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Family Trip to the Black Hills: Reflections, Reviews and Recommendations

Updated on August 4, 2016
David Ortega profile image

Performed comedy since the 80s. Married with 4 boys and 4 girls. Wealth of humorous, faith-filled, and fascinating experiences.

Mount Rushmore

4 Presidents, and our 4 Boys and 4 Girls
4 Presidents, and our 4 Boys and 4 Girls

Family Friendly

Our daughter Noelle (born on Christmas) age 17, suggested we take a trip to the beautiful mountains of Colorado. I said I had instead 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

A markerMount Rushmore -
Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Black Hills National Forest, 13000 SD-244, Keystone, SD 57751
get directions

Gather Input

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 these 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.

Total: $3,082.45


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 prayer and 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 at about $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

Family poses as explorers with Lewis and Clark
Family poses as explorers with Lewis and Clark

Trinity Heights Shrine-Sioux City

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Hand-carved Last SupperOur Lady of Lourdes GrottoStatue of Mary where family prayed rosaryStatue of Jesus with two of our sons, Dominic (age 11) and Isaac (age 5)
Hand-carved Last Supper
Hand-carved Last Supper
Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto
Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto
Statue of Mary where family prayed rosary
Statue of Mary where family prayed rosary
Statue of Jesus with two of our sons, Dominic (age 11) and Isaac (age 5)
Statue of Jesus with two of our sons, Dominic (age 11) and Isaac (age 5)

Day Two: Corn Palace, Badlands, Wall Drug & Rapid City

In the morning, our family enjoyed the breakfast buffet at the Hampton Inn 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 then 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.

Corn Palace, Mitchell, SD
Corn Palace, Mitchell, SD

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 took time to get out of our vehicles and explore the trails and climb the peaks.

Our older children challenged me to the top of one of the slopes. I had 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 tried to make 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 at the top 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 some mountain goats made their appearance. They came right up to our vehicle, allowing us some close shots.

This experience became the threshhold we needed to top during the rest of the vacation.

Badlands Photos

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Badlands National ParkOur family stopped at the first lookout.Dad makes it to the top first as cloud rolls inOur son Michael poses as Tim Tebow as rays of divine light shine on himDouble rainbowA family of goats walk across our roadway
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park
Our family stopped at the first lookout.
Our family stopped at the first lookout.
Dad makes it to the top first as cloud rolls in
Dad makes it to the top first as cloud rolls in
Our son Michael poses as Tim Tebow as rays of divine light shine on him
Our son Michael poses as Tim Tebow as rays of divine light shine on him
Double rainbow
Double rainbow
A family of goats walk across our roadway
A family of goats walk across our roadway

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 Drug

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Our son Ben on the JackalopeCoin operated gorilla who plays the piano and sings Our daughter Noelle at the coin-op shooting gallery
Our son Ben on the Jackalope
Our son Ben on the Jackalope
Coin operated gorilla who plays the piano and sings
Coin operated gorilla who plays the piano and sings
Our daughter Noelle at the coin-op shooting gallery
Our daughter Noelle at the coin-op shooting gallery

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

Retreat center located on a peaceful hillside setting.
Retreat center located on a peaceful hillside setting.

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 flowing uphill and bottles, cans and other objects that rolled 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". The highlight was when 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

Our son Isaac in the truth chair with legs suspended in mid air
Our son Isaac in the truth chair with legs suspended in mid air

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 took in 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 & Chairlift

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Alpine Slide!Rushmore Tramway Adventure ParkSuspended bridges, ladders, & ziplines
Alpine Slide!
Alpine Slide!
Rushmore Tramway Adventure Park
Rushmore Tramway Adventure Park
Suspended bridges, ladders, & ziplines
Suspended bridges, ladders, & ziplines

Mount Rushmore

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

Entrance to the memorial includes all the state flags
Entrance to the memorial includes all the state flags

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 last year. 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 was to try and 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 Memorial

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Crazy Horse Memorial and MuseumOur son Michael viewing Crazy Horse using a coin operated view finder
Crazy Horse Memorial and Museum
Crazy Horse Memorial and Museum
Our son Michael viewing Crazy Horse using a coin operated view finder
Our son Michael viewing Crazy Horse using a coin operated view finder

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 to Little Devil's Tower and reported that it was quite rewarding.

Sylvan Lake

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Sylvan LakeFamily at the top of the rocks that border the lakeChildren celebrate climbing the rocksSwimming and Canoeing at Sylvan Lake
Sylvan Lake
Sylvan Lake
Family at the top of the rocks that border the lake
Family at the top of the rocks that border the lake
Children celebrate climbing the rocks
Children celebrate climbing the rocks
Swimming and Canoeing at Sylvan Lake
Swimming and Canoeing at Sylvan Lake

Little Devil's Tower

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Awesome view from top of Little Devil's Tower near Harney PeakThe Fab Five make it to the top of Little Devil's Tower
Awesome view from top of Little Devil's Tower near Harney Peak
Awesome view from top of Little Devil's Tower near Harney Peak
The Fab Five make it to the top of Little Devil's Tower
The Fab Five make it to the top of Little Devil's Tower

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 Alpine Slide and Zipline 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.

Circle B Chuckwagon Activities

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Our son Ben enjoys a lemonade at the Chuckwagon dinnerOur son Michael tries his hand at a lassoPanning for gold
Our son Ben enjoys a lemonade at the Chuckwagon dinner
Our son Ben enjoys a lemonade at the Chuckwagon dinner
Our son Michael tries his hand at a lasso
Our son Michael tries his hand at a lasso
Panning for gold
Panning for gold

Day 5: Jewell Cave and Custer Park Wildlife Loop

The children have a sense of discovery and exploration and wanted to go on a guided lantern tour in the third largest cave in the world. With over 145 miles of mapped area, there was still 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.

Photos of Jewell Cave

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Our daughter Alissa bravely lights the wayFamily at entrance of cave
Our daughter Alissa bravely lights the way
Our daughter Alissa bravely lights the way
Family at entrance of cave
Family at entrance of cave

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

Our daughter Noelle takes a selfie with our daughter Grace and a friendly burro
Our daughter Noelle takes a selfie with our daughter Grace and a friendly 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 d├ęcor. 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

Falls Park Sioux Falls, SD
Falls Park Sioux Falls, 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 the rally doubles 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 reasonably priced.

As I write this a week after our visit, the top three most memorable and enjoyable moments as expressed by our children are:

Jewell Cave

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!

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    • profile image

      George & Margaret Rowe 2 years ago

      Thanks for sharing. You and your family are great example of a loving family. Thanks for being a brother in Christ!

    • David Ortega profile image
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      David Ortega 2 years ago from Altoona, Iowa

      Thanks for your reply, Carol. It is truly worth the drive if you have never been.

    • profile image

      Carol Nading 2 years ago

      really enjoyed your vacation blog and pictures. Thanks for sharing. I'm ready to head for the hills!

    • David Ortega profile image
      Author

      David Ortega 2 years ago from Altoona, Iowa

      And we are blessed to have you as our daughter!

    • profile image

      Noelle Ortega 2 years ago

      Great article dad! You captured every aspect of this whole trip! You did an amazing job planning what to do and I know we all had a blast! We are truly blest to have you as our father!