The Best Family Vacation We’ve Ever Had


The Best Family Vacation We’ve Ever Had | Duluth Moms Blog

Our family is really into road trips and we have a goal of seeing all 50 states. We also don’t have a lot of money to put towards a family vacation so we’ve had to start working on the states closest to us, which hasn’t been so bad. This year we’re planning our trip to Missouri (or as our kids call it: Misery!) and I am reminded of the best road trip we’ve ever taken. It’s a place all of us thought we’d strongly dislike–I thought it was going to be incredibly boring–and we all decided four days would absolutely be more than enough because how entertaining could South Dakota really be?

Vacation Road Warriors

Before I start this, I have to tell you that we are road warriors on family vacation. We are totally content with traveling 14 hours (that’s our maximum) at a time, and I am a planner at heart. I really researched the state ahead of time and we all had a say in things we’d like to see or do on the trip and we crafted a trip around that. I wanted to see The Badlands, my son wanted to see buffalo, my daughter wanted to see Mount Rushmore, and my husband wanted to go camping. If you know me at all you know that I am not a camper. I’m not an outdoorsy gal and I’m not into nature ot creatures outside of a zoo. I’m great at compromise though, so I’ll talk about that in a bit.

We left our house at 5:30 a.m. (loaded the car the night before) and proceeded to drive all the way to Mount Rushmore. We made it to Sioux Falls around lunch time so we had a picnic lunch in Falls Park, which is absolutely beautiful. It is a great area to picnic, stretch your legs, be touristy, and take photos. The drive from there to Rapid City is long but fortunately it gets nicer the further you go because you are going towards the Black Hills.

At one of our bathroom stops we spoke with a nice guy who works in the bathrooms (it was weird but go with it) who told us Mount Rushmore is nice during the day but if you want to really learn about it, go to the evening show. Although we were exhausted, that’s just what we did, and he was so right. The evening show tells you about the monument, it’s feels very patriotic, it isn’t horribly hot outside, and parking is not a nightmare. I got to cross off a bucket list item and left there thinking my kids got to see something cool AND learn on their summer break! We crashed in our hotel and got ready for day two.

Sort-of Camping

Day two was really great because we got to be actual tourists. We spent a lot of time driving around to gauge what we wanted to do. The kids saw signs for cave tours and it was clear we would not be leaving the state without checking out a few. Some caves even offer zip lining outside of the cave, but I couldn’t convince anyone to do that with me.

Still exhausted from the drive we decided to find our sleeping spot, which I told my husband would fulfill his bucket list item, and I was not wrong. I had found a KOA (which I had never been to one and had no idea what to expect) that had “sleeping cabins”. My immediate thought was cabins on a lake, electricity, bathroom, etc.

It was not that at all.

In fact, they looked exactly like the shed in our backyard, albeit a little bigger and equipped with a bunk bed. It had no electricity and definitely no bathroom. The communal bathroom was a bit of a walk up a dirt hill but at least the toilets and showers had doors. The kids were totally upset having to share a bunk bed, and a cabin at the end of July in South Dakota with no air conditioning is as close to “roughing it” as I will ever get.

We discovered right down the street was the Crazy Horse Memorial and several people waiting for their turn in a shower told me it was pretty cool (usually I’m not a bathroom talker but when in Rome, you know?) so we decided we would do that before the end of the day.

It was very educational and we learned about some of the Native American history of South Dakota, so by this point I felt like I was winning in the educational department for a vacation.

Terrifying Drives and Buffalo

On day three my son was really whining about the lack of buffalo and I promised buffalo and it was clear the sun would not set until we saw at least one buffalo that was alive. (I tried to pass off ones that had been to a taxidermist but he wasn’t falling for it.) We were close to Custer State Park so we decided to take a drive around, and we found the store and guide post, perfect for a bathroom break (you know where this is going). While in line I saw a woman with a cool shirt advertising these three scenic drives around the park so I had to ask about it because apparently I’ve now become a weird bathroom talker, and she (reluctantly) told me they had just finished it and it was beautiful but terrifying.

A normal person would write that off completely but I thought she was exaggerating. I’ve driven in rush hour traffic in Chicago; a wilderness road does not scare me.

To be safe, I made my husband drive.

The scenic drives are Needles Highway, Wildlife Loop, and Iron Mountain Road. We decide to book our seats on a cowboy dinner/buffalo safari and we would take the long way around by way of these three roads. I was mentally high-fiving myself for being so efficient.

I will tell you that these roads are stunningly beautiful. Absolutely do not skip them, the time we spent on them the rest of the world really did disappear. We were in awe of the Black Hills, we saw Mount Rushmore from different viewpoints, there are areas to pull over and explore, we climbed rocks, and it was breathtaking. It also was the most terrifying thing I have ever done, and I’ve gone sky diving. Some of these roads are so narrow that only one car at a time can go through so you have to honk your horn and listen for other horns. You’re going through tunnels like this and sharp turns and my husband white knuckled it the entire way.

The Best Family Vacation We’ve Ever Had | Duluth Moms Blog

You know what we missed? The cowboy dinner. We never got there because we were stopped for an hour in the middle of nowhere South Dakota because of buffalo. We saw hundreds of buffalo for free and my son has never had the look of sheer joy like he did that day. Never mind we were surrounded by these huge animals and we were watching people get out of their cars and try to pet them. Hot tip: do NOT get out of your car. Thankfully nobody was hurt but I was so afraid we’d see someone trampled by a buffalo and it would ruin the trip for us all.

One regret from our trip is I wish we had spent more time in “downtown” Rapid City. We passed a lot of cool looking buildings and shops, so if you go, take the time to explore. Our kids were six and nine at the time and I thought parks would be a better hit so we went to Dinosaur Park, which has super huge dinosaurs you can run around and some you can climb. We finished our day at Storybook Island, which is really cool and completely free. The place was huge and every area is from a classic story. There was a Cinderella carriage you could sit in, a Three Little Pigs house to play in, Jack and the Beanstalk to climb, etc. If you have kids ten and under, you could easily kill an hour there.

The last day was our longest day and by this point funds were tight so we decided to cancel our hotel at the midpoint and we would do all the touristy stops AND make it home the same day. We managed to see Wall Drug (you can get a free bumper sticker and free water!) and there is a shop in there with the best donuts. I ate six on my own. Judge me. We saw the Badlands (gorgeous!) and I wish we had carved out more time for them. We even stopped at The Corn Palace and I’m going to be unpopular, but we thought it was lame. We made it home around 2 am and were almost delirious by the time we pulled into our driveway.

The Best Family Vacation We’ve Ever Had | Duluth Moms Blog

It’s been five years since that vacation and we still talk about it to this day. I can’t pinpoint a specific thing that made it so great but it really was the first trip that the kids had a say in what we did. I had given them the travel guide you can get for free in the mail from the state and told them to circle what they’d want to do, and we tailored the trip around that. We had no technology, I had car games like license plate bingo to play, and we talked. When I tell people that our favorite vacation was a road trip to South Dakota and not some exotic beach, they give me the side eye but I’m telling you- a trip doesn’t have to be extravagant or expensive to make it memorable. Is it even a good childhood without horror stories from dirty wayside bathrooms? I don’t think so.