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Taking the kids: On a road trip to South Dakota’s Black Hills and Badlands

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Content Agency on

Check out George Washington’s nose! It’s 21 feet tall!

We were at Mount Rushmore National Park in South Dakota peering up at the gigantic (60 foot tall) heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, which are chiseled out of granite.

In case you were wondering why these four were chosen, George Washington represents the country’s birth; Thomas Jefferson its growth; Abraham Lincoln its preservation after the Civil War and Theodore Roosevelt the nation’s development. (Remember construction started in 1927 and was declared complete in October 1941, though the original vision was never fully implemented.) Sadly, sculptor Gutzon Borglum died before the project was completed; his son Lincoln finished it.

Most can’t help but be impressed and inspired to see Mount Rushmore.

But once my kids realized they couldn’t climb up the presidents’ faces, their interest ebbed — quickly. They preferred the contest they created: Who could count the most different state license plates in the parking lot?

Typical. As usual, I was wrong about what would engage them – and happy to see them (safely) create their own vacation fun.


This summer, it seems, road trips are expected to be particularly popular — if families opt to leave home at all. That’s why throughout the summer, we’ll spotlight some classic American road trips — like to South Dakota’s Black Hills and Badlands.

One plus: It’s drivable from metro areas, including Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis and Kansas City, and it’s pretty easy to social distance as the state averages 10 people per square mile. Nor do you need to self-quarantine if you are from out of state as is required elsewhere. And there are many places to camp, RV or stay in a cabin if you want to avoid hotels.

The best part: Experiences you can’t have at home — from Mount Rushmore’s evening lighting ceremony to the ancient fossil beds at Badlands National Park, the bison herd at Custer State Park and the Legends in Light laser light show at Crazy Horse Memorial. It’s 87.5 feet high and still not finished after more than 60 years.

But anywhere you go, the experience will be different this summer of COVID-19.


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