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Great Family Trips: South Dakota

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Wild American bison roam on a ranch in South Dakota. (Photograph by Joel Sartore)

The family vacation, like the concept of family itself, has evolved. Kids are traveling with grandma or a single parent or an indulgent uncle (or all three). However you define your kin, this Great Plains itinerary is all relative.

> Why Go:

It’s nicknamed the Mount Rushmore State, but there’s more to love about South Dakota than its famous, 60-foot-tall faces.

“I went into South Dakota thinking it was a wasteland, and I came out wanting to move there,” says Durango, Colorado, mom Heidi Goodman, who took sons A. J., 10, and Jack, 7, to Mount Rushmore last summer.

“The boys loved all the history, and I felt that I was as deep in America as I could be.” A four-day road trip east to west across the state appeals to pint-size pioneers with hands-on activities at every stop, lots of animal sightings, and never more than two hours trapped in the car.

> The Plan: 

First up is De Smet, home of Laura Ingalls Wilder of the Little House series.

Even if the kids aren’t familiar with the books or the iconic TV show, they’ll have a blast rattling across the tall grass in a covered wagon, making corncob dolls, and playing pioneers at the Ingalls Homestead.

In the gift shop, true fans can pick up Wilder’s never-before-published autobiography, Pioneer Girl, finally released in November 2014.

Drive two hours west to the Lewis and Clark Information Center. The I-90 rest area/museum is on the site of a Corps of Discovery encampment. Climb aboard a replica of the expedition’s 55-foot keelboat for an explorer’s-eye view of the Lake Francis Case reservoir below.

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Bisonwear at the annual Buffalo Roundup at Custer State Park (Photograph by Benjamin Brayfield, Rapid City Journal/Associated Press)

Stop for the night at Badlands National Park, a bedrock moonscape rich with the fossilized remains of extinct mammals, including a three-toed mini-horse.

In the morning, drive the Highway 240 Loop Road to spot bison, mule deer, and bighorn sheep. The gravel detour to Robert’s Prairie Dog Town is worth the dust to watch hundreds of the ridiculously cute rodents romp around.

Make tracks for Custer State Park, where massive buffalo—some as big as 2,000 pounds—freely roam.

Supper is a hayride/chuck wagon cookout, and cowpokes will get a kick out of sleeping two nights in the Bunkhouse Cabin at State Game Lodge, starting point for the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour. Wrap up by visiting the Black Hills’ rock stars: Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Rushmore highlights for kids include the dynamite blast simulator and, of course, peering up the presidents’ nostrils. The Crazy Horse Memorial, begun in 1948, is much bigger (Crazy Horse’s head is nearly nine stories tall) but still unfinished.

> Don’t Miss: 

Cedar Pass Lodge in Badlands has new old-timey-looking cabins and a restaurant serving Sioux Indian tacos (fry bread and buffalo).

This piece, reported by Maryellen Kennedy Duckett, first appeared in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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