We recently went on a week long vacation to the black hills area of South Dakota.

If there is one lesson to be had from our trip, it is this: Timing is everything. A close second would be: Expect the unexpected. Many of the most memorable moments of the vacation were the unplanned chance happenings. I'm sure the kids will remember them for years to come!

A little background of how this trip came to be: Shannon's dad, Bill, came up with a list of fun places to go on vacation, which was so similar to our own dream family vacation list that it was spooky. We all decided South Dakota would be fun... not too long of a drive, fun for all ages, and not too expensive. Bill rented the 30 foot r.v., and we did the rest. Rules of the brand new 2006 Sunseeker R.V. we rented: everything is covered by insurance but the windshield. If you break it, you must pay for a new one! We thought that was easy enough, so we signed our lives away and headed out.

We headed out after Lee got off of work on the last Friday of June. It was fun watching the landscape slowly change from suburbia to farmland. The three young ones weren't so impressed, though.

sleeping kids

In Southwestern Minnesota, we were treated to a strange sight: miles upon miles of windmills. They seemed to break out of the farmland like some creature from a low budget science fiction movie.


With a huge bang and a exclamation of "what was that?" in stereo, we sadly hit a bird. Being on a narrow rural highway, we had to drive several miles with the carcass on our upper hood before Lee got the fun job of leaving some farmer's cat a present. (Don't worry, the poor thing didn't suffer... it was killed instantly.) After that, we dubbed the r.v. the bug-mobile. The bird must have saw a real banquet looking at our bugged-out vehicle!

rv full of bugs

We made it to Wall, South Dakota, around 2 in the morning. After a nice rest we had breakfast at the famous Wall Drug. We let the kids look around a bit before heading off, of course. Here's Caleb and Annora trying out some of their "lawn ornaments":



Our next stop was the Badlands National Park. We oohed and awed at the strange, yet beautiful land.


kids at badlands

After hiking around the park a bit, we went to Rapid City. First stop: Storybook Island, a great outdoor playground for kids.If you look closely, you can see Annora in this picture... kind of a "Where's Waldo" type shot.

can you see Nora?

Alex pretends he's going to Oz:

Alex with Wizard of Oz characters

Annora loved all the horses and doggies. She had to climb up on each and every one.

Nora on dalmation

Caleb and Corbin were on the train most of the time, of course.

Caleb and Corbin on train

After we found a r.v. campground to spend the next couple nights, Lee and I decided to hook up the water and such so we could all take showers. (Images of Laurel and Hardy type situations should pop in your head here.) Anyway, the kids were less than thrilled with the bursts of freezing cold water that would shoot out between hot.

Caleb  freezing in shower

We got up bright and early on July 3rd, and decided to visit Mount Rushmore, figuring everyone would be there tomorrow instead. Wrong! Miles from the site we had to stop at a security check-point, which I never remembered having to do visiting here as a kid. The nice FBI agents informed us that the r.v. parking was full. We had to keep going forward, however, because the only place wide enough to turn around was by the parking area.

So we managed to get up there and turned around. As we were heading out a security person told us an r.v. spot had just opened up, and would we like it? So we were in by being in the right place at the right time. We drove through another security check-point, complete with bomb sniffing dogs, and parked. Then we were in, right? Wrong. Next we had to all go through a medal detector and random pat down! All to see a lump of rock with heads carved on it. We did enjoy walking the few trails they didn't have closed off. Everyone has seen Rushmore already, so I thought I'd just show a picture of Bill as Roosevelt...

mount rushmore with Grandpa's head in the way

After that ordeal we headed to a neat drive-through zoo called Bear Country USA. It was cool driving through areas with Bighorn, Coyotes, Mountain Goats, Elk, Reindeer, and others. Here are some of our favorites: The curly horns of the Bighorn...


The coyote that looks so much like our old dog, Valcor...

white coyote

The playful and frisky baby Mountain Goat...

baby mountain goat

Then we arrived at the best part: the bears. They were everywhere! Then another case of being at the right place at the right time happened: feeding time. A beat-up pick-up truck slowly drove right beside us, horn honking, throwing meat out the back. The bears all came running. Wolves also appeared out of no where to join the feast, all right outside our windows!

bears feeding


Our downfall was letting Annora go on the pony ride. She cried for "more horsey" the rest of our visit.

nora on a pony

While Annora got a much needed nap, the boys checked out the Air and Space Museum. Here's Caleb showing us just how big a B-52 really is:

Caleb next to plane

And the boys next to a 'chopper:

boys next to helicopter

On the way back to camp we went up to the Dinosaur lookout. The kids all enjoyed clamoring all over the dinos.

Alex and Corbin on dino

Corbin and Nora on dino

kids on dino

We ended our busy day by watching a deer nibbling flowers just feet from our campsite.

deer eating flowers

Then it was off to bed.

boys sleeping

girls sleeping

It was off to Wyoming and the Devil's Tower the next day. The boys enjoyed playing with their new treasures during the 90 minute drive there.

boys with their toys

Devil's Tower is the core of an ancient volcano. It also had a starring role in the movie "Close Encounters".

devil's tower

Today it is more of a climbers dream than anything. We got a kick out of watching the daredevils as we walked the trail around the tower.


Alex, ever the bug catcher, was excited by his new "friend".

Alex with a bug

We all took lots of pictures.

Grandpa at tower

The lookouts were breath-taking!

gang at tower

After we ventured back to South Dakota we drove down scenic highway 14A. Along the route we spotted a waterfall, and got out to explore it.

kids at waterfall

Marosa even had fun getting her feet wet.

Rosa in water

Farther down the road was a small dam and pond. It must be a nice spot to fish, we figured by the hundreds of fishing tackle tangled on the power line right above the dock.

bobbers on telephone wire

We happened upon the most wonderful campground to hunker down for the night. It is called Hidden Valley Campground. It has a creek running right down the middle of it. Which was great, because we knew right where to find the boys.

boys in the creek

We all agreed that if anyone ever asked for a good site to camp, it would hands down be this site. It was the cleaning, nicest, most kids friendly, yet peaceful site we'd ever seen.

r.v. at campground

We had reserved tickets to the 9:45am train leaving from Hill City, so we heading out bright and early the next morning. The train ride was fun.

on the train

The 1880s Steam Train runs from Hill City to Keystone and back. The ride last two hours, round trip. The train buffs in the family loved watching the engine.

the train

Along the way we noticed a bicyclist racing the train. She raced us all the way to Keystone and back! We cheered her on, and she'd wave back. (She won, by the way.)

lady on a bike

Marosa did not like the trip back, however, and decided to scream every time the train whistle blew, much to the other passengers dismay. From there we headed to Crazyhorse. The place was much too crowded and touristy for us. While there having lunch in the r.v. (we tried eating there... the lady looked at us like we were nuts for even trying to get seating for 7. The waiting list was about 20 pages long.)we heard a loud kaboom and saw the monument smoking.

crazy horse

After we thought about it a bit, though, we figured they hadn't really done anything to it, they probably just do "stunt blasts" every couple hours to make it look like they still working on it.

From there we headed to Custer State Park. It was great scouting for wildlife as we slowly drove on the winding roads in the park. We saw prairie dogs,

prairie dogs

mule deer,

mule deer

and pronghorn. This one was right next to the road, viciously rubbing his head in a batch of wildflowers. When he looked up, I snapped a picture, complete with his tiara of shrubbery.


But we wanted to see the animal everyone comes to see, the buffalo. As the winds picked up and the sun veiled itself in thick clouds we finally came to the open prairie. The buffalo were everywhere!


nursing buffalo

As we kept snapping pictures of the magnificent herd, the clouds reached down, seeming to touch the herd at times.

storm clouds

As the thunder starting rolling, the boys started looking a bit worried.

boys looking scared

Soon after, the rain started, driving the buffalo away.

buffalo in rain

Then the rain gave way to hail. The noise in the r.v. was deafening. We eventually pulled over to wait the storm out. It just went on and on.

hail on road

After about an hour, the hail slowly let up. As we drove on, the landscape gave way to fog. It quickly enveloped us as we pulled into the visitors center.


As snowplows worked on the roads, we marveled at our timing once again. From there we found another place to hook up the r.v. for the night. It had a cute little lake with lots of ducks and fish to feed.

ducks and fish

The next day was Wednesday, our last day before the journey home. We decided to check out the Mammoth Dig. It is a real archaeological dig site. They say about 26,000 years ago a sink hole formed, trapping animals that jumped in for a drink. The crew leaves the bones where they dig them up. So far they have uncovered over 50 mammoth remains, as well as other early mammals. It was a really neat learning experience.

mammoth dig site

They sure are bigger than today's elephant!


Alex thought the American lion skeleton was cool.

Alex with lion

It was getting to be quite a hot day, so we thought we'd go someplace cool next. Wind Cave sounded like just the thing! Here's Marosa in her front-pack:

Rosa in front pack

The cave was really cool, in both meanings of the word. It has the most "box work" formations of any cave in the world.

cave formations

gang in cave

After wearing ourselves out on the 450 stairs on the tour, we found a fun place to spend our last night: the Flintstones. The kids had never heard of Fred, Barney, Wilma, or the like, but they had fun, non the less.



After one last sleep in the cool black hills night air, it was time to start the long drive home. We drove through Custer Park one last time, stopping there for breakfast and a quick walk around a lake.

gang at lake

Even if she is a terror, Annora still looks so cute in pictures!


We enjoyed watching a duck and her friend turtle sun bathing.

duck and turtle

We went home a different way, stopping at Pierre, the Capitol, for lunch and a quick explore of the kids aquarium there. The kids had a blast! Here's Corbin and Annora "fishing".

Corbin and Nora at the museum

The landscape soon became nothing but a never ending sea of farmland.


Soon we had to slow way down and wait to pass a huge combine tractor. Then another. And another. Then, while waiting to pass another, a house came driving by. And I thought traffic around our house was bad!

house going down the road

We entered Minnesota at dusk, being treated to a beautiful cloud display.


As Lee and Bill drove the r.v. back to the rental, a crack appeared on the windshield, growing as they drove. Whether it was from the bird or hail or something else, we'll never know. One thing's for sure, this vacation was full of the unexpected!

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