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Head for the Hills

January 31, 2010 by · 4 Comments 


Mount Rushmore National Memorial, courtesy of the National Park Service

We’ve been to a lot of places, but one of our all-time favorites has to be the Black Hills of South Dakota.  We went  to visit the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and ended up doing so much more.  Indians, presidents, buffalo and badlands – the Black Hills have it all.

Less than a day’s journey from our home, our drive was a pleasant one. There are lots of campground choices in the area, but on the recommendation of some friends, we chose Rafter J Bar Ranch as our base camp.  To this day, we compare every campground against it, to see they can come close to our experience at “Rafter J’s.”

Outside of Hill City, the location is beautiful, with rolling hills and mature pines all over the property.  There’s a wide range of amenities and many sites have full hookups.  We really liked the fact that we had lots of space and privacy at our site, and we were right across from the extremely well-maintained bathrooms.

Rafter J’s has a pool, a country store and a stable on site.  They also offer a tasty outdoor pancake breakfast.  When we weren’t sight-seeing, the kids spent their time on their bikes, in the pool or at the stable looking at the horses.  There were lots of other families around us, and my daughter in particular made a friend that she still corresponds with to this day.

In and around Hill City there is so much to do.  We started with Mount Rushmore and enjoyed it so much we went back two more times.  The memorial itself is awe-inspiring, plus there’s a wonderful museum as well as talks and tours.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park

We spent most of our time in Custer State Park.  If you take a drive along the Wildlife Loop and you can spy the largest privately owned buffalo herd in the country.  We made the mistake of going in the middle of a very hot day, so the sights were scarce, but we still saw the buffalo, along with deer, elk and the funniest, friendliest burros around.  The only word of advice:  Don’t go in the heat of the day.  Dawn and dusk are your best bets.

On another trip into the park, we took a tour of Wind Cave.  Navigating the narrow path and low clearances was a bit challenging with a toddler, but so very worth it.  WARNING: Spelunkers may never want to leave this incredible underground labyrinth.

I have to say our absolute favorite place inside Custer State Park was enchanting Sylvan Lake.  A calm lake with a wonderful beach area, it’s a great old-fashioned swimming hole.  If fishing is more your style, there are also boats available for rental lots of quiet fishing spots dotting the shoreline.

On our last day, we opted for a trip to Badlands National Park.  It was amazing to see the stark difference between the hills and the prairie.  Once in the Badlands, we felt like we were walking on the moon.  The landscape and formations are truly out of this world.

When we first booked our trip, we were afraid the kids might get bored after a week in one place.  But in the end we found there just wasn’t enough time to do all the fun things the area has to offer.  Maybe next time we’ll take a ride on the 1880 train from Hill City to Keystone, visit Bear Country, the Crazy Horse Memorial or take a trip into Sturgis.

So if you’re looking for a family friendly place that offers beauty, history and lots of fun  —  the Black Hills of South Dakota are a must see.


4 Responses to “Head for the Hills”
  1. K. C. Franklin says:

    My wife and I have been going to the Sturgis Black Hills Motorcycle Rally, in Sturgis SD, for the last 16 years. We have always have a fabulous time and love to ride the beautiful roads. We have stayed at Whispering Pines Campground for the last 10 years and have really liked the owners and camp hosts as they made you feel like family. The RV park was sold in 2008 and the wonderful atmosphere is gone. They don’t seem to want to participate with the campers and their particular agenda, like riding motorcycles. There was no Sturgis Rally memoribelia, no cook outs, no music (as in previous years) and nothing going on. The campground was half empty and we found out why during our visit. We had been there for 3 days when we had a friend come to visit late in the evening, so we invited him to spend the night. He had been there for 15-20 minutes when the campground owner knocked on our door and told our friend that she was going to have his truck towed. He joked around with her and followed her to the office to pay for his stay. When he got inside, she said “On second thought, get out of my park”. I went in to explain that he had just arrived and the owner started screaming and called the police, who came to the campground and told us we had to leave at 7:00 am in the morning, because we had an illegal camper. What ever happened to trusting people who had been there for 10 years? When our friend drove into the RV park, he was going to just visit until I invited him to stay. We had to have the police go in with us to get a refund, as it was obvious that they didn’t think they owed us a refund. This campground owner and her husband are not friendly and seem to have issues with their big investment, to the point that they are now losing money from the people they are running off. I would advise that you check the ownership on Whispering Pines before you go or you, too, might meet this “out of control” owner.

  2. Josh says:

    yes, I love camping in the Black Hills. I can’t wait for the weather to warm up so we can head out in the hills


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