For my youngest son’s 10th birthday, we left behind dad and two older brothers and set out on an adventure for just the two of us. Although we are well-seasoned travelers, it is my youngest son who truly shares my wanderlust and desire to go everywhere and anywhere. I have always wanted to see South Dakota, but my husband and older sons were lukewarm on this destination, so I decided it was the perfect trip for the two of us.
I wanted to fly directly from Washington, DC into Rapid City since our entire trip would only be a few days, but the flight options were extremely limited. Delta was the best option, with connections through Minneapolis. Tickets were very pricey, but I was able to play around with the dates until I found SkyMiles availability, so we used miles and our tickets were free. My son had an early release day on a Wednesday and no school the next day, so I figured if we left Wednesday night he would only miss school on Friday and we could be home Saturday. My husband would be away with our oldest son over the weekend at a hockey tournament, so I really needed to be home by Saturday for our middle son. After mulling over the options and knowing nothing about the area other than what I learned from Trip Advisor, I settled on the Rushmore Express Family Suites in Keystone for only $80 per night and booked 3 nights in a standard room.
Our original flight was cancelled a few weeks before departure, but Delta rescheduled us on a later flight. We landed after 10:00 pm and picked up our rental car. The Rapid City airport is so nice and small, the rental counter is right by baggage claim and the cars are right outside the door! As soon as we got in the car, my son was fast asleep and I set out on the ½ hour drive to Keystone. We arrived at the hotel right about 11:00. First impression, it very much looked like a roadside 50’s style motel with outside entrances. Once in the lobby, however, I realized that the exterior was the original hotel, but it had been updated to include a large space with interior rooms. My $80 room was a standard room, with an outside entrance. First impression was that it was adequate. Clean but nothing to write home about. But then I saw the wasps. Tons of them, in varying states of dead and dying. I’m not sure where they were coming from, but we obviously couldn’t stay in the room so I called the desk. There were no more standard rooms available, so we were shown to a family suite. This was a major score. It was in the interior part of the hotel and so much nicer. Very modern, with a separate bedroom and living room with a fireplace. I’m so glad we got upgraded! Thanks, wasps!
Day 1: Mt. Rushmore
Our room rate included breakfast, which was a pretty basic spread. I had oatmeal every morning and my son had frozen toaster waffles. The only fruit available were bananas. Wasn’t the best breakfast, but it was free and convenient.
Our first stop was Mt. Rushmore. This was literally a 2 minute drive from the hotel. Although our visit was in late September and Keystone had already had snow, the weather during our stay was crazy warm – in the high 80’s – with not a single cloud in the sky. It made for some fantastic pictures.
Mt. Rushmore was nice and one of those things I’m glad I got to see. There is a visitor center with a movie about the history of the mountain, and a trail you can walk to see various views of the faces. We spent about an hour and a half here in total. The whole thing is free, but you have to pay to park. Before leaving, we had to try Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream. Apparently he was one of the first people to create a recipe for vanilla ice cream. It was good!
Our next stop was the Thunder Mountain Gold Mine. Since it was a Thursday in late September, tourism was pretty nonexistent in Keystone, and we had the tour all to ourselves. We went inside the mine and learned all about the 2 men who spent 15 years mining here before they found any gold. That is some serious dedication. You can also pan for gold after the tour, but my son didn’t want to so we were off to lunch. Finding a restaurant that was open proved to be a real challenge, but we finally did. Our entire stay in Keystone was characterized by extremely mediocre food. To make up for it, we supplemented with lots of ice cream and caramel apples, which were staples in this tourist town.
Next stop was the Soarin Eagle zip line. My son desperately wanted to go to the Adventure Park directly across from our hotel, but it is only open on the weekends after the summer and we would be leaving on Saturday morning. So instead we did the Soarin Eagle, which he thought was fun. I thought it was ok but nothing too exciting. From here, it was off to Bear Country USA, a drive-through wildlife park specializing in bears. I have to say, this place was way better than I was expecting. We both enjoyed it quite a bit. At the end you can get out of your car and walk around where the baby animals are.
To round out the day my son was desperate to play mini golf. We went to the course right near our hotel, Holy Terror, which was really not good at all. The “green” was shabby and torn and many of the holes were uphill. You have to pay for the golf inside the presidential wax museum. They have wax figures of George Bush and Barack Obama in the lobby, which were good, but this is just not my kind of attraction. We grabbed some very mediocre dinner at a restaurant in the town of Keystone, followed by some ice cream, and called it a day. I would have liked to go back to Mt. Rushmore for the night time lighting ceremony, but my son was definitely not interested in this and it wasn’t that important to me. It wasn’t scheduled to start until 9:00 pm and I didn’t think we would make it up that late anyway.
Following breakfast at the hotel, we started with some horseback riding at Rockin R Rides. This place was in Custer, near the Crazy Horse Memorial and it took about 30 scenic minutes to get there. We did the 1 ½ hour ride, which I thought was the perfect amount of time. Again, we had the place to ourselves. Our guide Walter had the perfect personality for this. He was very chatty with my son and was very knowledgeable about the area, even though it turned out he grew up in a town only about 20 minutes away from us! We finished up around 12:00 and decided to head to Crazy Horse. Wow, this place was definitely much better than expected. I thought the movie was really interesting about the sculptor and his family that continues the work to this day. I also found it fascinating that the entire Mt. Rushmore would fit into just Crazy Horse’s head! There is a lot to see here and if you are interested in Native American art, crafts, and history, you could spend a lot of time here. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t super appealing to a 10 year old. We had lunch at the restaurant on site with a very nice view of the monument, and then we were off to our next destination. We decided to drive the Needles Highway. Our first stop was Sylvan Lake. We got out and walked around a little bit, but we really weren’t up for a hike so it was back in the car. Wow, is this road one hairpin turn after another. It was amazingly scenic, but really tiring for me. Usually my husband is the driver when we are on trips like this. I have a new appreciation for him! We drove through the “needle” carved out of a big rock formation. Only one car can fit through at a time and it was definitely a little nerve wracking. We saw a buffalo right by the road and many other animals. My plan had been to also drive the Wildlife Loop, but the drive was taking much longer than I imagined and I could tell my son was itching to “do” something, even though he was being very patient. So I asked him what he would like to do next and he said go back to Bear Country USA. At first I said no because it wasn’t that close to where we were and it seemed like a waste of time and money to go back to the same attraction, but then I decided if that’s what he wanted to do, why not. So we did. And we enjoyed it again! The woman at the gate even recognized us from the day before. I’m sure they don’t have many visitors come back the next day. Afterward, we stopped at Putz N Glo, an indoor mini golf place that is right next to Bear County, and much better than yesterday’s mini golf at Holy Terror.
We headed back to Keystone, and stopped off at Big Time Pizza for dinner, which was right next to our hotel. The pizza was good, probably the best meal we had in Keystone. We went for ice cream and then turned in.
Following breakfast at the hotel, we headed to the airport. They asked for volunteers to give up their seats on the plane as it was oversold, but the next flight wasn’t until Sunday. I really hated to pass this up as they were offering us $1200 in travel vouchers, but I had to be back since my husband was out of town and our middle son would be home alone. Bummer!
My thoughts on this trip. The Black Hills are really beautiful. South Dakota is much nicer than I was expecting. Keystone is somewhat of a tacky tourist town, but I liked it and would stay here again if I returned. Keystone Express Family Suites is a good choice, but definitely stay in the large family suites not just the standard rooms. The whole area was easy to navigate. It seems unlikely that we will return to this area, but I’m really glad we came and got to experience it. I would have liked to go to the Badlands, but it was about an hour and a half drive, and I knew my son really didn’t want to spend that much time in the car. As you can likely tell, this trip was about him and the activities we did reflect that interests of a 10 year old boy, not his mother!