Recently, I took a weeklong vacation to South Dakota with my wife, my children, and my parents. As always on such trips, Sarah and I try to look for the value. What things did we discover on the trip that were really enjoyable that were also free or nearly so? Here are some of the best things we found on that trip.
If you have children under about nine years old or so, this is an absolute must.
It’s a large, free park in Rapid City, South Dakota. It’s about 8 1/2 acres in size and is loaded with sculptures, playground equipment, and other items each themed around a classic children’s story such as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Humpty Dumpty. There are slides, train rides, treehouses, tunnels, bridges, ships, and countless other things to explore. We spent about four hours there and could have spent more time, easily.
You can find out more about Storybook Island at storybookisland.org.
The Dinosaur Park in Rapid City features a handful of concrete dinosaur sculptures on a hill overlooking the town.
The sculptures are impressive in size. I was able to stand underneath a couple of them and my children loved climbing up on the smaller ones. In addition, the spot offers a gorgeous view of Rapid City. Expect to spend half an hour to an hour there. There’s no admission fee.
You can read more about the Dinosaur Park at http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/10514.
Black Hills National Forest
You can freely drive through most of the Black Hills National Forest. The scenery is just amazing throughout this area. Take U.S. Highway 385 through the heart of the Black Hills and you’ll be amazed at the scenery.
I particularly recommend taking the time to drive along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway and taking some time to stop at Roughlock Falls:
You can find out more about Black Hills National Forest at http://www.fs.usda.gov/blackhills/.
Deadwood, South Dakota is a bit of a tourist trap of a town, but there are some free things worth seeing there.
For my family, the most entertaining free thing in Deadwood was the daily gun fights held on the main street through town. A few times a day, they close off Main Street and stage a gun fight (with blanks, of course), which was highly entertaining. They also stage a re-enactment of the assassination of Wild Bill Hicock.
Overlooking the town is Mount Moriah Cemetery, which is also free. You can view the grave sites of Wild Bill Hicock and Calamity Jane, among other Western figures.
You can find out more about Deadwood at http://www.deadwood.com/.
National Parks and Monuments
The national parks and monuments in the area (Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Badlands) are all worth seeing. In the case of Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, and Crazy Horse (which is private), they’re large enough to be seen well outside of the actual national park for free (it’s difficult to see much of the Badlands outside of the park). In the case of Mount Rushmore, it’s free to walk to the monument, but the parking ramp near it costs $11.
In the case of the other monuments and parks in the area (Devil’s Tower, Crazy Horse, and Badlands), you have to pay for entrance whether on foot or in a car. However, national parks are something I strongly support and am happy to pay $2 or $3 per head for the opportunity for my family to see our nation’s preserved wonders up close.
Here are some useful resources for these sites:
Mount Rushmore – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Rushmore
Crazy Horse – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crazy_Horse_Memorial
Devil’s Tower – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devils_Tower_National_Monument
Badlands – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Badlands
I have somewhat mixed feelings about recommending Wall Drug, as it’s akin to a shopping mall.
However, it is free to enter and there are several interesting free things going on inside of it. There’s a park for children to play in near the back and a great collection of Americana art. Also well worth noting is the fact that they provide unlimited free ice water and provide cups of coffee for a nickel.
You can find out more about Wall Drug at http://www.walldrug.com/.
A Big Frugal Tip
A vacation to South Dakota can be very inexpensive, as most of the things to see and enjoy are free or are pretty low cost.
However, I highly recommend that you bring your own food when you’re out for the day. The restaurants and other services near most of these attractions are incredibly expensive for what you get. This is more true for South Dakota than almost any trip I’ve taken, as most of the things you’re doing are pretty rural and the options for food can be limited.