This spring, my daughter’s class at school began studying the states. She regularly came home with various new ideas about places she’d like to visit, including Mt. Rushmore. I’ve been to see this presidential monument several times, always while driving through to destinations further west. And, while I knew people vacationed in the Black Hills, I’d thought of it as a “mini” or poor man’s vacation for those who couldn’t afford to fly to warmer destinations over the holidays or spring break or for those who didn’t have the time to go as far as the more obvious destination, Yellowstone. In my mind, it was — like Devil’s Tower — one of the stops along the way when one is going somewhere, just another dot along the “Rubber Tomahawk Circuit.”
So I was wrong folks; I admit it.
School ended on a Tuesday and childcare for the next three days was going to cost me an average of $75 per day…so, I thought, we can’t afford not to go. After all, my children want to. And this is one of the few ways in which I actually believe spoiling them is entirely okay — with experiences, especially those that can be educational.
With only a notion, we packed the car and drove to the Black Hills of South Dakota. The children were spectacular during the long hours in the car, playing games together, reading and (of course) watching movies or playing electronic games. They were patient, cooperative and even the younger one asked for little.
We drove through the old gold mining towns of Deadwood and Lead, then down through Custer National Park and, of course, to the main event — Mt. Rushmore. It was the kind of vacation where I felt as though we spent most of our time driving / in the car. But it was spectacularly memorable. Here are just a few of the highlights:
- Needles highway in Custer State Park, where there is beautiful scenery around every switchback and through every one of the tunnels carved through stone.
- Having an old-time photo taken…with guns, at a child’s insistence.
- Panning for gold.
- The pervasive and relaxing scent of pine needles.
- The lighting ceremony at Mt. Rushmore — my first time seeing it at night.
- Our family’s first alpine slide experience in Keystone — after a grilled cheeseburger at the summit.
- Seeing buffalo up close and feeding asses out of the palms of our hands.
- A walk along the shore of beautiful Lake Sylvan.
- Driving back home, at night, hearing the children talk about how many stars they can see — and then turning on the StarWalk app to learn the names of new constellations.
- The children also insisted on seeing Reptile Gardens, on which I could have easily taken a pass, but the alligator show was at least a little amusing.
Things we missed: the hiking, kayaking, rock climbing and other experiences one might enjoy if staying at the park for a longer period of time, the mammoth site / dig further south of Custer (which I’ve heard is fantastic!), caves and horseback rides. In other words, we definitely plan to go back!
The spectacular experience didn’t end with scenery alone: part of the joy of the experience was in realizing that the children have become competent road trippers, and that we can just hop in the car with no reservations and wing it (my favorite way to travel!), and they’ll be fine. Another was realizing that those feelings that came up last trip — about it being “half a vacation” because my children only have half the parents — were no longer a part of the experience. The three of us had a wonderful adventure all our own.
Now, where to go next?!