Family Vacations in South Dakota
The landscape of South Dakota is a blend of natural and manmade architecture: whether you head to Mount Rushmore or explore the region’s vast cave system, South Dakota offers many exciting destinations for your next family vacation.
In the following article, you’ll find profiles of some of the state’s attractions, from world-class monuments to historical centers to unique natural history sites. To help plan your trip, you’ll also find contact information, as well as photographs of each site. Here’s a preview:
One of the world’s longest and most complex caves, Wind Cave was named for the eerie whistling noise that can be heard at its entrance.
This presidential face-off of monumental proportions is a jaw-dropping feat of art and engineering.
Crazy Horse Memorial
The nine-story-high face of Crazy Horse, the famous Native American leader, is just the beginning of this monumental sculpture that already dominates the vista of the Black Hills.
This treasure trove of fossils in Hot Springs, South Dakota, was discovered in 1974 when excavation for a housing development unearthed the remains of a woolly mammoth.
For 51 weeks of the year, Sturgis, South Dakota, is a sleepy town of about 6,000. But for one week in August, it hosts one of the biggest and best parties on the North American continent featuring parades, concerts, mobile malls, light shows, and a lot of happy local Sturgis merchants.
Continue to the next page to find out about South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park.
One of the world’s longest and most complex caves, Wind Cave was named for the eerie whistling noise that can be heard at its entrance. The caves were formed when limestone was deposited and consolidated on the inland seafloor about 320 million years ago. When the modern Black Hills began to rise some 60 million years ago, the limestone fractured, and water began to seep in and carve the labyrinth of dramatic caverns, tunnels, and crystalline artistry that you see today.
There are five tours of the caves. The Natural Entrance Tour is very popular among families with children. You enter through the hillside and exit by elevator. The tour provides an excellent opportunity to see boxwork, an unusual formation the cave is known for, which is composed of paper-thin calcite fins that resemble delicate honeycombs. Other tours go deeper into the caves but involve more stairs. Older kids and teens who want to experience real spelunking can don headlamps and crawl through the caves on special tours offered during certain months.
Ascend from Wind Cave and look to the heights — on the next page, you’ll find out about visiting Mount Rushmore.
This presidential face-off of monumental proportions is a jaw-dropping feat of art and engineering. Blasted and chiseled out of granite, Mount Rushmore features four famous presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. The faces on the 5,725-foot-tall landmark tower over a majestic forest of pine, spruce, birch, and aspen trees in South Dakota’s Black Hills.
The herculean effort began in 1927, with sculptor Gutzon Borglum and a team of dedicated South Dakota workers. They blasted and crafted this shrine to democracy over a 14-year period.
Before you begin walking the half-mile Presidential Trail to get a closer view of the faces, visit The Lincoln Borglum Museum to listen to interviews with the workers on Mount Rushmore, view historic footage of the carving process, and learn more about the monument’s sculptor. There is even an exhibit where you can become a worker on Mount Rushmore, “detonating” dynamite charges on the mountain. You can take a ranger-guided walk along the Presidential Trail or travel at your own pace. The Sculptor’s Studio features an interesting display of tools used to carve the mountain. The studio also offers ranger-led discussions about the sculpture’s history.
The towering faces on Mount Rushmore are illuminated year-round. During the summer months, there is a nightly lighting ceremony in the park’s spacious amphitheater. The 30-minute program consists of a short ranger talk and a film about the four presidents. At the conclusion of the film the audience sings the National Anthem as the lights slowly rise to illuminate Mount Rushmore.
Children’s programs are also offered during the summer. The Junior Rangers program is for children ages 5 through 12, while teens 13 and older can join the Rushmore Rangers. A special walk led by a ranger is available for kids of all ages.
Another summer event is a Sculptor-in-Residence program that features an artist demonstrating the art of sculpture using a variety of media. The sculptor explains the processes used to create works of art today and compares them to those used by Borglum and his assistants when they carved Mount Rushmore.
The majesty of Mount Rushmore was likely the inspiration for a similar monument in South Dakota. Continue to the next page to learn about a similar project underway for Crazy Horse.
Address: Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, Keystone, SD
Hours of Operation: Dawn – Dusk
The nine-story-high face of Crazy Horse, the famous Native American leader, is just the beginning of this monumental sculpture that already dominates the vista of the Black Hills. It will be the largest sculpture in the world when it’s completed. The memorial has been a work in progress since 1948, and upon completion it will show the famed Lakota warrior as he sits astride his horse with his arm outstretched and pointing forward. It is an astonishing feat of artistry and engineering that is particularly interesting because visitors can see one completed portion of the carving and compare that with the progress on other sections.
Throughout the years, the Crazy Horse Memorial has grown into a major Native American center of activity. It now features a visitor complex and an Indian Museum and Cultural Center that displays photographs, artifacts, ceremonial dress, and paintings. The museum is built out of the very rock that has been blasted from the sculpture. In the summer, many Native American artists and craftspeople create artwork and visit with guests in the Cultural Center building. The center also provides a hands-on opportunity for children to stone-grind corn and examine replicas of artifacts.
Artifacts at the Crazy Horse Memorial tell a story about the history of the region. On the next page, discover South Dakota’s prehistoric treasures by reading about Mammoth Site.
Address: Ave. of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, SD
Admission: $10 adults or $25 per car; free for kids under 6
Hours of Operation:
This treasure trove of fossils in Hot Springs, South Dakota, was discovered in 1974 when excavation for a housing development unearthed the remains of a woolly mammoth. Since then, budding paleontologists and their parents have visited the site to get hands-on experience in an actual dig.
To date, the fossilized skeletons of 53 mammoths have been identified, along with the remains of a giant short-faced bear, a camel, a llama, a prairie dog, a wolf, fish, and numerous invertebrates. Walkways throughout the excavation afford visitors close-up views of the skulls, ribs, tusks, femurs, and even nearly complete skeletons visible in the mass grave that resulted when these prehistoric animals fell into a sinkhole. Visitors can also see the Ice Age Exhibit Hall, which showcases some of the skeletons alongside a painting or replica of the animal as it would have looked, and they can view a working paleontology laboratory.
A simulated excavation for junior paleontologists is held daily during the summer months. Children learn excavation techniques including how to identify the fossils of different animals. They dig up replicas that are buried in a special area next to the actual sinkhole.
From the roar of prehistoric monsters, to the monster roar of modern machinery — plan your trip for the right time of the year and you can attend Sturgis, one of the nation’s loudest and best motorcycle rallies.
Address: West Highway 18 Bypass, Hot springs, SD
Admission: $7.50 adults; $5.50 kids
Hours of Operation:
Laura Sutherland is a widely acknowledged authority on family travel and has published several books on the topic, including Best Family Ski Vacations In North America and Tropical Family Vacations.
For 51 weeks of the year, Sturgis, South Dakota, is a sleepy town of about 6,000. But for one week in August, it hosts one of the biggest and best parties on the North American continent. The Sturgis motorcycle legacy began in 1936 when local merchant J. Clarence “Pappy” Hoel purchased a franchise from the Indian Motorcycle Company. His shop became the leading Indian dealership (per capita) in the nation.
The first rally was launched in 1938. The event has always involved touring cycling shows, races and competitions, and a couple of beers afterward. The rally attracts enthusiasts from hard-core bikers to doctors, lawyers, soldiers, police officers, and philanthropists, all dedicated to having a good time. The rally customarily begins with an enormous pancake breakfast and goes on to motorcycle demos, cycle exhibits, vendors selling motorcycle-themed art, parades, concerts, mobile malls, light shows, and a lot of happy local Sturgis merchants.
Address: Main St. and Middle St., Sturgis, SD
Hours of Operation: First week in Aug.
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Family Vacations in South Dakota
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