Monday, June 29, 2015

Father's Day Weekend

Just realized I never finished this post and barely thought about blogging this past week. We are busy getting ready for family to come visit from Luxembourg (which includes getting some house projects done) and I've been on a migraine roll. Lucky me. Anyhoo, on to Father's Day.

Normally, we have a big family gathering during the Father's Day weekend, but that didn't happen this year. It usually falls on Saturday which is also when my city throws their summer community event, Parktacular (the event is all weekend, but the kid's stuff is on Saturday). We've never been there, but since we had the day free we decided to check it out.

There were some food trucks at Parktacular, but we weren't looking for hot dogs and sweets so we went to one of our favorite places, McCoys. I worried that it would be busy as the parade went right by the restaurant, but it wasn't bad. Once we finished lunch we sauntered over to the corner, sat down and watched the parade go by. For some reason I forgot the amount of candy that gets handed out at these things - I think we have more candy than Riley received at Halloween. It's a little ridiculous. Also, they hand out stuff that doesn't melt so I can't even 'steal' the chocolate stuff from her.

Riley loved this parade - not too many overly loud trucks (which she DISLIKES greatly) and lots of floats with ambassadors from local cities... or as Riley referred to them "princesses!". There were clowns, political and religious groups, musicians, jugglers, dancers, people dressed up as super heroes and Star Wars characters, and way more. There was even some random guy who rode a Cat in the Hat themed bike (Jesse joked that the guy probably whipped up his bike in his garage as he really wanted to be in a parade).

After the parade, we walked down to Wolfe Park and played at the playground before going over to some of the special activities. Riley got a flower made by a balloon guy who was a wealth of information about everything. He was quite interesting to listen to. Turns out he's a school counselor, but I would have pegged him as an educator. teacher.

Once we had the balloon in hand we checked out the animal area where you could feed animals and ride ponies. Riley wanted to ride a pony until she was on the pony, but she stuck with it. She looked up at me once, but otherwise stared at the pony hesitantly.

We walked past the wall climbing activities and the life size Elsa, Olaf, and Piglet (frightening in life size so my kid gets excited to see them, but won't go remotely near them). There were a bunch of booth promoting items and services and we bought an overpriced sticker book at one of them.

There was also an inflatable water slide and other inflatable activities that we skipped as it was getting late and hot. We thought about getting a treat on the way out, but the line was long and in the direct sun. I promised Riley frozen yogurt later.

So we went home, rested and Jesse headed out to his buddy's house for game night while Riley and I walked over to Park Yogurt as promised. Earlier we gave Jesse his card (which Riley proudly wrote all on her own without asking me how to spell anything) and a book. We usually get him 'dad' t-shirts, but I totally dropped the ball on that. He is excited to read his new book, which he apparently had on his list, but I didn't know about so it all worked out.

The next day we went over to my dad's and helped him install a new microwave over his stove. I took some pictures of an antique bed and washer that I need to sell on Craigslist for him and then we went out to eat. My dad doesn't need anything and is going through a huge purge right now so I just make him a bunch of food and that seems to make him happy.

I never feel like I do enough for this day, but I think both Jesse and my dad enjoyed it. I know Riley and I enjoyed spending time with two of our favorite guys. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Project 52 - Father's Day - Week 25


Some people have deep bonds with their moms, but for me I was always a daddy's girl. My dad has been the person who was always there for me growing up and is often the first person I call when I have questions about how to fix something or when I have big (or small) news. Father's Day is an important day to celebrate my dad, but really every day is.

I think I've made it clear on the blog how important my dad is to me, but I hope Riley really gets a sense of this too... and I hope she has a special spot for papa in her heart. Sometimes I wonder since my dad's a little old fashioned and can come off a little gruff (even when he's trying to joke around). I know Riley has a different relationship with him than with her other grandparents, but I know it's still an important one. She does enjoy going to his house (he has a piano and that big jug of pretzels!), and she always gives him a hug when we leave, but the other day she said something that helped me know that she really likes her papa. I don't remember her words exactly, but as she was getting ready for bed she noted that grandpa was silly. Really? I was worried that she only saw his gruff side, but here she said he was silly. I asked her why she said that and she mentioned a couple comments he made. Again, I had assumed she would have interpreted those moments differently so I was glad to hear that I was wrong.

I know time with my dad may be limited so I hope that his relationship with Riley continues to grow and that they end up with their own special bond. I want her to be able to look back years from now and and know that he left behind a lasting impact on her life.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Project 52 - Chalk Fun - Week 24


Riley's never really liked bugs, but has tolerated them... until very recently. Every time we go outside now is a bit of a struggle as she's so aware of every little thing that crawls or flies past her. "Is there a bug on my back, mom?" "Is there a bug in my hair?" "Is that a bee?"

This past week we went to the park and she wouldn't go down the slide because there was a bug, she jumped off another spinny thing because there was a bug. She just wasn't having fun. So we are working on that. Distraction, assurances, sometimes bug spray all seem to help, but she still is on hyper alert. I hope this passes soon. Suggestions welcome.

The other night we braved the elements to do some chalk drawing - a favorite activity in this household and we decided to have a little fun where I drew a picture around Riley. I thought Riley would freak out at the thought of lying on the sidewalk where ants roam, but she was pretty tolerant and, I think, distracted by this new, fun activity.

Makes me wish I had a nice new concrete driveway. Imagine all the 'pictures' we could come up with. After we got our photo, Riley wanted to draw a picture of herself. I helped a little, but I think she did a pretty good job of capturing herself.

Ah, summer... or almost summer. How I love you so... bugs and all.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Project 52 - Warm Weather Nights - Week 23


After a week of taking a gazillion photos in South Dakota (and then editing them on a super slow computer) I was tempted to skip capturing something last week, but when Riley insisted on watering one of our trees while wearing a fancy dress (just for the heck of it) it seemed like the perfect moment to capture. It's moments like this that I want to remember. Warm weather nights hanging outside with my girl is one of my favorite things to do. Plus, she often requests to water this tree. We only planted it a few years ago and it's already grown so much. I love that she gets that we need to care for the tree to help it grow - that she plays a role in that.

Just a few years ago I was watching her splash in her water table, then her small pool and now this. I love how she's growing up and becoming this young person - I want to hold on to all these little  moments because I know it will all move too fast.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Black Hills

A few months back Jesse and I started talking about going on a road trip. We've been going on shorter trips around Minnesota the last few years and decided we'd venture out further this time. I mentioned Wisconsin Dells and the Black Hills as options because I thought they were reasonable driving trips. I actually thought we'd wait to go to the Black Hills as friends of mine (Joni and Chuck) are moving there in the next couple years (they go out  there often as they are building a house and buildings for their horses... and we just missed them by about a week), but once we started talking about it we decided we wanted to go now. We can always go back in a few years to visit them and this will give us the chance to check out some items we didn't get to.

This ended up feeling like the quintessential American vacation. Maybe it was because this was one of the few vacations we made as a family when I was a kid, perhaps it's because we were going to see four former presidents carved in a mountain side and the guide books wrote about it as if I would be bursting with American pride at every corner, or maybe it was because travelers came from far and wide. We saw license plates from all over the country - and here I figured this was a trip that only people in surrounding states would make.

Planning - There is a lot to see and do in the Black Hills so we narrowed down our list to those things that we wanted to see, those things that we thought a five year old might like (or tolerate), and fun kid activities. No big hiking trips this time around and we even decided to forgo any camping. In fact, it was my forestry major husband who wanted to stay in hotels which I was grateful for in the end as there were some cold and rainy nights.

We knew we would take two days to drive there since there a number of places worth stopping on the way so we picked a location part way to stay for that first night and then spent the rest of the trip in Hill City as it seemed centrally located to most of the attractions.

We debated up until the day we left if we were going to take our Toyota Tacoma or the Kia Sportage. In the end the Sportage won out as it is a little more comfortable (more leg room), uses less gas, and was just easier to get around in (in and out of parking spots, etc). Later I would love having the smaller car when we were driving on narrow roads with a sharp drop off to my right.

I even requested the free South Dakota tour guide book and state map (two weeks turn around time - lol in this digital age) from the South Dakota website. Since Jesse and I got rid of our smart phones we really did need to rely on planning and paper maps so I was happy they sent this free of charge.

Day 1 

We left our house a little after 9:00 am and were in the car pretty much nonstop until Sioux Falls. We had mapped out a playground to stop at, but it ended up being closed for construction so on we went to Mitchell, SD and the famous Corn Palace before settling in Chamberlain for the night.

Much of MN and SD is flat, flat, flat... and parts of MN have hundreds of these windmills on the landscape. We loved seeing them.


Corn Palace. We had heard that the Corn Palace was in the midst of a major renovation, but that it should be done by the time we arrived. That wasn't quite true, but it was close enough to get a feel for what it would look like. I made this road trip with my parents and my nephew (who is only a year younger than me) when I was a kid and I remember this being so much more than it is. It was pretty much a big gift shop which we, of course, spent money at. There was a video you could watch, but after viewing the murals made out of corn on the wall, and perusing the gift shop we decided to move on. Worth the stop to say you've seen it, but no need to stay too long.

Cost: free, unless you purchase items at the snack bar or gift shop.

Covering her ears because they where doing loud construction type things behind us.

Photo by Riley

While there is a big gift shop in the Corn Palace you can also find them across the street along with this guy. I tried to get Riley to pose with him, but she insisted I be the one to do so. Photo credit: Riley


Best Western Lee's Motor Lounge. I used Trip Advisor to determine where to stay in Chamberlain. I'd been told that there wasn't really much  to this town, but the rest stop/visitor center was a must see. Instead we went up to Roam Free Park to see some amazing views of the Missouri river (also, pretty sure this is where all the teens come to drink and make out - I would). Anyway, back to the hotel. Nice enough place, partially remodeled, seasonal pool in separate building and even had a recliner in the room which was a nice touch even if it was old and the springs were somewhat shot. It was right on the river, but had no river views. No biggy since this was a one night stop for us. Based on the parking lot, this is a haven for fishermen and fisherwomen... fisherpeople? You know what I mean.

Roam Free Park


Anchor Grille. After checking out menus of various Chamberlain restaurants online we decided on Anchor Grille based on that it was only a couple block walk. There was a restaurant right across the street from our hotel, but it looked like it was just pizza and wings. Jesse was on a search for a salad and would soon discover that pretty much all salads in South Dakota are made with iceberg lettuce. Anchor Grille was ok. I'm pretty sure my burger was fresh and hand pattied, but overall it wasn't anything special. A group of regulars came in and Jesse was sure they brought in the fish they just caught to be cooked up for them. Earlier in the day we ate sandwiches we prepared and put into a cooler.

Day 2 

After having our free continental breakfast we decided to walk down to the river for a peek before getting back on the road. We had a number of stops planned before getting to Hill City, but didn't anticipate it would take as long as it did to get there. It was a long, but fun day. Oh, and I called my dad at the end of the day to check in since he was taking care of my cat, Lucy, and he shared that all was well, except that Lucy disappeared someplace in his house for several hours and after he searched high and low and stressed out about how he was going to tell me he lost my cat, she strolled out and jumped up onto his lap. (Otherwise, they had a good and stress free week. I kind of wish he would take her so he has a companion at his house.)

While my camera was always in my hand, Jesse had his binoculars and was constantly showing us interesting things he would find afar.

At a wayside stop. It was good to get out of the car and run a little bit.


Prairie Dogs. Headed west on I-90 we turned off on 240 towards the Badlands, but our first stop of the day was actually to feed the prairie dogs. We knew we'd be stopping at a prairie dog town, but didn't realize until we were almost driving by that this was the place. And maybe it wasn't... there are a lot of prairie dogs in South Dakota so maybe there is more than one prairie dog town. Anyhoo, 50 cents will buy you a bag of unsalted peanuts to feed the prairie dogs. All Jesse had was a $5.00 so we grabbed two bags and left them with a $4.00 tip. A small price to pay when you see the delight it brings your kid. Actually, Riley wanted to stay behind the fence initially until I pretty much forced her to stay at my side... and then we could barely get her to leave the place. Such a simple place, but a big highlight for our trip. I would totally recommend, but make sure to bring your bug spray. Weirdly, the bugs loved my husband's hairy legs, but stayed away from me.

Cost: free, plus .50 cents for a bag of nuts.

Thank you prairie dog for humoring my request to be a part of our 'foot' picture.

Badlands. According to my dad, we drove through the Badlands when I was a kid, but I can't seem to remember it. What the hell is wrong with me? How could I forget this awesome place. Just. So. Stunning. Be prepared for it to take longer than you expect at this park because you will want to stop at every overlook and your kid will want to climb every rock. My wide angle lens on my camera didn't feel wide enough since the views go on forever in every direction. These pictures don't do it justice.

Cost: $15.00 fee per vehicle. Good for 7 days.

Riley was uncharacteristically fearless and wanted to climb all the rocks.

I don't know where she gets this stuff. I blame cartoons.

See, there were other travels there from bikers to big campers. 

Thought we would try something fun.

And then it was my turn.

Wall Drug. There is no missing Wall Drug as you head up I-90 since there are signs constantly reminding you that it's up ahead for probably a couple hundred miles out. What is Wall Drug, exactly? Basically, a bunch of stores placed together sprinkled with a little kistch. This really did start as a drugstore back in 1931 and with a little creative advertising has become what it is today. I swear this was a wide, dirt road with some old style stores along each side during my last visit circa 1982, but I've probably romanticized it to be more rustic than it actually was. We didn't stop for the free ice water or the .5 cent coffee, but we did come for the experience. In the end, we also walked away with a t-shirt, an over priced can of bug spray, and a bunch of pictures.

Cost: free, plus whatever you might buy.

Now she wants to sit by all these statues... and make them wear her hat. The pose is all her. This girl.

I tried to avoid this one because, well you know, but she insisted and then got a little too huggy with her. Moving on!

You could pay to 'dig for gold'. We did not.


Best Western Golden Spike Inn in Hill City. There are a ton of places to stay (hotels, cabins, B & B's, campgrounds...) and a bunch of cities to choose from (Hill City, Keystone, Rapid City...), but we settled on a hotel in Hill City. We wanted something centrally located and with some conveniences. The Golden Spike had a pool, a restaurant (open from 4 - 9 pm), laundry (which we took advantage of), a fridge and microwave, and a free, hot continental breakfast which we filled up on every morning. Like the Best Western in Chamberlain our entrance to our room was directly from outside which I normally don't like (in a former hotel stay all the bugs collected at the light outside our room and moved in with us as soon as we opened the door), but this time around I loved it. It was easy in and out and at times we left the door open to get some nice, fresh mountain air in our room. Overall, I'd recommend this hotel, but there were a few very minor issues: the pool could have been a little bit warmer - it was just chilly enough for it to be a bit uncomfortable, pool towels were often not stocked, and the bed was ROCK hard. Surprisingly, this didn't leave me in as much pain as anticipated. Again, really minor things... oh, and this happens at most hotels like this, but why do they throw away your soap each day? I was still using that people -  it was still good!. Anyway, other than my nitpicking those details, we had a very lovely stay. Clean, modern, and well run - I'd stay there again.


Red Rock Restaurant. When we pulled in to Wall, SD we were hungry, but not sure what to expect at Wall Drug when it came to food options so we stopped at a place a few blocks away. There I had my very first Indian taco (taco fixings on fry bread). It was good, but could have used something - maybe a little heat. Anyhoo, I'm glad I tried it. Overall, the restaurant was ok, but I will most remember it for Riley asking to try a soft taco off the kids menu and then eating at least half of it. My picky eater had me floored.

Indian Taco

Prairie Berry Winery. As you drive into Hill City you will pass about four wineries. We chose this one because it specifically called out that it was kid friendly. Jesse and I had a few free samples (you can get anything from Chardonnay to Red Ass Rhubarb) and then ordered food along with a glass of wine. We didn't buy any bottles because I thought at the time we might go to one other winery and I would decide from there what I wanted to buy, but we never got around to that. The food was delicious, the atmosphere inviting, and the staff very friendly. Overall, quite a welcoming establishment. Oh, and they brew beer too.

Day 3 

Settled into our "home" for the week we could now work on checking off all the 'go to's' we wanted to see. I really wanted to plan out each day before we left, but Jesse felt we should have a general plan and go from there since we weren't sure how the weather would actually turn out. Luckily, even though I like structure, I can also go with the flow so in the end this worked out fine... but in the future I think I would have planned this out a little more partly because we didn't think about the cost of each of these activities and there were some activities that we didn't do, but would have liked to. This was a big day of activities topped off by some time in the pool and a trip to the grocery and liquor store which was conveniently located next door.


Mount Rushmore. It seemed appropriate that this was our first stop once settled into the Black Hills. It's the attraction to see out here, isn't it? OK, maybe not, but I think this is one of the many reasons people come to this area. It's really just four heads carved into a mountain, but it's also FOUR HEADS CARVED  INTO A MOUNTAIN. How cool is that? Gutzon Borglum is the sculptor behind this masterpiece - unfortunately he passed away before the final unveiling, but we all have the joy of seeing this. Jesse commented that he didn't think this would be all that, but was impressed in the end.

Cost: free, but parking is $11.00

Tip: after checking out the theater to find out about the making of the monument, the museum and the bookstore take the stairs down to the Borglum view terrace and the sculptor's studio. You can make the Presidential Trail loop or  you can be like us and take the Nature Trail back to the parking lot. This will save you having to walk up the gazillion stairs you just walked down. We did this in the morning, but you can come back in the evening for the lighting ceremony.

Custer State Park. After Mount Rushmore we decided to take the 67 mile loop around Custer State Park which includes Iron Mountain road, the Wildlife Loop Road, and Needles Highway. We brought snacks with us as we knew it might take awhile, but it turns out that it took way longer than expected. They were doing some road construction on the first part of the loop which meant there were a couple sections that were slotted for one way traffic. A 'pilot car' would lead traffic through, turn around and do it all over again with other cars. The first stop was about a 25 minute wait followed by about a 10 minute wait at the second stop. That part sucked, but the rest of the ride was nice. Not all of the loop is within Custer State park, but once in the park there is a fee. By the time we hit the visitor center we debated about giving up on the rest of the loop, but I suggested we stop to eat at the lodge down the road and reassess after that.

Mount Rushmore in the distance to Riley's left.

Food was just what we needed as it helped gear us up for the next leg of the trip - the Wildlife Loop Road. This was one of the things that I was soooo looking forward to. I wanted to see bison... and other animals, but really bison. And we did see LOTS of bison along with pronghorn antelope and some burros. While in the park I read in one of the pamphlets I had that you should remember to bring carrots and crackers to feed the burros. It sort of seemed weird to me to be able to feed the park animals, but what the hey, we had carrots with us for our snack. We could spare a few, but after we fed them I read in another booklet to ABSOLUTELY not feed the animals. So yeah, I was that person.

The next part of the loop was Needles Highway which was beautiful, but by this time we were getting a little tired so we rushed through it a bit (and I only took about 5 crappy pictures). Jesse drove the entire vacation (I offered, but he gets car sick easily so he'd rather drive) and driving was starting to wear on him this day. The final tunnel on this loop was closed so we had to take a detour which brought us right past Crazy Horse. We were originally, going to go to this the same day as Mount Rushmore, but by this time we were beat and just wanted to go back to the hotel.

Cost: $15.00 per car for a 7 day park pass at Custer State Park.


State Game Lodge. So far the food we'd eaten was so so (except for the winery, of course), but this place was different. Jesse and I ordered the buffet which was essentially salad and 'home cooked' food (chicken, pot roast, wild rice, mashed potatoes, buffalo stew...) and  were so happy that we came here. I'm sure part of it was because we were so hungry when we came, but it really was some good down home food (and the salad was mixed greens instead of iceberg - the little joys). The State Game Lodge is also a hotel, and has a gift shop where Riley got a stuffed doe (I was pushing for the bison and should have just bought it). The Lodge also served as the "summer white house" for president Calvin Coolidge in 1927.

Dairy Queen. After a long day in the car a treat sounded great to Jesse and I. We actually had to talk Riley into this, but I don't think she was feeling the best after spending her day in the backseat on winding roads. She gets a bit of the car sickness feeling like her dad we've discovered. She's also doesn't have much of a sweet tooth and, as usual, only ate a little bit of her ice cream.

Golden Spike. That night Riley and I ordered food at the hotel and ate it in the room while Jesse had some food we brought with us. The chicken salad I had was so good I ate it twice on this trip.

Day 4

After a long day in the car we decided to have a mellow day. Plus, we wanted to give Riley a chance to run around instead of sitting in a car all day. We drove into Rapid City for some morning activities and then all took a 2.5 hour nap in the afternoon. If I hadn't woken up we might have slept right into the next day. We also spent some time in the pool today and walked into downtown Hill City for some dinner.


Storybook Island. This place is like a playground, but more. It is considered a theme park and has 'scenes' from all of your childhood favorites, plus a theater, train ride, and regular playground stuff like swings and slides. Riley was in complete awe and a little overwhelmed. So much to see and do. She ran from one thing to another and when she saw princess stuff I think she actually stopped breathing. The awesomeness of it all for a little girl. We paid for a train ride for her which she absolutely loved. The train played a song that she sang off and on for the rest of the trip. It was another toasty day so at some point Riley asked to go into the 'building' which happened to be the gift shop. We agreed to buy her a book and a magic marker type coloring book which was a huge piece of keeping her entertained on our trip to and from South Dakota (we had several over the length of the trip). If I lived in Rapid City this would be a regular stop for us. Go there if visiting for sure.

Cost: free, but you may spend money in the gift shop, buying snacks or $2.00 on the train ride. Donations welcome.

While Riley was on the train we spotted this royalty walking the grounds. Surprisingly none of the kids seemed to notice.

City of Presidents and Main Street Square. After Storybook island we headed towards downtown Rapid City where you can walk from 4th to 9th on St Joseph and Main and see all 42 previous presidents in statue form. Riley really doesn't understand the concept of 'president' yet, but she liked checking out all the statues and posing with them. In the midst of this loop is Main Street Square. Here there is splash pad, AstroTurf, free public bathrooms, and a stage where they host performances on a regular basis. We didn't bring our suits, but still had fun cooling off in the water. This is obviously a hot spot for families as it filled up quickly.

Cost: free, plus parking is free up the three hours.

Even my 5 year old is apparently weakened by his charm.

Riley totally high fived Jimmy.

This is actually a restaurant and winery. We didn't stop, but heard good things.


Que Pasa. My friend, Joni, suggested a Mexican place on the corner, but couldn't remember the name, but we quickly figured it out. Her recommendation was spot on. I had the fish tacos, Jesse had the shrimp salad, and Riley had a cheese quesadilla. We were all quite happy with the food, plus the decor was really nice.

Love these star lights and have something similar at home.

Bumpin Buffalo. This was another place recommended by Joni. She suggested the Homesteader chicken sandwich, but I had the Road Hogg (pulled pork) and Jesse had the Prospector (buffalo brat with sauerkraut). I didn't expect much, but we both loved our meals. We walked here from the hotel (half mile?) with a storm on the horizon and ate on the covered rooftop. Even though we saw lightening close by, heard thunder, and saw a little rain, the storm held out until we walked back to the hotel. Not only was the food good, but it had a cozy and welcoming atmosphere.

Day 5


Crazy Horse. When I was last here the face hadn't even been carved. I vaguely remember the visitor center and can tell you there have been some drastic changes in the 30 plus years I've been away. My dad can't remember a ton of details from when we visited the Black Hills before, but he sure seemed to remember the story of the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, as he went on and on about him. This is a privately funded monument that will never be funded by the government. The size of it is drastically larger than Mount Rushmore and their mission includes things like preserving the heritage of Native Americans and providing educational opportunities. They have a long way to go before the carving is complete, but I assure you that you won't be disappointed. In fact, Jesse wasn't that excited to go see a partially carved mountain, but he said it was well worth it. We hopped on a bus tour that took us around the base of the mountain where we learned a little more about the project and got pictures from a different perspective. You may go online and see people gathered on top of the mountain in front of Crazy Horse's face, but those are special tours only done on the weekend when no blasting is occurring. The day we went was the 67th anniversary of the first blast and they were going to set off at blast that morning (to coincide with the very first blast time), but we didn't want to wait another two hours to see that (but it would have been cool). We did get to walk away with a couple rocks from the mountain (a small one for Riley and a large one to line our garden). The visitor center includes a video about the project, Native American heirlooms, items for sale, and a restaurant.

Cost: $11.00 per person, age 6 and under are free (or $28 for a carload - whatever is cheaper). Optional bus tour was $4.00 per person, age 6 and under free. Rocks were free, but they have a box for donations.

This was about the time I was last here. So different!

Vision for the future. Includes a 4 year college, three sided carving with lake at the bottom, and football stadium...

The original compressor.

1880 Train. Neither Jesse nor Riley had ever been on a train (minus the kiddie train at the mall, of course) so they really wanted to do this. The train departed twice a day and made round trips between Hill City and Keystone. It took about one hour each way with a 15 minute layover (to run to the bathroom or stretch your legs). I had hoped to be able to have a view of one side on the way there and the other on the way back, but it didn't turn out that way... and the view I didn't get was the better one. Oh well. It was fun, but not one of my favorite activities of the trip (especially since it was one of the spendier things we paid for). Jesse, on the other hand puts this at the top of the list. During different parts of the year they have special events like the holiday express or the wine express, but this was a pretty simple train ride with a little bit of a history lesson along the way. They serve limited food and drinks for a cost. Be prepared that there is no bathroom on board.

Cost: adults - $28.00, kids age 3 - 12 - $12.00

Ken the Brakeman

Lots of rain and flooding while we were there.

Display train - not the one we rode.

Shopping. We'd actually been picking up items along the way, but I wanted to call out Hill City's main street since we did pick up some locally made pottery this day for Jesse's mom. Previous visits to this area also resulted in a Harley Davidson t-shirt for my father in law (side note: Riley tried to help pick out a shirt and selected the one with the scantily clad, busty woman on it. Lolz. The sales lady chuckled behind me as I noted that grandma might not like that one).


After several days of spending all the money we decided to eat lunch and dinner in our room with food we brought from home and some that we picked up at the grocery store. I love eating out and trying new places on vacation, but I also just wanted a simple meal at home. During lunch we took our sandwiches over to the restaurant patio (it wasn't open until 4 pm for the restaurant) and played card games while we ate. We had the whole place to ourselves and the weather was beautiful - it was just what we needed.

Day 6

Another busy day that ended with us back at the pool. Most days ended with us back in our room after an early dinner and in bed shortly after 9:00 pm. This part of South Dakota is actually an hour behind us (MST) so it was like we were going to bed at 10:00. We just never really adjusted. We also often slept 8 - 9 hour nights (even with super hard beds), except for this night where I had a bunch of dooms day dreams (us driving over cliffs, rocks pummeling down mountains and crushing our car, and drowning in lakes). Needless to say I woke exhausted on day 7.


Devil's Tower. We debated about going to Devil's Tower since it was a two plus hour drive each way and we'd spent a lot of time in the car already. Not that it bothered Jesse and I so much, but a 5 year old gets a little irritated stuck in a car all the time. But Riley continued to be a trooper and rarely whined during this trip so we kept plugging along. This was highly recommended by multiple people so it felt like a must see for us. We drove through Deadwood on the way there and the road was all torn up so we didn't feel compelled to stop, but I've been told that this is a must see place as well. Also, on the way back we stopped during a rain storm at a gas station in Sturgis so I can mark that off my list too. It counts. Anyway, Devil's Tower really was a remarkable place and is considered quite sacred. During the month of June there is a voluntary climbing ban out of respect for Native Americans, but we did see about 5 climbers on the tower. We walked the 1.3 mile loop around the tower where we were able to view the it from all sides, see amazing sweeping views opposite the tower, and see many prayer flags that peppered the trees.

Cost: $10.00 per car.

Such a foggy morning - had to stop and take a picture.

Old MacDonald's Petting Farm. On the way back from Devil's Tower (after driving through quite the rain storm and the storm ceased) we decided to stop at a petting farm as we thought Riley might  be interested in this. We never quite know how she will react with animals and at first REFUSED to enter the goat area, but later was all GOATS GOATS GOATS. We know enough that we often have to ease her into these situations with some gentle pushing. This place wasn't very busy, but come to think of it most places weren't. It finally occurred to me that since it was during the week these places were less likely to be crowded and probably because it was early in the season. Anyhoo, this place had a variety of animals, some of which you could feed, and some activities like a train ride, pony ride, and pig races. Biggest letdown was that the goats were not hanging out on the bridge while we were there, but they were on the slide and the swing so at least we have that. Also, I witnessed the most disgusting potbelly pig while there (somebody get that pig a dentist, please). The staff was friendly and the lady working the register complimented Riley on her braid and me on my earrings so she got special like points from us.

Cost: adults - $13.00, kids - $10.00. We were also given something that allowed us to come back free within 3 days, but we never did.

Spent most of his time with his greedy snout at the end of this food pipe.

And the ugliest pig award goes to...

It's impossible to pass any of these up with Riley around.


Cafe at base of Devil's Tower. I'm not sure the name of this place, but to be honest, it's not really worth mentioning. It was lunch time, but we were brought breakfast menus. I asked for a lunch menu and our waitress joked that she had no idea what time it was. I ordered a BLT and asked for extra crispy bacon and the waitress assured me that wouldn't be a problem and then insinuated that the high school girl cook wasn't much of a cook so she'd probably burn my bacon anyway (also it was a weekday - why wasn't the high school girl cook in school?). We asked the waitress a question and she told us it was her second day and that she didn't know. Lol. Food was fine, but I should have ordered a hot dog at the gift shop across the street.

Golden Spike. Jesse was ready to eat food we brought with us again, but I talked him into the hotel restaurant so I could have the chicken salad again. We got there a little early, but they were nice enough to open for us. Our server could have been a little more on top of filling water and such... and maybe could have brought Jesse the rhubarb pie he asked for (instead of blueberry), but the food was good and convenient.

Day 7


Needles Highway. Since we breezed through this section a few days prior we decided to go back and check out just this area at a slower pace. I'm sure glad we did because it was one of my favorite spots. It was a little gloomy this day, but it didn't rain on us. In fact, as much as it did rain this week it mostly happened at night and left us rain free during our excursions.

Cost: free since we already had our Custer State Park pass.

Unknown lake

These burn piles were all over. As you'll see in other pictures a lot of the Ponderosa Pines die and litter the landscape... and can be very dangerous as they become a fire hazard. Crews come in and clean up the wood, putting them into these piles, to be burnt in the winter when they can control them better.

One day caves petrify her, the next day she's begging to explore them. Children are so confusing.

Ponderosa Pine are what give the Black Hills their black color - not the soil. The mountains are usually green if you look closely, but the bark on these pines start out black before turning a dark reddish color. Besides pines you can find a few groupings of birch trees, but that's about it. I thought this area was beautiful, but I have to admit I missed my shade trees. Not sure I could live in an area without oak, maple, even ash trees.

The Needles Eye

Sylvan Lake. So glad we stopped at this lake and wished we did so on a warmer day so we could paddle boat. This lake was created in 1881 when Theodere Reder decided to build a dam nearby. The rock formations and the serenity of the place make it look like something out of the movies. It's doesn't look real, and yet it is. Like most of the pictures I took this trip I feel like they just don't do this area justice. At. All. There is plenty of hiking to do in the area, but we just took the loop around the lake which is a little over a mile. Much of the trail is flat and paved, but on the back end you'll find yourself climbing over rocks. This is not a trail to be bringing your stroller on. The Sylvan Lake Lodge is nearby where you can get a bit to eat after you walk around the lake. We didn't, but you could.

Cost: again, free since we had the Custer State Park pass.

To the left of the this picture is a walkway that leads to a view bridge between those rocks. The water was so high it covered the walkway. We noticed a lot of this flooding around other bodies of water in this area as well.

Keystone. Keystone, SD is where you will find Mount Rushmore so it's also where you will find a ton of hotels, restaurants, shops, and the like. We decided to spend our last afternoon checking out what it had to offer. The first thing we stumbled upon was Rushmore Tramway Adventures. This place provides an aerial adventure park, zipline course and an alpine slide. We had spent some lazy time in the hotel after Sylvan Lake so I think I was feeling a little lazy, but otherwise some of this would have sounded fun to me. Riley REALLY wanted to go on the slide so we decided to do that. Well, Jesse and Riley decided to do that. I hate slides and this was a really, really long one. I did think about riding the chair lift up (and down) as there is a restaurant at the top, but there was a threat of rain (and no money back if that happens) so we decided that they would go up and come right back down. I thought this might be a little scary for my kid, but you could hear her screams of excitement pretty much the entire way down. From getting on the chair lift at the bottom to sliding back down probably takes about 15 minutes. It really is a long slide. Riley begged to go again, but she'll have to wait until another trip out this way. We wandered around Keystone and checked out a local glass blower a short ride out of the main town area and then headed back to Hill City for the evening.

Cost: free to walk around with lots to see. Alpine slide - including chairlift: $12, $4 for kids age 2 - 6 who must ride on an adults lap. Packages can be purchased as well.


For lunch we ate food we had in our room (sandwiches, salami, cheese, crackers, fruit, veggies, pickles, etc)

Slate Creek Grill. We thought about eating in Keystone, but it was a little early yet so we headed back to Hill City with the plans to eat at the Alpine Inn as it was recommended by Joni, but they didn't open until 5:00 and we decided not to wait a half hour (it had since started raining). The sign at Slate Creek Grill had some tasty food offerings so we decided to go there, but I sort of wished we went back to Bumpin Buffalo. It was ok and my salmon was huge (and prepared properly), but something didn't quite come together in the flavoring of it all for me to love it. Jesse had another iceberg based salad. 

Day 8

After a very full week my feelings were mixed about going home. There were certainly times on this vacation that I was ready to sleep in my own bed, but this was just a darn good vacation. We spent too much and it rained a little more than I cared for (but it wouldn't be a vacation for this family without rain), but overall a lot of fun. We got up fairly early and headed out by 7:30. This day was pretty uneventful as it was a solid drive day. We stopped for gas, food, and bathroom breaks, but that was about it. I can do long trips like this (just over 9 hours from start to finish), but I'd rather break them up like we did on the way out.

A few other notes

Sanity Savers

I wasn't really worried about traveling with Jesse as we just travel well together, but I always worry about entertaining a 5 year old on such long trips. Riley blew us away with how well she did this trip, but we also had some things in place to help with that. We specifically picked a hotel with a pool. Even though she's not totally comfortable with water, she does love pool time. We also let her have a lot of Kindle Fire time. We wouldn't normally, but it was vacation week so we were a lot more flexible. During some day trips we made sure it stayed at the hotel, but the trip to Devil's Tower was a long one so we let her have it. She often watched Netflix at night and we didn't stress about her staying up too late. She usually stays up late reading at home so we just let it go. We brought lots of books, some of her toys and a few magic marker coloring books which she soaked right up. Oh, and we bought this laptop support thingy so she could color and read comfortably in the car.

Photography Notes

I took most pictures with my Nikon D7100, a few with my Sony point and shoot, some with my smartphone that's not a phone that I would then share on Instagram when I was hooked up to wifi at the hotel and I took one picture on my cell phone which I texted to grandma... and she never received. So yeah, I basically had 4 cameras with me at all times. With my big camera I used my zoom lens (18-70 mm) and my wide angle (12-24 mm) which I rarely use at home, but they were well suited for the views we saw here. I cleaned my lenses well, but noticed some frustrating spots from the wide angle pictures that I've noticed in the past so I need to explore that more. One of my goals was to get a shot of the stars while here (just hard to do near my house since I live so close to city lights), but each night was cloudy so that didn't happen. Big bummer, but now I know that I've done my research I am ready when the opportunity comes around. I took over 1200 pictures and ended up with just over 260 that I edited. I usually love editing, but got to the point this week that I didn't want to pick up my camera for a long time (but am already over that) or edit any more pictures. On the bright side, I learned how to batch edit so that made it slightly less frustrating this week.

Next Time

It may seem like we did a lot in the Black Hills, and we did, but there really is so much here that I can see us coming back when Riley's a little older. I think the biggest thing I'd want to do is hike and go paddle boating or canoeing. I'm not a big crowds person so I would likely avoid going when Sturgis' bike rally is happening, but it might be interesting to go check out the Buffalo Round up in Custer State Park in the late summer. Perhaps I'd check out the buffalo safari jeep tours, or go to a chuckwagon cookout... maybe some horseback riding or even some rock climbing. I like the amenities of a big hotel, but the thought of camping, staying at a cabin, or even a lodge sounds appealing to me.We never got to a cave like we planned so I'd want to go back for that as well. Oh, and there are a lot of scenic drives that we didn't take. More wineries to discover, hot springs, largest reptile zoo, helicopter rides, Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, panning for gold, geocaching, biking the George Mickelson trail, Bear Country USA, 1880's town and more. So much to do and perhaps next time I will be visiting my friends once they move.

I can't wait.