July 8, 2015

Nebraska and South Dakota Adventure With Kids

My family’s destination: The Black Hills.

But we’re not ones to take a direct route; we have to stop and enjoy the scenery. There were adventures in Nebraska and South Dakota to be had in the form of canoeing, jeep riding, cave exploring, mountain hiking, lunar landscape wandering, and brushes with gigantic tortoises and begging burros.

Adventure Road Trip 2015

It was a lot of fun for our two young kids, ages 3 and 5 (and a good deal tiring).

Here’s how we did it:

 

Day 1 – Sioux City, Iowa, Valentine, Nebraska

Our first destination was Valentine. We drove a route through Sioux City, Iowa, allowing us to stop for lunch at Milwaukee Weiner House and Palmer’s Candy Shoppe for treats. The candy shop was definitely worth the stop.

The route via Sioux City isn’t the fastest Omaha-to-Valentine route, but it’s more scenic. I love the Sandhills.

The view from my window while we drove just outside Valentine, Neb. That's the Niobrara River.

The view from my window while we drove just outside Valentine, Neb.

Your lodging options there are mostly motels, budget hotels, a few lodges and cabins closer to the Niobrara River, and camping at outfitters along the river.

Day 2 – Valentine and Niobrara River, Nebraska

We canoed the Niobrara River with friends and family the next day. This involved an early morning wake up, breakfast at The Bunk House, and a caravan out to Rocky Ford Outfitters. Note that with Rocky Ford, you’ll likely be on a bus full of strangers when they drive you to the launch site. It’s like riding a bus to camp.

Our bus dropped us off by the river, so we can canoe back to our cars.

Our bus dropped us off by the river, so we can canoe back to our cars.

 

We opted for the shorter route starting at Brewer Bridge; it includes a pit stop at Smith Falls, the state’s tallest waterfall.

A view of Smith Falls on a sunny day.

A view of Smith Falls on a sunny day.

In all, it was about five hours.

Canoeing the Niobrara is pretty fun for kids (and adults…), and you’ll get a glimpse of Nebraska wildlife – we saw a bald eagle. It was a long day for our 3-year-old, though. She doesn’t like to be told to sit down so frequently.

Mooch out in the river with her cousin.

Mooch out in the river with her cousin.

That night, we had dinner with our large group at The Pepper Mill, and my little family got some ice cream at Frosty Drive-In afterwards.

 

Day 3 – Wall and Rapid City, South Dakota

While the rest of our canoe caravan drove home, we drove north toward the Bad Lands.

A glimpse of the countryside on the drive up from Nebraska to Wall, South Dakota.

A glimpse of the countryside on the drive up from Nebraska to Wall, South Dakota.

Our destination was Rapid City, but first we had to stop at Wall Drug.

You can’t miss it. There will be about 2,567 signs pointing it out to you.

Who hasn't taken a picture on this thing? I should dig up my picture from eighth grade.

Who hasn’t taken a picture on this thing? I should dig up my picture from eighth grade.

It’s fun for kids, and a nostalgic visit for me.

Road Trip - Wall Drug3

Kinda wished I’d gotten Mr. Wonderful the Mt. Rushmore with a wolf shirt.

I heard about their famous cake donuts, so we did a taste test of three. Go with the maple donut if you have to pick just one.

And the winner of the tastiest donut in Wall, South Dakota, goes to...the maple donut.

And the winner of the tastiest donut in Wall, South Dakota, goes to…the maple donut.

We arrived in Rapid City at lunchtime and made way to the Firehouse Brewing Company. The relaxed atmosphere was a welcome relief from a car ride with antsy kids.

The entrance to Firehouse Brewing Company in Rapid City. If it's not scorching hot, sit outside.

The entrance to Firehouse Brewing Company in Rapid City. If it’s not scorching hot, sit outside.

I’ll post a full review soon of the restaurant, but briefly, you’ll want to try one of their house-brewed beers – I was particularly fond of the Honey Badger. They’re known for their burgers, but I bucked that trend and tried the gumbo that’s got a Food Network star’s approval.

The restaurant is in the pretty downtown of Rapid City, which you’ll want to stroll.

While you stroll downtown Rapid City, be on the lookout for all the presidents in the form of statues. This was one of Farley's favorite scavenger hunts - finding the best statue to pose with while we walked back to our car.

While you stroll downtown Rapid City, be on the lookout for all the presidents in the form of statues. This was one of Farley’s favorite scavenger hunts – finding the best statue to pose with while we walked back to our car.

Not far from Firehouse Brewing Co. is Art Alley, eclectic shops and the plaza with a sprayground. The plan was to explore all this after lunch but naptime was clearly more pressing.

Once rested, we did a whirlwind visit of some very fun kid-friendly and FREE attractions. First stop was Storybook Island, a large playground of sorts featuring every possible storybook character your kid has ever loved.

Mr. Wonderful and the kids head off to uncharted waters on Captain Hook's boat.

Mr. Wonderful and the kids head off to uncharted waters on Captain Hook’s boat. With the number of times I post a picture with someone in my family doing a Zizzou point, readers could really start a drinking game.

In a word, it was a kid’s heaven.

Since admission was free you’ll feel less peeved about paying a few dollars for your kid to ride the little train or carousel.

For $2, a kid can ride the mini train around part of the park, including through a tunnel. Exciting stuff.

For $2, a kid can ride the mini train around part of the park, including through a tunnel. Exciting stuff.

Nearby this park is the well-known Dinosaur Park.

There’s a visitor’s center, but mainly, you’ll want to climb the stairs up to see the giant dinos.

You can spot this guy in Dinosaur Park from afar.

We spotted this DinoPark star from the road below.

There’s not much to it beyond the iconic large statues, but kids like it. Expect to spend at least two hours at Storybook Island and 30 minutes tops at Dinosaur Park.

After seeing the sprayground downtown, there was no way my kids would rest until we went back. So, we made a super quick stop there.

Good luck with that "super quick" idea, Mom. This kid's not leaving so easily.

Good luck with that “super quick” idea, Mom. This kid’s not leaving so easily.

It was timed during a free fun night event (Sunday night), so there were bounce houses, hot dogs, balloon animals and that evening, a movie. Wish we could’ve stuck around.

We had a nice dinner at Dakotah Steakhouse, which happened to be next door to our hotel, the Comfort Suites & Convention Center.

Comfort Suites in Rapid City and Dakotah Steakhouse are neighbors. It's a great thing for those staying at the hotel.

Comfort Suites in Rapid City and Dakotah Steakhouse are neighbors. It’s a great thing for those staying at the hotel.

In case you were curious on what you shouldn’t miss at Dakotah, our family loved the bison satay appetizer – loved it – and one side you should get with your dinner, no matter what, is the deliciously fried mac n cheese.

Dakotah Steakhouse

A late dinner at a steakhouse is a risky affair with young kids.

Day 4 – Rapid City, Custer, and Hot Springs, South Dakota

We woke up early and enjoyed the free hot breakfast at Comfort Suites– followed by a quick swim in their pool.

Car loaded for our next destination – Hot Springs – we, first, headed to Reptile Gardens for some morning fun.

After watching the Alligator Show, my son kept asking me if I knew how to wrestle an alligator. Fat chance, sonny boy.

After watching the Alligator Show, my son kept asking me if I knew how to wrestle an alligator. Fat chance, sonny boy.

Three hours there, we were able to see all three animal shows, walk through the pretty cool Sky Dome, and have a quick play at the playground.

Both kids’ favorite part, hands down, was meeting the three gigantic tortoises.

The tortoises roamed free in a fenced-in yard at Reptile Gardens. You could pet them and ask handlers questions.

The tortoises roamed free in a fenced-in yard at Reptile Gardens. You could pet them and ask handlers questions.

We grabbed lunch in Custer in a popular burger joint called Buffalo Burger and Bun Co. It’s well worth the wait. Just don’t arrive between lunch and dinner – they’re closed from 2 to 5 p.m., which some stragglers learned the hard way.

Best burger of the whole trip was had at Buffalo Burger and Bun Co. in Custer.

Best burger of the whole trip was had at Buffalo Burger and Bun Co. in Custer.

After lunch, we bellied up to Purple Pie Place, also in Custer, to try the recommended pie.

Mr. Wonderful ordered the tart strawberry rhubarb pie a la mode, and the kids behind him got ice cream at Purple Pie Place.

Mr. Wonderful ordered the tart strawberry rhubarb pie a la mode, and the kids behind him got ice cream at Purple Pie Place.

Sufficiently stuffed and seeing the approaching storm, we drove on to our destination for the night, Hot Springs.

To get there, we passed through the beautiful Wind Cave National Park. No animals were spotted on that evening drive – we had a lot more luck the next morning. I can’t imagine why.

Perhaps this storm had something to do with no animals being spotted that night. I dunno.

Perhaps this storm had something to do with no animals being spotted in Wind Cave National Park. I dunno.

Once the storm passed and the kids woke from their late naps, we had time to make it to the final tour of Wind Cave that day. We rushed out there to catch the 6 p.m. Natural Entrance Tour, which was recommended to me by the park ranger because it suited small kids best (least amount of standing and listening).

Our group listening to the park ranger during the tour.

Our group listening to the park ranger during the tour.

The whole family enjoyed it, even the 3-year-old who doesn’t “do” staying in line. There was a younger kid on our tour and he did not last long in the cave.

This was more of an awe-struck experience than I had expected.

If you plan to visit Wind Cave, you’ll want to bring a jacket – otherwise, you’ll be like me, forking over $25 for a long-sleeved shirt. It’s a cool shirt, at least.

We got tasty takeout from T/D Smokin BBQ in Hot Springs, and retired to our room for the night. We stayed at The Hills Inn in Hot Springs.

I’ll write a review of the motel soon, but so you know, it’s a very short distance from the city’s two main attractions: Evans Plunge and Mammoth Site, and 10 minutes from Wind Cave, making it an ideal base if you want to visit those three sites.

Day 5 – Hot Springs, Custer State Park, Keystone, Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota

The Hills Inn had a free continental breakfast, so we opted to eat that poolside. Not a bad start to the day!

Dining poolside at a motel? Why not? The kids liked the food options at The Hills Inn in Hot Springs.

Dining poolside at a motel? Why not? The kids liked the food options at The Hills Inn in Hot Springs.

Our morning was spent spotting tons of animals while we drove through Wind Cave National Park on our way to Custer State Park, where we saw even more. In Wind Cave National Park, we spotted buffalo, prairie dogs, and on our drive back to Hot Springs, a coyote.

How's that for an entrance to Custer State Park? Buffalo in the distance.

How’s that for an entrance to Custer State Park? Buffalo in the distance.

Custer State Park was our major destination that day. We drove two of the three scenic routes, both had their good points.

The Wildlife Loop is what it sounds like it would be, and it didn’t disappoint.

We saw several herds of buffalo, some pronghorn and prairie dogs.

And our kids’ favorite, the begging burros.

While still wild animals, the famous begging burros of Custer State Park sure managed to befriend every kid in the park.

While still wild animals, the famous begging burros of Custer State Park sure managed to befriend every kid in the park.

I know you’re not supposed to approach wildlife or feed them, but this seemed like a rule everyone on the road gleefully broke. These burros were bold and insisted you break those rules.

We had a quick picnic lunch by a dammed up lake in the middle of the park.

We grabbed a nearby picnic table for lunch here at Custer State Park.

We grabbed a nearby picnic table for lunch here at Custer State Park.

We continued our drive along the Iron Mountain road.

That was an intense, but beautiful drive. Narrow roads and even narrower tunnels!

The kids loved these tunnels. I was just glad I wasn't driving. This is a two-way road, by the way.

The kids loved these tunnels. I was just glad I wasn’t driving. This is a two-way road, by the way.

We found lots of scenic stops along the way to our next destination, Sylvan Lake.

You can't capture the beauty of Sylvan Lake in a photo - we tried.

You can’t capture the beauty of Sylvan Lake in a photo – we tried.

This was a place I’d been looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint.

Hiking around Sylvan Lake with the family was one of the trip's highlights for me.

Hiking around Sylvan Lake with the family was one of the trip’s highlights for me.

There’s a trail around the lake that’s fairly kid-friendly – not easy by any means, as there is some climbing, but little legs can handle it.

Up some steps around Sylvan Lake at Custer State Park.

Up some steps around Sylvan Lake at Custer State Park.

There were so many gorgeous views.

If you can fit it into your schedule, pack swimsuits to enjoy the little beach and possibly some of the water sports like kayaking or aquabike.

Next time we'll wear our swimsuits to Sylvan Lake.

Next time we’ll wear our swimsuits to Sylvan Lake.

The only frustrating thing about the stop was the lack of water fountains – you either had to pay for a water bottle or fill up in the bathroom sink.

Naptime meant we had some time to kill before we went to Mt. Rushmore. Mr. Wonderful and I took turns staying with the kids in the car while the other wandered around shops in Keystone.

Impatience won out after a while and we woke the kids up to see us drive up to Mt. Rushmore. The sight impressed them.

The Avenue of Flags that lead up to a great spot to view Mount Rushmore.

The Avenue of Flags that lead up to a great spot to view Mount Rushmore.

In a tone of deference: “Moun-TAIN Rushmore, Mooch. Mountain Rushmore.”

This stop was way more exciting for the kids than I anticipated (truth told, when I saw it as a teenager, I was more of a “Yup, that’s it. Let’s go.” Kind of kid). They sat through one of the documentaries, browsed the exhibit, and marveled at all the flags.

This kid was super excited about Mount Rushmore, or as he likes to call it more formally, Mountain Rushmore.

This kid was super excited about Mount Rushmore, or as he likes to call it more formally, Mountain Rushmore.

The highlight was ice cream, naturally. They’re kids, still. (By the way, it will be the most expensive ice cream you’ll buy on your trip)

On the drive back to Hot Springs, we caught a glimpse of Crazy Horse.

Dinner was back in Hot Springs at Woolly’s Western Grill (which is really close to Mammoth Site, by the way). It’s the typical American fare – I tried the walleye dinner, which hit the spot. They have their own microbrew and offer some South Dakota beers.

Nothing fancy, Wooly's Western Grill hit the spot after a long day outdoors. Try a South Dakota brew, like Crow Peak, or the house-brewed beer.

Nothing fancy, Woolly’s Western Grill hit the spot after a long day outdoors. Try a South Dakota brew, like Crow Peak, or the house-brewed beer.

 

Day 6 – Hot Springs, South Dakota, and Toadstool Park, Chadron State Park, Nebraska

We started the day with a small breakfast at The Hills Inn before a morning swim at Evans Plunge. It’s a hot springs pool in four sections (baby, kids, all ages and outdoor), plus a couple water slides, Tarzan rings, and some pool sports.

OK, I did not capture this photo. I didn't dare bring my camera in with me to a pool. I know myself! Photo provided by South Dakota Tourism

OK, I did not capture this photo inside Evans Springs. I didn’t dare bring my camera in with me to a pool. I know myself! Photo provided by South Dakota Tourism

The kids loved it.

A helpful lady pointed out that we could leave for lunch and naps and return later – so keep that in mind. Morning was a good time to visit – not crowded, but you did have to contend with swim lessons and the outdoor pool wasn’t open until 11 a.m.

After Evans Plunge, we walked across the street for a bigger breakfast (my birthday breakfast) at Dale’s Family Restaurant. It seemed like the place locals dined – I saw a lot of ladies from one of the swim workout classes there. The pancakes are huge.

Well fed, we went to Mammoth Site for a tour of the huge dig. We arrived at 11 a.m. just in time for a tour, which started with a short documentary. We lucked out and were able to watch some volunteers at work.

Members of the Mammoth Site Excavation Committee at work.

Members of the Mammoth Site Excavation Committee at work.

As impressive as it all was, it did not impress my 3-year-old – it’s a tough one for the younger ones to stay focused on. The rest of us liked the experience.

We drove south to Nebraska, with a stop for a short hike at Toadstool Geological Park and Campground within the Oglala Grasslands.

It’s a beautiful drive, but a long one on a dirt road.

I’ve been wanting to see this out-of-this-world terrain for quite a while, so the whole drive was worth it.

Nebraska's own Badlands, AKA Toadstool Geological Park.

Nebraska’s own Badlands, AKA Toadstool Geological Park.

You’ll have two options for a hike – with the young kids, we opted for a quarter-mile mostly flat route. It’s to the right of the entrance.

The easy path at Toadstool Geological Park in Western Nebraska.

The easy path at Toadstool Geological Park in Western Nebraska.

The more tempting one is directly in front of you as you enter, with the trail heading up the rock formations. I only hiked about 10 minutes on it and determined it way too hard for the Mooch and Farley to navigate.

Let's play "Spot the trail" in this picture at Toadstool.

Let’s play “Spot the trail” in this picture at Toadstool.

It’s way more beautiful and has the famed “toadstools,” but the crevices and uneven terrain is hard for unsteady climbers. We’ll be back someday, maybe on a cooler fall day, to hike with my kids.

Our destination for the night was Chadron State Park. Easily, the most beautiful state park I’ve been to in Nebraska, it’s also the oldest.

Mr. Wonderful took this picture on a hike at Chadron State Park.

Mr. Wonderful took this picture on a hike at Chadron State Park.

We had booked a cabin for two nights – it was small, for sure, but it had everything we wanted for the night: Air conditioning, two beds, and a place for a campfire.

It was the end of the day when we finally arrived, and we attempted to make it to the swimming pool before it closed at 8 p.m. Unfortunately, we were out of luck as the teens working wanted to close 40 minutes early. So back to our cabin for dinner and eventually bed time.

I drove the scenic road at the park, and while it’s a beauty of a drive, I’m glad I did it without the kids, they were not longer impressed by pretty landscape at this point in the trip.

Day 7 – Chadron, Fort Robinson, Nebraska

We had breakfast on our cabin picnic table before starting our day.

Picnic breakfast at Chadron State Park.

Picnic breakfast at Chadron State Park.

We forgot to buy coffee with our camping supplies, so we made a quick pit stop in Chadron at Bean Broker Coffee for some good coffee.

Onward to Fort Robinson, which is close to 40 miles from Chadron State Park. There is so much to do there, that it deserved more than a day, but that’s life.

We had small kids with us so trail rides were out, so the kids did a pony ride instead.

This guide at Fort Robinson was a hoot. He also drove the stagecoach.

This guide at Fort Robinson was a hoot. He also drove the stagecoach.

Mooch was dead set on doing a stagecoach ride, as well. It only cost $2 per kid and $3 for each adult, so we obliged.

The highlight of the day for all four of us was the jeep ride. It was a steal that the kids were FREE – they loved it so much!

Once we hit the bumpy dirt road, the kids were all smiles on the jeep ride at Fort Robinson.

Once we hit the bumpy dirt road, the kids were all smiles on the jeep ride at Fort Robinson.

We had a small picnic there and bought some ice cream at the end. Visit the blog soon for a more in-depth post about all there is to do at Fort Robinson.

 

Day 8 – Chadron State Park, Chadron

Our final day of the road trip. Before leaving Chadron State Park, we had a spin on the paddleboats at the small pond. I’m a paddleboat hater to begin with, so it wasn’t my idea.

The Chadron State Park lake where you can paddleboat.. if you're into that sort of thing.

The Chadron State Park lake where you can paddleboat.. if you’re into that sort of thing.

The kids loved it though.

Before leaving Chadron for good, we grabbed some coffee to-go from the Bean Broker again, and let the kids play on the playground at the city’s main park. The park is very pretty, and the playground beat the ones at Chadron State Park.

 

 

 * * * * *

Planning a trip to South Dakota and Western Nebraska? I wrote a series of posts and reviews of kid-friendly attractions, lodging and a photo-heavy trip recap. Check them out:

Canoeing the Niobrara River with Kids

Comfort Suites and Convention Center (Rapid City, South Dakota)

Firehouse Brewing Company (Rapid City, South Dakota)

Reptile Gardens (Rapid City, South Dakota)

Dakotah Steakhouse (Rapid City, South Dakota)

Evans Plunge (Hot Springs, South Dakota)

The Hills Inn (Hot Spring, South Dakota)

Mammoth Site (Hot Springs, South Dakota)

Chadron State Park (Chadron, Nebraska)

Fort Robinson State Park (Harrison, Nebraska)

 

Disclaimer: Some of the featured destinations provided complimentary admission or services in order for me to review them. Individual posts will make note of it.

Comments

  1. Kelly Robinson says:

    great article Kim! Makes me wish I could’ve went with you guys. Looks like a great time! Can’t wait to do this with my family in the future! Really makes me want to go back up there and visit the places I didn’t think we’re cool as a kid.

    • Thanks, Kelly! Things are a lot different when you revisit them with your own children. You guys will love it when Soph’s a little older. 🙂

  2. It looks like you had a great time! Now you’ll have to make a stop at a photo book place online. 🙂

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  1. […] Iowa/Nebraska/South Dakota road trip: This road trip ends up in the Black Hills, but it takes its time getting there…in the best way possible. If you’re starting from the eastern or southern side of South Dakota’s Black Hills, Oh My Omaha has the route for you! […]

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