Ahhhh… the quintessential family road trip! You either love it or you hate it! Fortunately, my family loves it! I’ve always loved a good road trip and have never shied away from a little time in the car. With a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old you never know what kind of surprises you may have in store for you, but if you don’t mind a little time spent in the vehicle with family fun all around, than it’s time to think about planning a family road trip of your own!
Over the 4th of July holiday this year, my family headed out west to the Black Hills in South Dakota. My husband and I had been there pre-kids and we absolutely fell in love with the area and couldn’t wait to share all of the fun adventures with the kids once they were old enough. So in the Spring, we decided we’d venture out with the kiddos on the 12 hour trip out west! And I’m so glad we did!
We had taken a family road trip down to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee when the kids were 9 months and 3-years-old, so we had a decent idea of what was in store for us. Although, I must say… it was easier with them when they were younger since our daughter wasn’t walking on her own yet and was fairly immobile. This time around we had TWO running children!
That being said, the look on their faces with all of the fun stops we made and the wild animals we saw was well worth any wrangling we had to do to keep them safe!
Would I recommend a family vacation out to the Black Hills? ABSOLUTELY! There is no shortage of fun, family-centered activities to do and the kids are STILL talking about it over a month later! For a 2 and 5-year-old, I’d say that’s a success!
We were looking at around a 12-hour drive from around the Madison area, and I made sure that the kids were going to be OK for our drive. I got them all set up with fun games for their LeapPads and Amazon Kids Fire, and brought lots and lots of books, crayons, and paper for them to color and write on! We also happen to have a DVD player in the vehicle that we were taking, so I made sure to bring lots of family-friendly DVD’s for them to watch during portions of the drive. They did GREAT! Our two-year-old is already potty-trained and there were times we had to make lots of stops to make sure there were no accidents, but overall, it was a smooth drive out.
We decided to drive as far as Wall Drug, which is about two hours outside of the Black Hills, and it worked out great. We were going to spend a couple days in The Badlands anyways (which is right next to Wall Drug) so this was the perfect place to stop for the night. If you’ve never been to Wall Drug before, you definitely have to at least stop and experience all there is to do. We had a great dinner, walked around, played in the water areas that the kids were able to splash in, and finished with ice cream. It was definitely time for bed after the long drive AND all of the fun at Wall Drug!
The next day we headed to a campground in The Badlands that we were going to be staying at for two days, specifically, a cottage at the campground. It was the perfect way to experience all of the camping fun, with campfires, S’mores and most important… lots of swimming! If you’re heading out to the Black Hills, you HAVE to spend some time to drive through the Badlands Loop. It is simply amazing what you find out in the middle of nowhere, and all of the sudden, it is the most gorgeous rock formations that you would never think to see in this area. It is amazing and it’s one of my favorite spots! There are great hiking trails that you can climb on the rocks through and if you’re sticking around the Badlands, the sunsets are a MUST! The colors are amazing and change how the rocks look completely. It really is indescribable. The kids loved it!
After a couple days in the Badlands, it was time to take the remaining two hour drive to get to The Black Hills. We had reservations for our son to do a Mammoth Dig at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, so that was our first destination. For any of you who may have little ones who are obsessed with anything dinosaurs and bones, THIS is a must-do on your Black Hills itinerary! Our son was able to do the bone dig (which were fake bones for the kids, but still so fun for them) and it’s all he talked about for days. He even got an official “Paleontologist Certificate” for all of his hard work and it was a great learning experience for him!
One of our favorite parts of The Black Hills is Custer State Park. It is so beautiful and the wildlife is always around for you to enjoy… particularly, the BUFFALO! Within the park, there is a drive that they call the “Wildlife Loop” and the name pretty much says it all. Both times we have visited The Black Hills we saw more buffalo that we could imagine (VERY CLOSE to scare us, too!), along with wild donkeys, deer, and lots of cute little prairie dogs! We got lots of up-close-and-personal views of all of the wildlife, and the donkeys loved all of the loving from the tons of visitors they get every year! The kids had fun feeding the donkeys and oohing and aaahing over the baby donkeys that were there, too. It was so much fun for everyone and our daughter still talks about all of the mean-looking “buffamo”!
Besides Custer State Park, The Black Hills has some amazing driving loops that produce some breathtaking scenery. Among them are The Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road and the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway that have tons of fun corkscrew roads and tunnels dug out of the mountains. It’s incredible and the views never disappoint. Sometimes it still seemed surreal that this type of scenery and landscape was found in South Dakota! All of these drives are highly recommended and the kids got such a kick out of the rocks and tunnels, along with everything else that we were able to stop and see on the scenic routes.
One of the hikes we did around The Black Hills during our vacation with the kiddos was at Sylvan Lake. The rocks are gorgeous and the lake itself is so scenic and serene! There is a great paved trail all the way around the lake and on one side of the lake are some fun trails to go a little bit more out into nature. We weren’t able to do too much hiking this time around since it was a little bit too much for the kids, but the little bit we did definitely didn’t disappoint. Our son thought it was the coolest thing to climb to all of the tops of the rocks around the lakes and he couldn’t get enough. And it provided for some tired kids towards the end of the night!
Other activities that we did with the kids around The Black Hills was taking part in a traditional Chuck Wagon Dinner. It was SO much fun and the cowboys took everyone out to the dinner lodge in traditional horse and wagons. Our son even got to sit up front on the way back from dinner with the cowboy and he thought he had died and gone to heaven! Once at the dinner, cowboys sang campfire songs, told some tall tales, and cooked everyone an absolutely delicious traditional chuck wagon dinner. It was definitely the most enjoyable dinner of our trip!
We also took the 1880 Train one of the days, which took us from Hill City to Keystone and back and was a lot of fun to do with the kids. Our son happens to be a huge train enthusiast and it was a great experience for him to see the train and how it got it’s power from water, which turned into steam. The trip took about an hour and a half total and had open-air windows, so everyone was able to be a part of what was going on outside. There was even a tour guide who told us all of the great stories of The Black Hills and pointed out certain things along the way that were points of interest. Highly recommended!
And of course, we HAD to visit Mt. Rushmore! Who could visit The Black Hills without heading over to a great National Monument like this?! Our son couldn’t get over that the faces were really carved into the rocks and they have some great hiking trails around the monument that were kid-friendly. There are so many historical items around this area and it really was a great learning experience for the whole family!
Soon enough… it was time to head back home. We decided to suck it up and make the whole trip in one big swoop, and it took us around 12 hours to get home, as well. The trip went smooth once again, thanks to all of the items we prepared ahead of times to keep the kids entertained. And we made sure we stopped enough where we could stretch our legs along the way and get some fresh air.
Overall, I would HIGHLY recommend a family road trip out to The Black Hills! It was an easy trip to take and there is so much to do in an area that is relatively close to Madison. It’s a bit of the Old West, with scenery and wildlife that will never disappoint! Enjoy!