Be Present: In Awe of the Black Hills

We’ve been without any reliable internet service for several days. So I’m going to try to go back and catch you up on what we’ve been up to. Forgive me if this one is a little long! If you are new to our adventures, you can read about how the trip came about and then our first day on the road before you read about our newest adventures below.

Day 2 – Our First Detour

Day 2 saw us traveling from Eureka, Missouri into Iowa. Somewhere about the middle of our driving day I saw a sign for Omaha, Nebraska. It set off an internal struggle between sticking to the plan and heading towards our destination and going off script. The best laid plans, right? It was only day 2 and I was already making changes to our route. Oh well, that’s the point of all of this, isn’t it? So, with a little help from my husband who had been left behind at home, I reset our Waze destination to a KOA outside of Omaha.

In Awe of the Black Hills - Our Visit to Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

Day 3 – Omaha, Nebraska

We spent Day 3 at the Omaha Zoo. To say that is was impressive is a complete understatement. We started our day in the desert dome where a zoo docent spend a good 20 minutes engaging the kids in a discussion about different types of deserts.

Snow Leopards

Delaney is a fan of any large cat, and was delighted to spend some time watching a 3 month old female leopard cub exploring her enclosure. Once again, a docent was on hand to engage the kids and help me make it a true learning experience. We learned all about the toys the cats are given, and how they play and interact with them. Did you know that as a special treat they have paper mache artists that make paper mache zebras that the zoo staff stuff with meatballs and the cats rip them to shreds? No? Me either. So cool. Baby cat doesn’t have a name yet so we’ll be watching the zoo website for that announcement when it comes.

In Awe of the Black Hills - Penguins at the Henry Doorly Zoo


While we were chatting with the docent in the cat house, she happened to ask Caelen what his favorite animal was. After a bit of a struggle he finally admitted it was a toss up between turtles and penguins. He lit up like a Christmas tree when she told him that there were actually two different penguin exhibits at the zoo. The very last building we went in was the aquarium, which houses a flock of 85 penguins, of three different species. These guys were truly fascinating to watch and we spent the better part of an hour there.

Somehow we managed to time it just perfect that we were able watch the penguins getting their afternoon feeding. We learned that the zoo uses a color coded armband system to tell each penguin apart, and that they record how many fish each penguin eats at every feeding. Did you know that you can station train penguins? When the zoo keepers come out with the buckets of fish, each breed of penguin goes to a different spot in the habitat and waits patiently for their turn to eat. We also managed to spot the two 8 month old rockhopper penguins in the flock. They were identifiable by a green or pink armband, which was different from the white (female) and black (male) that the rest of the flock wears.

In Awe of the Black Hills - Watching the Penguins swim

Day 4 – Driving from Omaha to Badlands, South Dakota

Day 4 was a driving day. The longest one we’ve had yet as we traveled from Omaha, Nebraska to Badlands, South Dakota. We passed a lot of corn. Miles and miles of corn. Gradually, the scenery shifted, and the colors changed. The corn gave out to large plots of cattle land and horses. We started to see the rock formations about two hours out from our campsite. It had been 40 degrees when we left Omaha, and it was 96 when we arrived at our campsite in Badlands. After a quick camp set up, we hit the pool to cool off.

In Awe of the Black Hills - Badlands National Park

Day 5 – Badlands National Park

We got started early, and spend the morning of day 5 at Badlands National Park. To say it was awe inspiring would be an understatement. We started off with a quick trip to the ranger station to pick up our Junior Ranger booklets and hit the trail.

Notch Trail

The ranger recommended the Notch Trail as something we could all enjoy as our first hike of this trip. It is a 1.5 mile down and back (meaning it doesn’t loop, you come out the same way you go in), but it has a beautiful wooden climbing ladder in place as part of the trail. I’m including this photo that I borrowed from the internet because I didn’t take my phone with me on the hike, only my good camera, and I haven’t managed to figure out how to load those photos to here from my iPad – which is why you’re getting crappy photos, I promise when I get home that I’ll upload the good ones somewhere.

In Awe of the Black Hills - Notch Trail
Photo credit:

Caelen scaled this thing without giving it a second thought. Delaney was much more thoughtful about it, and fretted a bit, but in the end managed to make it up and feel really good about her accomplishments. It’s about this time that I told her that she was going to have to go back down at some point. She was not amused. In the end, we all made it up, and back down, and even managed to enjoy it.

Saddle Pass Trail

Our next stop was Saddle Pass trail which is a half mile trail at a very steep incline. Caelen earned his nickname, spider monkey, as he scaled the path without a second glance. At one point, he even came back down to check on Delaney and I because we were moving too slow. Delaney made it about halfway up before deciding the path was too steep and her footing unsure. I went another ways up in an attempt to keep both of my children (who were now going in different directions) in my sights. Eventually stopping and watching Caelen go up to the top, and Delaney go back down.

We spent some time driving the scenic loop before heading back to the ranger station to have lunch and work on our Junior Ranger books. Both kids successfully completed the required exercises were sworn in by the ranger on duty.

Driving to Mount Rushmore

It was about this time that we decided to head towards Mt. Rushmore, which is about 90 miles away. A nice car trip in the A/C would be enjoyed by all. We took the longer route, in order to drive the entire length of the badlands wall. I highly recommend this. The views were breathtaking. We stopped several times for pictures, and it was capped off when we hit the prairie land and saw hundreds of prairie dog mounds and tons of the little guys hanging out or scurrying about. (By day 7 the prairie dogs are old hat but on that first day, we were thrilled with our wildlife spotting.) On the way out of the park we also spotted both male and female big horned sheep!

As we got closer to Mt. Rushmore we were tempted by Custer State Park. A conversation with a fellow camper the night before had told us it was a great way to see the Bison. Knowing Mt. Rushmore was open until 11:30 PM, and that I really wanted to see it light up at night, we took the fork in the road and headed for the Bison.

Custer State Park

When you enter Custer State Park there is a wildlife center right before the turn off for the wilderness loop. It is almost solely dedicated to the buffalo herd at Custer State Park. We were able to feel the Bison fur and hide, as well as learn about the danger zone when it came to these giant creatures. Custer State Park states that a safe viewing distance is 300 ft. Between 300 ft and 150 ft you are in the guarded zone, and should be aware. 150-75 feet is the extreme caution zone and should be avoided, and within 75 feet is the danger zone (remember this, it’s important later). Also in this wildlife center, is a giant map that shows all of the roads and paths in the park. There is a small replica of Mt. Rushmore and one of Crazy Horse. It also has bison statues roughly where they have been spotted that day. The map currently showed 2 herds, one on each side of the loop. Off we went.

We saw deer, more prairie dogs, and lots of birds. The drive was beautiful. About 30 minutes in, we came up over a crest and there on the right hand side were the Bison. So many Bison. They were on either side of a small gravel road that was an offshoot of the wilderness loop. The sign read public access allowed, so of course we had to get closer. We were told to stay in our car and not get too close.

We pulled up behind two other cars who had made the same decision we did and watched. The herd moved around us, made grunts and calls, and it was really amazing. Then the other cars came. Some of them drove past us to get closer and into the herd. Some parked behind us. It was at about this point that I watch the people in the car behind me get out  of their car and walk to within 15 feet of a giant male bison. It is possible I taught my kids a few new words while I called these people all sorts of names. When I told my husband this story he said I should have honked my horn and watched the outcome. Regardless we took some amazing pictures from the safety of our car.

In Awe of the Black Hills - Bison in Custer State Park

We also met this guy on the wilderness loop in Custer. While I was taking a photo of one of his friends, he decided to stick his head in my window and bite off the adhjuster knob for my air conditioning vent. Thanks dude.

In Awe of the Black Hills - Mule in Custer State Park

The drive to Mt. Rushmore through Custer State Park was a beautiful one. We went through a few one lane tunnels cut out of the rock wall. We drove Needles Highway up 6000 feet and saw the eye of the needle. We managed to catch another glimpse of a large male buffalo (bison) off on his own, and also some some coyotes and deer on our way down.

We arrived at Mt. Rushmore just in time for the rain to start. So we picked up our Junior Ranger books and got those completed and high tailed it back to our campground to make sure our tent and belongings stayed dry, with the promise to go back the next day.

Day 6 – Badlands to Rapid City, South Dakota

Day 6 started bright and early with the drive back to Rapid City from Badlands. If I had it to do again, I would have stayed somewhere closer to Mt. Rushmore and had Badlands National Park be the day trip. They looked closer on the map!

In Awe of the Black Hills - Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park

After breakfast, our first stop was Wind Cave National Park. On the drive into Wind Cave National Park we saw the bison herd that live there. We learned that the bison herd at WCNP is one of the purest herds in existence with no cattle DNA in their lines.

Wind Cave was one Caelen had been looking forward to, and he chose to do the longer guided tour into the cave, called the Natural Entrance Tour. It’s about a 1.5-2 hour walking tour that descends 300 steps and roughly 200 feet. The Wind Cave is currently the 6th longest cave in the world with over 140 explored miles. There is no known end to the cave, and it is currently still being explored. When I think of caves I think of stalactites and stalagmites. But Wind Cave doesn’t have enough water to create them. Instead it has something called boxwork which has almost a honeycomb like appearance. Do a search for an image online, it’s seriously cool stuff.

The tour started with the ranger taking us to the original hole that was the discovery of the cave and sharing the story of how it was discovered. Our Ranger was super engaging and the kids loved it. Caelen managed to make his way to the front of the tour, and at one point the ranger gave him the flashlight and let him lead. This was all it took to start the chatter and the questions.

We learned about the original brothers that discovered the cave. And the young boy who took it upon himself to map out parts of it and start giving guided tours by candlelight. The Ranger told a story about a group of visitors who were left in the cave overnight, and turned out all of the lights so we could experience what that must have been like, if even for only a few minutes. The last story was the Lakota Emergence story, which is worth reading.

This is one of the most fascinating places I have ever been. If you come to this area, do not skip this place.

In Awe of the Black Hills - Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument

We followed up Wind Cave National Park with its sister site, Jewel Cave National Monument. We arrived just in time to grab the last 3 tickets on the last tour of the day. Unfortunately, it was the short tour, and while we did go deeper the we did in Wind Cave to 230 feet, we went by elevator and only got to see the one room. It was beautiful, but it was anti-climactic after Wind Cave.

You should also notice that we adopted a Bison while we were at Wind Cave. Caelen has taken him everywhere since and apparently he will be making an appearance in our photos, at least for now. Most of the $35 purchase price of our adopted buffalo goes back to take care of the buffalo herd at Wind Cave National Park, he also came with a bag and an adoption certificate. Plus, he’s cute.

After Jewel Cave we took the outside loop around Custer State Park. We took a few minutes to view Crazy Horse from a lookout point and then carried on to Mt. Rushmore. This time, the sky was clear, so rain wasn’t going to stop us.

In Awe of the Black Hills - Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Mount Rushmore

The facilities at Mt. Rushmore are beautiful. There is a walkway leading to the monument where flags from all 50 states are displayed, waving high in the air. The columns on which they hang note when the state entered the union and what number it was. This led to some interesting discussions with my kids. In the exhibit area there is a tremendous amount of information about the sculptor, the Presidents who are featured and why, and the building of the monument itself. Did you know that over 90% off the monument was created using dynamite? George Washington’s nose is 21 feet long.

In Awe of the Black Hills - Mount Rushmore

As we approached the amphitheater where they do the evening program I was a little emotional. It was September 11th, the flag was at half mast. The ranger who got the program started did a great job. She was enthusiastic and clearly loved her job. Do you know the story behind the Star Spangled Banner? I mean, we all know the basics, but what about the specifics? Francis Scott Key boarded a British ship to try to secure the release of a friend who had been captured. He was successful, but they remained aboard the ship while the British fleet attacked Baltimore. The flag that stood above Ft. McHenry during that attack was the inspiration for the poem, which was eventually turned into song.

That story led into a video on the different Presidents on the monument and why they were chosen. At the end they did a tribute to all current and past military personnel and had them go down to the stage. After a tribute to 9/11 the flag was raised and then lowered and put away for the night. And the monument was lit.

Day 7 – Cody, Wyoming

It’s been a long few days. If you got this far, I’m impressed. Today was day 7. We discovered this morning that Yellowstone is expecting some less than fun tent camping weather this week, so we found a KOA cabin rental in Cody, WY about an hour from Yellowstone. We will bunk down here to ride out the thunderstorms, and take advantage of any weather breaks we get to go see the park. If nothing else, we have a roof, some games and WiFi to keep up entertained. Until next time!

1 thought on “Be Present: In Awe of the Black Hills”

  1. Sounds like your kids are learning so much. Children learn better when they are engaged instead of just sitting in a classroom. They will remember these lessons forever.


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