Friday Wrap: South Dakota Surprises

Hello, dear friends! We’re finally back home and are in the reminiscing stage of our trip to South Dakota, which was awe-some! I highly recommend this destination to everyone.


The girls and I were feelin’ our inner cowgirl all week. (These cute hats were gifts from our chuck wagon cookout, which we’ll discuss later.)

Now, I knew (from the pictures online and stories from friends) that we were headed to a really cool part of the country with plenty of sights and activities. So I shouldn’t have been so caught off guard by this trip, but I was. South Dakota is seriously beautiful.

Case in point…I’m one of those easy car sleepers who can log a solid 2-3 hour nap as soon as I hear the engine running. But once we hit the border of South Dakota, I was both-eyes-open.

It did help that we were able to divide the trip in half. We spent a couple of nights with our sweet family in Nebraska. So when it was time to keep driving north, I was refreshed and ready to roll.

Anyway, it was such a fun time overall, I want to dedicate this week’s “top five” to our trip. And specifically the five most surprising, breathtaking, exciting, and downright happy things we discovered. I’ll try my best to show restraint on the number of photos. I’ll do my best. Bear with me.

{ONE} Incredible Stops

First off, we’re usually beach people. We’ve never vacationed in the mountains in the summer – outside of a family reunion in Colorado when Evan was 3 months old. He’s 13 now, so it’s been awhile.

I had no idea how to tackle this trip, which meant I spent an enormous amount of time planning. Not only were hot mountains a new thing, but also the amount of time spent in the car. We logged a total of 35 hours. The lifesaver move was to map out strategic places to stop – to keep things interesting and give us a place to stretch.

Sioux Falls

I loved this stop right out of the gate. We’re standing in front of “the falls” in Sioux Falls! This was right after our delicious lunch at the Falls Overlook Cafe.

Corn Palace

Welcome to the Corn Palace! If you’re ever near Mitchell, South Dakota, you have to stop here. It’s the world’s only corn palace, so there’s that to check off the bucket list. 😉 On a more serious note, I was really touched by the image on the lower right. It was in the center of the arena, so it had a prominent place for everyone to appreciate. (Yes, it’s made out of ears of corn.)


Another “must see when you’re near” place is Carhenge. You know, like Stonehenge, but made with old cars? It’s both hysterical and completely cool. We hit this on the way home, since it’s in Alliance, Nebraska. We drove across the entire state of South Dakota on the way there, and drove across Nebraska on the way home. Another trick that allowed us to see something new the entire way!!

{TWO} Mount Rushmore & Crazy Horse

Of course these iconic monuments made the top five list. Mount Rushmore was pretty much the main reason for this trip. The girls had free fourth-grade national park passes, and we were feeling adventurous. The next thing you know…

Mount Rushmore family pic

We made it to Mount Rushmore!! I love this classic family picture. You may or may not see this again around Christmas.

Mount Rushmore montage

I thought we were just going to take a few mountain pics and call it good. But there are all kinds of things to do at the Mount. Avery worked her tail off to become an official Junior Ranger. (It’s legit, too. She spent forever filling out a workbook, and she had a test at the end and everything!). Don’t you like the picture of her and her new park ranger friend? After this, we worked up an appetite for some Thomas Jefferson vanilla ice cream, because apparently he invented it. Then we walked through the Avenue of Flags and found a few states that are dear to our hearts – like Arkansas.

Mount Rushmore Sculpture

On one of the hiking trails (because there are those, too) we learned exactly how the mountain was carved and what the sculptor and his 400 workers attempted to create. This is the nearly 3-story model that stands in the sculptor’s studio. It was quite a monument unto itself.

Meaning of Mount Rushmore

I must confess, I went into this visit fairly uninformed, so I read everything in sight. This description about the meaning of Mount Rushmore was fascinating to me, and it made me feel incredibly patriotic for being there. #godblessamerica

We also took time to visit Crazy Horse. Some of the travel sites said you could just drive by and get the whole gist of it, but from our experience at Mount Rushmore, I wasn’t about to miss out on learning about the significance of this monument. I mean, I was right here!

crazy horse

As an interesting fact, Crazy Horse is a privately owned monument that’s still being carved. You can see the face on the top/middle, and the white paint on the lower right is where the horse will be carved one day. To put the overall size into perspective, the entire sculpture of Mount Rushmore would fit into the lower portion of Crazy Horse’s face. Wow, right? This thing is a huge undertaking. And pretty much by one family.

crazy horse different angles

These two pictures give me all the feels. The top shows what the final monument will look like one day. Crazy Horse is pointing to the land in front of him to symbolize his statement, “My lands are where my dead lie buried”. The picture on the bottom shows Clara receiving a handmade bracelet from a Lakota Indian. He carefully explained to her it was made with glass beads and buffalo hide. He also sold beautiful earrings made with ink-dipped porcupine quills. <3

crazy horse museum

Right next to the monument was an extensive museum filled with thousands of artifacts. We had fun exploring and learning about all kinds of Plains tribes. Education for the win.

{THREE} The Badlands

I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but…we almost didn’t go to the Badlands. It was a pretty long drive from our hotel in Hill City, and I had completely underestimated its awesomeness. Thank goodness THREE separate people said to me before we left, “You’re going to the Badlands, aren’t you?!” Man, I’m so glad we did.

Badlands 2

We entered the park from the side that’s closest to Wall Drug. The first view literally took my breath away. We pulled over and jumped out of the car to soak this in with a clear, windowless view.

Badlands 4

I kept telling Brandon to pull over for pictures. He was so patient with me. I mean, this place looked like another planet!

Badlands 1

God was definitely showing off here. I could have stood here for hours.

Badlands 3

Okay, just one more picture. I have close to a hundred where these came from, but I’m showing restraint. Please be proud of me.

{FOUR} Custer State Park

If we ever go back to visit, I want to plan more time in this park. In fact, I would even stay here in one of their beautiful lodges. I’m about to take you on a photo tour that will help explain why…

Custer State Park Lake

This is Sylvan Lake that has a hiking trail, boating, swimming, fishing and picnicking all within a manageable distance. After so much time in the car, it felt amazing to get some much needed exercise – and you can’t beat this view! You might even recognize it from the movie National Treasure 2 with Nicholas Cage.

Custer State Park

We also ventured over to the newest lodge and lake experience called Legion Lake. It wasn’t as busy, so we spent quite a bit of time kayaking, canoeing, and swimming. What a day!

Okay, get ready for some incredible rock formations.

Needles Highway_Cathedral Spires

After we played in the lakes, we needed to head to the other side of the park for our Cowboy Cookout, so we took the scenic Needles Highway. It definitely gave the Badlands a run for its money in terms of stunning views.

Needles Highway montage

We drove through a tunnel that was nearly the size of our SUV with a luggage topper. Whew. I love the picture on the upper right, because you can see just how tall some of these rocks were compared to our cars! There were rock climbers all over this park, too. Ideal place for that kind of thing. The bottom left is Cathedral Spires, which I thought was the most perfect name. The girls were all about becoming explorers among these hills.

Family Wagon

Once we got through the Needles, we landed at the Blue Bell Lodge just in time for our chuck wagon cookout. We sang songs with a cowboy on the way to dinner while watching buffalo herds move around us.

Cowboy cookout

Our dinner site was in a large meadow in the middle of this forest-like park. They grilled steaks and served it up with all the usual fixin’s of beans, slaw, cornbread and watermelon. It was THE best meal of the entire trip. Hands down. These singers were each on a wagon. Our cowboy was the one on the far left. He was hilarious. And a 4th grade teacher, so he was absolutely charming with all of the kids.

{FIVE} The Wildlife!

Lastly, I have to mention Bear Country USA!! This was Avery’s number one destination. She’s obsessed with bears, so this was a “must do” on our itinerary according to her. I was so glad it met her (very high) expectations. We were also pleasantly surprised with tons of other wildlife on our trip.

Black Bear

Bear Country USA was full of black bears. You were able to drive through (with your windows rolled up!!) to get up-close and personal with these giant creatures. It was extremely hot when we were there, so the bears were moving slow. It gave us a false sense of security, I’m sure. They could probably tear us apart in one swipe, but from the comfort of our air-conditioned car, they looked so cute and cuddly!! I mean look at this guy above. I just wanted to give him a big pot of honey.

Bear Day

The girls were over the moon about our “bear day”. We even got to feed the baby bears! PS. They love grapes more than strawberries. Now, on the right you’ll see a much different kind of bear. This was taken at Teddy Bear Town, which is the largest collection of stuffed animal bears in the world. It’s in the Guinness Book of World Records and everything! Talk about finding heaven on earth. We had visited this bear village earlier in the day.

Wild animals

Here are a few other furry friends we saw on our trip. The upper left was a herd of buffalo that passed us in Custer Park. The deer on the right was in the park, as well. The baby bear on the lower left was inside Bear Country USA. Also at Bear Country was the big horn sheep on the lower right. He was just wondering through. Beep. Beep.


This is more buffalo in Custer Park. They were everywhere. You can’t believe how large these things were. And look, they were right on the road!!

That’s pretty much a wrap. I hope you enjoyed a few of our pictures and consider visiting this place for yourself.

Now that we’re back home, it feels nice to sleep in my own bed and eat out of my own fridge. I will say, though, I’m gonna miss this constant view from my passenger seat. Good thing I get to keep these little bears >>

Car ride

Many happy trails to you!



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4 comments on “Friday Wrap: South Dakota Surprises

  1. This trip looks absolutely incredible. it is a part of the country I have never seen but I really want to visit Mount Rushmore. That family photo has Christmas card written all over it!

  2. What wonderful memories you made for your family! The photos are breathtaking and your little bears and bear brother are beautiful~ thank you for sharing your story. 🐻

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