I didn’t know much about South Dakota aside from what the Beatles had told me: “Now somewhere in the black mountain hills of Dakota, there lived a young boy named Rocky Racco-o-on…” And I know things didn’t turn out so well for him.
And there was the one time, about 10 years ago and before kids, that my husband and I drove to Spearfish, South Dakota, about 45 minutes from Rapid City, to race in an off-road triathlon. We camped by the little lake, did the race, mountain biked in a woodsy area nearby the next day but then turned around and drove home.
Once I started telling people that Backpacker Magazine was sending the family—my husband Mark, our almost-8-year-old son, Sam, and 4-and-a-half-year-old son, Ben—and I on an assignment to explore Rapid City and the surrounding areas, I was told things like this: “There are great roadside attractions in Rapid City!” Huh, I thought.
The kids were fired up. My husband and I were ready for a family adventure, and we hoped to get out on some family hikes and expose the kids to historic things like Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, go underground in an expansive limestone cave…maybe see some bison up close and personal.
And so it began, our three-day tour of Rapid City. We’d kick it off discovering the downtown area—I was impressed by the statues of Presidents on every corner!—before we’d head out toward the Black Hills, State Parks and National Monuments over the next couple of days…Oh, while staying at the La Quinta Rapid City, which happens to be attached to the largest indoor waterpark in the Dakotas. Did I mention the kids were fired up?
**The one-minute video I shot and made about our trip to Rapid City can be found on the Backpacker.com Rapid City Content Hub, found here.
As an active outdoorswoman with a family, there are certain live-ability qualities I look for in places (not that we’re looking to move). Aside from being able to get a good cup of coffee and a good beer, quick and easy access to recreational trails tops my list. So when we rolled into Rapid City, South Dakota and met with the nice people at the Parks and Recreation department, I was impressed to hear about their in-town trail building efforts.
Twenty miles of multi-use trails have been built on the hill right above town in what’s called the Hanson-Larsen Memorial Park, and 10 more miles are currently being completed—refurbished older trails combined with new ones, with new parking lots and bathrooms for ease of access—at the Skyline Wilderness Park. Hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers and birders can pop right up the hill from downtown and hop on fun, swooping trails that make you feel like you’re deep in the wilderness, and then return to town within minutes.
And while I was checking out the Skyline trails, my husband and kids found the Legacy Commons playgrounds, which was completed in 2014 and proved to entertain the boys. The playgrounds are adjacent to the new Memorial Park Promenade, and an 8-mile, paved bike path alongside a river.
After we explored trails, and playgrounds, we met up downtown for lunch at the Firehouse Brewing Company, checking one more thing off the live-ability checklist.
I wasn’t sure what to expect at the Outdoor Campus West. All I knew is that it was an outdoor education center. We pulled up to the building, and, holy smokes, I was impressed. A gorgeous structure with impressive wood-beamed, A-frame dormers above a full wall of windows sits behind a little man-made lake, lined with canoes.
And once we stepped inside, we were told that all the exhibits were hands-on and I didn’t have to tell my boys to not touch anything (sweet relief). The kids started climbing man-made rocks and logs, pulling on drawers and that show facts about wildlife, discovering little doors to hidden treasures: a chipmunk in a tree, for instance.
The kids crawled through logs, looked at the animals and thoroughly enjoyed the interactive display. There, they got to select an animal, and a giant video of that animal in action took over a large screen. My boys were mesmerized. We also got to touch and even hold (me) a bull snake.
Outside, a mile-and-a-half of trail leads through rolling hills. We walked in a light rain down the path to the tree house, and talked about how awesome it is that the center is free to the public…. And how, especially if I still had my kids in strollers and lived nearby, I’d come here all the time to walk around, let them play on the outdoor playground, exploring nature hands-on indoors, and learning.
While we stood atop the tree house, I noticed a woman speed-walking the trails, climbing the stairs of the tree house before descending, and then continuing her way on the nicely preserved, smooth gravel paths of the center.
And on our walk back to the building, our host told us about all the free programs for both kids and elderly held at the Campus. My son and husband walked over to the outdoor playground and stepped from tree-stump to tree-stump, and I vowed to get our camping kit ready for summer as soon as I could once we got home to Boulder. Inspired.
We’re an animal-loving family, so we had a couple of wildlife excursions on our weekend docket. For the first, aside from what we’d seen and touched (and, there was the bull snake I held) at the Outdoor Campus West, we’d climb into an open jeep for a sort of safari through Custer State Park.
While it’s more our style to hike or run the trails, the jeep would cover more ground, and we figured our tour guide could teach us some cool things about the area, and the wildlife that live there.
And I was right. When we came across some pronghorn antelope along the side of the road, we were told they can run 55- 60-mph, and are the fastest animals in North America. We spotted a bison lying at the foot of a tree, likely trying to shield itself from the weather, which was becoming increasingly chilly and damp. (I was kind of loving the cold on my face; it appealed to my adventurous side.) We heard a number of Meadowlark birds singing, which seemed like they were praising the weather.
We reached a herd of bison, and watched mothers nurse their babies… before I realized my babies were getting too cold, and we had to turn the jeep around. My 4-year-old was buried in my lap under three wool blankets, and even my husband and I shivered and braced ourselves during the ride back. The cold made me appreciate the conditions the American Indians and early settlers endured in this landscape of rolling grasslands, as we rolled along paved and dirt roads. We saw a few more animals on the way back (I think) and ended in the lodge with warm drinks.
We survived just fine, and called it an adventure.
Sometimes, road tripping with our two young kids makes my husband and I feel like Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo in the movie “Vacation,” and we sing “Mockingbird” in harmony as we ramble down highways, like Route 16 from Rapid City toward the Black Hills of South Dakota. Occasionally, the kids like this kind of parent shenanigans, and occasionally, they’re so crazy being brothers in the back seat of the car, that we don’t care if they like it or not.
The kids were noisy and nuts on the gorgeous drive out of Custer State Park on the way to Crazy Horse. Granted, they were likely exhausted from their little bodies trying to generate heat during the Safari tour. But everything in me was happy to turn around and catch this scene in the backseat:
Ah, quiet. Sometimes it’s nice for mom and dad to have a non-“Vacation”-like conversation in the car.
The day prior, we had gone on a tour of the South Dakota Museum of Geology at the School of Mines & Technology, and Ben had zero attention span left in the day. Mark spent most of the tour chasing him around, past the dinosaur bones and fossils. (Occasionally, Ben would slow down enough to check out something like a triceratops skeleton.) But at Jewel Cave, almost 24 hours later, Ben would say this: “Stalactites hang from the ceiling, and stalagmites go up from the ground.” Turns out, Ben can multitask.
And on our last day, we’d wrap up our trip at the Reptile Gardens, a mostly indoor exhibit that houses 240 species of reptiles, the biggest collection in North America. This is something my husband and I might not have done on our own, and at the tail end of the weekend with the kids 24-7, we were feeling a little punchy. But learning things like the King Cobras’ venom is the most poisonous of all the snakes, and seeing giant turtles, etc. was cool, and enriching for both the kids and us. And we had fun exploring the outdoor offerings at the Reptile Gardens, and by this point had fully embraced the family goofiness.
It’s times like this that we realize our kids—as crazy as they can be—won’t be kids in the backseat of our car forever, and to revel in it. All of it. “And that’s why—oh yes indeed—I keep on singing.” – Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo.
We got a little lost on our drive to Crazy Horse Memorial (but what’s a road trip without an unplanned detour?), so when we got there, Mark and I chuckled about the low-lying clouds covering the massive sculpture seeming fittingly humorous. But we were optimistic, and figured the clouds would move out, so we took the kids into the Visitor Center that doubles as the Indian Museum of North America. We marveled at all the American Indian artifacts, the beautiful wood interior, and teepee replica. The kids enjoyed exploring what Indians used for toys and tools.
The four of us then sat down in a nice auditorium for a short movie about the history of the memorial—how one man, an Irish/Polish sculptor named Korczak Ziolkowski, took on the project at the asking of Lakota Chief Standing Bear. “My fellow chiefs and I would like to white man to know the red man has great heroes, also,” wrote the chief, referencing nearby Mount Rushmore. Starting in 1947, at age 40, Korczak worked on Crazy Horse for the rest of his life.
It might have been the footage of blasting dynamite, but my boys stayed glued to the screen for the whole 20 minutes. We learned that, to this day, the memorial works off of private funding and donations only—no government grants—so the process is slow-going. We learned that Korczak and his wife Ruth had 10 children, and most of them dedicated their lives to the Memorial. I felt moved by the meaning of all of it, and grateful that my kids were exposed to the history of the American Indian people and the hard work and dedication necessary to keep the work on the memorial going.
When the film ended, we exited the auditorium into a room with large picture windows. And, what do you know? The fog had lifted, and there was Crazy Horse in his glory.
I don’t even like being in European elevators; they make me claustrophobic. So, part of me was having a mini panic attack at the thought of it: Taking an elevator down into the ground 240 feet, exiting into Jewel Cave and descending another 100 feet on foot on a series of bridges and through tunnels during what’s called a “Scenic Tour.” We’d be underground for about 80 minutes.
But, this was a discovery kind of trip, educational for the kids and horizon-expanding for me and Mark, so the four of us handed the nice ranger our tickets and got into the elevator. (Breathe, Lisa, breathe.) The first part of the cave we entered was expansive and didn’t feel constricting, and I tried not to focus on the fact that we were “trapped” so far underground. It was beautiful, really, with calcite crystals lining the cave walls and lights illuminating interestingly shaped caverns in all directions.
We learned about how 181 miles of Jewel Cave have been discovered to date, and how to separate groups of four were currently on four-day exploratory missions, sure to find another mile or two. At one point, the ranger turned off all the lights, and I’ve never experience such a deep darkness. Both my boys had said they were scared, and were clinging to me the rest of the tour. I suddenly lost my own fear, and went into be-strong-for-the-kids mode. I’ll admit, though, I was relieved when we stepped back out of the elevator and onto the surface of the earth.
In the gift shop, Sam wanted to buy a book on identifying rocks, which made me happy. We took a family hike outside the property to get some fresh, above-ground air, telling the kids that beneath our feet was the labyrinth we’d just explored. Two trail loops start from the Visitor Center, and a third is a mile away. Walking with the kids, we found some quartzite—identified by Sam—along the trail lined with Ponderosa pines and looking out to the area’s limestone cliffs before hopping back in the car.
Okay, so staying at the La Quinta Rapid City, adjacent to the WaTiki, the biggest indoor water park in the Dakotas, may be the exact opposite of camping. And camping is something we’d usually do, as a family, when visiting a place with great state and national parks. But in the unpredictable spring weather, and with kids ages 4 and 8 who somehow seem to find energy, even at the ends of very long days, our lodging plan proved ideal.
Our first day in Rapid City was cold and damp, and we spent much of it outside touring places like the Outdoor Campus West, and downtown Rapid City playgrounds. We welcomed checking into to a two-room suite at the La Quinta at the end of the day, where we could change into bathing suits and get wet on purpose.
On Friday evening, we unleashed the kids on the giant slides, the little slides, the squirty fountains, and all sorts of waterpark mayhem. My favorite thing to do was float down the lazy river in a double inner tube with Ben, watching all the tweens and teens dive under us and hoot and holler around us. Sam disappeared a couple of times, doing laps on slides called, “Super Bowl,” and the “Super Frog Slide.” It didn’t stink to sit in a hot tub, while the kids played, either. And it didn’t stink that they had no trouble falling asleep at night.
On Sunday morning, we normally would have been sipping coffee around a fire at a campsite, the kids shivering. But this time, we put on our bathing suits, and walked down the hotel hallway right into the waterpark for another session before our last day of touring. And it was fun.
We pulled up to Mount Rushmore and there they were—the four Presidents carved impressively out of granite, with a regal walkway lined by flags from around the United States leading up to the viewing platform. The sky had cleared from the prior days’ storms, and clear blue framed the four heads.
My husband, being a climber, was frothing at the mouth at all the climbable granite. And since we wanted to take advantage of the great weather, we set off down the road in the car, looking for a place to hike and maybe scramble on some rocks. And, lucky us, two miles down the road from Mount Rushmore, we spotted a sign that said “Climbing Area.” We parked the car, and started exploring an area called “Wrinkled Rock.”
The four of us rambled down a trail in the sunshine, happy to be stretching our legs and smelling pines. And then we stumble upon the rocks, found chalk holds indicating bouldering problems, and Mark pulled out his climbing shoes (we packed them, just in case). Mark tried a few problems while the kids and I explored, and I was proud of them for scrambling up some narrow slots, and finding the trail back. We had a great mini-adventure while dad climbed.
I pulled out my climbing shoes (packed those, too) and tried out the moves on an easy boulder. Both boys climbed at the base of some nicely featured cliffs, before the four of us hiked back to the car, happy.
It makes sense that there’s great, climbable rock right behind Mount Rushmore. We felt lucky to have found it, and that we got to see something historic and play outdoors all within an afternoon.