Who said family travel has to be expensive? This is the chronicle about a single mom who took her kids on a memorable trip across South Dakota for 6 days and 5 nights, for less than $1000, and stayed relatively sane doing it.
I recall vaguely our trip to see the Great Faces when I was about seven years old. I remember seeing no less than 5 million signs for Wall Drug wondering what in the world that was, then finally getting there and seeing the jackalope in person! I recall walking up the gravel path to Rushmore after watching some documentary about how it was made. I also remember my mom pointing out how pretty the Badlands were while my brothers and I fought Bowser to free the princess on our classic Gameboys. And so, that’s what I remember—along with a few threats of pulling the car over.
But oh, this would be different!
My kids would treasure every view, every moment, be so grateful, and there would be none of that pulling the car over business… Ha! Mom and Dad, I so get it! We drove, they fought. And every single time that we checked into a hotel, it was like a re-enactment of The Office episode where Michael and Dwight thought they were doing parkour, but really they were just jumping clumsily on the furniture and doing random summersault-like movements until they knocked things over. We pulled over at a rest stop and I cried—we all cried. Haha! But, I swear, we had a memorable and amazing trip!
In order to stay within budget, we stayed at a variety of places—some were a splurge and others were bargains. The splurge hotels had things to do for entertainment, so we didn’t spend any additional money on those days, and the bargains had breakfast!
The Rapid City Ramkota with water park
This was fantastic! The room was great, I loved the green space in the center, the kids loved the waterpark and we all enjoyed the hot tub!
KOA Rushmore Lodge
We stayed in the hotel-style lodge, but it also boasts of cabins, campgrounds, pools, splash pad, hot tub, water slide, bike path, basketball court, playground, a boatload of activities, and free breakfast!
This was by far our biggest splurge, but was so very worth it! Better for older children and adults, it had a “glamping” set up, where we slept in beautiful canvas tents right under the presidents’ noses. With the creature comforts of beds, linens, fans, coat rack, lanterns, etc, this place is a Pinterest travel dream! There is a food truck parked off the lobby offering the best smells you could ask for (I’m sure the food was amazing too), a game shelf with all the board games you could want, bean bag chairs, amazing coffee, a gorgeous patio with live music beneath the stars, a fire pit, wine and beer, and of course, no camping trip is complete without s’mores. The following morning was spent hiking to the lobby and enjoying coffee with the presidents! It truly doesn’t get any better. The staff was incredible, the experience unforgettable, and it was one of my favorite places and experiences of all time. I cannot recommend this place enough!
Here is a list of activities we paid for, and what we didn’t!
Badlands State Park
The $20 pass is good for 7 days. This was my favorite activity splurge and the kids say it was their favorite too! We got to climb some of the “rocks” and see the park at sunset—its best light. The surrounding area was gorgeous. I could have spent days here exploring!
$30 (4 and under are free) which is also good for a return visit within 7 days. Totally worth it if your kids are reptile freaks!
Custer State Park
$20 is good for a whole week. There was a lot to do, but our favorite part was seeing the free range buffalo herd up close (5 feet close), right outside our car window, and the drive through the park was incredible!
Free Activities that kept us busy and happy
They will beg for everything here so stay strong parents!
There is basically free hiking and trails everywhere!
This is a fun little pit stop to break up the monotony and a great place for photo-ops.
There are many gorgeous sparkling mountain lakes! They were absolutely breathtaking!
This is fantastic, free (or donation), and great for young kids.
We drove by it several times but didn’t pay to park and get closer because honestly my kids were young enough to not really care and I’ve done it. We also saw it from several hiking spots and where we stayed, that was good enough for us!
Crazy Horse was incredible to see from afar, and if I didn’t have the kids in tow, I probably would have stopped. This is a work in process since 1948 and would be fascinating to see how they are still working on it.
This is a fun little pit stop for little kids.
Saving on dining by taking advantage of the free breakfasts, free entertainment, and packing picnic food really helped keep us within budget. It made our trip possible.
This post was originally published in 2019 and updated in 2023.