An ‘Oughta Do’ List For Kids in South Dakota.
MOSTLY, THIS MAGAZINE is for our parents and grandparents, those stuffy adults we love so dearly. But this particular feature is done with us and our friends in mind. South Dakota must be one of the best kid-friendly places on Earth. Our mountains are climbable, our lakes clean and swimmable.
Plus there’s pre-historic fish. Trees. Stars. Caves. Jackrabbit Ice Cream. A giant turtle’s birthday party.
I mean, where else would you want to live?
And there are certain things that a kid can only do here in South Dakota.
So we made a list, just like adults would do. And here’s what we came up with — An ‘Oughta Do’ List for Kids in South Dakota.
The publisher says the title’s too long, but this is important stuff. And he’ll probably shorten it to something dumb. Read on anyway…
— The Junior Editorial Team
TOSS COINS IN AN ANCIENT WELL
For the best luck, throw someone else’s money into the world’s oldest wishing well, which you’ll find at Lemmon’s Petrified Wood Park, a lunar-like assortment of spires, castles, benches, trees and even a waterfall — all made in the 1930s from petrified wood dating back 50 million years. This is a kid-friendly place; nobody cares if you climb a sphere, and there’s even a hands-on museum in the park.
Ride the train
Take a two-hour round trip journey from Hill City to Keystone on the 1880 Train. You’ll see abandoned mines, deer and wild turkeys scattered about Tin Mill Hill and into Oblivion. The 10-mile-an-hour ride gives you time to solve a major dilemma: whether to buy fudge or ice cream when you arrive in Keystone. Be quick; the train leaves again in 15 minutes. And remember you’re riding a historic line, laid during the 1890s mining boom.
Bust Some Mutton
The rider and animal get comfortable in the chute. The cowboy nods, the gate opens and he hangs on for dear life. He’s hoping to stay on for just a few seconds, but everyone in the arena knows he could be tossed face first into the soft sand floor of the rodeo arena at any time. All the cowboy wants is a good ride, and possibly a shiny buckle at the end of the night to reward his courage.
That’s how mutton bustin’ works. There’s no blood or broken bones. Kids just sit on a sheep and hang on until they tumble off. Mutton bustin’ is a popular event at several rodeos every summer. It is open to kids 6 and under each year at the Central States Fair in Rapid City. There are rides Monday through Friday. Daily champs compete in the finals at the main rodeo Friday night.
Swim With the Frogs in an Old Swimming Hole
The poet James Whitcomb Riley lamented the loss of old-time swimming holes almost a century ago when he wrote, “but the merry days of youth are beyond our control / And it’s hard to part forever with the old swimmin’-hole.”
South Dakota boys and girls don’t have to suffer such nostalgia, because we still have old swimmin’ holes. Our favorite is Cascade Falls (eight miles south of Hot Springs), a legendary little pond with murmuring falls, lush foliage and turquoise-colored pools fed by warm underground springs.
Another little-known gem is Lake Eureka, a picturesque beach on the west side of Eureka in McPherson County where lifeguards are on duty.
Other swimming holes are scattered around the state, as well as some sandy lakeside beaches.
Jump Jesse's Creek
Legend says in 1876 outlaw Jesse James and his horse leapt the 20-foot gap over Split Rock Creek at Devil’s Gulch near Garretson. The James gang had just robbed a bank and the law was on their trail. James probably didn’t take time to appreciate the scenery but you can, because you no longer need a running start to jump the creek. An iron footbridge now spans the chasm.
Attend Country School
Only a few kids still attend one-room country schools, but the rest can try it for an hour or so at the Ingalls Homestead near De Smet. Ride in a covered wagon to the schoolhouse, where girls don pinafores and bonnets and boys get straw hats. Local teachers tutor the class in math, spelling and recitation, and sometimes lead a chorus of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” while playing the pump organ. Kids also learn schoolhouse responsibilities from the 1880s, like fetching water.
Laura Ingalls Wilder lived on the homestead from 1880 to 1885. The place inspired portions of her “Little House” children’s books.
Feed the Geese
Capitol Lake in Pierre is known for the ducks and geese that call it home, but West Side Park in Yankton, Arrowhead Park and the Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls and the Bramble Park Zoo in Watertown are also great places for kids to get close to the waterfowl. Just remember: even ducks and geese are trying to eat healthier these days. Bread fills their bellies, but does not provide much nutrition. Better choices include grapes cut in half, birdseed or other grains, chopped lettuce, vegetable peels and frozen corn or peas that have been defrosted. To really make their day, dig a few fat and wiggly earthworms.
Stare up at Fish
D.C. Booth National Fish Hatchery at Spearfish, which opened in 1899, introduced trout to the Black Hills. Trout are still raised there today in long narrow pools surrounded by tidy lawns, stone walls, a rustic wood bridge, and historic buildings. Kids can buy packs of pellets to feed them, and some will even eat right from your hand. There is also a pool filled with large trout that has a below-the-waterline viewing area: the fish seem to like seeing what a real human being looks like.
Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium (near the Missouri River, west of Yankton) raises and manages endangered and threatened fish. At the free aquarium, look a big paddlefish in the eye and you’ll be connecting with a species that was alive when dinosaurs ruled Earth.
Spit Melon Seeds
Cool watermelon on a hot summer day is heavenly. Mark Twain called it the “angels’ food,” which places paradise somewhere between Forestburg and Woonsocket. The acidic, well-drained and sandy James River valley soil adds a sweetness to the melons. Many South Dakota families have an August tradition of filling the car trunk with melons on the way to or from the State Fair in nearby Huron.
Farmers have roadside stands, and also sell from the back of their trucks in cities across the state. The farmers will teach a kid how to thump a melon. Kids need no lessons on spitting.
Take the Plunge
There are three water slides at South Dakota’s historic Evans Plunge, but when kids arrive at the Hot Springs water park they flock to the Blue Racer.
It’s not the longest slide (the Whale is 100 feet long), but the Blue Racer is the fastest. The lifeguards start the ride with a little shove, and then gravity zooms swimmers down the 75-foot slide into a warm, spring-fed pool.
The water at Evans Plunge has stayed at 87 degrees since the day Fred Evans opened it as a health resort in 1890. Adults still find a full service health club, while kids enjoy slides, a water basketball court, traveling rings and 12-foot alligator floatables.
Camp at the Fort
For Old West adventure, camp with the cavalry and infantry at the Fort Sisseton Historical Festival. Families experience the full effect of frontier life by pitching their tents under the stars alongside troopers in uniform, plus women and children dressed like pioneers. Kids can also take wagon rides, hear tall tales around a campfire and barter with traders.
Do Farm Chores
Parents are always trying to get you to work. Here’s a day trip that might get you away from actual work: visit the South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum on the South Dakota State University campus in Brookings and check out an exhibit titled “As Soon as the Chores are Done!” Try your hand at a few of the many chores kids did in the old days, like milking a cow, gathering eggs and pumping water with a hand pump. You can even shell dried ears of corn, then grind the kernels into bird feed to take home with you.
Finish off your visit with a trip to the SDSU Dairy Bar. Enjoy one of the 50 varieties of ice cream and sherbet while you ponder how lucky you are that all you have to do is clean your room and unload the dishwasher.
Also, kids can milk a 6’ tall, fiberglass, Holstein cow at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. (The Cultural Heritage Center is currently closed for a $19.5 million remodel and is scheduled to reopen in 2026.)
Climb the Needles (But Not Too High)
Experienced climbers travel to the Black Hills to climb the granite Needles in Custer State Park. Every youth should also explore the granite spires along Needles Highway, but don’t climb too high — we’ve seen big kids who got too high and were crying for help.
Guide services are available for serious young adventurers. Otherwise, have mom or dad fake the height of your climb with a low camera angle. Then enjoy the scenery and fresh air with your feet firmly planted on the ground.
Tube a Creek
Is there any better way to spend a hot summer afternoon than tubing down a peaceful creek or river? Get some friends together, find an inner tube that fits you just right and wade in the nearest stream. Some of the best watercourses for tubing running through the Black Hills are Spring Creek, Battle Creek, Boulder Creek and Box Elder Creek — but Spearfish Creek is really special. Split Rock Creek is a popular tubing destination in East River. Enter below the dam at Garretson and float to Palisades State Park. But be safe. Rivers and creeks may be dangerous, especially after heavy rains. Wear life-preservers, learn to swim and ask locals about the creek before you jump in.
Plant a Sunflower
South Dakota farmers planted over 500,000 acres of sunflowers last year, but they’re also the ideal plant for kids. Sunflower seeds are big, perfect for little hands to plant in the spring. They grow quickly. And they are easy to keep alive. Even a little water when the soil dries will keep them growing. Watch their big, yellow heads follow the sun, or see the different birds and insects that they attract. When the back of the sunflower head turns brown, it’s ready to harvest. Slice the head off, roast the seeds and enjoy. Or leave them for the sparrows.
(Don't) Feed the Burros
Consider yourself warned — Custer State Park is full of shameless beggars and panhandlers. They wander the park, not afraid to ask for a handout. Some are so bold they stick their wet noses into your car. But it’s hard to turn them down because they’re so cute.
A band of about 30 hungry burros lives in the southern end of the park near the Wildlife Loop. They have been clamoring for food so long they’ve earned a nickname: the Begging Burros. And their palettes don’t discriminate; a burro once snatched a cough drop from a motorist’s hand.
Technically it’s against park policy to feed any wildlife, and staff makes it clear that though the burros seem friendly, they can bite. Rangers don’t encourage feeding them, but they understand it happens. Some visitors bring extra food just for the donkeys.
Burros aren’t native to the area. Developers used them as pack animals while building Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway and to haul visitors up Black Elk Peak. When they were finished, the burros were simply turned loose, and have become one of the park’s favorite attractions.
Do the Cosmos Crouch
Has mom told you to stand up straight? She’ll back off at the Cosmos Mystery Area south of Rapid City, where good posture is impossible.
The Cosmos is the most bizarre place in South Dakota. Water runs uphill. Chairs balance on the tiniest ledges. There’s even one spot where you appear taller than your parents.
Ask why and tour guides will mumble something about a gravitational vortex. You probably won’t leave with answers, but that’s the fun of the Cosmos, a Black Hills tradition for 60 years.
Dress Like a Gunslinger
If you visit 1880 Town, be sure to dress the part. Costumes are for rent at the Longhorn Saloon, where you can sip sarsaparilla and hear the player piano.
1880 Town is at Exit 170 along Interstate 90. When a movie crew came to shoot an 1880s-era film, it built an entire Main Street set. After filming concluded, the buildings were left to Clarence Hullinger, and he and his son Richard have been adding ever since. The old hotel came from nearby Draper. The stairs are scratched from cowboys’ spurs. Watch the gunfight on the main street or ring the bell in the one-room schoolhouse and the church, which came from Dixon.
Read a Compass
Learn to read a map and use a compass at the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls. Kids use landmarks to find a series of checkpoints scattered across the park’s 100 acres. For a challenge, take an orienteering course, and learn how to get your bearings with a compass. The Outdoor Campus is a nature’s paradise in the middle of our biggest city. Opossum, fox, deer, beaver, skunk, muskrat and owls — to name a few — prowl Sertoma Park. You can also have equal fun at the Outdoor Campus West in Rapid City.
Watch an Osprey
Osprey, though cousins to the bald eagle, are known as “fish hawks” because of their amazing abilities to swoop from high in the sky, dive into a lake and emerge in a burst of water with a fish in their talons. Their dive is one of the fascinating sights of nature. Try your luck at catching the action. Ospreys were native to all of South Dakota before DDT nearly decimated the population. Efforts are being made to reintroduce them to the Missouri River Valley, but as of now some of the best viewing spots are Black Hills lakes — especially Pactola and Stockade where pairs now nest. Take binoculars and patience.
Ride a Carousel
The communities of Madison and Faulkton offer rides on historic carousels.
Faulkton’s carousel, made in 1925, has 19 of its original aluminum horses and two chariots. Bob Ketterling bought the carousel at an auction in Edgemont in 1981 and brought it to Faulkton. He began giving free rides and planned to create Happy Times Park for families. Ketterling died in 1988, but his dream lives. The city offers rides Wednesday nights from 6 to 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 3 to 5 and 6 to 8.
Madison has one of the world’s last steam-powered carousels, with carved German horses that rotate to calliope music. Rides start at the top of the hour.
Hike at Night
Exploring state parks is fun in broad daylight, but nighttime hikes can take you back in time or let you spot animals you probably wouldn’t see in the sunshine.
Pretend you’re a soldier stationed at Fort Sisseton. They didn’t have flashlights when the fort was built in 1864, so when soldiers strolled from the officers’ quarters to the barracks or powder house at night, they used the flickering light of a lantern. Follow in their footsteps at the park’s lantern tour.
To see wildlife, take the "Whooo Goes There" hike at Lewis and Clark Recreation Area near Yankton. See if you can spot owls along the Gavins Point Nature Trail. Or sit around the campfire and learn about nocturnal animals at the Creatures of the Night campfire at Palisades State Park near Garretson.
Walk Across Big MO
Say you’re at a family reunion in Yankton. You tell your cousin you can walk across the Missouri River without sinking, or even getting wet. He bets a Charlie’s pizza that you can’t, so you ride your bikes to Riverside Park, where you cross the river using the historic Meridian Bridge.
It’s been almost 100 years since the bridge was open to walkers. Over 3,000 people crossed from South Dakota to Nebraska the day it opened in 1924. The next day cars and trucks took over, and nearly 5,000 vehicles crossed daily until the new Discovery Bridge opened in 2008.
Both states cooperated to convert the bridge into a pedestrian and bicycle path that connects walking trails on each side of the river.
Sit on a T-Rex
Sit atop a Triceratops or climb a T-rex’s tail. The huge dinosaurs that overlook Rapid City’s skyline won’t mind. They don’t roar, rumble or even smell bad. In fact, they’re made of iron and concrete and painted green and white.
Seven dinosaurs have kept watch over town on Skyline Drive since the 1930s. Emmett Sullivan, who worked on Mount Rushmore, designed them to catch tourists heading to the new national monument. He also built the dinosaur that greets visitors at Wall.
Dinosaur Park also features an Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus and others. Sullivan picked those specific creatures because all but one roamed the South Dakota plains millions of years ago.
Children of all ages will also enjoy world-class fossil exhibits at the Museum of Geology on the S.D. School of Mines & Technology campus.
Crawl a Cave
Caves can be discovered across South Dakota, but dozens of the nation’s longest and deepest lie beneath the Black Hills. The end of Jewel Cave is yet to be discovered, but it’s considered the world’s third longest at 208 miles.
The natural opening to Wind Cave is barely big enough for a 12-year-old to squeeze through, but hold on to your hat. Wind rushing in and out will blow it off your head. In fact, that’s how the world’s sixth-longest cave was discovered. Native Americans knew for centuries about “hole that breathes cool air,” but exploration didn’t begin until 1881. Jesse and Tom Bingham heard wind howling on a calm day. They approached the hole and a gust tossed their cowboy hats across the prairie.
Jewel, Wind and five other mountain caves are available for tours. Wear long pants and a jacket. The average temperature, even on a hot summer day, is 50 degrees.
Call a Duck
A favorite place to call ducks is Adams Nature Preserve in the extreme southeast corner of South Dakota. An old cottonwood forest winds around a marshy lake. Sandy walking trails lead past duck blinds that are perfect for a beginning caller.
For the best results, buy a duck call (they start at $5 and up). Hide in one of the blinds and start quacking, but don’t overdo it. Mallards like to hear a four or five-note call. Don’t give up if a flock swims past you. The last ones are the most likely to break rank.
If the calling doesn’t work, throw out some snacks.
Climb a Tree
Good climbing trees are everywhere, but for something special try the burr oak or cottonwoods on the Old Grade Nature Trail in Wessington Springs — one of our best-marked nature and history trails.
Check the Internet to learn about tree climbing — believe it or not — or pick out a likely tree and just grab the nearest branch. We recommend the latter. Like countless generations of kids, you’ll figure it out. Start small, and soon you’ll see the world from a bird’s eye view.
Row your Boat
South Dakota has hundreds of unspoiled little lakes, often without cabin development and rich with friendly wildlife. So get a raft, a canoe or a kayak and paddle to your heart’s content. You’ll feel like brethren to the birds and turtles, and get some exercise along the way. Be smart and wear a life jacket. Even the shallowest lakes, ponds and rivers can surprise boaters and swimmers with deep spots, whirlpool currents or unexpected turbulence. Many resorts and marinas rent pedal and paddle boats.
Star Gaze in the Badlands
The Big Dipper and Orion the Hunter stand out in any night sky, but you’ll see thousands more stars and galaxies with the naked eye in the Badlands. Spend a night at the Cedar Pass Campground or the more primitive Sage Creek Campground, and stay up a few hours past bedtime. You’ll be amazed at the stars. Planets are clearer in the blackness of the Badlands, where you can easily spot the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy (2.5 million light years away). Rangers offer a stargazing program Friday through Monday at the Cedar Pass Amphitheater.
See Grandpa's Toys
Pioneer Auto Museum at Murdo has one of the West’s great collections of your grandparents’ toys and music boxes, plus several hundred of the most amazing cars you’ve ever seen.
Yes, once upon a time the highways weren’t crowded with minivans, jelly bean-shaped sedans and big SUVs Murdo’s museum has wooden cars, clunky cars, famous cars, short cars and long, long, long cars. Plus there are tractors, fire trucks and a 1961 Octakar with eight wheels — a design that for some reason never became popular.
Scout Crazy Horse
Crazy Horse Memorial is a colossal sculpture in progress (just the chief’s head is 87.5 feet high). Kids from the 1930s still love to show us pictures of when they toured the then-emerging Mount Rushmore. Today’s youth can capture that same moment-in-time with a snapshot at unfinished Crazy Horse.
The memorial is devoted to the Native American culture. Its Indian Museum of North America contains hundreds of items. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in uniform get into the museum for free. Many troops visit and scouts earn a merit badge for the experience.
Celebrate with a Turtle
Methuselah, a Galapagos tortoise that was considered the oldest thing on legs in South Dakota, celebrated his 130th birthday back in June 2011. Kids can’t ride the great beast any more, but the other gentle tortoises will let you pet them.
Reptile Gardens (six miles south of Rapid City) features lots of other creepy crawlies, like prairie rattlesnakes, cobras, pythons, alligators and lizards of all kinds. For the squeamish, try the exotic bird show where a raptor tries its wings and a parrot talks.
Photograph a President
Presidents are everywhere in the Black Hills, and the Secret Service is nowhere to be found, so it’s easy to sidle up next to one for a keepsake photo.
Sit on Richard Nixon’s lap at the corner of Fifth and St. Joseph in Rapid City. South Dakota sculptors created bronze likenesses of each president for the town’s City of Presidents project. Really fool your friends with a picture from the National Presidential Wax Museum in Keystone. Kathryn Stuberg-Keller’s wax statues are so lifelike you might find yourself talking to John Kennedy, Jr., as he scampers from beneath his father’s desk.
And, of course, there’s a well-known stone sculpture of Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelt and Jefferson on Mount Rushmore near Keystone.
Run the Bases
The shorter your legs, the longer it takes, but running the bases after a Sioux Falls Canaries game is a thrill for every future big leaguer. Sundays are family days at Sioux Falls Stadium. After the game the field is opened to children, who get to run the bases and get autographs from the players. Mascots roam the park during games and kids participate in contests. Each Sunday game has a theme. Animals from the Great Plains Zoo may make an appearance, and there’s even a summer Halloween party.
Fly a Kite
Charlie Brown never flew a kite without getting it tangled in a tree. Of course, the South Dakota prairie offers lots of tree-free locations. The very best might be the Fishback Soccer Complex in Brookings.
That’s where the annual Brookings Kite and Bike Festival is held. The complex includes 10 full-size soccer fields and very few trees. Kids can bring their own kites or participate in kite-making workshops the week before the festival at the Children’s Museum of South Dakota. Professionals from the American Kite Association bring kites as long as a bus. Try making paper rockets with Larry Browning, a former physics professor at SDSU, or learn how wind can light your house.
Dance at a Pow Wow
Even youngsters who haven’t yet waltzed or jitter bugged find that they can pick up the shuffle-step of the Native American pow wow. All nine reservations in South Dakota host summer pow wows, and spectators are welcome. Most events feature an inter-tribal dance open to everyone. Be respectful, this is no time to do the twist. Learn more by clicking here.
Ride a Bronc
Songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker says rodeo riders are “bordering on the insane.” Who would voluntarily climb on a beast that bucks like he ate dynamite and Tabasco sauce for breakfast?
Get the feel of riding a bucking bronc without risking life and limb at the Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center in Fort Pierre. It features a virtual reality bronc: you climb into the saddle facing three video monitors that deliver the sights and sounds of a rodeo arena while the “horse” moves beneath you. Very cool!
The Rodeo Center also has a room full of cowboy gear so you can suit up like the legendary Casey Tibbs.
Get a (Snap) Shot of Wild Bill
One of the West’s best-known lawmen does a cameo on Deadwood’s Main Street at 2, 4 and 6 p.m. on most summer days. Wild Bill invariably gets in a gunfight, and photo ops are possible before or after the shootings.
Brief reenactments of Wild Bill’s demise occur at 1, 3 and 5 p.m. in Saloon No. 10.
Kids on vacation in the Southern Hills might meet the Terror of the Rockies (aka Big Dave Murra) strolling Keystone’s Main Street. Nobody’s going to wrestle him (he stands 7’2”) but like Wild Bill, he’s been in many a gun duel.
Be a Ranger
Many national parks have Junior Ranger programs. At Badlands National Park, youth can study rock formations on a nature hike with a park ranger, or play games that help them understand more about the park’s plants and animals.
In 2010, 7-year-old Kylie Ferguson of Sharpsburg, Georgia, took part in the Junior Ranger program while on vacation and discovered a rare fossil — the skull of an extinct saber-toothed cat called Dinictis. A 3-D model of the skull will be displayed at the park’s Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
Catch a Fish
The thrill of a wriggling, silvery fish fighting your line is unforgettable. South Dakota is blessed with hundreds of fishing lakes, rivers and streams. Kids under age 16 don’t even need a fishing license, and in some cases you don’t even need a pole. The Outdoor Campus locations in Sioux Falls and Rapid City hold introductory fishing classes, and staffers provide the fishing gear. Just take a hat and sunglasses.
During the summer, state parks host an open house (no park entrance fee and free fishing for all). Custer State Park, Indian Creek Recreation Area (by Mobridge) and Lake Poinsett Recreation Area (near Arlington) will host kids’ fishing derbies that weekend, with prizes awarded in various age groups.
Watch a Drive-In Movie
Chances are your granddad ate popcorn and stole a kiss from behind the wheel of his old Chevy while watching John Wayne with grandma at a drive-in theater.
Seven towns still show movies under the stars. Obey local etiquette: don’t sneak your friends in under a blanket, don’t take your own popcorn, and don’t stare at the young lovers in the next car.
Gregory — Hilltop Drive-in, open May to Oct.
Hermosa — Roy's Black Hills Twin Drive-in, open May to Sept.
Miller — Midway Drive-in, open May to August.
Mitchell — Starlite Drive-in, open April to Sept.
Mobridge — Pheasant Drive-in, open May to Sept.
Redfield — Pheasant City Drive-in, open May to Sept.
Winner — Winner Drive-in, open May to Sept.
Feed a Prairie Dog
Ranchers consider them a plague and a pest and a pain, but prairie dogs are also cute and furry and pleasingly plump. See them up close at the prairie dog town at Cactus Flat. Buy some peanuts at the nearby Ranch Store and make a prairie dog your friend for life (or at least until the next visitor comes along — how do you think they got so pleasingly plump?)
Cactus Flat is located on the east edge of the Badlands, on the Badlands Loop of Highway 240.
Copyright © 2014, South Dakota Magazine (updated 2022)