End of summer SD road trip

Summer 2019 closed out with a family road trip to South Dakota — but did it really happen if I don’t blog about it?

We camped in Badlands National Park and I was amazed how after driving through sunflower fields and plains, the Martian-looking landscape suddenly appears as if a mirage. The kids loved scrambling among the formations; I couldn’t believe how wide open it was for exploring. We even caught the sunrise the next morning, after surviving a windy evening in the tent.


Then we drove to the Black Hills with a pit stop for pizza and a visit to the mammoth dig site in Hot Springs. We stayed in a cute tiny house style cabin (one of three) on a working goat farm, Pleasant Valley, just outside of Custer. (I half expected Chip and Joanna Gaines to pop by, because the vibe was very Magnolia-esque but it’s a super sweet retired couple who owns the properties as a family business.)


We hardly spent any time there, though, because we were mostly out and about in nature the full two days.

Our first evening, we took a magical twilight hike around Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, which turned out to be a favorite memory from the trip.


We timed the one-mile hike around the lake at sunset, and the colors against the rock formations were breathtaking. The scrambling was accessible to the kids, but the terrain was rugged enough for them to feel accomplished and excited about exploring. We made it back to our car just as bats started swooping in the marsh and the sun slipped over the horizon. When we go back, I will want to stay in the cabins around Sylvan Lake because it’s also so close to Needles Highway, which has incredible views and nearby hiking.

Our long day in Custer started with a drive around the wildlife loop (we’re frequent flyers at Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge in central Iowa, so seeing bison on the road isn’t as novel anymore, but we found the resident donkeys!) and then an afternoon spent playing in a creek.


The simplicity of kids catching minnows, the babble of the brook and a hammock in the shade was wonderful, and an experience I will seek out more close to home. (We did in fact do this at Kuehn Conservation Area in Dallas County with friends over Labor Day.)

For dinner, we signed up on a whim to do the hay ride and chuck wagon dinner, which was a kitschy (they give everyone hats and bandannas) but fun opportunity to see the park in a different way. The steak dinner was delicious and the sunset singalong rolling through the meadow reminded me of camp.


On our way home, we did a quick stop to Mount Rushmore, had lunch at Wall Drug (natch) and stopped through Vermillion for an overnight (at a winery B&B) so Joe could do a swing through his old college town.

Joe and I took a South Dakota trip the first summer we were dating (12 years ago!), so it was fun to go back with the kids.

Road trip reads: Decolonizing Wealth (a critical look at philanthropy) & This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel — I would recommend both!

Low-light of the trip? We stopped in small town Nebraska to witness a parade –will brake for Hay Festival — and my phone decided to ditch me! I didn’t realize it was missing until we were two hours out! So, I was pretty much unplugged, which was actually kind of nice — except of course for all the times I borrowed Joe’s phone to take pictures.


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2 responses to “End of summer SD road trip

  1. OShea, Noreen


    Thanks for a great blog!

    I loved the pics—we did this with the kids about 20 years ago, although not to Custer—we will need to go back.

    I miss Vermillion and am glad Valiant Vineyards is still up and running. I have recommended it to many people.


    • Thank you! Yes, Joe had his graduation party there and it was fun to stay. Very affordable, too, considering you get complimentary wine and a full hot breakfast included. Could be worth a getaway!

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