs. Families can wander outside to have their photos taken with the Giant Tortoises, watch the playful prairie dogs, and enjoy Tortuga Falls—a relaxing jungle hideaway.
Reptile Gardens is a terrific spot for kids to move about and release energy after being stuck in the car for too long. They can climb, swing, and slide at Methuselah's Playground. Families should plan on attending all three high-quality shows: bird, gator, and snake. They're fun, interactive, and packed with information about the featured animals as well as conservation efforts to aid the species' survival in the wild.
It's easy to spend all day at Reptile Gardens. They make it easy by providing both structured and unstructured activities, a large gift store, and two cafes. Reptile Gardens is family fun you definitely don't want to miss.
The Black Hills of South Dakota offer an old-style family vacation. Instead of doling out money to the kids and telling them to meet you by the roller-coaster at noon, you actually spend time with them—sharing adventures and learning new things.
A Black Hills trip lets you explore a new environment in a relaxed way minus the crowds, hoopla, and high prices. The best time to visit is during the summer when all the attractions are open. However, you should avoid the week in August when visitors from around the world converge there for the Sturgis motorcycle rally.
The Black Hills will surely win you over with its Wild West charm, friendly people, and unspoiled natural surroundings.
An Alternative Lifestyle for City Slickers
Since marrying a man from Rapid City 15 years ago, I've spent two weeks out of every summer in South Dakota. At first, I did so reluctantly. After all, it was quite a culture shock for a city slicker like me from the San Francisco Bay Area. Like many of us who live on the coasts, I had always been dismissive of the Midwest—thinking it had nothing to offer but cornfields, abandoned towns, Dairy Queens, and an increasingly obsolete way of life. My perception was of folks “clinging to their guns and religion” as President Obama once famously remarked and, to some extent, I found that true.
However, once I put away my preconceived notions and my elitist coastal attitude, I was able to fully embrace the uniqueness of South Dakota and its residents. To experience a part of the country that's so different from what I knew growing up in the ultra-liberal, exceedingly diverse Bay Area has taught me a lot. I eventually grew to appreciate what South Dakota has to offer with its wholesome family adventures and its unspoiled natural surroundings.
I began looking forward to my summers in the Black Hills. I longed for that respite from the hassles of city life with traffic jams, long commutes, and impersonal relationships. The Black Hills are a very special place.
© 2015 McKenna Meyers