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Trip Report Trip Report: South Dakota (Custer, Crazy Horse, Mt. Rushmore, Badlands), Cheyenne, WY, National Monuments in Western Nebraska

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Thanks to all for helping me plan our trip!


My parents (both 58yo) invited Hubby and me (both 30yo) to go to Mount Rushmore and see sites along the way. I am normally an uptight planner (see other trip reports), but my parents are not so I let them take the lead.

Here goes:

Day 1: Fly into Denver and drive to Nebraska.

Flight went off without a hitch. I sat between my parents, and we talked about we’d do this first day while Hubby watched a movie on the iTouch. Daddy is not a travel guy so Mother lured him away with promises of seeing the old west (he’s a farmer and rancher) and open country. We arrived in Denver at 8:20am local time and rented a car. First stop was Cheyenne, which Daddy wanted to see because of the Cheyenne Frontier Days history. We were told there were some good outlet shops in Loveland, CO, and since it was right off the interstate, we stopped. It was a bit of a disappointment, but we did find a Nike store for some winter running gear, and the padres found some birthday gifts for my nephew. I spotted an Ann Taylor and Coach outlet which I decided I’d visit on the way back if we had time.

After hitting the shops, we continued on to Cheyenne. We arrived around noon-time and were hungry. We turned off on Central Street from the Interstate and stopped at the Visitor’s Center at the old train depot. It was a lovely little area. We were directed to the restaurant right at the depot, and it ended up being tasty (sweet potato fries were yum!). Mother and I looked at a brochure which advertised a Cowgirl Museum and Shop so we ventured off to find it hoping to find some goodies for the nieces who are horse-crazy. We walked in and tried not to snicker. It was a very small shop that was less museum and more “hodge-podge-of-old-Western-knick-knacks”. It was a quick stop, but a good laugh! We found the guys and were off to the Capitol (Mother and I have a thing for state capitols). We stopped for a photo opp., then were on to the Frontier Days site, which has a museum.

The museum was very well done with the third largest carriage collection in the states (my Granny died at 103 years old and often told stories of rides in a covered wagon so this was special for us to see). After the museum, we went to the Sierra Trading Post outlet. Hubby and I always order online from there so we stopped in and bought some goodies. The showroom was surprisingly sparse, but you could go over to the warehouse and try on anything you wanted. From there we continued to Scotts Bluff, NE. There are three national monuments/historic sites on the west side of Nebraska so we thought we might as well drive that way and see them on our way to South Dakota.

We stopped at Scotts Bluff monument first. The visitor’s center was closed, but we got our pictures fine then we were off to Chimney Rock. I’m an “Oregon Trail junkie” so I really enjoyed both of these; others might think they were a waste of time (Hubby included----obviously he did not play the Oregon Trail computer game as a child!). Mother and I hovered around our Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail brochures, thoroughly enjoying comparing the two, while Daddy tried to drown us out with country music and Hubby returned to his movie on the iTouch.

We went on in to Scotts Bluff to find a hotel (Mother and Daddy insisted on “winging it”). Mother had her laptop so we bummed free internet service at the Days Inn. We intended to stay there (and book online for a better rate), but the lobby smelled so heavily of smoke that we booked across the street at Comfort Inn instead. Comfort Inn wasn’t too much better, but they did have a good breakfast.

Day 2: On to South Dakota

We got up and ran a couple of miles then headed to the Agate Fossil Beds. It was really beautiful out there. There was a helpful park ranger, and Mother and I have a thing for paleontology so we really enjoyed this site (I’m sure you’ve figured out what a major nerd I am by now and exactly where I got it from). It was wet out so we didn’t walk any of the trails though.

More about the national monuments/historic sites in Nebraska here: http://nebraska.areaparks.com/

It was on to South Dakota after that. We really enjoyed the drive through Nebraska—the rolling plains were so lovely. We arrived at the entrance to Wind Cave National Park about 2:00pm (after a pit stop for lunch). We drove through that and Custer State Park (http://www.sdgfp.info/Parks/Regions/Custer/index.htm) on the way to our hotel. It was an overcast day, and tons of wildlife were out! We saw bison, prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, white tail deer---it was fantastic! We checked into our hotel (Holiday Inn Express in Custer http://www.ichotelsgroup.com/h/d/ex/1/en/hotel/csssd) and were pleasantly surprised by how great it was! It is brand new (opened in April 2008 I believe), had a rustic theme with a rock and waterfall feature out back (which the open air breakfast area looked out to), and had a microwave and mini-fridge in each room (we had king rooms). The breakfast was great and filling—eggs, sausage, bacon, bagels, oatmeal, cinnamon rolls, juice. There was a fireplace and large TV in the breakfast area which we often returned to in the evening with takeout to enjoy (saw lots of deer in the morning and evening through the big windows).

After we unloaded, we swung over to Crazy Horse (http://www.crazyhorse.org/) which was very close to our hotel. I loved this so much more than I thought I would. The introduction film is very interesting, and the grounds are really neat. Unfortunately, it was an overcast day so we could not even see Crazy Horse “live”! No worries though---our tickets were good for 3 days (only could return once during the 3 days) so we’d be back.

That evening we had dinner at Cattleman’s Restaurant. It is right by the Chief Motel. Dinner was delicious and moderately priced.

Day 3: Hiking and Mount Rushmore

We took separate paths this day. My parents went on the 1880 train in Hill City, and Hubby and I hiked Harney Peak—the highest point in South Dakota. They dropped us off at Sylvan Lake (where the trailhead is) at about 8:30am. The lake was gorgeous! We were lucky to enjoy a sunny but cool day—perfect for hiking. I’m not really a “hiking-kind-of-girl”; I’d say I’m more of a “rustic-walker-type-of-girl”. However, this hike was really great. We took Trail No. 9 which was 7 miles round trip. We are in above average shape (Hubby above, me average), and it took us 1.5 hours to hike up, we milled around for 30 minutes up top, then a little less than 1.5 hours back down (I was curious about the timing of the hike so I’m sharing it here). I couldn’t convince my parents to join us, but we saw all walks of life on the hike---small children, young and old, in shape and out of shape. It was a great hike; the views were grand. I encourage anyone with the time to do it.

My parents picked us up about 12:30pm. Their comments on the 1880 train: they said the views weren’t spectacular, but they enjoyed the narration and background given. When I asked if they would do it again, they said they would for the narration and history alone.

We were off to lunch at the State Game Lodge, following the Needles Highway until then. It was a beautiful drive, but so winding, and so many cars that would slam on their brakes and pull over and almost cause wrecks. I get it; the views are grand, but please be cautious! Daddy’s nerves were shot (he was the driver) by the time we arrived for lunch (and frankly so were the rest of ours!). The lodge was a neat place, but the food was just terrible. We were told about the buffet and it sounded delish, but when we went to view it, it had a crust and film over the items from being out too long. To their credit, it was 1:30pm. However, the food off the menu was no better. Hubby got a club sandwich, I had a grilled chicken sandwich, and the padres had buffalo burgers. Sub par at best. We gave it a C- (which would have been an F but for the atmosphere). We drove the rest of Custer State Park and enjoyed the sunny day, taking snap shots along the way. We decided we’d take a nap at the hotel and rest then head to Mount Rushmore early evening. We wanted to see the lighting and didn’t want to have to go back that night---figured we’d go a couple of hours before the lighting and catch it in one fell swoop.

Mount Rushmore was grand, though a little less so when you compare the dimensions to Crazy Horse. However, that they accomplished what they did, when they did, with such primitive technology (compared to Crazy Horse), is spectacular. I love history, Mother is a former history teacher (again with the nerdiness!), and Daddy and Hubby are patriotic to a fault so we all really soaked it in. It was a very cool night, but we weathered the lighting ceremony anyhow. We’re so glad we did! The ranger made such a nice presentation, singing The Star Spangled Banner acapella (just beautiful), and the film they showed after her presentation was wonderful—telling why each president was selected and more. We are extremely glad we stayed for it (it was so cool out that we almost talked ourselves out of staying).

It was late, and we were hungry so we picked up takeout and enjoyed it back at the sitting room at the hotel, with college football on for the guys.

Day 4: Badlands and Crazy Horse Laser Show

We lazed around the room this Sunday morning and read a bit. My favorite thing about vacations---pleasure reading (lawyer in real life so usually the reading I do is not so pleasurable)! Then we headed to Rapid City for church, pit stopped for lunch, then were off to the Badlands. It was a bit of a drive (about 45-60 minutes from Rapid City, but I was so impressed with the pictures and really wanted to see it. We stopped at the Visitor’s Center and watched the film and perused through. Then we stopped to take the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, which is a half mile loop that takes about 30 minutes. It’s listed as a hike, but it’s more of a rustic walk (just my style). My parents both joined us. It was fine, but nothing spectacular. We then drove through the Badlands, stopping at scenic overlooks along the way. I must say I was disappointed a bit in the Badlands. I’m glad I went, but they were different than I thought. I expected the weathered rocks and stone throughout, not amongst the prairie. The pictures were more fantastic than the “live experience” to me.

After a long drive back to Custer (about 1.5 hours), we pit stopped for dinner. We were then off to see the Crazy Horse laser show. What a treat! We went a bit early so I could get photos of Crazy Horse since I missed them the day we toured the site. It was cool out again, and they had a parking area where you could see the show and tune it to the music/presentation so we got some hot chocolate and did this. The show was really neat. They told us it started at 7:30, and to be there by 7pm. It actually didn’t really get going until 8pm. I would definitely recommend this.

Day 5: Homeward Bound

We got up and ran along the George Mickelson Trail this morning---just drove out of town a bit and found the paved trail and started running along. Yikes—the hills and altitude killed us! Then we were off to Denver by 9am. We stopped for lunch in Cheyenne again (again by the train depot at a different restaurant this time which was even better than the first). We had time to stop at the outlet stores in Loveland before catching our flight (which was at 6pm). We did a bit of shopping then my parents dropped us off at the airport. They stuck around in Denver for a couple of days without us.

All in all, such a neat trip. We probably did it unconventionally, flying into Denver and driving and all, however, we were using free tickets on Southwest (and there really is no good way to get to Mount Rushmore) and really enjoy driving on the open roads and seeing the land on vacation.

Let me know if you have any questions and thanks for all of your help planning!

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