Apr 262010
 

     The roadsides of the Black Hills offer a wide array of fun and funky roadside attractions ranging from the quirky like Dinosaur Park featuring several large green concrete sculptures and the Cosmos Mystery Area to the larger than life Muffler Man.  Our favorites included Reptile Gardens and Wall Drug.

'Gator wrestling at its finest

Reptile Gardens: 'Gator wrestling at its finest

     Located outside Rapid City, on the way to Mount Rushmore, Reptile Gardens has been owned and operated by the same family since it was started in 1937.  The Gardens are home to more than 50 crocodilians including alligators, crocodiles and caimans.  Four or five times a day ‘gator wrestlers put on a show.  Spectators often have a chance to meet a baby ‘gator at the end of the show.

Checking out the alligators at Reptile Gardens

Checking out the alligators at Reptile Gardens

     Beyond the ‘gators, the Gardens also provides opportunities to learn about snakes, lizards, colorful birds, orchids, turtles and more inside the Sky Dome’s indoor jungle experience.  Outside, you can greet a giant tortoise or visit a  prairie dog town.   We spent a couple of hours and really enjoyed ourselves.

Giant Tortoise at Reptile Gardens

Giant Tortoise at Reptile Gardens

       Wall Drug, located on the way from Rapid City to the Badlands, is a definite must see roadside attraction.  Anyone who has traveled along the highways in this part of country has seen the ubiquitous Wall Drug signs.  Much more than a drug store, Wall Drug covers 76,000 square feet of space and is the focal point of the small town of Wall.  The store carries everything from cowboy fashions and western jewelry to knives, bobbleheads, tee shirts, pottery, statues, pretty much anything else you might need or want.

Wall Drug, courtesy South Dakota Dept of Tourism

Wall Drug, courtesy South Dakota Dept of Tourism

     Be sure to get your picture taken with the larger-than-life jackalope out front and visit the Roaring T-Rex in back.  You can get lunch at the 500-seat restaurant, pan for gold and visit the arcade before you get back on the road!

     This is one of a series of posts about our Top 10 activity recommendations for families visiting South Dakota with teens and tweens. We hope you will take the time to read about the rest.   


Apr 182010
 

     Custer State Park was a central element in our visit to South Dakota’s  Black Hills.  We stayed several days at the Sylvan Lake Lodge and made a point to explore the different regions of the park.  Spread out over 71,000 acres the Park covers a wide range of terrain from granite peaks to the twisty Needles Highway with its VERY narrow tunnels to the grasslands and rolling hills of the French Creek watershed near where General Custer initially found gold.   If you are looking for wildlife, head to the 18-mile paved Wildlife Loop Road, where you are likely to run into the Park’s herd of over 1000 bison.

The bison of Custer State Park

The bison of Custer State Park

     The bison herd has free range across most of the Park during the spring and summer before it is rounded up in late September (this year’s Round-Up Festival is scheduled for Sept 25-27, 2010).  The herd is culled annually to maintain a population that can be supported by the Park.  The bison that winter at the Park stay in corrals before being released again in the Spring.  Beyond the bison, be on the lookout for pronghorn, mule deer, big horn sheep and burros.  

A pronghorn grazes in Custer State Park

A pronghorn grazes in Custer State Park

     The burros were of particular interest to our kids.  Descended from escaped domesticated donkeys, the burros are technically wild but are really beggars who have become skilled at grubbing handouts along the sides of the road.  They will come right up to your car whether you invite them or not!  The park does not seem to discourage feeding them, although we didn’t as we have a general rule to not feed wild animals.  We are  told that there are about 50 of them in the Park and that they enjoy apple slices.

Watch for burros in Custer State Park

Watch for burros in Custer State Park

     Plan  to devote a couple of hours to the loop road.  The animals often create traffic-jamming photo opportunities.  If you have an SUV consider exploring some of the side dirt roads — you will have them almost to yourselves.   The park also offers guided buffalo jeep tours if you want someone else to do the driving.

Big Horn Sheep grazing at Custer State Park

Big Horn Sheep grazing at Custer State Park

      This is one of a series of posts about our Top 10 activity recommendations for families visiting South Dakota with teens and tweens. We hope you will take the time to read about the rest.   
     We submitted this post to the Photo Friday gallery on Delicious Baby.  If you enjoy family travel photos check it out this week!

Custer Things To Do


Apr 082010
 

     One of our favorite stops in our travels to the Black Hills of South Dakota included a couple of days staying in and exploring Custer State Park.  The Park covers over 70,000 acres and is home to many wild animals.  We enjoyed staying at the Sylvan Lake Lodge, which provides easy access to two delightful hiking trails.  A short stroll around Sylvan Lake was enough adventure for our youngest member, but our tween was energized to climb South Dakota’s tallest peak!

Sylvan Lake at Custer State Park

Sylvan Lake at Custer State Park

     The Sylvan Lake Shore Trail makes a 1-mile loop around the deep blue lake.  There were several small beaches along the shoreline but even in August the water was too cold for our liking.  Most of the trail is fairly flat, except for one section that contains steps and crosses exposed rocky areas.  It was a pretty fun rock scramble!

Almost to the top of Harney Peak!

Almost to the top of Harney Peak!

     By comparison, the hike to 7,244 foot high Harney Peak is a 6-mile rountrip, 4 or 5 hour adventure that will leave teens and tweens feeling like they really are on top of the world.  There are several different trailheads, but we used the one that left from the lake.  Harney Peak is the tallest mountain in South Dakota.   Definitely pack a lunch and take a camera as the views are truly amazing.

Fire tower on the summit of Harney Peak, elevation 7,244 feet

Fire tower on the summit of South Dakota's Harney Peak, elevation 7,244 feet

     This is one of a series of posts about our Top 10 activity recommendations for families visiting South Dakota with teens and tweens. We hope you will take the time to read about the rest.

Custer Things To Do

Gold Mine Tours in the Black Hills

 Posted by on April 6, 2010  Comments Off
Apr 062010
 

South Dakota’s Black Hills were overrun with gold miners in the mid-1870s, following General Custer’s 1874 visit which discovered gold in French Creek, near the present day town of Custer, at the southern edge of the Hills.  Although the land was owned by the local native tribes, under the terms of the Treaty of Laramie, prospectors entered the area illegally soon after.   Despite attempts to discourage them, by 1875 it is believed several thousand illegal prospectors were in the Hills and had spread north to present day Deadwood and Lead

The Homestake Goldmine

Overlooking Lead and the Homestake Mine

Moses and Fred Manuel located the Homestake claim In April 1876 (near the current town of Lead).  They sold it to George Hearst (father of William Randolph Hearst) for $70,000 the next year.  It turned out to be the richest source of gold in the area and would be worked for over a century until it played out in 2002.  Most of the other mines in the Black Hills closed in the 1880s and 1890s, leaving behind hundreds of abandoned above and below ground mines and slag heaps.   A dozen or so of these mines now operate as tourist attractions.  We visited two that were very different.  Together they told the story of this fascinating period in history.

Explore the Mines

The Broken Boot Gold Mine located just outside of Deadwood was operated for 26 years by a pair of young miners who struggled to get by.  Their backbreaking work garnered them, on average, just 1.5 ounces of gold a day.  Most of their cash flow came from selling the iron pyrite “fool’s gold”, of which they apparently had plenty.  It was used to make sulfuric acid which was  needed to process real gold.

Broken Boot Gold Mine in Deadwood

Broken Boot Gold Mine in Deadwood

Except for a brief period when it was re-opened during World War I, the mine remained closed until 1954 when it was renovated, stablized and opened as a tourist attraction.  Walking through the mine’s cramped tunnels you can imagine how tough life was underground 100+ years ago.

Don’t Miss the Homestake

From the Broken Boot we made our way to Lead, the site of the internationally famous Homestake Mine and the separately operated Black Hills Mining Museum.  At the time it closed, the  Homestake Mine claims it was the ”the oldest, largest and deepest mine in the Western Hemisphere”  Its tunnels reached more than 8000 feet below the town of Lead.

Homestake mining operations reached 8,000 ft below the surface

Homestake mining operations reached 8,000 ft below the surface

Today, the tunnels are flooded as the gigantic pumps that kept them dry have been turned off.  The 1-hour guided mine tour includes a bus ride and some walking around the mining complex and parts of the town, since they are virtually one and the same.  The tour  follows the mining process including hoisting, crushing and milling of ore and views Homestake’s historic Open Cut, the site of the original Homestake claim.

Logan-Lilly Hoist at Homestake Mine

Logan-Lilly Hoist at Homestake Mine

The tour teaches as much about life in a mining town as it does about gold mining itself.  Lead was the quintessential company town.  Homestake owned all mineral rights to the land under the town but the company also gave back to the workers.  Homestake was responsible for the establishment of the first kindergarten in the entire West and provided the students in Lead’s schools with some of the finest facilities available in that part of the country. Homestake also funded construction of the Homestake Opera House and Recreation Building.  Tickets had to be purchased for events in the Opera House, but use of the swimming pool, bowling alley, meeting rooms and library were all available for free.  Even during the Great Depression Homestake maintained its payroll.

Makes for a Great Day Trip

Together, the Broken Boot and the Homestake offer a study in contrasts.  The Broken Boot’s intimate scale provides a real sense of what conditions much have been like in the mines while the size and scale of the Homestake reminds of the economic impact mines have even to this day.   Both of them made an impression on our suburban tween who had never seen anything like them.  Taken together, these two mines make up a great day trip from your base camp in Deadwood.

This is one of a series of posts about our Top 10 activity recommendations for families visiting South Dakota with teens and tweens. We hope you will take the time to read about the rest.
Deadwood Things To Do


Deadwood a Hit with Teens and Tweens

 Posted by on April 2, 2010  Comments Off
Apr 022010
 
Deadwood's historic Bullock Hotel

A gunfight erupts in from of Deadwood's historic Bullock Hotel

     Deadwood, SD was founded as a mining town during the last continental US gold rush in 1876.  In 1868 the Treaty of Fort Laramie had forever ceded the Black Hills to the Lakota-Sioux and at the time gold was discovered it was outside the control of  General Custer’s  US Army which governed much of the area at the time.   With neither the local tribes nor the US government enforcing any kind of law, Deadwood quickly became a magnet for miners, outlaws, shady ladies, gamblers, gunslingers.  

     The entire town is listed on the National Historic Register.  Thanks to a local tax on the town’s low stakes gambling receipts, many of the original buildings have been restored. The town supports an ongoing series of concerts, parades, road races and other events as well as an active band of street re-enactors who take us back to the days of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. 

Call the sheriff - gunfights are a regular occurence on the streets of Deadwood!

Call the sheriff!

You can witness Wild Bill being shot in the saloon several times a day and participate in his killer’s trial each evening.  Shootouts are common in the streets from Memorial Day to Labor Day.      

     Take the time to walk around town, admire the architecture and visit the Mount Moriah Cemetery where both Wild Bill and Calamity Jane were laid to rest.   Check out Chinatown and wander over to the Adams House and Museum to see some of the Black Hills’ treasures including Potato Creek Johnny’s gold nugget, N.C. Wyeth’s pencil sketch drawing of  Wild Bill Hickok, and a one-of-a-kind plesiosaur (marine reptile) in the Museum.  The House, a restored 1892 victorian, displays oak interiors, hand-painted canvas wall coverings, stained glass windows, plumbing, electricity and telephone service and original furnishings,  just as they were left when Mrs.  Adams closed the house in 1934.  It sat untouched for 60 years before being purchased by the museum.

Ladies get on the act too

Ladies get on the act too

    Deadwood is a must-do for any family visiting the Black Hills with teens and tweens.  Stay for 2 or 3 nights to enjoy the atmosphere and to explore the surrounding sights.  We stayed in downtown but enjoyed the Gulches of Fun Park at the Comfort Inn at the edge of town.  The arcade, bumper boats, go karts and mini-golf were a hit.  About 10 miles out of town, the Boondocks complex offers classic cars, a diner, and carnival rides.   Deadwood is also a good base camp to explore several nearby,  historic gold mines.

     This is one of a series of posts about our Top 10 activity recommendations for families visiting South Dakota with teens and tweens. We hope you will take the time to read about the rest.
Deadwood Things To Do

South Dakota Cave Explorations

 Posted by on March 28, 2010  Comments Off
Mar 282010
 

     Two magnificent caves located at the southern end of the Black Hills offer families with teens and tweens a chance to explore beneath the surface of the earth.  Wind Cave, the first cave to be protected as a National Park, is known for its boxwork, an unusual cave formation that looks like honeycombs.  Jewel Cave is the second largest cave in the world with 150 known miles.  It features a wide range of  jewel-like crystals that give the cave its name.  Both are an easy day trip from the towns of Custer or  Hot Springs, but can also be reached from Rapid City if you don’t mind a bit of a drive.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bryanh/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Wind Cave Entrance, courtesy bryanh at flickrhttp://www.flickr.com/photos/bryanh/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

     Wind Cave offers daily ranger led tours.  Tickets for most tours are sold on a first come first serve basis.  During the summer it is a good idea to arrive early at the Visitor Center to avoid long waits.  There are five different tours that vary in terms of time and level of physical demand.  The easiest, the Garden of Eden tour, enters and leaves the Cave by elevator but requires participants to travel about 150 steps within the Cave.  The Natural Entrance tour offers particularly good views of the boxwork and includes about 300 steps while the Fairgrounds Tour uses the elevator but involves 450 steps inside the Cave.  After the Cave Tour save some time for a hike amid the Park’s praire grasses, forests and prarie dog town.  Keep an eye out for the bison that roam the the Park.

Save time for a hike after visiting the caves

Save time for a hike after visiting the caves

     The Jewel Cave tour options are a bit more demanding than Wind Cave.  The half mile Scenic Tour enters and exits the cave by elevator but includes 723 steps.  It traverses some narrow, uneven areas.  Sneakers or hiking boots are appropriate here — leave the flip flops in the car.  It takes about an hour and 20 minutes to cover the distance.  Like Wind Cave, the Jewel Cave National Monument also offers a couple of nice hiking trails through the nearby pine forest and canyons.  Jewel Cave tickets can be purchased 7 days in advance so it is worth it to call ahead to make a reservation.

     Both caves are a bit off the beaten path so the food service and facilities are limited at the Visitor Centers.  Back a picnic lunch and enjoy the picnic areas.   Like much of South Dakota, Wind Cave and Jewel Cave are very different from anything our tween had seen before.  He found them fascinating!

     This is one of a series of posts about our Top 10 activity recommendations for families visiting South Dakota with teens and tweensWe hope you will take the time to read about the rest.
Custer Family Vacation

Mar 252010
 

     The Badlands National Park is located roughly 90 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota. It covers 244,000 acres of heavily eroded sedimentary sandstone, volcanic ash and clay rock layers in a wide range of hues. Different layers are associated with the late Cretaceous Period (67 to 75 million years ago), the Late Eocene (34 to 37 million years ago) and the Oligocene Epochs (26 to 34 million years ago).

A view of the Badlands

A view of the Badlands

     The tall sharply pointed peaks support the youngest rocks in the Park.  They have been shaped by wind as much as by rain.  Middle layers are the result of volcanic ash raining down on the area millions of years ago.  The lowest layers were shaped by ancient seas, rivers and flood plains.   Even today the soft rocks erode at a rate of an 1″ a year even though the average rainfall is only 16″ annually. 

The sandstone in the Badlands erodes at a rate of 1" a year

The sandstone in the Badlands erodes at the rate of an inch a year

     Scientists have discovered that the Park holds an incredible range of ancient marine and mammal fossils,  including camels, three-toed horses, rhinoceroses, deer-like mammals, rabbits, beavers, land turtles and a number of smaller creatures.  Surprisingly there are no dinosaur fossils.  The self-guided Fossil Exhibit Trail and Ranger led Fossil walks are available for those who want to learn more. 

The Lakota called this harsh landscape "mako sica," meaning “land bad"

The Lakota called this harsh landscape "mako sica," meaning “land bad"

     Most of the accessible areas of the Park are found along the Highway 240 loop road that rambles through the Park.  An hour’s drive will allow you to explore the views but we recommend taking a half day to spend time at the visitor center, explore some short trails, and perhaps have a picnic lunch.  A rustic first-come first-serve campground is also available.

Badlands colors are surreal

Badlands colors are surreal

     The scope and scale of the Badlands is truly breathtaking, particularly for Easterners who do not have much experience with “Big Sky” country.  Your teen and tween have probably never seen anything like this before so it is well worth the daytrip.  We marveled at how pioneers ever found their way through this boken, hostile place.

Tip:  Plan to stop at Wall Drug for snacks and shopping on the way back to Rapid City!

But Wait, There’s More!

     This is one of a series of posts about our Top 10 activity recommendations for families visiting South Dakota with teens and tweens

     For those of you who enjoy  family travel pictures – be sure to check out the Delicious Baby Photo Friday page.  This post is one of dozens submitted this week by travel bloggers from around the world.

Rapid City Things To Do