Follow Our Trail: Experiencing South Dakota with Your Toddler

A couple of years ago we decided it was time to head back to western South Dakota for vacation. Kyle and I hadn’t been there since we were kids and we wanted to see everything we could with fresh eyes.

B had just turned 2 and we had faith she’d handle the trip with ease. Anxious to get a trip in before I hit the 3rd trimester with growing baby L, we started planning and hit the road.

I put together a list of all of the places we experienced for those of you itching for a toddler friendly vacation. We had a great time… partially because we didn’t run out of snacks and we made B’s nap time a priority.

Naps: the single most important thing to remember to do when you’re on vacation with babies & toddlers. Do. Not. Forget. This.

Ready?! Happy trails, friends!

[Links to all of the sites we experienced are listed at the end of this post.]


Badlands National Park and Surrounding Area

1880 Town

If you’re coming from the east on I-90, be sure to make a stop at the 1880 Town. It is almost what you would imagine given the title, but more. We kept seeing billboards for the town on our way across the state, and when we saw it we knew we had to stop. After driving 8.5 hours the day before and another 1.5 right away that morning, B needed to run. We were pleasantly surprised at how much we could see in this town. It was a good spot to take a relaxing break from the road.

Wall Drug (Wall, SD, off of I-90)

This is a great place to recharge and explore. Wall Drug and the shops inside seemed to go on forever. Our girl was a little sleepy (read: cranky) when we got there so we didn’t stay too long. There’s always next time for more exploring!

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site (off of I-90)

NEAT.

This stop was for us, not our toddler. It’s probably a good place to have your little one take a good old fashioned stroller nap. 🙂

“The park presents an opportunity to reflect on a peaceful prairie that once held the power to destroy the world, serving as a public venue for examining the challenges and paradoxes of Cold War. Exhibits share stories of the technology that made it possible, service men and women, citizens near and far who feared the worst, the call for civil defense, and leaders at home and abroad who led the world to the brink and back.” (NPS)

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is astounding. It is so much better to appreciate it in person rather than in photos. You can spend as much time as you want exploring or just driving around in the park. We parked in one of the first lots and explored on foot with our toddler. There were many areas that she could climb successfully, and she loved examining the rocks. She had become a rock/nature collector by the age of 2, so her interest was definitely piqued. We arrived mid-morning, explored, and then had a picnic lunch in the back of the car. We drove the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway next, hoping for a toddler nap (which happened, yay!) It was a peaceful drive and we were able to take it all in.

We kept noticing impressive areas and saying, “Next time we come here…”

Rapid City and Surrounding Area

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Before you go, check their calendar for special events and be sure to time your arrival for when it opens for the day. Mount Rushmore is a can’t miss, and you won’t soon forget its impressive nature.

B loved many things about our visit– especially the steps leading down to the amphitheater.

It doesn’t take much to impress a toddler!

Main Street Square, Rapid City

We loved this area in downtown Rapid City. It was the perfect mix of fun and relaxation. A lot to say about what this place has to offer, and it’s already been written. See the link below for more information!

Dinosaur Park, Rapid City

Long flight of steps up from the parking lot, but if your toddler is a determined one it’ll be no problem. Little ones will be wowed. Fun facts: the park was built in 1936 and has FREE admission!

Custer State Park

What a beautiful park. We drove the Wildlife Loop and saw lots of bison. Oh, how I love bison! Anyway, we stopped for lunch at the Legion Lake Lodge and took a short walk around the lake to the playground. B loved that!

Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for protective, dive-bombing Red Wing Black Birds. I’m telling you, an unpleasant feeling is when a bird flaps its wings aggressively on your head and your hair is down. *grimmace* Everyone that witnessed my misfortune thought it was funny… and it was, but mostly gross.

Wind Cave National Park

I highly recommend visiting this park. It is beautiful and it isn’t just about the cave. If you do decide to go into the cave, your successful visit depends heavily on your toddler’s mood. This probably goes without saying.

I know, I know, who in their right mind would take a toddler down into Wind Cave… where they can’t make a quick escape if said toddler throws a tantrum?

We would.

BUT…

We got there right when it opened and were one of the first tours of the day. We took the shortest tour. I’ll be honest, we got some looks when we carried her into the elevator.

BUT…

Our toddler had a good, healthy snack on the way there and she wasn’t close to being ready for lunch or for her nap. We prayed, crossed our fingers, and wouldn’t you know it? She behaved just as we hoped she would.

The tour guide was from Chicago (this doesn’t have to do with anything) and was so sweet to B. She had an extra flashlight and let her shine it all around the cave. It was an easy tour– easy enough for B (who had just turned 2) to climb the steps and stay on the path. At the end, our spelunking crew left the cave in excellent spirits.

It is possible to go caving with toddlers! Godspeed, my friends.

Reptile Gardens

Holy moly, this place was so much more than I thought it would be! We easily could’ve spent all day at the Reptile Gardens. Our 2 year old loved everything that this place had to offer, especially the giant tortoises and the prairie dog town.

Bear Country

“Bear Country USA is home to 20 species of North American mammals which live in large natural exhibits. While captive born, every effort is made to imitate a wild environment for our animal residents. Larger species roam freely throughout 250 acres of the drive-thru park. Smaller animals, as well as those younger than one year, are exhibited in the Babyland area. Visitors can observe these animals while strolling on foot.” (BearCountryUSA.com)

This was a really neat place. The animals all appeared well taken care of and the ones in the drive-thru wildlife park had the run of the place. Enter at your own risk and enjoy getting up close (from the safety of your vehicle! Phew!) Our toddler loved this experience.

Crazy Horse Memorial

“The mission of Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation is to protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of the North American Indians.” (crazyhorsememorial.org)

The Crazy Horse Memorial is a must-see. There is so much this stop has to offer visitors.

You can find the link to the website at the bottom of this post.

Old MacDonald’s Farm

Old MacDonald’s Farm south of Rapid City is like your local pumpkin patch on steroids. This farm is a petting zoo, and there were so many calm, well cared for farm animals for visitors to experience. Honestly, this place seemed to have it all, and it was a fantastic stop for B.

Storybook Island

This was such a special place. Free admission made our stop a no-brainer! It has “over 7 acres of playsets, free range play space, a carousel, and a train.” (storybookisland.org).

Storybook Island was easily B’s favorite part of our South Dakota vacation.

Sioux Falls

Butterfly House & Aquarium, Sioux Falls

We stayed in Sioux Falls on our way back to Iowa after our time in SD. We spent some time at the Butterfly House & Aquarium. The tanks in the aquarium were low enough for B to gaze into without us having to lift her up. She wasn’t too sure about the Stingray Touch Pool, but she enjoyed watching them.

Available in the butterfly house were fake flowers attached to a tube of sugar water that guests could offer to the butterflies. Even our two year old sat still long enough to “catch” a butterfly on her flower. She was swooning!

Sioux Falls Downtown Trolley

Attention Daniel Tiger fans! The Downtown Trolley was a major highlight for our girl. It was an informative on and off tour through the town and we learned some surprising history about Sioux Falls.


All of these sites are what we managed to fit in on our trip to South Dakota when our daughter was 2. We had a fantastic time and can’t wait to head back and experience more of what South Dakota has to offer! Topping our “Next Time” list? Deadwood & Spearfish.

1880 Town
Wall Drug
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
Badlands National Park
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Main Street Square in Rapid City
Dinosaur Park, Rapid City
Custer State Park
Wind Cave National Park
Reptile Gardens
Bear Country, Rapid City
Crazy Horse Memorial
Old MacDonald’s Farm, Rapid City
Storybook Island, Rapid City
Butterfly House & Aquarium, Sioux Falls
Sioux Falls Downtown Trolley

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Hi! I'm Kerri. My husband and I call Iowa home, and we have two spunky children and a very patient dog. Our little family is pretty much up for anything-- we love exploring and trying new things together.

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