South Dakota & Wyoming Vacation for Outdoor-Loving Families

by Carmel L. Mooney

Arriving in Keystone, SD we took a self-guided tour of Custer State Park where we did the entire wildlife loop during an intense thunderstorm. We saw lots of extraordinary wildlife such as donkeys, deer, and antelope.

Unfortunately for the kids, the buffalo were all hiding from the rain. We even enjoyed the pigtail switchbacks and tunnels framing Mount Rushmore as we entered and exited the park.

Mt. Rushmore National MonumentNext, we visited Mount Rushmore National Monument. The last time we were here we could not even stand because the winds were so strong and this time we got caught in major downpours but it was worth the effort to see the magnificent spectacle once more, rain or shine.

Afterward, we enjoyed an excellent dinner at The Historic Powder House Lodge in Keystone. Specialties the kids got a kick out of included Elk, Buffalo, and Venison which were all magnificent. We fought over the kabobs of each type of game. After dinner, we decided to go back to Mount Rushmore for the lighting ceremony, and it was both an extraordinary and moving experience. We were very glad we went back for the ceremony.

We had hoped to do more in Keystone (as for attractions) but it was pouring all day so we agreed to try more things the next day before leaving for Wyoming.

However, we did go briefly, with umbrellas in hand, to the famous Keystone historic cemetery where many folks who were involved in the creation of Mt. Rushmore were buried. It’s the only cemetery in the world with a view of Mt. Rushmore.

We stayed overnight at the Rushmore Express Hotel and it was the right choice just two miles from the Mount Rushmore National Monument. The staff was very friendly and we savored the warm and cozy ambiance.

Our spacious family suite featured a granite fireplace flat-screen TV, wet bar area with microwave, refrigerator, and in-room coffee. The bathrooms even had heated granite floors. Everything was immaculate.

The next day, the weather had cleared, so we took a terrific helicopter flight with Black Hills Aerial Adventures over Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse where we saw buffalo running wild over the prairies below us. Our pilot was wonderful and informative.

We also thoroughly enjoyed the President’s Alpine Slide next to the helicopter pad. If you time it right, you can do the slide while you wait for your turn on the helicopter nearby. The kids loved it.

Before beginning the next leg of our jaunt, we ate at Peggy’s Place in the center of town, for a breakfast that was every bit as good as we had been told. It’s a must-stop for a stick-to-your-ribs road trip breakfast.

Driving on to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming where they filmed Close Encounters of the Third Kind and many other movies, we saw beautiful scenery along every mile of the way.

Once at Devil’s Tower, we all rode funky low rider three-wheelers at the Devil’s Tower KOA and checked into our cozy little rustic cabin. Later Frank Sanders, a fascinating local rock climbing instructor, Devil’s Tower climbing guide, musician, and local bed and breakfast innkeeper, gave us a terrific tour of his property, Devil’s Tower Lodge, at the base of the tower where he takes folks from around the world, climbing to the top daily. He gave the kids climbing lessons and pointers and they were enthralled.

We ate dinner at the KOA. The owners are lovely people and hospitality is their forte. It rained all night and the next day but that didn’t stop us because we rode horses around Devil’s Tower which was wonderful even in the rain. We saw a mother fox and her babies making the ride all the more delightful.

Mickelson trail tunnel photo by Jeff_Goetz

The folks at that KOA are just amazing people and so kind and they also make and sell world-famous Devil’s Tower Fudge. They all had great stories of when Steven Spielberg came to their location many years ago to film his movie and they shared all sorts of other local tales that were just awesome and captivating.

We were really sad to leave but had to head on to Cody. We drove through the gorgeous Big Horn Mountains and it nearly snowed on us it was so cold. There was snow everywhere on the gorgeous peaks. We stopped in Ten Sleep, Wyoming at Dirty Sally’s on Highway 16 for Huckleberry ice cream – what a tiny funny town! Dirty Sally’s is a great, little old-fashioned gem offering beautiful hand-made quilts, crafts, souvenirs, and other unique hand-crafted Wyoming keepsakes.

We got to Cody just in time for the famous Buffalo Bill Cody Stampede Rodeo and it was well worth the wait. Wonderful jokes from the rodeo clown made the rodeo one of the best we’ve ever attended – those cowboys know how to rodeo – they put California rodeos to shame!

The next day we had a way-too-short, quickie visit to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center and Firearms Museum right before we left Cody. You could spend hours there seeing all the terrific displays. We only wished we had had more time but we had to cover a lot of miles to Yellowstone. We drove through Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons which were stupendous. We enjoyed watching lots of wild buffalo as we crossed the Continental Divide (elevation 7988 – Brrrrrrrrr) again and finally arrived at Jackson Hole’s Snow King Resort where we went on yet another terrific Alpine Slide. The views were amazing. It felt so good after driving 7 hours to down a cold Moose Drool beer and snuggle into a comfortable bed to dream of our next road trip adventure.

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Carmel L. Mooney is a travel columnist, author, and radio talk show host. She is the editor of Road Trips for Couples.