Everyone has seen pictures of Mount Rushmore, whether on the internet or in a movie like North by Northwest (a truly great movie if you ask us). But like many sites, especially things on a grand scale, there is no substitution to seeing it in person. We went to Mount Rushmore back in July of 2000, which seemed an appropriately patriotic time to go and see such a national treasure. This was truly one of those great family trips that is full of wonderful memories for us. Obviously Mount Rushmore was the centerpiece of our trip, but there were a lot of other great adventures to be had during our trip.
We drove up from Colorado and through Wyoming and Montana before making our way to the Black Hills. Along the way, we stopped at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. We’re sure that most people are aware, but this is the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which is also known as “Custer’s Last Stand”, that occurred in June of 1876. Standing on the grassy hills, staring out at the open land, it is hard to imagine how the men of the 7th Cavalry Regiment commanded by George Armstrong Custer must have felt when they were surrounded by the warriors of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapahoe nations. The battlefield is located about a five hour drive west of Mount Rushmore and, if you are at all interested in historical locations, it is well worth the drive. It certainly conjures up visions of the true old west, not necessarily the glamorized Hollywood version of the old west, but the harsh and bloody west that was filled with as much violence as there was heroism. Over 270 members of the 7th Cavalry lost their lives in the battle, including George Custer and two of his brothers.
Anyone who has travelled with multiple children in the car, in our case three of them, knows that a long drive can be a trying experience. Especially back in the dark ages of 2000, before all of the handheld and mobile devices that exist today to occupy their time. As we left our home and made our way onto the highway, we turned to kids in the backseat and said to them with a grave and serious tone, “This is going to be survival of the fittest. We’re not going to play referee, so you’ll have to resolve any disputes amongst yourselves. If that means that there is only one child left when we reach South Dakota, then so be it.” Of course we were kidding (kind of). However, it turned out that despite just a couple of issues, such as the oldest child jabbing the middle child with a pencil in the leg, they were fairly well behaved and we all survived mostly unscathed.
We continued east to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, arriving as the sun was going down. The following day, we spent our time hiking around Mount Rushmore and viewing the enormous figures of the founding fathers carved into the side of the mountain. It is definitely worth taking the time to hike around the trails and see the views of the sculpture carved into the side of the mountain from different angles. Seeing the profiles of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln from various perspectives allows you to fully appreciate the detail in the work of art. Also be sure to go and see the Crazy Horse Memorial. Although not completed, it is still an impressive site and will hopefully, one day, be the fitting tribute to all Native Americans as it was intended to be. If it is completed, it might become the world’s largest sculpture.
That evening we decided to go out for a nice dinner at a local restaurant. On each vacation, we would always try and go out for one special dinner where the kids could order whatever they wanted from the menu, no restrictions. It is a nice change of pace from the fast food that provided the majority of our meals when travelling back in those days (we’ve learned a lot since then 🙂 ). This was to become our first lesson in “paying it forward”. When the meal was finished and we asked the waitress for the check, she informed us that our entire tab had already been paid. Wanting to thank whoever the generous person was, we asked where they were sitting so that we could appropriately express our gratitude. She informed us that they had already left the restaurant. We now endeavor to hold up that tradition, randomly choosing someone to pick up their tab and always ensuring that they don’t know that it was from us. It isn’t about seeing their appreciation, it is just about the feeling one gets by doing something good for someone else.
There was still a lot more to do and see while we were in South Dakota. While investigating things to do in the area, we came across information about several caves that are operated by the National Park Service. One of the, Wind Cave National Park, offered a candlelight tour that is extremely limited in the number of guests that can participate and takes you to parts of the cave that other tourists can’t see. So, we had booked tickets for that tour in advance of going to South Dakota, which we’re extremely glad that we did. We had some time to kill before our tour, so before going to the cave for a little spelunking, we went to Cosmos Mystery Area. It is actually a pretty interesting site where things seem to defy the normal rules of gravity. We’re sure it is all just an optical illusion, but it was fun just the same. From there, it was off to the cave (sorry no pictures to show you of this), where we were given a handheld lantern with a candle. We lit our candles and our ranger led us into the depths of the cave. Wind Cave is one of the longest and most complex caves in the world and has a unique geological formation on its walls called boxwork. The highlight of the tour was when, at the deepest part of the cave on the tour, the ranger had us all blow out our candles and sit in absolute darkness as light can’t reach that part of the cave. Needless to say, it was quite an amazing day.
So, we needed something to top that experience and we were able to do that the next day. We drove an hour south of Mount Rushmore to Hot Springs, which is home to the Mammoth Site. The Mammoth Site has the largest concentration of mammoth remains, both wooly and Columbian, in the world. It is an active paleontological dig site where you can actually get your hands dirty and help dig up some of the bones. Seeing something that old being discovered first hand as they excavate the earth and expose the remains is something that you won’t soon forget. For us, of course, it was about seeing the kids get excited to play paleontologists for a day and understand a little more about the history of our world.
We weren’t done with our trip yet, though. On the next day, we were off to Custer State Park during the day to do some hiking and we had booked a Hayride Chuck Wagon Cookout at Blue Bell in the park. If you want an up-close experience with herds of buffalo, this is the best place to do it, maybe even better than at Yellowstone. In addition to the buffalos, there were also wild herds of donkeys, who were very friendly, perhaps too friendly. There are also plenty of trails to get out and enjoy the great outdoors and we took a pleasant hike to a beautiful lake. The chuck wagon dinner was a ton of fun and they even got the kids, all of them, including the 15 year old, up and dancing to the chicken dance. It was truly the perfect ending to a very memorable trip.
If you haven’t been to South Dakota or to Mount Rushmore, you should definitely make it a location to get to some day. The mountains are beautiful, Mount Rushmore is amazing, and there are a lot of fun things to do in the area. We even found time to go to Wall Drug, which is supposed to be the world’s biggest drug store. It was a little hokey, but sometimes you have to look at life’s oddities as well. Most importantly for us, it was a time of family bonding and sharing great experiences. This was also one of the last trips where the entire family was able to go together due to kids getting older, making it an even more precious memory.