A Summer Vacation to Mount Rushmore

Aug 24, 2018

Having fond memories of our road trip last summer, we decided to do another one this year. This time our destination was Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, although, as you'll see below, it actually turned into a mini-Midwest tour, which was so fun.

My parents took my siblings and me to Mount Rushmore when I was six years old, but sadly, the only thing I remember is that I accidentally mistook someone else for my mom (they were wearing similar jackets), and I had my arms wrapped around her waist when she said, "I'm not your mommy, sweetie." It must have been somewhat traumatic for me because I can still remember it vividly.

Mike also visited it as a kid, but we figured it was time for our kids to make their own memories (and, in keeping with traumatic experiences, probably the only thing Ian will remember is that he was was bit by a dog at the Crazy Horse monument). 

As we planned out our itinerary, however, I realized that it had been over three years since I had seen my grandma (who lives in Nebraska), and I asked Mike if maybe we should go there instead. But "instead" turned into "in addition," and then we decided as long as we were going to Nebraska, we might as well go a few hours farther east and visit my aunt and uncle on the family farm in Iowa.

Here is a quick rundown of our itinerary before I launch into some highlights:

Day 1: Drive to North Platte, Nebraska
Day 2: Drive to Lincoln, Nebraska
Day 3: Lincoln
Day 4: Drive to Iowa
Day 5: Iowa
Day 6: Drive to Wall, South Dakota
Day 7: Badlands
Day 8: Black Hills/Custer State Park
Day 9: Black Hills/Custer State Park
Day 10: Drive home

All told, it felt a little long, but I don't know what I would have cut out because it was all so much fun, as you'll soon see:

As we looked at our summer calendar and planned when to go on our trip, my only requirement was that it had to be at a time when the fireflies would be out. I grew up in Colorado where we didn't have fireflies, but every summer, we would visit my grandma, and in the high humidity of eastern Nebraska, the fireflies would come out every night in droves. I just knew my bug-loving kids, especially Maxwell, would be completely spell-bound by these magical (could there be any other word for them?) bugs. And they were. Sadly, I missed their first encounter with them, which was on our first night in North Platte, which happened to be the night before the 4th of July. Someone had told us there were going to be fireworks "down by the hospital," but Ian and Clark were too tired to go. So Mike took the older boys, and before the show started, nature's own fireworks came out. Luckily, Mike caught it on video for me because it was a moment I'd long been waiting for. (And the next evening, when I caught a few fireflies myself, I felt like a child all over again and realized that this was one thing that had not become exaggerated in my memory through the years. Fireflies were, and still are, spectacular.)

Sharing traditions
This trip was a little walk down memory lane for me. Most of the traveling my family did when I was little was to visit my relatives in Nebraska and Iowa. All of our trips followed a similar pattern of the same routes, the same food, and the same activities. So of course, I had to share some of those old traditions with my kids, which included the twisty slide in Hastings, lunch at Valentino's, ice cream at the UNL Dairy, and a visit to the Henry Doorly zoo (which I'll talk more about later).

Exploring the beauty of Lincoln
But we also did things in Lincoln that I'd never done before. We went to the sunken gardens on our first evening (when it was in the upper 90's with 70% humidity, and we all thought we were going to die or melt, whichever came first). The next morning (after a storm blew through during the night and cooled things off), we went to the Pioneers Park Nature Preserve. I loved seeing a part of Lincoln I'd never seen before, and I had to smile a little when we were at the nature preserve because it looked like we were somewhere much more exotic than Nebraska. Speaking of which, I've noticed that people often give the midwest a bad rap and claim that, as far as landscapes go, it's pretty boring. But personally, I just can't see where they're coming from. I love the undulating fields, the big skies, and the lush greenery that make up both Nebraska and Iowa.

Visiting family
A big reason for our trip was to visit my sweet grandma (my mom's mom) in Nebraska, and my Uncle Bill (my dad's brother) and Aunt Sheri in Iowa. As an added bonus, we also got to see my Uncle Steve (my mom's brother), my cousin Michael (Uncle Bill and Aunt Sheri's son), and my cousin Karen and her family. We chatted, played games, ate good food, and just generally enjoyed one another's company. I also gave my grandma a pair of mittens and my aunt a shawl that I had knitted for them. Spending time with these dear people made me wish we lived closer so we could do it more often.

Henry Doorly Zoo
Even though the zoo in Omaha was one of my favorite destinations when I was a kid, it wasn't really at the top of our travel plans this time. However, on the day we were headed to Iowa, we realized there wasn't much of a rush to get there since we weren't planning on seeing my aunt and uncle until the next morning anyway, so we decided a trip to the zoo was in order. I had forgotten how truly amazing this zoo is, and when our whole vacation was said and done, this remained one of my kids' favorite things. (And I had to laugh because, without fail, my kids always love the snake and spider and lizard exhibits the most. If there's a tiny little window, they will look into it.)

The farm
My dad grew up on a farm in central Iowa, and his brother (my Uncle Bill) still lives there and runs it. He grows soy beans and corn, and it is a quintessential American farm. My boys loved it. Uncle Bill gave each of them their own private ride in the tractor while he cultivated the soy beans. Then they all went for a cruise in the mule four-wheeler, laughing and singing and just having a raucous good time. They played in the yard and the little thicket and ran around to their heart's delight. It was a gorgeous day with clear, sunny skies, and we felt like we'd come home.

The landscapes
I love road trips so much because they give you an intimate view of the changing and vibrant landscapes. As we made our way through Nebraska and Iowa and up into South Dakota, we kept an eye on the colors and the horizons and the skylines. And this world just truly never ceases to amaze me. One of the surprises for me was how much I loved the Badlands. I kind of thought it was just going to feel like a harsh and desolate wasteland (and, to a certain extent, I guess it did), but it was also absolutely other-worldly. The sharp, jagged hills and the segmented strips of color and the seemingly endless views just about took my breath away. And then we got to the Black Hills with its dark green forests and wildflowers, and everywhere you looked, the ground and rocks sparkled with mica. And because we were driving, we had the luxury to stop wherever and whenever we wanted and do a little more exploring.

Time in the car
No, really, this was a highlight. All told, we probably spent over thirty hours in the car, and although we had moments of crazed torture (you know what I'm talking about, right?), the majority of the time was so much fun. We took in the aforementioned landscapes, but also read books, watched shows (Pollyanna was an all-around favorite), knitted (me), listened to books and podcasts and music and our summer playlist, and counted the (literally) hundreds of Wall Drug signs. I love road tripping with my family.

Whenever possible, we prefer to rent a home when we travel rather than cram ourselves into a hotel room. On this trip, we stayed in two fantastic VRBOs, one in Lincoln and the other in Custer State Park. The one in Lincoln was a modest home in a quiet neighborhood. If I was led into that neighborhood blindfolded and had to guess where I was, I think I would have been able to tell I was in Lincoln; the architecture, the trees, the way the air smelled and felt was everything I've come love about Lincoln, and I can't tell you how happy that little house made me. It had a big window that looked out onto a fenced backyard that was perfect for catching fireflies in. Seriously, I was so sad to the leave that house. Then in South Dakota, we stayed in a lovely cabin right on the edge of Custer State Park. There was a spacious deck where we could sit and read and watch the deer, and it felt like we had the world to ourselves.

Sylvan Lake
This was my favorite spot on the entire trip, even though Ian had the biggest meltdown while we were here (think: writhing, inconsolable, overtired screaming where even random strangers were offering to help). It was just so gorgeous. I couldn't get enough of it. We went on a hike, and then Mike took the boys out on the lake in a canoe (while I sat on a bench and held a now-sleeping Ian). Seriously, when I pictured South Dakota, I never pictured this.

Once we got to South Dakota, there was no shortage of wildlife. We saw mountain sheep in the Badlands, bison and burro and prairie dogs on the wildlife loop, deer at our cabin, and bears and reindeer and wolves in Bear Country (which was maybe a little contrived, but still . . . ).

Mount Rushmore
And finally, the reason for our vacation in the first place. On the way there, during those many hours in the car, we all read Where is Mount Rushmore (part of the Who was . . . series). It gave a lot of great background information so that by the time we saw those majestic faces of our forebears carved in granite, we were ready and we could appreciate it. Someone had given us a tip of which road to take into Mount Rushmore so that you catch your first glimpse of it through a tunnel and then watch it get gradually closer and closer as you twist and turn in the Black Hills. It is a beautiful and impressive monument, and there's a reason why it is such an iconic destination. We ended up going twice--once in the late afternoon and again late at night for the lighting ceremony, which was emotionally patriotic, just as it should be.

At this stage of our family's life, I've learned that we need wide open spaces where noise and chaos won't matter, plenty of things to explore (that won't break), and a relaxed and flexible timetable. This trip ticked all of those boxes, and we came back home happy and filled up with good memories.


  1. It looks like it was a great trip, and so pretty too!

  2. I loved reading every bit of this and living it vicariously. I have 4 boys and a girl and it brought back our firefly-lit summers in Arkansas, as well as childhood road trips that I want to re-create with my family. (If only they weren’t getting so grown up! There’s still time, though. :) Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Sounds like a grand vacation! I realized this summer that my kids have probably never seen fireflies, so good for you for dealing with that in a timely fashion!

    Do your kids have "spots" in the car or do you shift around? I only had four kids for my road trips, so I always had a middle seat in between the car seats. And car seat rules were laxer in Utah so when we added in the fifth and sixth cousins we had more options. Although I guess before the mini van I had a sedan with three car seats lined up in the back for quite some time. (Even when I only had 2 kids and no niblings I tended to borrow an extra kid just to make expeditions more fun.)

  4. I just know that we went to the Sunken Gardens. Can't tell you when though. Also as a child you got to go to New York, Minnesota, mt. Rushmore, Bear Country, Nauvoo and other places like California.


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