Why You Should Visit South Dakota With Your Family and Experience the Wild West

Updated on December 19, 2017
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As a mom of two sons (one with autism), I like to find family-friendly destinations that are affordable, fun, and not overly stimulating.

Visiting the Black Hills of South Dakota Is a Low-Key Vacation That Won't Leave Parents Frazzled and Broke

While Mount Rushmore is the most obvious place to visit, the Black Hills have more options full of history, culture, and beauty.
While Mount Rushmore is the most obvious place to visit, the Black Hills have more options full of history, culture, and beauty. | Source

When visiting the Black Hills of South Dakota, seeing Mount Rushmore tops everybody's list. But what other attractions should visitors see during their stay in this area known for its unspoiled vistas, family-friendly attractions, roaming buffalo, and ties to Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane?

The Black Hills Offer an Alternative Lifestyle for Us City Slickers!

Because I married a man from Rapid City, I've spent many summers in South Dakota—quite a new experience for a city slicker from the San Francisco Bay Area like me! I initially did so reluctantly. Like many of us who live on the coasts, I was dismissive of the Midwest—thinking it had nothing to offer but wide open spaces, cornfields, and an obsolete way of life. My perception of Midwesterners was of folks who “cling to their guns and religion” as President Obama once famously remarked and, to some extent, I found that true.

But discovering the uniqueness of South Dakota and its citizens has been a grand adventure. 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. Over time I grew to appreciate what South Dakota has to offer with its wholesome family adventures and its unspoiled natural surroundings—a lifestyle far-removed from the hassles of city life with traffic jams, long commutes, and impersonal relationships. If you want to experience a distinct culture without traveling abroad, I suggest you take a family trip to the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota and visit these 5 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” that 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.

The Crazy Horse Monument in the Black Hills Forces Us to Examine Our Country's Past

Crazy Horse gives parents an opportunity to teach about our country's not so commendable past.
Crazy Horse gives parents an opportunity to teach about our country's not so commendable past. | Source

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.

Crazy Horse was a notable Lakota Indian leader who battled the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

Like Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Monument 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.

In a state with little racial and ethnic diversity, the divide between Native Americans and whites in South Dakota is glaring. The mistrust between the two seems just as strong today as it did when Crazy Horse died in 1877. It's difficult to imagine we'll make headway with recent racial strife in our nation when this old wound is still so raw and unresolved.

This Is a Must Read for Those Who Want to Understand South Dakota's Past and Present

Crazy Horse: A Life (Penguin Lives)
Crazy Horse: A Life (Penguin Lives)

When visiting South Dakota, you will feel the tension between the white population and Native Americans. In a state with little diversity, it's sad how these two groups don't get along. This moving book, written by Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Brokeback Mountain), offers some answers. McMurtry presents Crazy Horse as a real man, not a glorified legend, and this makes it all the more fascinating.


Even on a Family Trip, Parents May Want Some Adult Entertainment. Deadwood Is the Spot!

Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok lived colorful lives in the Wild West and are buried in Deadwood.
Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok lived colorful lives in the Wild West and are buried in Deadwood. | Source

3. Deadwood

Even on a family vacation, parents may feel the need for adult entertainment and gambling in Deadwood fits the bill. Complete with Wild West charm but minus Las Vegas glitz and sleaze, Deadwood welcomes 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 enjoy watching the daily shootouts on Main Street as well as the re-enactment of Wild Bill Hickok's assassination while playing poker. They'll be interested in learning about Calamity Jane, another frontier folk hero, who drank hard, lived fast, and performed 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 plenty of modern-day fun with the latest slots, round-the-clock gaming, and the recent addition of Roulette, Keno, and Craps. Actor Kevin Costner, who filmed Dances with Wolves in South Dakota, owns the Midnight Star casino on Main Street that houses Jakes, a fine dining restaurant, memorabilia from his decades-long movie career, and a gift shop.

Custer State Park in the Black Hills Is the Ideal Place to Enjoy the Great Outdoors

This is the place to go on a hike, take photos, and enjoy the amazing wildlife.
This is the place to go on a hike, take photos, and enjoy the amazing wildlife. | Source

4. Custer State Park

Following a civilized visit to Deadwood, families are ready for an all-out wilderness adventure in Custer State Park. 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 plenty of native animals roaming wild: bison, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, mountain goats, and wild turkeys. It's the perfect locale for a picnic, nature walk, and photos.

After driving from place to place, it's time to get out of the car and explore. There are trails for hiking, horses for riding, rocks for climbing, fish for catching, and boats for renting. One of my boys' favorite traditions is the Hayride and Hoedown, a 45-minute old-fashioned hayride that takes you along the park's beautiful back-roads and culminates with a stick-to-your-ribs chuck wagon feast.

The Reptile Gardens Is a One-of-a-Kind Destination for Families

Reptile Gardens is a terrific value with exhibits, shows, and places for kids to play, run, and explore.
Reptile Gardens is a terrific value with exhibits, shows, and places for kids to play, run, and explore. | Source

5. Reptile Gardens

My sons are not satisfied with a trip to the Black Hills until we visit Reptile Gardens, 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.

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. Kids can release energy by climbing, swinging, and sliding at Methuselah's Playground. Families should attend all three 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 don't want to miss!

Touring the Reptile Gardens

Final Thoughts

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're actually spending 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 but 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.

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© 2015 McKenna Meyers


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