Related: 40x40 List
Dates completed: Thursday, September 3 - Monday, September 7
My first vacations as a kid were trips to the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. Since Scott had never been, it seemed fitting to add to the 40x40 list. A bonus is that by going with my parents, Duane and Connie, we were able to celebrate my mom's recent retirement.
Before the trip, I dug up the photos my dad took from our 1983 family vacation. I'm thankful he documented so much of my childhood on film to help me remember all of the fun we had as a family. Thirty-two years later, we revisited many of the same spots. Attractions we skipped this time around: Flinestones Bedrock City, Dinosaur Park, and Storybook Island.
Day 1: Wall Drug & Rapid City
Scott, my mom, dad, and I hit the road early Thursday morning. Our first stop was at a rest stop that has a cute little church on its grounds.
Our next stop was at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and Rest Area in Chamberlain. On a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, this is a gorgeous stop on the drive west Interstate 90 through the Great Plains.
As another nod to my childhood, we decided to play License Plate Bingo. We scored 43/50 and didn't find NH, MA, RI, CT, NJ, GA, and SC.
Our stop in Wall Drug for their legendary donuts, 5¢ coffee and free ice water also allowed me to recreate some childhood photos.
We arrived in Rapid City in time for lunch and chose Independent Ale House thanks to the DeRusha Eats review. He's right - the pizza is awesome. My mom and I had the daily special - tomatoes, mozzarella, figs and basil. Scott had the spicy chicken and dad had The Hasselhoff.
After lunch we walked around the cute downtown with stops at the Art Alley, City of Presidents sculptures, and Amarillo's Ice Cream.
One of the highlights of our trip was our arrival to Creekside Lodge in Custer State Park. As we got closer to the entrance we noticed our first wildlife sighting of the trip - a few bison near the sign for the lodge. As we got closer we realized it was more than just a small group - it was a huge herd! About 300 bison made their way through the area. We spent about an hour watching these giant creatures wander by. Scott got a little too close for my comfort.
Day 2: Custer & Jeep Tour
Friday morning we had a relaxing start to the day with coffee and breakfast on the deck. We made a trip to the closest town, Custer and also a quick hike around Legion Lake.
In the afternoon we went on a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour which was better than I could have imagined. Our driver was extremely knowledgeable and gave us a better understanding of how bison are managed in Custer State Park. He was fielding questions from my dad and managed to get us so close to the buffalo that at one point one of our tour companions in the back of the Jeep exclaimed "Can we go see the prairie dogs now!?". In addition to bison and prairie dogs, we saw some pronghorn antelope which I learned on this tour are the fastest land animal in North America and can run up to 60 mph for long distances.
After our Jeep tour, Scott and I needed to stretch out our legs so we went for a hike. Scott of course wanted to hike up a hill without a trail to guide us. I'm always up for an adventure and just hoped I'd avoid breaking any bones. On this hike we saw a beautiful whitetail buck with a large set of antlers.
Day 3: Keystone, Hill City, Spearfish Canyon
Scott's cousin, Don and his wife Slavna live outside Deadwood, South Dakota and so we made plans to meet them at Crow Peak Brewery in Spearfish. Before that, we stopped in Keystone, Hill City, Pactola Lake, and hiked through Spearfish Canyon to Roughlock Falls. While in Hill City, we ran into my uncle Jim and aunt Debra who were also vacationing in the Black Hills.
Day 4: Sylvan Lake, Harney Peak, Crazy Horse, and Mount Rushmore
We picked the perfect day for our time at Sylvan Lake and to hike Harney Peak. While Scott and I hiked, my parents returned to Hill City and also met up with Jim and Debra again.
Before starting our summit to the highest point (7,242 ft) in South Dakota, Harney Peak, we walked along the beautiful shore of Sylvan Lake. If we were to return to the Black Hills, I'd love to stay at Sylvan Lake Lodge which was booked when we made our reservations months in advance.
We were not the only ones with Labor Day weekend hiking plans. Trail number 9 had a steady stream of hikers - human, canine and equine. I can't believe how many dogs and children were able to make the 3.5 mile hike to the peak. Of course it seemed like many of the younger kids were having melt-downs by the time they needed to walk those same 3.5 miles back. Next time, I'd like to try the northern approach which is a 5 mile trail starting at Willow Creek Horse Camp.
After our invigorating hike, we were ready for lunch. We found a picnic area at the Burlington Northern Trailhead on the Michelson Trail located at Tracy City Park in Hill City. That was the closest we ever got to the George S. Mickelson Trail and I hope to make that a part of our next Black Hills vacation. It was one of our more entertaining lunch stops thanks to some kids giving themselves a mud bath in the swampy creek.
Our afternoon was spent visiting the most famous attractions in South Dakota - Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore. We started our time at Crazy Horse with a documentary that - while dated - provides a great overview of how the Crazy Horse Memorial came to be. The museum is expansive with many beautiful and interesting artifacts the majority of which have been donated. We chose to skip the Night Blast which only happens twice a year because we wanted to visit Mount Rushmore and also because driving to our Lodge after dark was a little scary. On my life-long walking wish list is the Crazy Horse Volksmarch which also only happens twice a year (this year was in early June and late September).
Our final stop for the day was Mount Rushmore Memorial. After our photo shoot in front of the faces, Scott and I hit the Presidential Trail while my mom and dad watched the film. We stopped off at the sculptor's studio but we were both too tired to actually learn anything about Gutzon Borglum. Hiking the half mile loop was fun with the special treat of gaining a new perspective of the faces as it leads you right under them. It's unfortunate that this trail involves so many stairs and is not accessible to many visitors. While I've heard many great things about the lighting ceremony at Mount Rushmore, we opted to get back to our lodge before dark.
Day 5: Badlands
On our return to Sioux Falls, we drove the Badlands Loop State Scenic Highway and stopped a couple times - Pinnacle overlook, Fossil Exhibit Trail, and near the White River Visitor Center for our final picnic of the vacation.
Trip planning resources and inspiration
The Nivens Family