By Jane Wooldridge
BLACK HILLS, S.D. - A hulking all-American woolly bearded bison grazes mere feet from the roadway, nibbling placidly on the grasses of Custer State Park. The burning temptation to pop out of the car for a quick photo is tempered by the beasts' tonnage and history: Despite their bulk weighing up to 2,000 pounds, bison have been known to spin and gore in the blink of a camera shutter. Rolling down a window is the wisest course.
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And there's plenty less threatening to photograph in this southwest corner of South Dakota. Pronghorn antelope. Eleven thousand-year-old mammoth skeletons displayed in situ. The graves of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Larger-than-life human sculptures at Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse Monument.
And perhaps, most impressive, the forbidding, jagged wall of shale upon ash of the Badlands - nature's boundary between north and south.
Add in wonderfully kitschy Wall Drug, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and the possibility of a Native American powwow, and you've got a family-friendly vacation where your kids can taste authentic American experiences, sans roller coasters.
Bonus: You can set up base in Custer National Park or Keystone and take day trips to area attractions. Most lodgings are chains low on glamour but fine for a family looking for a place to rest after a day of touring.
Here's a rundown on some of the area's family-friendly attractions:
An American icon, Mount Rushmore is the best-known of the Black Hills attractions, drawing more than three million visitors per year. Its presidential faces stand 62 feet tall in their granite mountain - the brainchild of a local historian in 1924, who thought a larger-than-life tribute to heroes would bring tourists.
If your kids are old enough, join a ranger tour and find out why sculptor Gutzon Borglum chose the four American presidents immortalized here. (Can't remember? They are Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt.)
Notes: The relatively new visitor center includes a casual eatery with healthy and kid-friendly food choices at decent prices. Facilities are wheelchair accessible. Special celebrations are usually held on July 3; if you're visiting then, book your hotel early.
Info: www.nps.gov/moru; 605-574-3171.
CUSTER STATE PARK
For out-of-staters, Custer may be the area's least-known attraction - but it's one of the best. Its 71,000 square acres make it the second largest state park in the U.S.; locals will tell you the only reason it isn't a national park is that the state claimed it first.
Wildlife viewing is the highlight. While you will likely drive through a herd of bison - more than 1,000 live here - or past pronghorn antelope on your visit, it's well worth the money to sign up for an off-road Jeep wildlife safari. Guides like Bud Pearthree, who has worked here for a decade, fill you in on just about everything you could want to know about bison and other park wildlife. And though they can't guarantee wildlife sightings, they do know just where to look.
Other family-friendly options include performances at the Black Hills theater, fishing, kayaking, gold-panning demos, geocaching, horse riding, ranger programs, horse riding, fly-fishing and mountain biking. Be sure to leave plenty of time for just driving around; the wind-carved needles in the park's northern section are simply spectacular.
Notes: Campsites and lodges are available within the park. One of the most popular is the historic State Game Resort, used by President Calvin Coolidge in 1927 as his "summer White House." The dining room cuisine is among the best in the area.
Crazy Horse Memorial stands as witness to ingenuity and perseverance. In 1949, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, son of Polish parents, was invited by the Lakota Indians of the Black Hills to create a monument to native Americans. But they gave him few tools and no funding.
The visitors who stopped to watch him work contributed from the beginning, and today the effort is funded through admissions and private donations.
Though Ziolkowski died in 1982, his family - led by wife Ruth - carries on the effort to sculpt the Indian chief. At 563 feet tall and 641 long, it dwarfs Mount Rushmore
There's no timetable for completing the project, but in seven to 10 years the family hopes to have carved away all surface rock to within 20 feet of finishing.
Notes: This is more than a drive-by. The visitor center includes a large museum, Native American crafts center, gift shop, film and eatery. For an extra fee, you can go up to the monument and stand on the ledge face-to-face with the chief.
Info: www.crazyhorse.org; 605-673-4681.
Early explorers found buttes and pinnacles of The Badlands a desolate place. These sand castles sculpted by time are a geological rendition of history: jagged walls of shale upon ash upon earth, remains of sea, jungle, volcano; water and sun and wind. Millennia ago, residents were caught in floods, and their trapped skeletons have made the Badlands a paleontological playground of prehistoric animals. Camels, precursors to the horse, and even a hippo-like creature once roamed its plains.
What remains today are the batter-like folds, spires and arrowheads of raw rock. "Pictures don't do it justice, do they?" says a visitor. Such declarations are common amid the majesty of our national parks, but the words ring true all the same.
Like most national parks, Badlands is easily seen from a car, along the Badlands Loop Road. But to get a real sense of the park's majesty, take at least a short hike. Don't miss the Fossil Exhibit Trail, where an easy path is lined with fossils. In summer, ranger programs are offered.
Notes: Lodging within the park is limited to camping and simple cottages with a restaurant. KOA (www.koa.com) also has a campground near the main park entrance. If you've got the time, go where few others do and drive south along the wall; it's a different but equally spectacular sight.
Info: www.nps.gov/badl; 605-433-5361.
Newly opened to the public, this historic site recalls the Cold War and the fear that led the United States to build nuclear warheads capable of blasting Russian targets 30 minutes after launch. The site is open Monday-Friday; free tours are offered on summer mornings. Space is extremely limited and reservations are urged. One missile silo is open daily from 8-11 a.m. in summer and is easily visited.
Notes: The site lies just south of the main Badlands entrance and visitor center.
Info: www.nps.gov/mimi; 605-433-5552.
Just off I-90, near the park's Pinnacles entrance, is Wall Drug, a moment of Americana snapped in the Depression years of the early 1930s. The owners wanted visitors to stop in, so they put up a series of billboards offering "Free Ice Water" to travelers ... and Wall Drug became a mecca.
Wall Drug has expanded from a small shop to a one-store tourism industry, selling Stetsons, cowboy boots, artwork, the best homemade doughnuts you've tasted in a few thousand miles, and - oh yes - toiletries. Even if you don't buy there's plenty to see, including taxidermied wildlife, silly statues of cowboys and girls, and an animatronic dinosaur.
The store also sparked a town industry, and now three blocks are lined with souvenir shops and cafes. Tacky, but charming, and definitely American.
Notes: There's a great (and free) play area for kids suitable for running off stored-up car frustration.
Info: www.walldrug.com; 605-279-2175.
If your kids loved "Ice Age," they'll be captivated by the real Manny, at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs.
Most of the 55 mammoth remains in this working dig-turned-museum are actually Columbian mammoths rather than woollies, but they're still massive and larger than today's African elephants.
So how did they get here? Some 27,000 years ago, a sinkhole formed in the hills of what would become South Dakota. It filled with mud that looked just like a wallow to the mammoths who ranged here. In they'd go - but out they'd never come. Not until 1974, that is, when a local developer was preparing to build on this site and spotted bones - bones that belonged to a mammoth. In came the scientists.
Beware: Your kids may become so entranced by the dig and laboratory that they'll want to come back. Dr. Larry Agenbroad, who directs the site, says several casual visitors have returned as helpers when they got older.
Notes: Hot Springs is a good hour's drive from Keystone; if you prefer to overnight there, the town has several chain lodgings.
Info: www.mammothsite.com; 605-745-6017.
The historic town and gambling center isn't quite as wacky as the HBO series, "Deadwood." Then again, Wild Bill Hickok WAS shot here in a card game.
While the idea of taking your kids to a casino may seem a little odd, the nightly recreation of Wild Bill's demise at the Old Style Saloon No. 10 packs `em in. The place is covered with animals heads and historic photos, including ones of Wild Bill - he's buried up on the hill at Mt. Moriah Cemetery - and Calamity Jane, who is buried next to him. After 8:30 it's adults only.
Just down the street is Kevin Costner's Midnight Star. The three-story operation is classic Deadwood: gambling, dining, bar, plus movie memorabilia to boot - well, to the killer boots Whitney Houston wore in "The Bodyguard." Children are welcome but, of course, can't touch the machines.
Also child-friendly is the Ghosts of Deadwood Gulch Wax Museum, which pays tribute to the town's past.
Notes: Deadwood is about an hour's drive from Keystone, on the way to Devils Tower (see below). The town offers plenty of chain lodgings; most have casino games in the lobby.
Info: www.deadwood.org; 800-999-1876.
South Dakota is home to several Sioux tribes. Most - including the Oglala Nation, based in Pine Ridge south of Badlands - hold their annual powwows in July and August. The annual Black Hills powwow in Rapid City is slated for October.
A few hours' drive brings you to two unique attractions, each otherworldly in its way.
_Devils Tower National Park, Wyo.: The signature notes from "Encounters of a Third Kind" are binging in your head as you pull up to Devils Tower, the distinctive granite monolith that's a favorite with rock climbers. You don't have to be a daredevil to enjoy it - and your kids will get a kick out of spotting wildcats who make the ascent. About 2 1/2 hours from Keystone, 1 1/2 from Deadwood. www.nps.gov/deto; 307-467-5283.
_Carhenge: Even the youngest car enthusiast will get a kick out of Carhenge, the whimsical auto graveyard and homage to Stonehenge. Located in Alliance, Neb., it's a 3-1/2-hour haul from Keystone - but not too far out of the way if you're heading to Denver. www.carhenge.com.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: The Rapid City airport is about 30 minutes from Keystone, a central location for visiting most attractions noted here.
LODGING: Keystone is home to several chain lodgings, including the Holiday Inn Express and Comfort Suites. For woodsier options, consider lodgings in Custer State Park (we like the Game Lodge; www.custerresorts.com, 888-875-0001).
INFORMATION: www.travelsd.com, 800-S-DAKOTA.
BLACK HILLS: www.blackhillsbadlands.com, 605-355-3600.
Jane Wooldridge: jwooldridge@MiamiHerald.com