Family Trip to the Black Hills: Reflections, Reviews and Recommendations
Our daughter Noelle (born on Christmas) age 17, suggested we take a trip to the beautiful mountains of Colorado. Instead, I thought about taking our family of 4 boys and 4 girls to experience the beauty and attractions of the Black Hills. I explained it is just as picturesque and yet family friendly. I wanted our children ages 5-18 to experience some of the moments I had when my family drove there when I was in high school.
South Dakota-Black Hills Area
I knew exactly what I wanted my family to experience. But I gathered input from my wife and children as well as friends who have made the trip to South Dakota and the Black Hills. The general consensus was that Mount Rushmore, especially in the evening, is a must. The Corn Palace is fine for a brief visit. Wall Drug is entertaining. Get out and hike the Badlands and do some additional climbing in the Black Hills.
For the older kids, take in a zip line. My wife suggested a dinner and show. I looked up information on a dinner and chuck wagon shootout show near Rapid City. Much to my surprise, most all of my children wanted to explore a cave. I wanted to make sure our family vacation included some time for spiritual reflection and visits to shrines as well.
The final list:
Trinity Heights Shrine-Sioux City, IA
Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center-Sioux City, IA
Badlands National Park, SD
Wall Drug-Wall, SD
Cosmos Mystery Area-Rapid City, SD
Rushmore Tramway Adventures-Keystone, SD
Crazy Horse Memorial, Crazy Horse SD
Custer State Park, SD
Jewell Cave National Monument-Custer, SD
Circle B Ranch Chuckwagon Show-Hill City, SD
Figure a Budget
You can imagine that with a family of 10, I had to figure a tight budget. Food, gas and lodging would probably be the most expensive, and it was. We took two vehicles and had to rent two rooms wherever we went. Booking hotels with a free breakfast and purchasing food from grocery stores to prepare other meals helped to cut down costs.
I researched many of the costs online. I used Expedia for hotel rental. The entertainment costs were fairly low with one exception: The chuckwagon show. I figured the final cost somewhere near $3,000 for 6 days. Here is the actual cost breakdown. Specific details are given in the paragraphs that follow.
$449.45 gas-2 vehicles, approx. 1500 miles each
$1256.12 lodging-1 night in Sioux City, 2 rooms, 3 nights in Rapid City, 2 rooms and one night in Sioux Falls, 2 rooms.
$884.28 food-Subway, pizza, store bought items (donuts, muffins, instant oatmeal, macaroni and cheese, Ramen noodles, fruits, nuts, etc.) and chuckwagon show.
$447.73 entertainment-park entry fees, zip line, etc.
$44.87 misc.-souvenirs, etc.
Day One: Sioux City
The trip from central Iowa to Rapid City is about 9 and a half hours. I wanted to strike a balance to make this trip both quick and efficient and yet enjoyable with a sufficient number of stops. At three and a half hours away, Sioux City seemed like a good "stepping stone" en route to Rapid City. This would reduce the next day's travel time down to six hours, allowing time to visit the Corn Palace and Badlands.
In Sioux City, you can visit the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. It commemorates the historic exploration of the Mississippi and Missouri river valleys through interactive programs and activities. One of the activities allows children and guests to try and balance cargo on a small scale riverboat. Taking in the movie in the theater room and exploring all of the art both inside and outside the building was rewarding.
We also visited the Trinity Heights Shrines and Gardens. Trinity Heights is a peaceful setting with shrines, memorial gardens and quiet corners for prayer and reflection. There are two magnificent statues, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Queen of Peace and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We were also impressed by the life-size carving of the Last Supper. We prayed a rosary, took time for reflection in the chapel and snapped a photo of a relic of Saint Faustina. We enjoyed the bubbling fountains, especially at the Lourdes Shrine. People of all faiths visit Trinity Heights. There is no fee, but free will offerings are accepted. It was a worthwhile visit.
We stayed at the Hampton Inn, North Sioux City, SD. It had a pool and free breakfast for $130 per night. The Stoney Creek hotel in Sioux City was recommended and appeared to be more of a 5 star hotel, but they raised their price from $150 to $170 per night when I called to change the date of our stay. So I shopped around and saved $40 per night (times two hotels = $80) by booking at the Hampton. It was clean and the breakfast was satisfying.
Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center-Sioux City
Trinity Heights Shrine-Sioux CityClick thumbnail to view full-size
Day Two: Corn Palace, Badlands, Wall Drug & Rapid City
Our family enjoyed the breakfast buffet consisting of sausage, cheesy eggs, a selection of cereal and the ever famous do it yourself waffle irons. There was fruit and toast and other items available, all very satisfying.
We headed for the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD, about a two and a half hour drive from Sioux City. It is more or less a large souvenir shop, with plenty of corn-related items for sale. There were stuffed animals, Native American goods and other food items native to the prairie. Our son Michael bought some hot sauce and our daughter Noelle purchased a microwave corn on the cob. Yes, the corn was still on the cob and you place it in the bag supplied and pop it in the microwave. Many friends advised not to spend a lot of time there. I agree. Although it is undergoing some renovations, it isn't a place one would spend a lot of time touring.
In Mitchell, we had lunch at the Taco Johns. We enjoyed a couple of the six-packs of beef tacos and a pound of Potato Oles. It was very economical and satisfying.
Badlands National Park
We continued our trip from Mitchell to the Badlands National Park, about a 3 hour drive. This was truly the pinnacle of our trip and it had hardly began. Who can describe this work of creation? It is like the Grand Canyon of the Midwest! Though the day was hot, we got out of our vehicles and explored the trails and climbed the peaks.
Our older children challenged me to the top of one of the slopes. I arrived at the peak first. Many have described the feeling and emotions of mountain top experiences. This was truly one of them. As my other children neared the top, a cloud began to roll in. There was a soft rumble of thunder and a gentle breeze. Eventually we could see a few bright spots in the clouds as small flashes of lightning made an appearance. It was not a threatening storm. Rather there was a gentle breeze and it was peaceful.
The scene was reminiscent of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings: "Behold, a cloud as small as a man's hand is coming up from the sea.... Prepare your chariot and go down, so that the heavy shower does not stop you.... Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by...but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper, a still small voice."
I certainly could feel the presence of the Lord, a still gentle whisper in this mountain top experience. My children soon joined me and began snapping additional photographs. One of them is of our son Michael doing his Tim Tebow pose. As he did this, rays of divine light seemed to come from the cloud and envelope him (see photo below).
Although the cloud was small and seemed rather innocent, we decided to descend the peak and depart in our "chariot" just in case. As we drove off, a light shower started. I looked in the rear view mirror and noticed a brilliant double rainbow. I announced it to the children and we pulled over to get a good look. It was as though we were getting a sign from God. Our daughter was able to take a panoramic photo of it.
There were an abundance of prairie dogs popping up out of their holes and yipping. After snapping a few more photos, we moved onto other parts of the park. We were rewarded once again when mountain goats made their appearance. They came right up to our vehicle, allowing us some close photographs.
This experience became the benchmark we needed to exceed during the rest of the vacation.
Badlands PhotosClick thumbnail to view full-size
Day 2 Continued: Wall Drug
Wall Drug is about a half hour drive from the Badlands. It is a shopping attraction with restaurant, pharmacy and gift shops containing plenty of unusual items for sale. Although there is no admission, there are plenty of ways to spend money.
There are mechanical animals like a jackalope, a coin operated gorilla playing a piano and a dinosaur that moves and roars. The kids enjoyed the animals, the coin operated shooting gallery and the items in the souvenir shops. The restaurant was a little pricey and the food marginal and I wondered whether we should have found another place for our evening meal. There were not any national fast food chains visible within walking distance of Wall Drug. We spent a little over an hour there and decided to head for our evening place of rest in Rapid City.
Wall DrugClick thumbnail to view full-size
Our Stay in Rapid City: Terra Sancta Retreat Center
The Terra Sancta Retreat Center was definitely a hidden gem in the Hills. It is located on a 200 acre wooded property. There are hiking trails, sand volleyball courts, patios, courtyards, amphitheaters, fire pits and outdoor altar with stations of the cross. Inside, the family-style rooms consisted of 2 queen beds, air conditioning and private bath, just like a hotel. We were allowed to use their kitchen space complete with microwave, refrigerator, coffee machine and tables to spread out and eat. Although there is no pool, the kids enjoyed the game room which offered two ping pong tables, a pool table, foos ball, a chess table and board games. There was also an exercise room and washer and dryer available to do laundry. At $90 per night, it was very reasonable. Most of the area attractions were within driving distance of this location.
Terra Sancta Retreat Center, Rapid City
Day 3: Cosmos Mystery Area
Cosmos Mystery is located in between Rapid City and Mount Rushmore. I had fond memories of the visit during my teenage years of the optical illusions and mysterious phenomenon like water, cans and bottles rolling and flowing uphill. There is a cabin or shack that is built on the incline of the mountain and it allows for some tricky demonstrations and adventures.
I must admit that although my second time around was rewarding for me and my children, I would have liked for it to have had more of a "wow factor". Our son Isaac volunteered for the "truth chair," where the front legs hang out in the air and the guide asks a series of questions. You might fall forward if you don't tell the truth. The admission is similar to taking a family to the movies. They gave us a coupon for a dollar off ice cream purchases.
Cosmos Mystery Area-Truth Chair
Rushmore Tramway Adventures
The Tramway Adventure Park is located near the Cosmos Mystery Area and Mount Rushmore. In fact, when you take the chair lift to the top, you can see a profile of the 4 presidents. We enjoyed the zipline and Alpine Slide. Although we didn't purchase it, they also offer a package called the Aerial Adventure Park, complete with suspended bridges and ladders, trapezes, ziplines and nets. The slide and ziplines were worth the cost of admission: $15 for zipline and a package of 10 rides for $80 down the alpine slide. It includes the chairlift to the top. This is a must for teenagers but the Alpine slide allows for children as young as age 2 to participate.
Rushmore Tramway Adventures-Alpine Slide, Ziplines & ChairliftClick thumbnail to view full-size
You can't visit Washington DC without visiting the White House and you can't visit the Black Hills, Rapid City area without visiting one of our nation's most treasured monuments, Mount Rushmore. Here the faces of four presidents-George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are carved in granite. Most of the initial work was done by dynamite explosives. The monument is striking during the day in full sunlight but we are told that the evening program includes a light display and program honoring those who serve our nation that is worthwhile. Unfortunately, many of us grew tired and were ready to return to our retreat center and did not stay for the program. There is a museum with displays and a theater for viewing a movie regarding the history of the monument. The fee to park at the memorial is $11.
Mount Rushmore National Monument
Day 4: Crazy Horse, Sylvan Lake & Chuckwagon Show
The sculptor for the Crazy Horse monument, currently under construction, had a large family like me. I have 4 boys and 4 girls while he had 5 boys and 5 girls. Korczak Ziolkowski the sculptor passed away in 1982 and his wife passed away in 2014. However, 7 of his children still carry on his dream by participating in some way towards finishing the project.
When completed, the memorial will be several times larger than Mount Rushmore. Because of the sculptor's hesitation with accepting government funds, the project is funded by private donations and entry fees. The vision of the sculptor is to honor our Native Americans and even offer scholarships for their advancement in education. There is a museum and plenty of items in the souvenir shops. Admission was $28 per car load.
Crazy Horse MemorialClick thumbnail to view full-size
Sylvan Lake & Hiking Little Devil's Tower
Sylvan Lake is one of the most beautiful spots in the Black Hills with impressive rock formations and breathtaking pines. Kids loved climbing the rocks jutting out into the lake and dipping their toes in the water. The older ones hiked nearby Little Devil's Tower and reported that it was quite rewarding.
Crazy Horse Book for Kids
Sylvan LakeClick thumbnail to view full-size
Little Devil's TowerClick thumbnail to view full-size
Guide to Hiking the Black Hills
Circle B Chuckwagon Show
This is a dinner and show located in Hill City, SD. There are a couple other similar shows in the area and my online research seemed to indicate that this was one of the better ones. I was, however, disappointed. The cost was $225 for all of us but we all agreed we could have spent that money on another day at the Rushmore Tramway Adventures and still had money left over. The food was marginal at best. The singing and entertainment was OK. Although there were a couple of signs to guide visitors, they were not clear and it was hard to locate this place. It had rained and the outdoor kid's activities were shutdown early, including the pony rides. In the end, the kids were still able to pan for gold, try their hand at a lasso and pet a pony.
Day 5: Jewell Cave and Custer Park Wildlife Loop
With a sense of discovery and exploration, the children wanted to go on a guided lantern tour in the third largest cave in the world. With over 145 miles of mapped area, Jewel Cave has an estimated 5,000 miles of uncharted territory. The tour was marked as, "moderately strenuous" but there were two other levels that were less strenuous and suitable for smaller children. I went on the lantern tour with my older children. It was a little challenging for me at first, not so much for the crouching and stooping but for the enclosed space. Once we descended a narrow passageway by ladder, it opened to a larger cavern and I regained my composure. One of my children also exhibited a mild form of anxiety but it truly washed away once you were able to get to the main room. There was plenty of light and a moving breeze that helped to provide comfort. The tour guide did an excellent job describing the history and the potential for discovery. When he asked the crowd of about 20 persons who would be interested in volunteering to explore the uncharted cave areas further, most of my children raised their hand. The Parks are always interested in forming the next set of cave explorers. Tips and recommendations: It is best to purchase tickets very early in the day or even the day before as tour times sell out quickly. Wear close-toed shoes and prepare for 49 degree temperatures. I would recommend jeans and a sweatshirt.
Circle B Chuckwagon ActivitiesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Photos of Jewell CaveClick thumbnail to view full-size
Jewell Cave in Paperback
Custer State Park Wildlife Loop
Custer State Park offers stunning views of the mountains, creeks, and wildlife with plenty of hiking trails. We saw buffalo and a band of wild mules. It is worth taking your time to drive slowly and pull over for viewing the wildlife. They don't recommend that you feed any of the wildlife, especially the wild bison, but the burros are hard to resist. They recommend that you go early in the morning or late in the evening during the summertime as that is when the animals prefer to roam.
Custer Park Burro
Final Day: Return to Iowa with a stop in Sioux Falls
After accomplishing all of the places we wanted to visit, we headed home. I elected to avoid driving the entire 9 and a half hour trip at once and made our destination Sioux Falls, SD, about half way home. This proved to be a good decision.
Not only does Sioux Falls offer a stunning view of beautiful waterfalls that run through the middle of the city but an affordable hotel with an indoor water park and water slide. Dakotah Lodge alone was worth the stop in the city. Amenities included a microwave and refrigerator as well as breakfast in "Grandma's Kitchen" that was outfitted in 1930s décor. It had an old-fashioned GE icebox where yogurt and other cold items were available at breakfast time. The kiddos and I had a blast on the water slide, and we enjoyed a game of basketball in the swimming pool. The best part is that the rooms were only $89! They could have easily gotten $150.
In the morning our son Dominic joined me for a stroll through Falls Park where we enjoyed the sound of the waterfalls and strolled along the large stones scattered in the Big Sioux River.
Waterfall at Falls Park, SD
Final Thoughts and Reflections
I thank God that I was able to create some treasured memories for our family. I am also thankful that He delivered us safely there and back with no injuries or illnesses.
The 75 year reunion of the Annual Sturgis Rally was near the time of our visit. We originally planned our visit for the first week of August but moved our trip one week sooner to be relieved of the anticipated crowds. However, we saw groups of bikers at our hotel in Sioux City and all along I-29 and I-90.
The streets of Hill City and Custer, SD in particular were lined with hundreds of Harley fans. We didn't see them at some the attractions we visited but rather they just seemed to be cruising up and down the highways in and around Rapid City. South Dakota officials anticipated about one million riders. One of the hotel directors commented that rally participants double the population of the entire state. Although some hotels were booked a year in advance because of the rally, I was still able to find hotels with vacancies and reasonably priced.
The top three most memorable and enjoyable moments as expressed by our children were:
Rushmore Tramway Adventures (zip line and Alpine Slide)
Hiking-Badlands and LIttle Devil's Tower
We live in a very blessed and beautiful country (where the deer and the antelope play). Get out and enjoy God's creation!