South Dakota Road Trip: A Land of Imagination and History

Last updated on: June 16, 2018

This post is sponsored by South Dakota Tourism

Our imagination truly is one of the greatest driving forces in our lives. It conjures, creates, augments, stores, and helps us feel the intangible. All things past, present, and future can be toyed and tinkered through our imagination's fancy. It can be born of nothing at all, almost suspended in the ether or rooted in something inspirational. Standing in the here and now, our imagination can take us to a whole other place and time. On a South Dakota road trip. All with just a little thought.

Boy standing in doorway

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a very active imagination. I love to escape and explore other ideas, places, as well as lives entirely. One of my favorite subjects was the American West, set hundreds of years before I was ever born. How great would it be to see all the people and places that came before you right where you live? To see the history of your home unfold right before you, and to take part in it?

Boy standing in the middle of a long road

Chelsea and I love to travel throughout the United States, as a couple and as a family. Chelsea loves a chance to get away and experience different types of places, cultures, and experiences. I love history, rocks, and food. Ahem. I mean to say history, geological wonders, and the culinary experience. In sort of a fantastically simple way, Chelsea and I discovered that so much of what we love to experience is all within reach right here in the the great US of A. All within driving distance.

Woman on railroad tracks

We were recently invited by one of the few states in the midwest we had yet to wander to: South Dakota. When Chelsea told me, I spent pretty much twenty minutes jumping around the house. The boys thought daddy went to ‘cloud cuckoo land,' which they subsequently wanted to go to as well. Especially my three year old.

“Where are we going, Dada?” my oldest asked. “South Dakota,” I exclaimed as I spread my arms like a mysterious magician pulling himself through a thick red velvet curtain. No idea what the heck I was talking about, he stood there with his head cocked like a puppy. “The land of the great wide open plains, cowboys, Indians, dinosaurs, and a mountain shaped like the presidents' heads!” I excitedly clarified. A simple reassuring smile, a shrug, and he returned to his Legos, “Okay…cool.”

Laughing mule

“What the HECK! How can he be so nonchalant?” I wondered. And then it hit me. He’s never seen the Great Plains. He and his brothers barely understand the concept of history and time gone by. I know this because I’m the one that gets them ready for school. No sense of time AT ALL! But this left me with a sense of ambitious hope. Now, I had an opportunity to spark their imagination in the very place that helped unlock mine.

Our Historic South Dakota Road Trip

We started in Sioux Falls, in the state's bottom right corner

A town built around a historic epicenter for some of America’s great Lakota and Dakota Indian tribes. Eventually, a quickly growing epicenter for the western expansion after the advent of the railroads, Sioux Falls became South Dakota's largest and most densely populated city. Being from Southern California, I didn’t get the feeling that the city was overcrowded but – to the contrary – comfortable. With chic old brick buildings filling the core of the city, a lacing of railroads, and a Falls Park, the city is welcoming to a family of six. We had dinner at a local brewery called Remedy Brewing, where the boys enjoyed dancing to live music. Or dance fighting, whatever. One wound up crying somehow. Chelsea and I discovered “chislic,” tender lamb bites with garlic butter and herb salt. We were told that this amazing must-have meat was a regional delicacy.

Our first stop was Ingalls Homestead near De Smet

Boy walking on farm

This was a fantastic first stop as the boys got a taste of what life was like at the turn of the 19th century. My mother is a huge lover of House on the Prairie and Laura Ingalls, so of course I teased her by sending pictures of the farm house and school and asked her to guess where I was.

Boy grinding flower

Unlike the show, the Ingalls Homestead was actually on a prairie. We also discovered that there were lots of activities to do and learn from. The boys made rope, corn cob superheroes, ground their own flour with wheat and a 19th century coffee grinder, and even got to drive a covered wagon.

Children on merry go round

We headed to the Badlands and Great Plains

Pierre South Dakota capitol

The drive was a few hours from the homestead, passing through the capitol of Pierre. It was a nice stop and great that we could walk right up to the majestic capitol building to take some pictures.

Boy standing in the middle of the great plains

We continued through the vast open space of grasslands and my imagination kicked it. I wondered how long it would have taken for settlers or Indians to cross this ocean of green. I imagined standing in the massive expanse before towns and cities, watching a storm roll through. What a sight it must have been.

Little boy driving wagon

We finally arrived at the Badlands and found ourselves amidst the landscapes' natural ruler of time. Each layer of decayed and eroded hills was a marker of years and change. They were mesmerizing with all their colorful layers and strange conical shapes. It was awe inspiring to think that the earth coming through these peaks over time was the same walked on by dinosaurs millions of years ago.

Mother with children in badlands

After a good nights sleep at Circle View Guest Ranch and a morning frolic with the resident chickens and calf, we headed off to see another fantastic vista of American history. As we headed off through the remainder of the Badlands and Great Plains, the boys had a chance to try to catch a prairie dog. It was great because they burned off a ton of energy without the slightest chance of nabbing the furry, squawky little critters.

Then, we made our stop at Wall Drug

This place takes eclectic to a whole new level. The entire “drug store” was more of a mall of fascinating Americana, complete with a strange pen for an ornery T-rex that would try to escape every eight minutes or so. Despite the goofy design, the boys were terrified that they’d be eaten. I loved it!

Children in Wall Drug store

We continued to the monuments

Family at mount rushmore

The boys DID recognize Mount Rushmore, and even remarked at how large the presidents' heads were. A light rain came down and at one point my oldest son said, “It looks like President Washington is crying.” To ease the mood, we went inside the monument's shop and purchased a number of ice cream cones made from President Jefferson’s very own recipe. To be frank, I didn't know they had ice cream back then, so I definitely learned something. I also had delicious vanilla ice cream, so it was a win all-around.

Woman in front of mount rushmore

We quickly moved on to our next stop just down the road, the Crazy Horse Memorial. It was inspiring to see such a fantastic tribute taking shape. We walked around the museum and I briefly explained the history of the Indians to the boys. Not that I expected it to make sense, but I still tried to explain our own Indian ancestry to them as we stared off to the mountain of a man. I, of course, sent photos back to my family who were happy to see we made the stop.

Child in front of Crazy Horse memorial

Custer State Park took us back to nature

We overnighted in this open space preserve, surrounded by land dotted with antelope, buffalo, deer and wild turkeys. We played a game of “who can find” on the Wildlife Loop as we passed through the flora and fauna of midwest America.

Buffalo in a field

At Hill City, we got to see some of the oldest sites

Little boy next to big fossils

At the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research we saw more dinosaur bones and prehistoric fossils in one building than I ever imagined possible. The small museum managed to house an astonishingly giant collections of T. Rex heads, and their team discovered the most complete T. Rex skeleton in history.

Small boy in front of large t-rex fossils

The boys and I marveled at the sheer size of some of the teeth. Of course, we used our imaginations to determine how many bites the T. Rex would have to take to eat each one of us. We all pretty much agreed that the three year old was a snack size boy and daddy was “like a sandwich.”

Alpine inn in South Dakota

This got our appetites up and we walked around the corner to the Alpine Inn. This fine little establishment served one of my favorites. German food! I am a big lover of sausage, of which they had plenty, and sauerkraut.

Finally, our voyage ended in the town of Deadwood

This place is pretty much a wild west stomping ground. It’s laced with history and spotted with fun modern establishments. We stayed in a gaming resort called The Lodge at Deadwood. The best part – aside from assorted on site dining – was the pool. This place was the perfect way for the boys to unwind. I was told that in the summer, the locals come to the lodge just to play in the pool.

children in a mine

Down the hill and just on the edge of town is the Broken Boot Gold Mine. We donned our mining helmets with lights and set off on a guided tour down the mineshaft. Initially scary for the three-year-old, he quickly grew accustomed as the crew looked for precious stones in the walls.

Cute boy in front of coffee shoo

We made our last and final stop for coffee. We pulled up to the Pump House at Mind Blown Studio where you can not only get a mocha and bacon, but also blow your own glass art. This place was an old gas station turned coffee shop and art house and was great to sit down and take in.

Eclectic Coffee shop with lots of signs

Not only is South Dakota a place that sparks imagination, but it is a fantastic place to experience so much history. From the dinosaurs to the Indians to the modern gas station coffee shop glass art establishments, there's something for everyone. Even Thomas Jefferson's own vanilla ice cream. Now, I can imagine having ice cream as I watch those red coats run for their ships.

Our South Dakota road trip really helped us get a full picture of this incredible “State of Great.”