There are no shortages of lodging options in Rapid City. I was flip flopping between staying at a couple places and then settled on Comfort Suites & Convention Center. It had the things I wanted most on our road trip: Space, pool, free hot breakfast and most important, a good location.
The hotel invited my family to stay a complimentary night there. For a night, it was perfect for us. It was the best place we stayed the entire road trip, as far as comfortable beds and amenities go. I wished we had planned a longer stay; there is just too much to do in Rapid City to cram into 24 hours.
This Rapid City hotel could easily be home base for your entire Black Hills/Badlands vacation.
Check in was a breeze and I found the front desk clerks to be more helpful than the norm. Super friendly, in fact. Good customer service sets the tone for the whole stay and they do it right there.
The Business Suite
So we lucked out and were upgraded to the Executive Suite. If you’re traveling with a large family, this is the way to go: Two queen beds plus a pull-out couch bed in the sitting room… that’s right, sitting room. A door separates the two beds from the sitting room.The room also had a fridge, microwave, sink and a dining room table. Spacious, right?
You can go larger, still, and get a Family Suite.
The hotel features kids like
There is a small pool and hot tub in the hotel, which we splashed around in early in the morning. My kids really enjoyed themselves there.
The breakfast had stuff I enjoyed – fresh fruit, yogurt, good coffee.
And the buffet had stuff my kids liked, namely the waffle makers.
The front desk also had cookies on a platter in the evening, but I’m a terrible mom and did not point them out to my kids, who couldn’t see up that high.
Right off the interstate, it makes it easy to get to Rapid City attractions, especially the ones on our list:
– The downtown area
– Storybook Island (FREE)
– Dinosaur Park (FREE)
– A mall and an outlet mall are even closer.
– It’s also located next to a great steakhouse, Dakotah Steakhouse (which I’ll review soon). Ask the front desk of the hotel for a $5 coupon to the steakhouse.
If you go
Comfort Suites Hotel and Convention Center
Where: 1333 North Elk Vale Road, Rapid City, South Dakota
But we’re not ones to take a direct route; we have to stop and enjoy the scenery. There were adventures in Nebraska and South Dakota to be had in the form of canoeing, jeep riding, cave exploring, mountain hiking, lunar landscape wandering, and brushes with gigantic tortoises and begging burros.
Disclosure: Some of the featured destinations provided complimentary admission or services in order for me to review them. Individual posts will make note of it.
It was a lot of fun for our two young kids, ages 3 and 5 (and a good deal tiring). Here are the details of our eight-day road trip through Nebraska and South Dakota.
Day 1 – Sioux City, Iowa, Valentine, Nebraska
Our first destination was Valentine. We drove a route through Sioux City, Iowa, allowing us to stop for lunch at Milwaukee Weiner House and Palmer’s Candy Shoppe for treats. The candy shop was definitely worth the stop.
The route via Sioux City isn’t the fastest Omaha-to-Valentine route, but it’s more scenic. I love the Sandhills.
Your lodging options there are mostly motels, budget hotels, a few lodges and cabins closer to the Niobrara River, and camping at outfitters along the river.
Day 2 – Valentine and Niobrara River, Nebraska
We canoed the Niobrara River with friends and family the next day. This involved an early morning wake up, breakfast at The Bunk House, and a caravan out to Rocky Ford Outfitters. Note that with Rocky Ford, you’ll likely be on a bus full of strangers when they drive you to the launch site. It’s like riding a bus to camp.
We opted for the shorter route starting at Brewer Bridge; it includes a pit stop at Smith Falls, the state’s tallest waterfall.
In all, it was about five hours.
Canoeing the Niobrara is pretty fun for kids (and adults…), and you’ll get a glimpse of Nebraska wildlife – we saw a bald eagle. It was a long day for our 3-year-old, though. She doesn’t like to be told to sit down so frequently.
That night, we had dinner with our large group at The Pepper Mill, and my little family got some ice cream at Frosty Drive-In afterwards.
Day 3 – Wall and Rapid City, South Dakota
While the rest of our canoe caravan drove home, we drove north toward the Bad Lands.
Our destination was Rapid City, but first we had to stop at Wall Drug.
You can’t miss it. There will be about 2,567 signs pointing it out to you.
It’s fun for kids, and a nostalgic visit for me.
I heard about their famous cake donuts, so we did a taste test of three. Go with the maple donut if you have to pick just one.
We arrived in Rapid City at lunchtime and made way to the Firehouse Brewing Company. The relaxed atmosphere was a welcome relief from a car ride with antsy kids.
I’ll post a full review soon of the restaurant, but briefly, you’ll want to try one of their house-brewed beers – I was particularly fond of the Honey Badger. They’re known for their burgers, but I bucked that trend and tried the gumbo that’s got a Food Network star’s approval.
The restaurant is in the pretty downtown of Rapid City, which you’ll want to stroll.
Not far from Firehouse Brewing Co. is Art Alley, eclectic shops and the plaza with a sprayground. The plan was to explore all this after lunch but naptime was clearly more pressing.
Once rested, we did a whirlwind visit of some very fun kid-friendly and FREE attractions. First stop was Storybook Island, a large playground of sorts featuring every possible storybook character your kid has ever loved.
In a word, it was a kid’s heaven.
Since admission was free you’ll feel less peeved about paying a few dollars for your kid to ride the little train or carousel.
Nearby this park is the well-known Dinosaur Park.
There’s a visitor’s center, but mainly, you’ll want to climb the stairs up to see the giant dinos.
There’s not much to it beyond the iconic large statues, but kids like it. Expect to spend at least two hours at Storybook Island and 30 minutes tops at Dinosaur Park.
After seeing the sprayground downtown, there was no way my kids would rest until we went back. So, we made a super quick stop there.
It was timed during a free fun night event (Sunday night), so there were bounce houses, hot dogs, balloon animals and that evening, a movie. Wish we could’ve stuck around.
In case you were curious on what you shouldn’t miss at Dakotah, our family loved the bison satay appetizer – loved it – and one side you should get with your dinner, no matter what, is the deliciously fried mac n cheese.
Day 4 – Rapid City, Custer, and Hot Springs, South Dakota
We woke up early and enjoyed the free hot breakfast at Comfort Suites– followed by a quick swim in their pool.
Car loaded for our next destination – Hot Springs – we, first, headed to Reptile Gardens for some morning fun.
Three hours there, we were able to see all three animal shows, walk through the pretty cool Sky Dome, and have a quick play at the playground.
Both kids’ favorite part, hands down, was meeting the three gigantic tortoises.
We grabbed lunch in Custer in a popular burger joint called Buffalo Burger and Bun Co. It’s well worth the wait. Just don’t arrive between lunch and dinner – they’re closed from 2 to 5 p.m., which some stragglers learned the hard way.
After lunch, we bellied up to Purple Pie Place, also in Custer, to try the recommended pie.
Sufficiently stuffed and seeing the approaching storm, we drove on to our destination for the night, Hot Springs.
To get there, we passed through the beautiful Wind Cave National Park. No animals were spotted on that evening drive – we had a lot more luck the next morning. I can’t imagine why.
Once the storm passed and the kids woke from their late naps, we had time to make it to the final tour of Wind Cave that day. We rushed out there to catch the 6 p.m. Natural Entrance Tour, which was recommended to me by the park ranger because it suited small kids best (least amount of standing and listening).
The whole family enjoyed it, even the 3-year-old who doesn’t “do” staying in line. There was a younger kid on our tour and he did not last long in the cave.
This was more of an awe-struck experience than I had expected.
If you plan to visit Wind Cave, you’ll want to bring a jacket – otherwise, you’ll be like me, forking over $25 for a long-sleeved shirt. It’s a cool shirt, at least.
We got tasty takeout from T/D Smokin BBQ in Hot Springs, and retired to our room for the night. We stayed at The Hills Inn in Hot Springs.
I’ll write a review of the motel soon, but so you know, it’s a very short distance from the city’s two main attractions: Evans Plunge and Mammoth Site, and 10 minutes from Wind Cave, making it an ideal base if you want to visit those three sites.
Day 5 – Hot Springs, Custer State Park, Keystone, Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota
The Hills Inn had a free continental breakfast, so we opted to eat that poolside. Not a bad start to the day!
Our morning was spent spotting tons of animals while we drove through Wind Cave National Park on our way to Custer State Park, where we saw even more. In Wind Cave National Park, we spotted buffalo, prairie dogs, and on our drive back to Hot Springs, a coyote.
Custer State Park was our major destination that day. We drove two of the three scenic routes, both had their good points.
The Wildlife Loop is what it sounds like it would be, and it didn’t disappoint.
We saw several herds of buffalo, some pronghorn and prairie dogs.
And our kids’ favorite, the begging burros.
I know you’re not supposed to approach wildlife or feed them, but this seemed like a rule everyone on the road gleefully broke. These burros were bold and insisted you break those rules.
We had a quick picnic lunch by a dammed up lake in the middle of the park.
We continued our drive along the Iron Mountain road.
That was an intense, but beautiful drive. Narrow roads and even narrower tunnels!
We found lots of scenic stops along the way to our next destination, Sylvan Lake.
This was a place I’d been looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint.
There’s a trail around the lake that’s fairly kid-friendly – not easy by any means, as there is some climbing, but little legs can handle it.
There were so many gorgeous views.
If you can fit it into your schedule, pack swimsuits to enjoy the little beach and possibly some of the water sports like kayaking or aquabike.
The only frustrating thing about the stop was the lack of water fountains – you either had to pay for a water bottle or fill up in the bathroom sink.
Naptime meant we had some time to kill before we went to Mt. Rushmore. Mr. Wonderful and I took turns staying with the kids in the car while the other wandered around shops in Keystone.
Impatience won out after a while and we woke the kids up to see us drive up to Mt. Rushmore. The sight impressed them.
In a tone of deference: “Moun-TAIN Rushmore, Mooch. Mountain Rushmore.”
This stop was way more exciting for the kids than I anticipated (truth told, when I saw it as a teenager, I was more of a “Yup, that’s it. Let’s go.” Kind of kid). They sat through one of the documentaries, browsed the exhibit, and marveled at all the flags.
The highlight was ice cream, naturally. They’re kids, still. (By the way, it will be the most expensive ice cream you’ll buy on your trip)
On the drive back to Hot Springs, we caught a glimpse of Crazy Horse.
Dinner was back in Hot Springs at Woolly’s Western Grill (which is really close to Mammoth Site, by the way). It’s the typical American fare – I tried the walleye dinner, which hit the spot. They have their own microbrew and offer some South Dakota beers.
Day 6 – Hot Springs, South Dakota, and Toadstool Park, Chadron State Park, Nebraska
We started the day with a small breakfast at The Hills Inn before a morning swim at Evans Plunge. It’s a hot springs pool in four sections (baby, kids, all ages and outdoor), plus a couple water slides, Tarzan rings, and some pool sports.
The kids loved it.
A helpful lady pointed out that we could leave for lunch and naps and return later – so keep that in mind. Morning was a good time to visit – not crowded, but you did have to contend with swim lessons and the outdoor pool wasn’t open until 11 a.m.
After Evans Plunge, we walked across the street for a bigger breakfast (my birthday breakfast) at Dale’s Family Restaurant. It seemed like the place locals dined – I saw a lot of ladies from one of the swim workout classes there. The pancakes are huge.
Well fed, we went to Mammoth Site for a tour of the huge dig. We arrived at 11 a.m. just in time for a tour, which started with a short documentary. We lucked out and were able to watch some volunteers at work.
As impressive as it all was, it did not impress my 3-year-old – it’s a tough one for the younger ones to stay focused on. The rest of us liked the experience.
We drove south to Nebraska, with a stop for a short hike at Toadstool Geological Park and Campground within the Oglala Grasslands.
It’s a beautiful drive, but a long one on a dirt road.
I’ve been wanting to see this out-of-this-world terrain for quite a while, so the whole drive was worth it.
You’ll have two options for a hike – with the young kids, we opted for a quarter-mile mostly flat route. It’s to the right of the entrance.
The more tempting one is directly in front of you as you enter, with the trail heading up the rock formations. I only hiked about 10 minutes on it and determined it way too hard for the Mooch and Farley to navigate.
It’s way more beautiful and has the famed “toadstools,” but the crevices and uneven terrain is hard for unsteady climbers. We’ll be back someday, maybe on a cooler fall day, to hike with my kids.
Our destination for the night was Chadron State Park. Easily, the most beautiful state park I’ve been to in Nebraska, it’s also the oldest.
We had booked a cabin for two nights – it was small, for sure, but it had everything we wanted for the night: Air conditioning, two beds, and a place for a campfire.
It was the end of the day when we finally arrived, and we attempted to make it to the swimming pool before it closed at 8 p.m. Unfortunately, we were out of luck as the teens working wanted to close 40 minutes early. So back to our cabin for dinner and eventually bed time.
I drove the scenic road at the park, and while it’s a beauty of a drive, I’m glad I did it without the kids, they were not longer impressed by pretty landscape at this point in the trip.
Day 7 – Chadron, Fort Robinson, Nebraska
We had breakfast on our cabin picnic table before starting our day.
We forgot to buy coffee with our camping supplies, so we made a quick pit stop in Chadron at Bean Broker Coffee for some good coffee.
Onward to Fort Robinson, which is close to 40 miles from Chadron State Park. There is so much to do there, that it deserved more than a day, but that’s life.
We had small kids with us so trail rides were out, so the kids did a pony ride instead.
Mooch was dead set on doing a stagecoach ride, as well. It only cost $2 per kid and $3 for each adult, so we obliged.
The highlight of the day for all four of us was the jeep ride. It was a steal that the kids were FREE – they loved it so much!
We had a small picnic there and bought some ice cream at the end. Visit the blog soon for a more in-depth post about all there is to do at Fort Robinson.
Day 8 – Chadron State Park, Chadron
Our final day of the road trip. Before leaving Chadron State Park, we had a spin on the paddleboats at the small pond. I’m a paddleboat hater to begin with, so it wasn’t my idea.
The kids loved it though.
Before leaving Chadron for good, we grabbed some coffee to-go from the Bean Broker again, and let the kids play on the playground at the city’s main park. The park is very pretty, and the playground beat the ones at Chadron State Park.
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Want to plan your own Nebraska and South Dakota road trip? Click the links below to get additional details about some of our stops.
I’m planning my family’s summer road trip, and we’re headed to the Black Hills and Badlands of western South Dakota. I’ve got these great plans to take my family there (cue Mr. Wonderful saying “Here she goes again…”), and so I’ve started a South Dakota bucket list of places to visit and things to do.
Updated: This post was first published in 2015 and was last updated in December 2019.
Touristy stuff? You bet. Off the beaten path? Hopefully, we find our way there too.
We can’t do it all in one trip, but a mom can dream.
My Badlands, South Dakota Bucket List
See Badlands National Park
The landscape is so startling, the wildlife is so abundant. I can’t wait to take my kids on a hike here and drive around looking for wildlife like bighorn sheep and free-roaming herds of bison.
We’re totally stopping at Robert’s Prairie Dog Town – my kids love the prairie dogs at our zoo, so seeing them not in a zoo setting will be cool. Kids 5 to 12 can take part in the Junior Ranger program, earning badges and participating in ranger-led activities like hikes and crafts.
The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs
Seeing an active excavation site sounds fascinating. Mammoth Site happens to be home to the world’s largest mammoth research facility. I think my kids will get a kick out of the Junior Paleontologist program for ages 4 to 13; they’ll dig up full-size fossil replicas, not far from the real excavation site.
Update: We did it! Read how a family young kids experienced Mammoth Site here.
See a shootout Deadwood
Deadwood is a town where we can relive the Old West. There are saloons, stagecoaches and a gold mine, and many costumed dudes walking around playing the part of cowboys, cowgirls and unsavory types. Pictures look straight out of a movie.
There are free reenactments of a shootout in front of the Franklin Hotel several times a day, which may or may not scare the crap out of my kids. Who knows?
Pan for gold in South Dakota
There seems to be several opportunities throughout South Dakota to pan for gold. In Deadwood, kids can try their luck at panning for gold at the 1876 Broken Boot Gold Mine.
Find Devil’s Bathtub
I was browsing Pinterest when I came across a photo of this place not far from Spearfish. This is the off-the-beaten-path stuff I’m talking about. Word is that it’s a little difficult to hike to with small kids unless you’re experienced hikers. Sounds like a challenge.
If you want more interesting hikes in the Black Hills, definitely check out this guide book!
See little bears at Country USA
It sounds like a total touristy thing to say, but I’d like to visit Bear Country USA, if only to see Babyland. While we’ve done drive-through tours in the past, none have had black bears, grizzlies and bighorn sheep.
Find a wild donkey at Custer State Park
The more I look at photos to Custer State Park, the more I want to plan a trip just making this the destination.
Herds of buffalo and wild burros that love being fed apples? Famous, stomach-churning scenic drives (Needles Highway and Wildlife Loop)? Bring it on. I’m packing some apple slices for the donkeys, I swear.
Also, kids can take part in the Junior Naturalist Program (7 to 12), or for kiddos 4 to 6, they can do the Pups Program – both are FREE!
Update: We did it! I included my favorite photos in the trip recap here.
Take the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour
This safari-style tour at Custer State Park gets people up-close to the buffalo. I think my husband would be relieved to not behind the wheel for once, so he too can enjoy the scenery.
Go wildlife spotting
While we’re on the topic of buffalo, they’re definitely on our list of animals to spy while we’re in South Dakota. Other wildlife I hope we get a glimpse of: Wild stallions; long-horn sheep; prairie dogs; antelope; and, as I mentioned above, bears (hopefully, of the adorable bear cub variety).
Attend a chuckwagon dinner with the kids
What’s more western than a chuckwagon dinner? I’d love to take the family to one of these. There are a couple in the area to choose from. There’s one at Custer State Park that looks like a ton of fun, plus each person walks away with a cowboy hat.
There’s also Circle B Chuckwagon in Hill City, Palmer Gulch Wagon Ride & Supper in Hill City, and Fort Hays Chuckwagon Supper and Show in Rapid City.
Walk inside a cave
The Black Hills have the second and fourth longest caves in the world – Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. The kids will get a kick out of this otherworld below ground. I’m thinking we take the shortest tour possible since the kids aren’t known for patience.
I’ve got to make note that Wind Cave also has some wildlife above-ground to look for, like free-roaming bison, elk and prairie dogs. Both parks offer Junior Ranger programs for kids 5 to 12, who can earn badges and certificates by completing an activity booklet and taking cave tours.
Update: We visited Wind Cave National Park! I included my favorite photo from inside the cave in the trip recap post here.
Ride the 1880 Train
My 5-year-old is fascinated by trains so when I saw there were trips on a vintage 19th-century steam train, I knew it had to be added to our list. The 1880 train takes a scenic route through the Black Hills, with chances to see the Holy Terror Mine, Old Baldy Mountain, the Indian Cliffs and Harney Peak.
Take in some quirky South Dakota
Roadside attractions make for great stops on a road trip, allowing us to stretch out legs and take ridiculous photos. I’m looking forward to checking out:
Dinosaur Park in Rapid City – A free park with seven dinosaurs kid can climb on.
Storybook Isand in Rapid City – Another free park featuring fairy tale sets straight out of movies like “Snow White”
Wall Drug in Wall – I’ve been here, and it’s just ridiculous enough to warrant a visit with my kids
Update: We did all three on a road trip! See the fun photos and read about the delicious donuts found at Wall Drug in the trip recap here.
Visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial
You knew it was coming. You knew it was on the list. Of course we have to stop here. Unlike my first visit in my teen years, I think this time around we’ll explore the more. I found a great guidebook that might help you explore around Rushmore and nearby towns published by Moon Handbooks called “Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills: Including the Badlands.”
I read I could get a cool photo of the four heads as we’re driving through a few of the tunnels on Iron Mountain Road.
Update: We visited Mount Rushmore! See my favorite photos from our visit in the trip recap here.