Exploring South Dakota, Just Momma and Me

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Nancy Camp of Marshall, Va., is the latest contributor to our Your Vacation in Lights feature, in which we invite Travel section readers to dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. Your hot tip could be the next guy's daymaker; your rip-off restaurant, the next family's near miss. To file your own trip report -- and become eligible to win a digital camera -- see the fine print below.

THE TRIP: A week in the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota.

WHO: Just me and my 86-year-old Momma.

WHY: After we had planned a trip to the Canyonlands in Utah, my mother's doctor nixed the idea because of altitude concerns, so this worked, geographically.

WHEN: The latter part of May.

PLANNING: Was a cinch. I ordered a South Dakota tourism guide online and picked out what was interesting. We stayed mainly at the K Bar S Lodge in Keystone, which surpassed our expectations. It was just the right mix of rustic and upscale. The entire trip for two cost about $2,400.

GETTING THERE: Was easy, too. We flew from Dulles to Denver and took a connecting flight into Rapid City, S.D. We picked up a rental car at the airport.

COOLEST ATTRACTION: Badlands National Park. We took a wonderful drive through the park with spectacular overlooks. It was perfect for Momma, who can't walk too far. The landscape made us feel as if we were driving on the moon.

HIGHLIGHTS: Custer State Park is simply beautiful. There is abundant wildlife, including large buffalo herds, and long scenic drives. You do not have to do any hiking or long walks to appreciate the park's beauty. Again, it worked well for a senior citizen. The Native American museum at the Crazy Horse Memorial was really impressive, and the Prairie Homestead Historic Site was a quick and easy walk-through that gave us a renewed respect for homesteaders. And, of course, there was Mount Rushmore.

BEST NIGHT'S STAY: The view from our bed-and-breakfast, the Circle View Guest Ranch, in the middle of the Badlands was breathtaking. It sat atop a 200-foot butte and overlooked the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The directions they gave us were: "Turn left out of the airport, drive 65 miles and we'll be on your right. Make sure you have fuel because there are no facilities between the airport and us."

BEST MEAL IN TOWN: The Alpine Inn in Hill City offers basically one meal: filet mignon, baked potato and a huge salad wedge with a wonderful homemade dressing, all for $8.75, cash only. Your choice from among 35 homemade desserts is extra.

WE KNEW WE WEREN'T IN D.C. WHEN . . . The big guy sitting next to us at breakfast shouted into his cellphone, "What? They've canceled it again?! Well, you tell them if they cancel that brandin' one more time, them calves are gonna be too big fer me to rassle!"

I CAN'T BELIEVE WE ALMOST DIDN'T . . . go to the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs. I told Momma I didn't want to pay 20 bucks to see a bunch of bones in the ground, so I called to find out the admission fee. Since it was only $7.50, I agreed to go. We got there right in time for a half-hour tour led by a college student docent. It was like taking a Paleontology 101 class. They had wonderful walkways with guardrails and telephones on the rails. The visitors would hear the docent speaking via the phones. It was perfect for Momma, who wears two hearing aids. She didn't miss a word.

MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT: The woman selling tickets at the Wild Horse Sanctuary smiled at us brightly and asked, "And will that be two seniors today?" Uh, no. One adult, one senior.

WHAT I'D DO DIFFERENTLY: Skip the hokey steam engine train ride from Keystone to Hill City. They touted a scenic drive, but the scenery was the worst of the trip. And besides, the coal smelled awful, and anyone prone to motion sickness needs to bring Dramamine. Also, I wished we had skipped the touristy, tacky Wall Drug store in Wall, S.D., and visited the Wounded Knee Museum instead.

FAVORITE SOUVENIR: Momma is unable to put on bracelets by herself, and she found a lovely Native American claspless bracelet at the Crazy Horse Memorial.

DON'T FORGET TO PACK: Binoculars. They would have come in so handy, with all the wildlife and scenery.

BEST PART OF THE TRIP: Getting to spend a wonderful week with Momma.

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