Time to "pay back" the wonderful forums here with our trip report. We are 70 year old grandparents accompanied by grand daughter (13) and grand son (6) for 5 days in the Black Hills area August 17 thru 23.
First of all, this trip really outweighed our expectations and we had a great time. The scenery at the Badlands was totally awesome and stands out as a highlight of the trip. I'll try to describe our trip below, if there are any questions please ask.
Saturday, Aug 17th - Flew from Dulles to Rapid City thru Chicago. Stayed at the Comfort Inn on Elk Vale Road, which was close to restaurants -- friendly staff and nice rooms (we got connecting rooms throughout the trip).
Sunday -- Stopped at Don's Valley Market for a small cooler and ice and water, then drove toward the Badlands.
First we stopped at Wall Drug for lunch. Yes, it is touristy but it gave us a break to look at the souvenir shops and their "backyard" that had "props" for picture taking, a scary dino that "wakes up" every 12 minutes, and a water spray area that would feel good on a hot day. The kids loved it. Lunch was so good and I had the best hot fudge sundae there.
From there, we went to Roberts Prairie Dog Town. We stopped at the main parking area, along with many others -- I was kind of underwhelmed here because we had to use the telephoto lens and binoculars to really see the prairie dogs -- they were keeping their distance because of all the people. There were a lot more of them nearer the road as we left the area, so I wish we had stopped at that point rather than the main area.
Then we started down the scenic road of the Badlands park. All I can say is "Wow". I've read that pictures do not do it justice and they are right. The scenery is ever-changing and incredible on this road. To fully appreciate it, get out of the car at the viewpoint areas, walk out to the platforms, and look down into the cracks and crevices. There is no way to get a true picture of that 3D perspective, you have to see it. I had assumed we would be bored after a bit of the same scenery but not so -- it changes constantly. My husband & I have been to Arches, Canyon lands, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon, and after Yellowstone, the Badlands is the best.
We stayed at connecting cabins at Cedar Pass Lodge -- The cabins are gorgeous! They are all renovated except for the "cottage" cabin. They are still building new ones. Our duplex cabin had the porch on the back with chairs facing the gorgeous scenery! The cabins across the way had their porches on the front to face the scenery but their cars and our cabins were in the way. Unfortunately there is no way to reserve a certain cabin but you could request it. In fact we could not even insure that our 2 cabins would be in the same duplex building but they honored our request. Even tho there was a connecting door between the cabins, we could not open it because a bed was against it. One last comment on the cabins, the bathroom area has a sink in the front that has no door and continues to the shower/toilet area that does have a door. So for privacy you need to dress in the shower area, but there is no place to put your clothes in there. We simply moved a bench into that room for that purpose.
The restaurant at Cedar Pass Lodge is not so great, but there is no other alternative. We tried to "go with the flow" since it doesn't get good reviews but breakfast was especially annoying. Service was soooo slow and really inefficient. After waiting 20 minutes for coffee, waitress brings it with no milk or sugar -- "oh you want milk?" Another 10 minutes goes by, with another request for milk. She finally brought a small bowl of 7 creamers that were all flavored. I finally just ordered a glass of milk, but it was another wait before a glass with a tiny bit of milk was delivered with "we are out of milk"??? Then cinnamon french toast was delivered with no syrup but she asked "do you want jelly"? Finally got syrup which was good since the french toast was tasteless. Finally we had to get up and walk to the cash register to get her to bring us the check. Sorry for complaining but we just wanted to get on the road at that point.
We did the short trails -- the Window, the Door, and Cliff Shelf. All were great but the Door trail was awesome since you could continue out onto the rocks beyond the end of the designated paved path -- they had markers 1 thru 10 and we all had fun following them especially the 6 year old boy. The kids did a lot of rock climbing (where it was safe).
Monday -- We stopped at the Prairie Dog Ranch store on the way back to Rt. 90 -- bought some peanuts to feed the prairie dogs. We did see a lot more here and closer than Roberts -- but they didn't seem to care at all about the peanuts we were giving them.
On the way to Mt. Rushmore we stopped at the Tramway/Alpine slide -- Went up on the chairlift, ate lunch at the restaurant (it was good and service was friendly), then Grandpap and grandson came down on the Alpine slide -- they loved it.
Went to Mt. Rushmore -- my bucket list item and reason for this trip. Did the Presidential Trail, starting on the left side (the steps are on the right side so its easier to go down them than up). Went to the sculptors studio for the Ranger talk, which is interesting.
Checked into the Comfort Inn in Custer where we stayed 3 nights. Very nice hotel, close to restaurants and shops. The kids enjoyed the indoor pool every day before dinner. Also enjoyed the mini golf course right next to the hotel. We ate at Buglin Bull and Cattleman Steakhouse restaurants, both were good. We are glad we used Custer for our "headquarters".
Tuesday - Visited the Custer Park Visitors Center and visited the exhibits. The kids got to touch and learn about Buffalo parts! Then we drove up the Needles Highway. It takes a while before you finally get to the Needles scenery but it was worth it. The best stop is at the Eye of the Needle area and it was crowded. This area must create a traffic jam in the busy part of the summer because it took us a while to get thru the tunnel into that area. The kids loved climbing the rocks and we got lots of pictures.
We ate lunch at the Game Lodge then walked around Sylvan Lake -- again this was another awesome place that exceeded expectations. We took a long time walking around -- the side starting at the snack bar was fairly level, but going around the opposite side was more rocky and had lots of rock climbing opportunities for the kids. We spent a lot of time there. We did see the small beach on that side, which was not visible until we got there. Lots of people were in the water enjoying themselves.
We had decided to take the free caravan wildlife tour at 6PM from the Custer visitor center instead of driving on our own or doing the Jeep Safari. In retrospect I wish we would have not done that. The tour didn't really focus on wildlife all that much. In fact the Ranger spent a long time at one stop talking about the buffalos that were far away, when we could see right down on the road below there were lots of buffalos hanging out right by the road. We had to tell her we wanted to go down there before she took us to the next stop. We really wanted to just stop and spend time there, but we had to keep moving to stay with the caravan. Then we drove way too long on the very dusty gravel roads to end up at the buffalo coral area where she explained the yearly roundup. We never did get to see any burros. We ate dinner at the Game Lodge after the tour, and it was very good.
Wednesday - We drove to the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs this morning -- another awesome experience that exceeded expectations. The tour was excellent, very informative and the dig site is visually stunning and interesting. The kids loved it. We spent time going around the whole site again after the tour and then into the exhibit hall.
In the afternoon we went to Wind Cave. We took the Garden of Eden tour which for us was just the right amount of time and information. They have a number of available tours that differ in time and complexity. We were able to walk in and get a ticket for the next tour. The Ranger was excellent and we all really enjoyed this tour.
Thursday -- This was our last day and we were spending the night in Keystone, so we wanted to do the kid friendly, touristy things. Went to the Reptile Gardens in the morning and we were able to see all the shows one after the other -- Bird, Snake and Gator shows. There are lots of other exhibits and outdoor areas. Especially liked the Big turtles and the prairie dog area where the kids could step up into a dome and see them at eye's level. This is a top rate attraction, beautiful grounds and just relaxing to walk around.
Went to Bear Country -- The kids rated this their favorite but I had mixed feelings. To be fair we went in mid-afternoon, so lots of animals were laying down. So we didn't really see much wildlife, except for the bear area where they actually were lots of bears and some right by the road. But the bears really looked distressed to me, not enough shade, fur coming off (maybe that is normal?). They just looked so sad. We walked thru the baby animal area and again most were sleeping and not visible except for the cute little bear cubs -- they were playing with each other and we loved watching them. I agree with others that this attraction is overpriced but I guess it depends on whether or not you go at a time when the wildlife is active.
Next stop was Big Thunder Gold mine -- The tour was okay -- basically we walked into the mine and learned a lot about the history of the mine, etc. and then turned around and came out. What made it good for the kids was that the guide, Matt, made it a point to learn each child's name and interject their names constantly throughout the tour narrative as well as joking with them individually. I believe that made a huge difference because otherwise the kids would not have paid much attention. Also a good photo op with kids posing in a cart. We passed on the gold panning (extra charge), it was getting late in the afternoon and was a little complicated for the little one to grasp.
Checked into the Best Western 4 Presidents -- no one at the desk, had to call out for someone to come check us in. I'm glad we stayed in Custer for 3 nights and just 1 night here. It was clean but not very welcoming. The pool on the 2nd floor looked cold and dismal. Our sheets had threadbare spots. And it had the dreaded (in my opinion) sink in the room with no place in the shower/toilet compartment to lay your clothes.
We walked thru Keystone hoping to pick up souvenirs but most shops had the same things. I was not impressed with Keystone, and did not want to eat in the downtown area where it seemed more adult (bars, etc). We went back to Mt. Rushmore again for one last look and to go thru the gift shop and bookstore, then stopped at Grizzly Creek restaurant on the way back and ate outside on the patio. It was very nice, quiet and the food was good. I can't speak to the inside service and ambiance but our server and the peaceful evening air was great for us.
Friday, we headed home. Everyone agreed it was a great trip. We originally planned to go ourselves, but we are glad we decided to take the 2 grandkids.
Sorry, I tried to make this brief, but didn't succeed! If there are any questions, please ask.