PERFECT 7 DAYS IN SOUTH DAKOTA: ft. Wind Cave, 6 other NPS sites and more!
The stereotypes people have of different states are a funny thing. Usually the judgement is concentrated on your neighboring states which are obviously inferior to your own. Since Missouri has the record of 8 border states we do a lot of stereotyping: Arkansas is full of moonshine and hillbillies, Nebraska is one big cornfield, cows outnumber people in Iowa and Kansas is just the worst. One state I always thought I knew was South Dakota – it’s all flat, boring prairie, of course. And there may be a bit of that, but our recent excursions through western South Dakota sure opened my eyes.
When we visited the two National Parks in western South Dakota, Badlands and Wind Cave, the wealth of other destinations in the area blew our minds. Luckily, we had a few extra days to do some exploring, but we could have used some more. I feel like most tourists drive through on their way to Yellowstone (like my family did when I was 9) and stop for an hour here at Badlands and 30 minutes there at Wall Drug and hop back on the interstate. I would argue that this compact corner of the country deserves a vacation all its own. So here is our future 7-day family vacation itinerary complete with all the tips we learned from this “scouting trip.” Feel free to steal it.
Badlands NP: The overlooks and scenic drives are definitely family friendly. The free Sage Creek Campground with its open field for anywhere camping is very budget friendly. Our favorite trail was the short 1.5-mile Notch Trail. Our favorite view was in the South Unit at Sheep Mountain Table Overlook – don’t miss it even if your minivan limits you to walking the last 2 rutted miles of the rough road.
Minuteman Missile NHS: Carve out a half day for this really cool (and educational) NPS site about the Cold War. I had no idea the U.S. had nuclear missile silos scattered throughout the northern plains to give them the shortest route to Russia over the North Pole. We missed the ranger guided tour in the underground command center, but next time we’ll make reservations.
Wall Drug: This famous presence of the South Dakota interstate is worth a few hours. Not only does the excessive western decor offer plenty to look at, but kids will love the water fountain playground in the courtyard – I know I did!
Harney Peak: Our kids will have to earn their ice cream (because our vacations will always have ice cream) on this 9-mile round trip home to the highest point in South Dakota. It’s actually the highest point between the Rockies and the Swiss Alps. Some friends we met in Badlands very highly recommended it, but they said to leave from the trailhead outside Custer State Park, unless you want to pay the park entrance fee to either visit the park (I’ve heard good things) or just cut 2 miles from the hike by using a shorter trail.
Mount Rushmore NM: I’d recommend visiting the National Monument for half a day and arriving early to beat crowds or late to stay for the lighting ceremony. When we arrived at 8:30am on a Sunday there were barely any people, but when we left at noon it was bustling. When we go back we’re splurging for a couple cones of Jefferson’s original recipe vanilla ice cream. Our kids better hope they’re not lactose intolerant.
Wind Cave NP: This lesser known National Park deserves at least a day and a half. Whenever we visit a cave National Park we like to do at least 2 separate tours to get a fuller picture. I recommend the Natural Entrance cave tour to anyone for a good overview with lots of highlights. But our favorite was the Candlelight Tour (reservations required) because the smaller group without camera flashes bling you and the ambiance and novelty of a candle lantern made it really memorable. Both tours are $12. When we go back I’m hitting up the Wild Cave tour. The Elk Mountain campground in the park was very pleasant and has free firewood at the entrance. I was shocked to hear the campground of 70 or so first-come-first-serve campsites has never filled up in 35 years. It proves that most people check out after their cave tour and miss the topside beauty.
Wind Cave NP: To explore that beauty of the mixed prairie and woodlands you need a whole other day. The scenic park loop will probably take you right through the park’s huge buffalo herd. And the short Rankin Ridge Trail offers awesome views from the park’s highest point. Also, you can fit in that second tour.
Jewell Cave NM: Confession time! When we arrived at Jewell Cave around 2pm the $12, 75-minute Scenic tour and free, 20-minute Discovery tour were all booked for the rest of the day. So we had to settle for a surface trail. They don’t have an online reservation system, so make sure you 1) call before you arrive to assess tour availability 2) arrive as early as possible to get tickets in person for a convenient tour time.
Devils Tower NM: A dip into eastern Wyoming is well worth it to be baffled by the country’s first National Monument. Definitely take the 1.5-mile loop trail around the base of the tower to appreciate the changing view from all perspectives. If you have extra time, hike the 1.5 mile Ridge Trail for good distant views of the tower and plenty of chances to spot wildlife, such as deer, from the bluffs and in the ravine. I ran up on the smallest, most adorable fawn.
Agate Fossil Beds NM in northwest Nebraska.
Deadwood Wild West town northwest of Rapid City
Crazy Horse Memorial near Custer, SD
Custer State Park near Wind Cave
Black Hills National Forest
Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame
Whatever you do, just don’t go the second week in August unless you want to be serenaded wherever you go by thousands of roaring Harleys flocking to Sturgis (my father-in-law’s worst nightmare). Otherwise, with so many destinations to choose from, you can’t go wrong with a trip to anti-flat, anti-boring western South Dakota.