The Black Hills of South Dakota is an invitingly compact region that is particularly good for family vacations.
The region is full of amazing natural wonders -- including two caves where national park rangers lead tours -- as well as lots of Old West history, an agreeable way to learn the nation's past; plenty of recreational possibilities from mountain hikes and a swim in a hot springs pool to a half-hour ride on an old steam train; and a wide range of inexpensive lodging and dining places.
How could a family spend its time? See Mount Rushmore and the nearby Crazy Horse memorial. Like the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial, they are inspiring sights, and educational too. You learn why the four presidents and the Sioux chief are so honored. An outdoor sound-and-light show is presented evenings at Rushmore. Search for bison at Custer State Park. These huge beasts are awesome, especially in large herds roaming wild in their natural home. Don't get close, because they may charge and their horns are sharp. You may spot pronghorn antelope and wild burros, too. Ride the 1880 Train. The steam-powered train makes frequent 18-mile round trips between Keystone and Hill City, two former mining towns just outside Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The train once starred in an episode of TV's "Gunsmoke." Keystone is full of fast-food restaurants and curio shops. Explore underground caverns. Frequent guided tours are offered daily at Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills and Jewel Cave National Monument, about 15 miles west of Mount Rushmore. Study Indian life on the Northern Plains. Among the possibilities are the Sioux Museum in Rapid City; the Indian Museum of North America at the Crazy Horse memorial; and an exhibit on the culture of the Oglala Sioux at the White River Visitor Center at Badlands National Park. There are Indian reservations on the plains to the east of the Black Hills. See a working gold mine. The Homestake in Lead, on a high ridge overlooking Deadwood Gulch, is one of the largest in the world. It offers daily weekday tours. Go for a swim in Hot Springs, S.D. Evans Plunge calls itself the "world's largest natural warm water indoor swimming pool." It has a giant waterslide and a row of hanging rings to swing out over the water for a flying dive. Watch archeologists at work. About 26,000 years ago, dozens of mammoths -- giant elephant-like creatures -- were trapped in a pond on the edge of Hot Springs. Today, students and scholars are busily uncovering and preserving their bones. Guided tours are offered continuously through the ongoing digs at Mammoth Site. Save time for the prairie dogs. There's a roadside community of them just north of the Wind Cave visitor center. They put on a delightful show, once they realize you are no threat. Don't feed them and beware, they bite. Explore Badland's National Park and Wounded Knee. It's a day's excursion from the Black Hills, but well worth it. You'll see both grasslands and badlands and learn a lot about the geology of this unusual region at the Cedar Pass Visitor Center. Stay at Custer State Park. It's a mountain park, cool and shady in the summer, with four inexpensive lodges (including some housekeeping cabins) and several campgrounds. You can simply relax or go hiking, swim in the lakes, try trout fishing, take a trail ride on horseback, rent a paddle boat or canoe on Sylvan Lake, join a jeep ride to the buffalo herds and attend a performance of the Black Hills Playhouse.