“Look, South Dakota,” you might say to your child as you fly over the state, in the same insouciant way in which you say, “Look, cows,” as you blow past a farm in the family minivan.
For some families, a fleeting nod to the Midwest (or cows) might be enough. But here’s an idea for 2012: Don’t fly over South Dakota. Land there.
With the summer Rushmore hordes and Black Hills leaf peepers long gone, think about paying a quiet off-season visit to southwestern South Dakota, where several parks and caves are conveniently clustered. One manageable trip is a circuit of Mount Rushmore, Jewel Cave, and Wind Cave, sprinkling in overnights as you see fit and ending up back in Rapid City for the flight home.
After landing at Rapid City Regional Airport, it’s about a 35-mile, hour-long drive southwest to Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone. Once there, two recommended (and short) orientations are a 30-minute ranger walk, which provides a crash course on the memorial and on the surrounding Black Hills, as well as a 15-minute sculptor’s studio talk. The latter touches on the carving techniques used to build Rushmore. Until mid-May, the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, where tours kick off, is open from 8am to 5pm. Memorial admission is free; parking is $11.
From Mount Rushmore, you’ll want to head southwest, making a pit stop a half-hour later to admire the austere, in-progress Crazy Horse Memorial. Another 30 minutes later, you’ll end up in Custer’s Jewel Cave National Monument – the second-largest cave in the U.S. after Mammoth in Kentucky (should you need to impress the kids with some superlatives) – where the 80-minute scenic tour ($8 adults, $4 children 6 to 16, kids 5 and under free) is described by the National Park Service as “moderately strenuous” with more than 700 steps, but is the best bet for a thorough overview of the cave's crystal-lined passages.
Since it might be fun for the kids to compare two very different caves, head an hour southeast to Wind Cave National Park in Hot Springs, where the stars of the show are the honeycomb-like boxwork formations, as well as the evocative-sounding cave popcorn, which you’ll see in abundance during the hour-long, low-intensity Garden of Eden Cave Tour ($7 adults, $3.50 kids 6 to 16, children 5 and under free).
From Wind Cave, it’s about a 90-minutes drive north back to Rapid City and your plane ride home (assuming you flew), but if you want to break up the drive to the airport, a handy half-way point is the bucolic Custer State Park, where you might want to slow to a stop to ogle passing buffalo.
There’s more to see in South Dakota, of course. Within the same trip you might wish to dogleg it east to Badlands National Park. And if you don’t care for the way I’ve organized this tour you can, of course, easily mix and match parks and monuments on your own, or look into a vacation package via the South Dakota Tourism Board.
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