Storybook Island

Location: 1301 Sheridan Lake Rd
Rapid City, SD  57702
Price: FREE
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes

If you have young kids and are in Rapid City then you really need to stop at Story Book Island.  This city park is full of statues and play structures featuring all of your childhood favorite characters.  The younger four kids in our group were enthralled by the park.

The park has a nice paved walking path that will take you past all of the play structures.  The kids had a blast walking the yellow brick road with Dorothy, steering Captain Hook’s ship, tumbling down the hill with Jack and Jill and riding on Aladdin’s magic carpet.  Some of the characters like Yogi Bear they had no clue who they were but it’s still fun to climb into a giant picnic basket.  The entire park was fenced which was nice when chasing multiple kids from one climbing structure to the next.  There was even an area that had slides and swings dedicated to kids under five.  We were there on a Tuesday afternoon so it wasn’t very crowded.

In addition to the statues, the park also had a carousel and a train ride for an additional cost.  Our kids did ride the train and it was around $2 a kid.  There was also a small snack bar and a gift shop.

Overall impression: If you have little kids it is a must do.  Older kids I’d probably skip it.  The 13-year-old was fairly bored long before the others were ready to leave.  We spent about an hour and half here.  We were able to play on all the different characters, but the kids could have played a lot longer if we had let them (it was starting to rain so we opted to leave).

Devil’s Tower National Monument

Location: Devil’s Tower, WY
Price: $15/car
Smashed Penny Machine: Not in the park but we did find one in a small gift shop across from the campground just outside the park

Devil’s Tower is about a two-hour drive from Rapid City making this another easy day or half day trip if you are using Rapid City as a main hub.  We arrived at the park about 10:00 and the main gate wasn’t too busy.  When we got to the other side of the park to the visitors center (there is only one road through the park) the parking lots were PACKED.  I highly suggest getting to the park very early or plan on coming much later in the day.

We then waited about 30 minutes to use the restroom. The bathroom was maybe three stalls big and there were probably 30 ladies waiting in line.  I would guess that during off-season this park is not busy at all and that’s why there aren’t many facilities.  If you are able to travel during off-season, I’m sure the park isn’t nearly as hectic.

We started up the Tower Trail (a little over a mile loop that goes around the base of the tower) and the trail was packed.  I was thinking to myself this was a colossal mistake.   However after we got past the trail junction (where the loop meets) the people just vanished.  And from then the number of people was much more manageable (until we got back to the visitor’s center).  Tower Trail was not a hard trail (some small hills but just about anyone is going to be fine, my 80-year-old grandfather walked it); however it was a very narrow trail.  We had opted to put the babies in backpack carriers instead of the stroller because of the crowds at the visitor’s center.  Even though the crowds are thinner on the trail, it is still not a very stroller friendly trail.  So while you could in theory push a stroller on this trail I would not recommend it.

The trail gave some nice views of the tower which looks a little different from each side.  There was also nice over views of the surrounding countryside.  We saw several mule deer along the trail including a fawn.  Also remember this is a sacred place to local Native American groups, please be respectful of prayer bundles and stay on the path.

At the base of the tower you can climb on the boulder field.  The older kids and some of the adults in our group had a great time scrambling amongst the boulders.  They made to the top of the boulder field and came back.  It was not a difficult climb but use caution and watch your footing.  Climbing any higher than the boulder field requires a permit and from watching the climbers on the tower (there were 3 or 4 groups) some real skill in climbing.

We return to the visitor’s center and the throngs of tourist (had kinda forgotten they were all there while we were on the trail) and turned in our JR Ranger booklets.  There is a small gift shop on site as well but it was very busy.  We then went back down the road to the picnic camping area for lunch.  Devil’s Tower is pretty much out in the middle of nowhere.  Just outside of the park there are two small gift shops that offer food but neither are very large.  So plan your trip accordingly.

The picnic area was nearly deserted just us and one other family.  There were plenty of tables and lots of shade.  So we had a nice lunch with a great view of the tower.  Also at the picnic area is a small monument to bring awareness to the importance of the tower to native people.  If you stand behind the statue the tower will be framed inside the smoke circle.  It was a really neat way to view the tower.  Also all around the picnic area is a large colony of prairie dogs.  The kids had a lot of fun watching them play.

Overall impression: Despite my initial reservations, I really enjoyed the park.  I would highly suggest taking the trail and getting away from the crowds to fully enjoy the tower.   Plan on spending one to two hours at the park if you plan to take the trail.  There are other trails so you could spend more time if you wanted.

Side note: Because the visitor’s center and gift shop were so crowded we decided to stop at one of the two gift shops just outside of the park.  We were able to find a penny smashing machine here and they had larger bathrooms.

This deer was about 20 ft off the trail. I took this with a cell phone camera. This deer really didn’t care at all that we were there.
Miss A and Miss E getting Jr Ranger badges

Dinosaur Park

Location: 940 Skyline Dr
Rapid City, SD
Price: FREE
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, in the main gift shop

On the bluff above Rapid City sits this quintessential roadside attraction.  You can see the large dinosaurs from just about anywhere in the city.  To get to the park you’ll drive through basically residential streets as you climb the bluff.  There is a parking lot and a small gift shop/snack bar.

Across the street from the gift shop is the trail to the dinosaurs.  There are a lot of steps to climb.  The path is not wheelchair or stroller accessible.  Once you get to the top there are five large dinosaur statues.  Kids are welcome to climb up on the statues.  Although early in the evening the weather was pleasant, the statues had been baking in the sun all day and were a little warm to the touch.  There isn’t much shade in the park so if you go in the middle of the day be prepared.

The kids had a lot of fun climbing all over the statues and getting their pictures taken while “riding” a stegosaurus.  There were two smaller dinosaurs back at the gift shop that you are able to climb on as well.  The gift shop had just about any dinosaur themed souvenir you could want.

The ice cream for dinner was catching up to us a little by now so we got a quick snack at their snack bar.  It was a fairly good deal of a hot dog and a soda for less than $2.

Overall impression: Other than the dinos there really isn’t anything to do at the park.  It was a lot of fun to get pictures and such.  I would say 30 to 45 minutes is all the time you are going to need to experience the park.  If you are in the area, it’s worth the stop.

Mount Rushmore

Location: Keystone, SD
Price: $10/car
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, in the main gift shop

We arrived at Mount Rushmore around 3:30 in the afternoon.   It was crazy busy when we first arrived.  We did the customary pictures of everyone in front of the monument with the Avenue of Flags behind you (and probably 200 people accidentally photobombing you).

We then went to the visitor’s center museum to collect JR Ranger booklets.  These were by far one of the hardest JR Ranger books we had ever worked on (you really had to explore the exhibits to find the answers).  Some of our group watched the film about the carving of the monument and they really enjoyed that.

The weather had started to cool off a bit by this point (or maybe it just seemed cooler than Badlands) so we took the rangers advise and walked the President’s Trail.  The Trail from the visitor’s center to the base of the monument is paved and a very easy walk.  We took the stroller on it with no problems.  You really get an idea of how big the carvings really are once you are right under them.  Make sure that you take the small dead-end spur trail just off of the President’s Trail.  It gives a really cool framing of Washington through the rocks.  At this point the President’s Trail continues on and loops back to the visitor’s center after passing Sculptor’s Studio.  Most of our group decided to continue on.  Because there are over 400 stairs on that part of the path, I turned around with the stroller.

The site has a restaurant on site called Carvers’ Marketplace.  Our group wasn’t really hungry for a full meal after our amazing Sioux Tacos in the Badlands so we opted to get ice cream as a treat.  The ice cream parlor sales a vanilla ice cream using Thomas Jefferson’s recipe.  I’m normally not a plain vanilla ice cream person but this was really good.  I highly recommend it.  It was also neat to sit on the patio and take in the monument.

The best part about being at Mount Rushmore a little later in the day was after we finished our ice cream the crowds had basically disappeared.  So we took all of the pictures again, this time with a lot fewer people in the background.

Overall impression: Mount Rushmore is a must do if you are in the area.  Depending on if you want to watch the film or take a small hike, an hour or two should be plenty of time to really enjoy the monument.

Miss L enjoying the ice cream
Miss A on the Avenue of Flags

Badlands National Park

Location: Wall, SD
Price: $15/car
Smashed Penny Machine: We have one that says Badlands National Park but I can’t remember if we got it in the park or in Wall

We arrived at Badlands National Park about 9:00 in the morning.  This was a mid-July trip and the weather was warm but enjoyable when we first got into the park.  Because of the diverse ages we had in our group we didn’t do much hiking.  I would love to come back and hike more of the trails.  We entered the park at the entrance closest Wall, SD.  From what I could tell from the map most the trails were on the other end of the park.

We chose to drive the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway to see as much of the park as we could with limited time.  The loop has several overlooks and many trailheads start directly off the loop parking lots.  I would highly suggest arriving at the park early.  When we first got there finding parking spots at overlooks was fairly easy.  With later stops that was much more difficult.  How long the drive will take you depends on how many overlooks you stop at and how long you look.  The Badlands look like a completely different planet so give yourself time to truly take in the views.  With 6 young kids in the group, they had taken in all they wanted of the views after overlook #2.  This is where the JR Ranger program is now your best friend.  You can keep them interested in the park by having them work on their booklets.

The one hike we did do was the Fossil Exhibit Trail.  This was a very easy trail.  It is on a raised walkway and it guides you through how an animal becomes a fossil.  The trail was easily accessible for strollers and wheelchairs.

To see wildlife I would suggest getting to the park very early or plan on being there later in the day.  We did see lots and lots of prairie dogs.  Prairie dogs are a lot of fun to watch from a distance so the kids really enjoyed that.  We did see some big idiots (aka tourons: tourist + moron) trying to pet/feed prairie dogs.  I’m going to take a moment to remind you that this is a VERY BAD idea.  First it’s bad for animals.  Human food isn’t good for them and it makes them dependent on handouts (which means when winter comes and the tourist go home, they have a very hard time).  Second although prairie dogs look really cute, they are still wild animals.  They could bite you. Plus they have parasites that are very happy to hang out on humans too.  Prairie dogs carry some really fun diseases that are transferable to humans like the bubonic plague so do everyone a favor and enjoy all wildlife from a distance.

We reached the visitor’s center about 12:00.  We explored the museum which also had a paleontologist there talking about fossil preservation.   After that the kids turned in their booklets and got their first Jr Ranger badge.  There is a small gift shop/bookstore in the visitor’s center that is run by the National Parks Department.

Our original plan had been to have a picnic here; however by this point in the day it was HOT (water and sunscreen; don’t forget them).  Everyone agreed it was too hot to eat outside on a picnic table.  Next to the visitor’s center there is another gift shop and restaurant.  We opted to eat at the restaurant.  The restaurant is not very large but they were able to seat us very quickly.  The price was moderate which wasn’t surprising given that it is inside the park.  The staff was very friendly and helpful.  Our server suggested the Sioux Taco and suggested we split it.  The taco is a fried bread topped with refried beans, buffalo meat, lettuce, tomato, cheese and black olives.  We ordered a side of fries to split with it.  This was more than enough food for the two of us and it was probably the best thing I ate all trip.

We left Badlands National Park around 2:00 and drove to Mount Rushmore (about an hour and half drive).  The park ranger suggested that we take the state highway instead of the interstates to save time.  It was a faster route but there were no services on this route so just a warning.

One thing that is not to be missed is nighttime in Badlands.    That evening after Mount Rushmore and dinner, we loaded the kids back in the cars and drove the hour back to the Badlands (Tip: dress the kids in their PJs that way when you get back to the hotel you can just put them to bed).  Your admission fee is good for several days and the park is open 24 hours (although rangers are not at entrance points at this time).  We arrived back at the park about 7:30 and drove back to one of the overlooks we had decided on early in the day.

We arrived to the parking lot just in time to see the end of the sunset.  The park was empty at this time.  We literally only saw one other car at the overlook and they never left their vehicle.  I grew up in the country and thought I knew what stars look like on a dark night.  I was wrong.  With almost zero light pollution the views of the stars were amazing.  We were able to clearly see the Milky Way, several planets (thanks to an app that helped us identify where to look for them) and several shooting stars.  Unfortunately taking good pictures of the night sky is really difficult so I didn’t get any worthwhile pictures.  We stayed out till about an hour and half after dark (at which point the kids had seen plenty of stars) and then drove back to Rapid City.  On the way back out of the park we did see a few big horn sheep and what might have been the back-end of a badger but he was moving too fast to get a good look.  If you do go back out after dark bring a light jacket.  After about 20 minutes after sunset, the air got fairly chilly and I ended up sitting on the black top trying to stay warm.

Overall impression: Badlands National Park is a must do.  While the 4 or so hours we were in the park gave us a good overview of the park, you could spend much more time there.

Miss A getting her Jr Ranger badge
Miss A in the Badlands

Wall Drug Store

Location: Wall, SD – It’s probably not possible to miss this place.  The signs started several hundred miles away
Price: Admission – Free, Ice Water – Free
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, several

This is probably closer to a tourist trap than a weird roadside attraction.  It’s really a collection of random shops, a restaurant and some random other items.   There was some parking on the street but it was fairly full so we parked in a lot about a block down the street.

Wall Drug itself is part of a larger street of stores and restaurants.  Wall Drug takes up about half of one whole side of the street (several blocks) by itself so be prepared to do some walking.  Inside Wall Drug was very crowded so I would not suggest trying to bring a stroller inside.  There are maps available, I would suggest picking one up.

We had fun looking through several shops (although we found better priced t-shirts at a different shop down the street) and looking at the various artwork on display.  The kids had a lot of fun taking pictures with the various statues.  Outside in the courtyard, there was a giant jackalope statue that kids can climb up on along with several other large statues.  There was also a splash pad if you are inclined to let the kids get wet.  The other side of the courtyard in the back building (I told you this place was big) there was an animatronics T-Rex that goes off every 15 minutes or so.  He is kinda loud so little ones may be frightened by him.

We did choose to eat in the restaurant.  I’ve seen several bad reviews of the food.  I wouldn’t say it was bad.  It was about what you would expect from a fast food style restaurant (better burgers than McDonald’s but not as good as a sit down restaurant).  There was plenty of seating which was great.  My daughter did get one of their “famous” donuts for desert.  The donut was very good.  They are made fresh on site every day.  So even if you opt to get dinner elsewhere stop in and share a sweet treat.

How long you spend here really depends on how much shopping you care to do.  We spent about an hour and half here (including eating dinner) and saw all the major “attractions.”  Wall is about an hour East of Rapid City and about 10 minutes outside of the West entrance for Badlands National Park so Wall Drug could easily be incorporated as a side stop.

Overall impression: It was fun seeing once

Miss A and the fresh donut
Miss A and Miss E with the T-Rex

Corn Palace

Location: 604 N Main St
Mitchell, SD  57301
Price: FREE
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes – It was located in the gift shop when we were there.

I am a big fan of random and weird roadside attractions (seriously put up a sign about a giant ball of twine and I’ll make that detour).  The Corn Palace fits that description accurately.  Mitchell is about an hour West of Sioux Falls and about four hours East of Rapid City.  We had spent the morning exploring the Ingalls Homestead in DeSmet, SD so this made a good place to grab a quick lunch before heading on to Rapid City for the evening.

There isn’t food available at Corn Palace (I believe there was a snack bar but I’m not even sure if it was open).  There were plenty of options in Mitchell especially along the interstate.  We just grabbed some fast food because seating a party of 15 is serious business.  The Corn Palace is just a little ways off the interstate probably about 10 minutes depending on how unlucky you are with traffic lights.  There was a small parking lot adjacent to the building or one across the street.

I’m not sure what Corn Palace is normally used for but it was kinda set up like a concert hall.  On the first floor there were bathrooms (big bathrooms, fairly clean for the number of people there).  The second floor had access to the balcony, a hands on educational room about corn, pictures of the past murals and a gift shop.

The kids had a good time on the hands on exhibits.  The played on pedal tractors, directed a remote control “tractor” and other various corn related activities.  There was a lot of information.  I learned something about corn and that’s amazing because I grew up surrounded by corn.  Naturally the kids had to check out the gift shop which was fairly large and was priced as one would expect.

Outside there is a photo-op with the statue of the Corn Palace’s mascot, Cornelius the Corncob and you can check out the Corn Palace’s mural.  The mural is what the Corn Palace is most known for.  Each year they make a new set of murals on the outside of the building made completely out of grains.  It was fairly neat to see a giant drawing of Willie Nelson done entirely out of corncobs and wheat.

Between the activities, a bathroom stop and taking a few pictures of the mural the whole stop will take you 30-60 minutes depending on how much you really want to learn about corn.

Overall impression: it was worth seeing once

A side note here.  The lady working the gift shop register at the Corn Palace mentioned that since we were headed to Rapid City there was a nice rest area just East of Chamberlain, SD.  What she should have said was: There is this really awesome rest area just before Chamberlain, SD.  It has a huge statue in honor of our local Native Americans and amazing overlook of the Missouri River.  Because that isn’t what she said the car I was in missed this awesome stop.  Luckily we were the first car and a few miles ahead of the other two so they all knew to pull over and check it out.  If you have a few spare moments, I’d highly suggest it.

The kids with Cornelius

Laura Ingalls Homestead

Location: 20812 Homstead Rd
DeSmet, SD  57231
Price: $12 per person 5 and older
Smashed Penny Machine: No

I was a big fan of the Little House on the Prairie books growing up.  I won’t lie when I saw how “close” our South Dakota trip was going to take us to my childhood dream; I just HAD to go.  Parts of our group were not real happy with the 3+ hour detour when I originally suggested it but by the end everyone in our group had a lot of fun.

We had spent the night in Sioux Falls.  The homestead was about an hour and forty-five minute drive from Sioux Falls.  The homestead is a little outside of the town of DeSmet on a gravel road.  There is good signage directing you there and the GPS found it with no problem.  There are accommodations on the property and I really wish we could have stayed the night, but you have to bring your own linens.  Sadly, we didn’t have the room since this was only one night of a nine-day vacation with fifteen people.

We arrived about 9:30 in the morning, so the weather was still mild even for mid-July.  But it was hot by the time we left around noon.  So pack some water bottles and wear sunscreen there isn’t a lot of shade.  There were several other families walking around but the farm is so spaced out that it never really felt busy.  Although by the time we got back to the car I was surprised to see the parking lot was nearly full.

Since we had two babies on this trip we took our folding umbrella style stroller.  The path around the grounds isn’t paved but the ground was firm enough that we could push the stroller without too much difficulty.  However unless you have really little ones like we did I wouldn’t bother with a stroller.  The tour didn’t require that much walking (probably about a mile or so total) and toddlers and bigger kids are going to want to run around and touch everything.

It’s hard to say what the kids enjoyed the most.  The two middle kids (4 and 6) loved hand-washing clothes (why can’t I get this level of help at home), playing with the working pump well and driving the pony cart.  The little ones were excited with anything to do with animals.  The 10-year-old fell in love with the kittens at the stables.  The thirteen year old seemed unimpressed with everything (isn’t that standard for teenagers) but since he didn’t complain about being hungry until we had been there well over two hours I know he was having fun.

The adults all agreed that the staff was the best part about the place.  Everyone was super friendly and extremely knowledgeable.  Everyone that we spoke to KNEW the books and they knew tons about prairie life in general.  My personal favorite part about the stop was the trip to the one room school-house.  Each kid was allowed to drive the horse-drawn covered wagon.  The school teacher did a small lesson engaging each of our age groups just like a real one room school-house would have worked.

The gift shop (also where you pay admission, bathrooms are located and there is a small educational film about the family) had a nice assortment of Ingalls themed items, prairie themed items, books (both from the series and the time period in general) and period style clothing.  The girls each enjoyed picking out their own prairie bonnet.  Another great perk of the stop was there were several opportunities for the kids to make their own souvenir toys like Laura and her sisters would have played with.  Our kids each made a button game, corn cob doll and jump rope.  Each of these were free to make and keep (the line to make the jump rope did get a little long at times because they can only make one at a time).

We spent about 2.5 hours here.  We probably could have spent a little more time as they had a special speaker that was going to tell true tales from people who had lived in the area during the same time as the Ingalls.  We skipped that as the kids were ready for lunch and we had to make it to Rapid City that evening.  There were picnic tables available by the gift shop so you could pack a lunch.  The town of DeSmet also has a few other Ingalls and prairie based attractions so if you were vacationing in the Sioux Falls area you could make an easy day trip out of the area.

Overall impression: We had a great time.  I would highly recommend.

Miss A pumping water
Miss A washing clothes
Miss A and her corn cob doll
Miss A driving the covered wagon
Miss A at the one room school-house


South Dakota and Rocky Mountains Trip – July 2017

Every few years our family holds a big family reunion in Estes Park, CO.  When we go to the same location multiple times, we try to find new routes or activities along the way.  This time we decided to go to Colorado via South Dakota.  There is a lot to do in South Dakota.  In fact you could easily make a whole vacation out of just this state.  We had a very large travel group this time.  Our total group was 15 people: my grandparents and great-aunt (ages 75-80), my parents (ages 58), my family (33, 31, 6, 8 months), my sister’s family (29, 27, 4, 1.5) and two cousins (10, 13).  Below is our overall trip and I’ll do separate posts for each stop.

Day 1: Travel from Evansville, IN to Sioux Fall, SD

Day 2: Ingalls Homestead in DeSmet, SD;  Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD;  Wall Drug in Wall, SD;  Hotel in Rapid City, SD

Day 3: Badlands National Park; Mount Rushmore National MemorialDinosaur Park in Rapid City, SD; Hotel in Rapid City, SD

Day 4: Devil’s Tower, WY; Storybook Island in Rapid City, SD; Downtown Rapid City; Hotel in Rapid City, SD

Day 5: Travel from Rapid City, SD to Estes Park, CO; Afternoon/Evening activities family time

Day 6: Group A – White Water Rafting; Group B – Estes Park Aerial Tramway;   Afternoon/Evening activities family time

Day 7: Rocky Mountain National Park; Afternoon in Estes Park

Day 8: Travel Estes Park to Lincoln, NE

Day 9: Travel Lincoln, NE to Evansville, IN

A couple of things to note:

  1. You’ll notice on this trip our evening activities once we reached Estes Park mostly revolve around hanging out with family (it’s a family reunion that’s kinda the point right?). However, if you are not meeting up with extended family there are a lot of really neat things to do in the Estes Park area check out their website for lots of cool info.