Voyages: South Dakota — A Quick and Quirky Trip
The New York Times recently pinpointed what may very well be the most critical aspect of planning family travel: making an actual plan. While spontaneous Caribbean getaways and fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants European excursions may be how you did things pre-kids, you’ll come to realize early on that, as is the case at home, if you have children and no schedule, you’re guaranteed chaos, tears and whining (and, maybe if you’re on vacation, some souvenirs).
As kids get older, the opportunity to travel as a unit can become fewer and farther between, which makes setting aside time and money when they’re younger essential if making memories now is high on your list. For littler kids in particular, long flights or even longer car rides can be especially painful. That’s why close(r) destinations can be key when prepping adventurers-in-training for even bigger journeys. And while white sandy beaches and sophisticated foreign cities have their own allure, looking in your own backyard (or close to it) is an excellent starting point.
With the flight to Rapid City from Denver just a short hop away, South Dakota is a great jumping-off point to tour a nearby state that’s rich with history and teeming with interesting sites and no shortage of quirkiness.
Where to Stay: K Bar S Lodge is tucked away in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Clean, cozy and comfortable, it’s close enough to Rapid City and even closer to Mt. Rushmore (ask for a room with a view).
Where to Eat: There’s good reason Tally’s Silver Spoon in downtown Rapid City has been around for nearly a century: It’s solid fare that’s well-priced.
Ruby House Restaurant in Keystone will make you feel as if you’ve slipped into a portal taking you back to the early 1900s. A buffalo-friendly menu (although to be fair, pretty much every menu in South Dakota is buffalo friendly), the service is sweet and the food is likely the best on a street filled with taffy shops, T-shirt vendors and other assorted souvenirs display in a Wild Western-type setting.
What to Do: Nestled between Sixth and Seventh Streets in downtown Rapid City, Art Alley is a bright and brilliant “living tribute to freedom of expression.” A mixture of graffiti murals, pop art, political statements and abstract work, artists with or without clout are all invited to apply to make their mark.
Down the street from Art Alley is Sioux Trading Post, which sells and displays Native American craft supplies, herbs, animal hides and has a gorgeous selection of Native American art that has been procured from Indian Country. Notable, too, is their Italian glass bead collection, which is the largest in the world. Sorted by color and type and stored in glass jars and antique hutches, prepare to by hypnotized.
Mt. Rushmore is a must-see, obviously. The memorial isn’t the only reason to make the pilgrimage though — beyond it (or, rather, below it) is a fascinating short film narrated by Tom Brokaw about how this world wonder got made. Go into the cafeteria-style restaurant, too, and ask for a taste of vanilla ice cream made from a recipe concocted by Thomas Jefferson. Fun fact: If the monument gets wet via rain or snow, the presidents appear to be crying (and have runny noses).
When you live in Colorado it’s not unusual to see wildlife on the road. When you live in South Dakota, it’s unusual if you don’t. If you’ve been looking for a home where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play, look no further than Custer State Park. Take a Buffalo Jeep Safari ride and you’re all but guaranteed to see some of the 1,300 buffalo that graze throughout the 71,000-acre property. Prairie dogs are abundant as are other horned creatures like elk, deer and bighorn sheep. President Calvin Coolidge’s Summer White House (also known as State Game Lodge) is also located in the park.
If snakes tickle your fancy, just 6 miles south of Rapid City is Reptile Gardens, which is basically your Eden. While there are other living creatures besides snakes, go for the snakes, which are categorized according to poisonous, deadly and deadliest. Useful information abounds, including which type of snake kills the most people annually (either the Asian Cobra group and/or Saw-scaled vipers, “but there is no way to know which for sure”). There are also giant tortoises and other assorted reptiles and birds. And lots and lots of snakes.
Where to stay: It could very well be the best roadside motel ever. Frontier Cabins is just a few miles from Wall Drug, and between the two destinations, you may find yourself wondering how you can stay longer. The rustic log cabins are impeccably clean, impossibly cozy and perfectly sized. The cabins lining the back of the property are treated to a slow and sweet sunset
Where to eat: After driving through Badlands National Park, Cedar Pass Restaurant is the restaurant you never knew you needed, and not just for convenience. Each day they whip up their own fry bread for Sioux Indian Tacos — imagine an edible pillow, but even fluffier and infinitely more delicious. Their Cherry Bean coffee is worth the stop alone — based out of rural Parker, South Dakota, it’s a fair trade, organic and independent coffee supplier — along with a daily selection of Kuchen, which is South Dakota’s official dessert (because all states should have one, right?).
What to do: If you can’t fathom making a stop at a drug store for something other than a prescription, clearly you’ve never been to Wall Drug Store. The Hustead family purchased the only drugstore in Wall, South Dakota, in 1931. The Depression and a drought weren’t good for business, although free ice water turned out to be a life- and business saver. Nearly a century later, Wall Drug is still run by the Husteads and has become among the most famous roadside attractions in the world. Whether you’re looking for a heart attack on a plate (otherwise known as the hot beef plate, which comes smothered in brown gravy atop white bread) or are in the market for boots, buckles, trinkets, Christmas ornaments or fudge — or just a good photo opportunity atop a jackalope, it’s worth the stop.
Water and wind wreaked such havoc on the land that the Lakota people named Badlands National Park accordingly. But what was once considered an eyesore is now eye candy, with colors including purple, red, orange, white and yellow carved into the sedimentary layers. The 244,000-acre park is a potpourri of buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires come together to form rich fossil beds, and a whole lot of wildlife, including badgers, bobcats, black-footed ferrets and bison. The rugged charm will you have you spellbound whether gazing from an overlook explore from a canyon floor (where prehistoric bones are still being discovered).
Where to stay: The Holiday Inn Sioux Falls is clean and convenient, particularly to the excellent Kirby Science Discovery Center and Queen City Bakery, where you might just be tempted to go and never, ever leave.
Where to eat: Cubby’s in Brookings serves elevated bar food — literally, if you choose to sit on the roof.
Stensland Family Farm will spoil you for all other ice cream, forever. A family-owned farm out of Iowa, their milk is freshly bottled or used for ice cream, aged cheese and cheese curds. Whether it’s the Carnival Craze (cotton candy ice cream with pink crackling candies), Mama’s Mounds (homemade mounds bars and toasted coconut swirled in coconut ice cream) or Heavenly Holstein (blended cream swirled with black and white cookies), you realize what you normally think of as frozen dessert has been doing you a disservice all this time.
What to do: A land-locked state, South Dakota isn’t known for water features — although Sioux Falls Park is worth knowing. An easy walk from the charming downtown, the park spreads 123 acres and drops roughly 7,400 gallons of water down 100 feet each second. Sioux Falls Park has been the centerpiece of the city since it was founded in 1856.
South Dakota has a knack for keeping one foot in the past and another in the present and future, which is impeccably demonstrated at the Children’s Museum of South Dakota, located in Brookings. Largely void of directions and instructions, the experience allows kids (big and small) to explore the crucial connections between the region’s history, land and culture. Mixing science with mechanics, art, commerce and food, you can play as you would have generations ago — and as is done today. Hands-on learning about the lifestyles of traditional Dakota/Lakota people and pioneer settlers mix with contemporary farming illustrates how food goes from farm to the grocery store. It’s basically a life-size playhouse that kids will never, ever want to leave. Worth checking out, too, is artist Patrick Dougherty’s Tangle Town installation in the museum’s backyard, which was built entirely out of willow sticks and will remain until Mother Nature makes other plans for it.
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