In Rapid City, grandma and grandpa didn’t just observe my 9- and 11-year-old kids having fun – we did everything together.
That included seeing herds of wild buffalo and black bear cubs, learning about American history, zipping by Mt. Rushmore on an alpine slide, tasting elk burgers, shopping for goofy souvenirs at Wall Drug, and so much more.
The only thing the grandparents opted out of was a pre-dinner visit to the indoor water park attached to our hotel, La Quinta Inn.
We packed five days with activities that every age group enjoyed. Here are our favorite, multi-generational activities in Rapid City:
Photo by Jamie Bartosch/Suburban TravelingMom Horseback riding in Custer State Park.
The parks: Badlands and Custer
Custer State Park is best known for its roaming herds of wild buffalo, but our favorite part was horseback riding at the Blue Bell Lodge’s stables. We saddled up on well-behaved horses with names like “Whiskey” and “Jazz,” and on autopilot, they slowly took us through a wildflower-covered creek, up and down a few rocky hills, and along the park’s tree-covered stone cliffs. On our 1-hour ride, we saw a buffalo, turtle, turkey and a marmot.
We drove right up to herds of wild buffalo on the park’s Buffalo Jeep Safari. The guided tour in an open-air Jeep searches for herds of wild animals in the park and stops at a few scenic overlooks. Tip: bring carrots to feed the donkeys that will approach your Jeep.
Photo by Jamie Bartosch/Suburban TravelingMom You can feed the donkeys during your Buffalo Jeep Safari in Custer State Park.
Custer State Park also offers “chuckwagon dinners.” These 45-minute (each way) hayrides through the park take you to a hearty camp dinner. Everyone in our multi-gen group enjoyed it. You’re given a souvenir cowboy hat and red bandana, and it all felt a little kitchy at first. But then we let our guard down and joined in the sing-a-longs (“This Land Is Your Land,” and “Old McDonald”) played on a fiddle or guitar, with joke- and story-telling in between songs. After dinner, you’ll be instructed as a group to scream “Oooooh-eeee!” into the canyon, and you’ll heard the sound echo back. Very cool!
We overnighted in a cozy log cabin buried within Blue Bell Lodge’s pine trees. The room included a porch with chairs, a small kitchen, a deer head mounted over a stone fireplace, and a bunny who lived under the deck that became the kids’ new pet. At night, we stared in awe at the star-filled sky and built a roaring fire in our outdoor fire pit, popping the Jiffy Pop we purchased in the nearby general store.
The Badlands National Park, on the other hand, are a lunar-like Grand Canyon. There were dozens of places to stop with gorgeous lookouts without having to hike in, including a handicap accessible one (since stairs can be an issue for grandparents).
Our favorite stop was called “Door Window,” where you could climb around and peek through small “windows” in the rock that offered expansive views. My parents paused at the scenic overlooks while my husband, kids and I climbed a little further down. The visitors center also had a little museum and movie to explain the park’s history.
The monuments: Crazy Horse Memorial & Mt. Rushmore
Mt. Rushmore is the classic American photo op. You can’t visit Rapid City and not go here. But the more interesting (and larger) of the two monuments is the Crazy Horse Memorial, a tribute to the great native Indian leader. I recommend visiting Crazy Horse in the early evening, having dinner in their Laughing Water Restaurant (try the Indian taco!), walking around their large museum, and then staying for the “Legends in Light” nighttime laser light show. Cars line up in the parking lot, like it’s a drive-in movie, and watch the unique storytelling show on the side of the mountain.
Other cool stuff
Photo by Jamie Bartosch/Suburban TravelingMom Black bears will come right up to the cars at Bear Country USA.
This drive-thru zoo, with tons of black bears and other animals, is a great multi-gen stop. The kids and their grandparents loved spotting the different animal ( “Oh! Look over there!”) And animals meandered around the cars. Afterward, we got out of the car and walked through Babyland, fawning over dozens of baby black bear cubs playing with the staff. It was easy on the grandparents because it didn’t require a lot of walking, but still big fun for everyone.
Ride the ski lift up to the top of the slide, with a clear view of Mt. Rushmore in the distance. And go at your own speed down the slide as it dips and curves to the bottom. Grandma went in the designated “slow” lane and the kids in the “fast.” You pay per ride, and you’ll want to go at least twice. When done sliding, we ate ice cream and watched families do the other popular adventure there: a ropes obstacle course in the trees.
There’s a huge build-up to get there. You drive long stretches of empty plains with nothing but old-school Wall Drug signs (“Free ice water – Wall Drug,” “Free coffee and donuts for newlyweds – Wall Drug”) – they’re the same signs the grandparents saw when they came here as kids. Reading the signs helped build the excitement as we got closer. And then we embraced the kitchy fun of America’s most famous roadside attraction.
Wall Drug is a sprawling, super-touristy complex of restaurants, shopping, a real drug store, and a history museum. I saw $5 plastic brown frisbees shaped like “buffalo chips,” and also beautiful, $300 leather cowboy boots. There’s surprisingly good food in the restaurant. The donuts hyped on the signs are just OK. Better to spend your money on the automated cheesy cowboy rides in the new back area – my son rode on a toy horse to the song “Rawhide.”
This is where we learned the most about South Dakota’s Black Hills and its Native American history. You start with an introductory movie on their theater’s huge screen, and then walk through lots of hands-on and interactive exhibits. It’s not crowded, and there was lots of grandparent-grandchild interaction.
Photo by Jamie Bartosch/Suburban TravelingMom Art Alley is one of the cool features in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota.
This area is evolving into a micro-urban artsy place. We marveled at the colorful designs in Art Alley, posed for photos with the life-sized bronze statues of U.S. presidents (the grandparents liked this), and let the kids play in the dancing fountain while the adults watched an artist sculpt a huge stone carving that will eventually become downtown’s centerpiece. Stop in the giant store, Prairie Edge, which sells something for every age group.
I’ll admit I was skeptical about how we were gonna fill four days here (originally five, thanks United Airlines!). But there was so much multi-generational fun – we didn’t even get to places like the Wild Horse Sanctuary or the crystal-laden caves — that we’re planning to come back again. Grandma and Grandpa want to go, too.
Jamie Bartosch is an award-winning journalist in suburban Chicago. She loves to travel, and blogs for TravelingMom.com from the viewpoint of a "typical suburban mom." Her goal is to provide honest, useful information to help families save time, save money, and make the most of their family vacation. A married mother of two, Jamie grew up in the Chicago suburbs, lived in the city for 16 years, and is now back in the suburbs raising her two kids. Learn more about her at www.JamieBartosch.com