A whirlwind getaway jam-packed with world-famous attractions, scenery like nowhere else on earth, wildlife, good food, and even, if you want, gambling.
That's what you get in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. In a single weekend, using Rapid City as our base, our family hit Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Wall Drug, Badlands National Park and Deadwood. Along the way, we saw buffalo, antelope, bighorn sheep, burros and prairie dogs.
On our first visit to the area, traveling with two boys whose travel mantra is, "Show us the wow, never mind the details," a tour of the highlights was perfect for us. Stops along our route were located a half-hour to about two hours' drive apart, so we never had too much driving at once.
"So many times people from the coasts look at South Dakota as fly-over country, but we have so much to offer," said Melissa Miller, director of the South Dakota Office of Tourism.
We started at Mount Rushmore (www.nps.gov/moru/index.htm). Who hasn't seen photos of this place? And yet to view it in person is astonishing. You simply can't get over the sheer hubris that it took to carve presidents into a mountain. You glimpse the faces as you approach, but then, suddenly, you're right there, staring up Jefferson's nostrils. The reality lives up to the hype.
A highlight of our visit was meeting Nick Clifford, 88, a construction worker at Rushmore from 1938 to 1940. Today he greets visitors and signs copies of his book, "Mount Rushmore Q&A," in the park gift shop.
Next stop was Custer State Park (gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/custer). Driving the park's 18-mile wildlife loop in a mere two hours, we saw buffalo, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and burros. Deer, prairie dogs and mountain lions live here, too.
"There's probably no place better in the nation than Custer State Park to see wildlife," said park spokesman Craig Pugsley. The hours just after sunrise and before sunset are best for seeing wildlife, he said.
We encountered a traffic jam in Custer Park as cars stopped to pet and photograph the friendly burros who happily stuck their heads in our car windows.
"They're very popular," said Pugsley. Petting the burros is not forbidden, but he said there are reports of bites "from time to time. You need to use your best judgment being around them."
The bison herd is generally kept at about 1,300, and the calves, mostly born in May, are still pint-size by late summer. A roundup is held each year the last Monday in September to count, brand and vaccinate the herd.
The park, established in 1919, "played an instrumental role in bringing back the bison from the brink of extinction," Pugsley said. The buffalo here are descended from animals captured on one of the last big bison hunts in South Dakota in the early 20th century.
Custer Park is named for Gen. George Custer, who was famously defeated by Native Americans at Little Bighorn, Mont., in 1876. Prior to Little Bighorn, he had led an expedition of the Black Hills that discovered gold.
We stopped in the town of Custer for dinner and had a good meal of bison burgers at the Sage Creek Grille after visiting the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial (www.crazyhorse.org). This fascinating mountain carving was conceived by Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear as a way to let "the white man to know that the red man has great heroes." Crazy Horse fought at Little Bighorn, but was shot a year later by U.S. forces.
Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who started blasting the rock for the Crazy Horse carving in 1948, died in 1982, but his family and a crew keep the project going. Crazy Horse's head is complete, at 87 feet high, and his horse's head, now under construction, is 219 feet tall. A museum and film at the site help visitors understand what the memorial is designed to achieve.
Our second day in South Dakota started on the road to Wall Drug. In the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression, owners Ted and Dorothy Hustead put up signs along the highway to lure customers by offering free ice water. The signs are still there, but the store is now an emporium and major attraction. It's lots of fun and a great place to pick up souvenirs as well as road-trip necessities.
Perhaps my favorite place on the trip was Badlands National Park (www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm). You could spend days exploring this enormous and beautiful landscape -- 381 square miles -- but the park's loop road can be done in about an hour. We were there about a half-day -- do not miss Robert's Prairie Dog Town, where you can see the curious critters popping in and out of holes.
The area was named the "badlands" by tribes and early explorers because the terrain was so difficult to travel through. Layers of rugged rock stretch back to the horizon, forming towers, canyons and buttes in colorful bands of gray, brown, pink and red stone.
We ended the day with a quick stop in Deadwood. With kids in tow, playing poker in a casino in this legendary Wild West town wasn't an option, but it was fun to walk around and imagine the days when Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok strode the streets.
Our whirlwind visit to South Dakota was over, and we hadn't even made it to the Minuteman Missile Site or Jewel Cave. Next time, we'll have to allow three days.