I’m a traveler now. I wasn’t always. After we were stationed at RAF Mildenhall, England, about 10 years ago, I uncovered a European attitude that I wasn’t aware existed. The Europeans (much before Covid) all seemed to adopt a traveling spirit that I hadn’t found in the 25 years I lived in the US. Traveling to new countries and places, taking a “holiday,” was something the Brits and Europeans seemed to do all the time. Yet I knew many people growing up that had never even left the state of Texas, some never even traveling beyond a 200-mile radius. But as anyone who has lived overseas will tell you, travel is much more commonplace. So, after a first year of a colicky baby, my small family and I gave in and joined the travel epidemic around us. I was awed by the new worlds that greeted me. Thus, like so many before me, I fell in love with travel.
Since that time I have made it my mission to use our home base (wherever that may be) and find the coolest places we can visit in the surrounding areas. Knowing we will only be in each place a short time, it gets my travel engines pumping. After surviving my first Minot winter this past year, I needed to get out of town, and fast. But where could we go? What was affordable, drivable and kid-friendly? Looking slightly south in an attempt to warm a tiny bit, my family and I settled on none other than South Dakota!
The state of South Dakota is massive and, unlike its upstairs neighbor North Dakota, there were a lot of places that popped up when I Googled “Places to Visit in South Dakota.’ We only had six days, and we knew we wanted to visit our good friends stationed at Ellsworth AFB near Rapid City, so I started our trip in that area. Day one started a little after sunrise and ended at our first destination of Deadwood in the Black Hills. The drive was only about seven hours from Minot, but I do need to add that when driving anywhere for long distances in the Dakotas, get gas wherever you can! I know it is crazy expensive nowadays and probably even more so in these backroads towns, but trust me. We learned the hard way that gas stations are not readily available in the North Dakota state highways and backroads. If you see a gas station on a long journey, top off, just to be safe. Back to Deadwood. Deadwood is known for its late 1800s gold rush and the legendary lawmen and outlaws that roamed the area. The town itself is tiny, but there are lots of hotel options in town to choose from. We stayed near the main street as we wanted to be within walking distance to the attractions. We visited the “Days of ‘76 Museum’’ which had a lot of kid friendly activities and information about the original settlers in Deadwood. It’s worth a visit if you like museums. Since we visited in May, we were a little bummed to find out that many of the Deadwood classic activities were not yet open as the tourist season had not yet begun. If you like to do things in the off-season to avoid crowds, like us, you may be disappointed with Deadwood. I would suggest going during the crazy summer months with the rest of the tourists to get the full shows, and experiences.
After exploring everything we could in Deadwood we took off for Spearfish. We happened upon Spearfish City Park and my kids (ages 9 & 6) had a blast! If you’ve got kids, this playground will wow the entire family and is worth a stop. Outside the playground area was a little creek bed where we spent some time skipping rocks. While it was too chilly for wading, I imagine it is a popular splashing spot in the summer. We had to pull our kids away from the playground to explore the newly-named D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery. We were skeptical about this place, but it actually ended up being really informative and interesting! Make sure you bring some quarters to get fish food and check out the re-made train car that used to transport fish all over the US. The fish hatchery is a really educational and free place to stop!
Our first evening in Rapid City we ventured out to the Dinosaur Park. It’s a little bit of a steep climb to see the dinosaurs and toddlers may need some strict attention, but once at the top, the panoramic views of the city were amazing! This was a cool place to see but won’t take up much of your time, so it’s an easy 15-20 minute time filler.
Since we are a homeschool family, most trips end up being a bit educational. We have been studying the US Presidents and South Dakota has so much President information that we decided to make it the theme for our trip. Early on a cloudless, sunny morning, we headed to downtown Rapid City, intent on locating every single statue of American Presidents which are scattered within a few blocks downtown. A walking tour map can be located online at visitrapidcity.com. We printed this and started our adventure. Yep, we found every single President (except Trump and Biden who haven’t been made yet) and it took us a little less than two hours. This was honestly one of the most fun parts of our trip! My kids love a good checklist, so the hunt for all the presidents was a cool historic activity for us. Even if you don’t think your family is up for the entire hunt, stopping and seeing at least a few is worth it for all ages. I’m not much of a foodie, so the places we ate were generally quick. But while in downtown Rapid City we did stop at Firehouse Brewing Company for some amazing food (they also have their own brewery and winery), and you definitely need to stop at Mary’s Mountain Cookies for some absolutely delicious and unique flavor cookies!
After our day downtown I dropped off my husband and kids at our friends’ house who live at Ellsworth AFB, and my friend and I spent Mother’s Day afternoon at the Prairie Ridge Golf Course outside Ellsworth AFB. This 9-hole course offers club rentals, great prices for military personnel and beautiful scenery. I’m a pretty poor golfer. For me it’s all about the fun and company, but this course works well both for serious golfers and beginners. We had a blast!
Our 4th day in South Dakota was our busiest. We headed out to the Presidential National Wax Museum in Keystone. Since our trip revolved around the Presidents this was a must see! The whole family enjoyed seeing the realistic scenes as well as recording a mock- state of the union address video. We had a full day planned, but just looking around, there were so many cool things to do in Keystone including the Big Thunder Gold Mine and Rushmore Tramway Adventures and lots more. If we went again, I would plan for an entire day in Keystone for sure! After the museum we visited the much-anticipated Mt. Rushmore!
While both my husband and I had been there before, our kids hadn’t, and for some reason my six year old was amazed! As any parent will tell you, sometimes kids get excited about weird things and aren’t into things you’d think they love. Well my daughter loved Mt. Rushmore and that in itself made it a highlight of our trip. The top gets a bit windy and maybe chilly so make sure and bring a jacket if the weather is iffy. Also be sure not to skip the walking trails. After Mt. Rushmore, we drove down to Crazy Horse Memorial and learned a lot about how and why it was and still is being built. After that we planned to drive through Custer State Park, but we decided at the last minute to take a detour to Evan’s Plunge Mineral Springs in Hot Springs instead. It was out of the way, but we wanted to give it a whirl. The indoor pool features water slides and naturally warm mineral water from a thermal spring. The place itself was a bit dated, but the kids loved it. The water was chilly, but the unusual atmosphere made it a different type of activity for us and a much needed break in sight-seeing.
On our 5th and last day we headed out to Badlands National Park. Having younger kids, we’re not all-day hikers, but the landscape there offered so many different types of visuals and mini hikes… it was a sight to see! We spent several hours there. On the way back to Rapid City we stopped off on the side of the road to see an old, retired missile silo. My husband and probably many other military members found this refurbished and glass ceiling silo to be a cool part of the trip. The silo even has a tour guide out there waiting to answer questions. It is worth stopping for those military enthusiasts and only takes a few minutes. The billboard advertising around the route also led us to stop at Wall Drug on the way back. I think we had the wrong impression of what it was going to be, but we were a bit miffed when what we found was a maze of trinket shops instead of a large and welcoming convenience store. But we got some ice cream and enjoyed the sun anyway.
At the end of the epic South Dakota vacation we were tired and happy. There was so much more to see that we didn’t get a chance to, and western SD has so many options for visitors. Even with our full four days we couldn’t see near enough. I think this area requires two full-sized trips, but it’s definitely a place for families, hiking enthusiasts, motorcycle people (we drove through Sturgis) and really everyone. All I know is that a trip to the western part of South Dakota needs to be on everyone’s list. The history, varying landscapes and tourist destinations make it a must see road trip for any Minot AFB resident.
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