My family’s destination: The Black Hills. 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.
Related post: See more of Western Nebraska’s hidden gems and best attractions
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.
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. We had a nice dinner at Dakotah Steakhouse, which happened to be next door to our hotel, the Comfort Suites & Convention Center.
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. 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 was pretty inexpensive to get tickets for all of us. 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.
Friday 5th of June 2020
I love your recommendations. We have not been since maybe 2015 and we did it as two almost retired folks so we didn't do quite as much active work as you did but I love our state and city so reading about all your recommendations is a treat.
Perhaps we'll make a Mt Rushmore run this fall!
Wednesday 29th of May 2019
I so enjoyed reading this! We will be visiting many ofv these same places this summer. So reading this and seeing your pictures was a fun preview for me.
Thursday 9th of July 2015
It looks like you had a great time! Now you'll have to make a stop at a photo book place online. :)
Friday 10th of July 2015
Oh, this is just the surface of all the photos we took. :) A photo book will be necessary.
Wednesday 8th of July 2015
great article Kim! Makes me wish I could've went with you guys. Looks like a great time! Can't wait to do this with my family in the future! Really makes me want to go back up there and visit the places I didn't think we're cool as a kid.
Wednesday 8th of July 2015
Thanks, Kelly! Things are a lot different when you revisit them with your own children. You guys will love it when Soph's a little older. :)