Stinson, California is a beach town just north of San Francisco. Andrew and I recently stayed there with friends for a weekend get-a-way. We stayed step away from the beach and really enjoyed ourselves. The town itself is very small and only offers a handful of things to do and places to eat but I think we found all of the best it has to offer!
Matt Davis Loop Trail: Hiking Muir Woods was on the top of my to-do list for our stay in the Stinson Beach area. Muir Woods is the world's most-visited redwood park. The day we planned on hiking it was raining so instead of driving to The Muir Woods Visitor Center we decided to hike a trail right off of the main highway in town. I didn't realize it until I got home and Googled the trail we hiked (Matt Davis Loop) that we were actually in Mt. Tamalpais State Park which is what surrounds Muir Woods. We saw plenty of redwoods, waterfalls, and lush forest. The loop is about seven miles in its entirety. It wasn't the best day for a hike so we walked far enough to get an excellent view and turned around to go back down. We did about a two mile hike. You can access this trail behind the Stinson Beach fire station.
Sand Dollar Cafe: Since 1921, this eatery has been a popular place with locals. The Sand Dollar Cafe is right off of the highway so you can't miss it! We ate there twice: once for a quick appetizer and drinks and the second time we went for dinner. The restaurant is family owned and Stinson beach's oldest establishment. You could tell the staff were a very tight knit group of people and they knew most folks by name as they walked in the door. When we went for appetizer and drinks (around four pm) I asked the bar tender if they had happy hour menu. He looked at me, smiled, and said, "Ma'am when you're the only bar in town, you don't do happy hour."
Parkside Cafe: On the side of the highway, closest to the ocean, is a string of small businesses that assemble The Parkside Cafe. The Snack Bar opened in 1949 and is best known for its burgers, smoothies, ice cream, and fries. I bet this place is hopping in the summer with beach goers! The Parkside Cafe Restaurant serves food all day long with a full menu. They have a quaint outdoor area with a fireplace, patio, and garden. We weren't able to enjoy this space as it was cold and rainy but let me tell you what we did enjoy: food and drinks! The food was amazing and overall, a very healthy menu. Because we did eat well and were happy, we found their motto of "eat well, be happy" to be very appropriate and right on target. We all ordered a morning coffee and enjoyed that very much until we saw the table next to us get orange juice. This wasn't your average looking orange juice, you could tell that it was fresh squeezed! Therefore, we all ordered and enjoyed the orange juice, some of us enjoyed it in a champagne glass (mimosa style), others enjoyed it with vodka, and my pregnant friend enjoyed the OJ just how it was! Parkside Cafe is an integral part of the community and available at all times to satisfy your hunger ad don't forget to order OJ.
Whether you visit Stinson for a day at the beach, go with a group of friends for a weekend stay, or go to explore, you are guaranteed a good time. The people in this quiet beach town were friendly, everyone smiled, and local businesses are thriving.
It would be fun they said. It would be pretty they said.
Our trip to the Point Reyes lighthouse was neither of those things but looking back on it now it's quite hilarious. Recently, while visiting the Bay area with good friends, the group stayed in Stinson Beach which is about an hour from Point Reyes National Seashore which I had to see. I wanted to visit the lighthouse because I've heard it is absolutely beautiful, it has a lot of history, and as luck would have it, our visit was during the peak whale watching season! I talked everyone into going to the lighthouse for an afternoon. We loaded up in our rental van and were on the way! If you've been watching the news at all or keeping up with the weather you know that California has had record breaking rainfall. It was drizzling rain the day we decided to go to the lighthouse... in fact, it rained basically our entire trip. It was also over cast so we knew we wouldn't have the best views of the lighthouse but the weather wasn't going to hold us back. The drive from Stinson Beach to Point Reyes is amazing! You go through several small beach towns, get to see lots of pretty farmland, and you get occasional glimpses of the Pacific Ocean.
Driving for about an hour, we knew we were getting close to the lighthouse based on our trusty GPS. Again, it was drizzling outside but nothing we couldn't handle until we got about two miles from our destination. At that point, the rain started coming down harder and the fog set in like nothing I've ever seen. I was driving the van and visibility was terrible. We had already come so far so we figured why not, let's keep going! When we pulled up to the parking lot we noticed people walking sideways... yes, sideways!!! We had been in the car and been driving inland so we didn't realize that the wind had picked up. We parked and we all decided we were going to see that lighthouse regardless but first we needed a bathroom break. They had a small shack with porta potties for use. My friend Abby went in first and said it was bad and to hold your breath! I went in second and held my breath the entire time and of course hovered over the seat (TMI?). My friend Sarah, who was three months pregnant at the time, went in last. She walked in and immediately started gagging as pregnancy makes you more sensitive to smells (so I've been told).
Here's what happened next:
Ragan: Sarah, it's fine just hold your breath and go
Sarah: Gag, I don't think i can do it (as she's already hovering, sorry Sarah)
Ragan: You're fine, just go!
Sarah: Gag, I can't do it!
Que Sarah running out of the stall with her pants barely pulled up.
Ragan: uh, are you going to be okay?
Sarah: gag, puke, gag
Sarah then proceeded to death glare me and get teary eyed all at the same time. I was in shock I mean who knew?!
After that fiasco, we had to hide Sarah behind the porta potty so she could go tinkle outside because you know, when a pregnant women has to pee, they have to pee!
Now here we are, ready to go to the lighthouse. Andrew only had on freshly cleaned tennis shoes and he said he didn't want to get them dirty so he'd just go barefoot. I mean, why?! I think everyone around us thought he was crazy, I know we all did! Here we are just six friends on a half mile hike to a lighthouse, one of us a sick pregnant lady, and one of us not wearing shoes. The "drizzle" had turned into rain, the wind was blowing 55 mph, and the fog was dense! We walked up to the stairs to the light house but we couldn't see the actual lighthouse, that's how foggy it was and the winds were blowing so hard it wasn't safe for people to walk down the stairs to the lighthouse. For sure, we weren't seeing any whales! Basically, we drove over an hour, almost got blown off the side of a cliff, and never saw the lighthouse just to have this hilarious story.
Have you ever been to Point Reyes?! If so, send me a photo, I'd love to hear how beautiful it is!
I've decided every Christmas must be a vacation! Andrew and I met our families in Key Largo on Christmas day this past year (2016) and it was wonderful! Our families are spread out across the United States which makes it hard to see everyone and spend equal quality time with them. It's crazy when you're trying to get from place to place and the added stresses the holidays bring so a destination Christmas was the solution and I might add totally worth it!
Our first night in Key Largo we ate at the Lazy Lobster. It was one of the only places on the island open on Christmas. The food was excellent and the back yard atmosphere was very nice. It felt great to sit outside in December with short sleeves on. The next day we ventured to John Pennekamp State Park. Everywhere I read and everyone I spoke with said that JP State Park was a must do in Key Largo. I'm sure the park is beautiful and there seems to be a ton to do there but the day we went it was over cast and wasn't warm. We explored the park a bit and decided to go into the visitor's center and see the aquarium which was nice but not worth the money we paid to enter the park. We ended up calling this idea a wash and explored other options for this day. Andrew, his dad, and his brother went fly fishing in some of the mid-keys. Those of us who didn't go fly fishing drove down a few keys to see the pretty water and did some exploring. This day didn't go as planned but it was nice to be with family and not in cold Nebraska!
My favorite activity we did while in Key Largo was rent a boat from Sunshine Watersports. We had eight people in our group so we rented a 19 foot boat. The boat was a great size for us and it was very nice. At first we thought we'd go snorkeling so we headed to the coral reef about five miles off shore. We got half way there when we had to turn back, the waves were bigger than our boat and we were all soaked! It was scary being in the open ocean with swells that large. I was beginning to think this day wasn't going to go as planned either but then we went to Nest Key. Nest Key is absolutely beautiful! It's an island nature reserve right off of the Florida Everglades. When we pulled up to the island, we saw several boats and knew immediately that we found the place! I wish I could describe Nest Key with another word but I think beautiful is perfect! You'll have to go see for yourself! We stayed there all afternoon and waded in the water, laid out on the beach, had a picnic on the boat, swam, played with beach toys, fished, and explored. It was the perfect afternoon! I wish boat rentals weren't so expensive because we would have gone back there every day. We also found a ton of starfish in the water which was really neat! We picked them up for a photo op an promptly put them back in their natural habitat. on our way to Nest Key we saw manatees swimming in the mangroves and while we were on Nest Key a man caught a three foot hammerhead shark. When he let it go, it swam right by my foot! Yikes! While fly fishing this location, Andrew and his dad caught barracudas. This tiny island made for the perfect day!
On our last full day in Key Largo, we enjoyed beach time at the private beach within the community we rented in. We ate dinner at Hobo Cafe which was great (seafood pasta, yum). After dinner we ventured to the Caribbean Club which is a famous hole in the wall bar that's been featured in the movie Key Largo and the Netflix original series Bloodline. We didn't end up spending time at the club, just took a picture and then drove to Jimmy Johnson's Big Chill Sports Bar. We enjoyed the drinks, live music, and great views from this place.
I wish our trip to the Keys with family could have been longer but it was nice to spend a few days together, relax, rest, and unwind! I can't wait to get back to the Florida Keys and explore more!
If you're visiting Key West, you've got to visit these four places (in no particular order): the Harry S. Truman Little White House, the southernmost point, Fort Zachary Taylor Historic Park, and the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum.
The Little White House: The house itself sits in a beautiful gated community with other lovely homes. Initially, it served as the naval station's command headquarters during the Spanish-American War. Harry S. Truman was the 33rd president of the United States and during his early years as president he got very sick from the over-whelming stress. His physician ordered him to take a vacation in the sun to rejuvenate and get some Vitamin D. Because the Naval Station's headquarters was in Key West and a safe place to visit, he decided to go there. Truman loved this place so much he joked that maybe we should move the capitol to Key West! The house was a place of relaxation for him but he always worked there as well, the President never gets to truly go on vacation. Although multiple presidents visited before Truman and several visited after him, he ended up visiting ten times after his initial visit so that is why the house is now known as the "Harry S. Truman Little White House." The house is now a museum and it's been restored to its original state. If you visit, I would recommend taking one of the guided tours.
The southernmost point: This is one of the most popular tourist destinations on Key West. The southernmost point is a concrete buoy at the corner of Whitehead and South Street. I think it's comical because people line up to get a photo in front of the marker but it's not actually the southernmost point in the United States, just look at a map of Key West and you'll see! Regardless, it is 90 miles to Cuba from this point and I feel like you have to at least see it if you're in Key West. I'm going to give you a tip, don't stand in the line! There is a retaining wall around the marker; Andrew and I jumped up on the wall and snapped a quick selfie (see proof below)! It's not the best quality photo and some people weren't too happy with us but we didn't want to wait in at least an hour line! We ran away quickly but still got to see the marker so we were happy!
Fort Zachary: The fort was one of a series built in the mid-1800s to defend the nation's coastline but now it's Key West's favorite beach located at the southern end of the park. Fort Tours are given daily; however, we went to Fort Zachary for the beach! The park provides opportunities for picnicking, swimming, snorkeling, and fishing. I did one out of four of these and Andrew participated in all four. The water was way too cold for me so I chose to just picnic on the beach. Andrew was much braver than me and he actually got in the water! You do have to pay to enter the park but it is totally worth it as Key West doesn't have very many beaches. I know that's surprising since it's an island but it's true! I'm going to let you in on a little secret, there are two beaches in the park. One of the beaches is the most popular beach and it's very crowded and the other is what the locals call "the secret beach." Of course, Andrew found the secret beach and we spent our entire afternoon there. There were only two other couples at our secret beach so it was absolutely amazing! One of the couples were locals and the other had an adventurous side to them like us! It's a bit of a walk to this beach but it's worth it. I'm not going to tell you where it is because then, it wouldn't be a secret anymore but, I bet you could look on a map and find it!
Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum: We visited this house on Christmas which was a really neat way to spend the day! The home is absolutely beautiful. There are so many architectural details that went into building this place. The gardens are stunning and there are cats that roam the property and the house freely. The home was originally built in 1851 and became Ernest Hemingway's home in 1931. All of the cats around the house are descendants of the cats he kept while he lived there, including many extra-toed cats. Hemingway purchased this property for $8,000 which seems absolutely crazy to me! The house now operates as a museum and it remains the single largest residential property on the island of Key West. The house is open to tour year round and costs $14 per adult. I'd recommend taking one of the free guided tours as you learn many personal Hemingway stories and so many interesting facts about the house. When we visited it was so crowded I wasn't able to get a good photo of the actual house so, here's a picture of a cat in Hemingway's master bedroom.
If you ever visit Key West I think these are four must visit places. Comment below or shoot me an email if you have any questions or want to know more information about one of the places listed!
While in Key West, Andrew and I tried to eat and drink at some of its most famous places; always the food adventurers, we also wanted to try some local "hole in the wall" restaurants as well.
We made the drive from Miami to Key West and had to stop at The Hungry Tarpon on Islamorada Key to eat dinner our first night. You can't miss the Hungry Tarpon as it's in Robbie's Marina and there is a huge sign. The restaurant is directly on the water and offers beautiful views, great food, and a tropical atmosphere. The food was delicious and the atmosphere was so much fun! When you eat here, you're truly getting a taste of the Keys lifestyle. You can eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the Hungry Tarpon while you watch the boats come in with their fresh catch of the day! We were here in the evening and got to see the sharks and tarpons being fed the leftovers from the days fishing trip. Another reason the Robbie's Marina area is famous is because some of the Netflix original Bloodline was filmed here. This is where the characters of the show spend a lot of time in boats and on docks. We're huge Bloodline fans and sought out as many filming places as possible in the keys (more on that in another post). Our first night in Key West we felt compelled to go check out the world famous Sloppy Joe's Bar. The official beginning of this bar was on December 5, 1993- the day Prohibition was repealed. Sloppy Joe's Bar has been through two name changes and one change of location but it has been at its present location since May of 1937. This Bar sits on the corner of Greene and Duval Street. This place is a staple in Key West and was once the watering hole of Ernest Hemmingway. Sloppy Joe's now also offers a food menu. Andrew and I enjoyed listening to a live band, having a cocktail, and eating a sloppy joe! If you're ever in Key West, even for just a day this is a piece of history you don't want to miss!
After Sloppy Joe's, we ventured over to Willie T's. We were immediately drawn in by all of the one dollar bills hanging up all over the place. There are thousands of them and we had to leave our mark as well! Willie T's had live music and its open air so it is a really fun place to stop.
During our second day in Key West we wanted to have a picnic on the beach so we went to a place called Blue Heaven Restaurant to pick up food to go. A local actually recommended it to us and the food was amazing! I had a huge grilled cheese with bacon and Andrew had a chicken salad sandwich. They even boxed the sandwiches up for us so we'd be able to carry them easily out to the beach. That evening we went and ate at Sara Beth's, which provides both indoor and outdoor dining and its building is a historic 1800s clapboard landmark building. The food here was delicious! We tried the velvety cream of tomato soup, the crispy calamari, and the shrimp and grits! The service was some of the best I'd ever experienced, even the host was top notch! Make a reservation if you'd like to eat here and I've heard brunch is awesome, I wish we would have had time to go back.
Our last night in Key West happened to fall on Christmas Eve. We didn't want to do the traditional Christmas food so we decided to do a traditional Key West spot called Schooner Wharf. This place has been voted Best Local's bar six years in a row. They have really unique nautical decor, live music, great food, and it's open-air. Schooner Wharf is located right on the Historic Harbor Walk. We tried conch fritters here for the first time. Conch fritters are to the Keys what hush-puppies are to the south. You can find fritters on the menu just about any place you go so we decided to give them a try and oh my, they were great! They even came with a Key Lime mustard sauce, it sounds weird but it tasted amazing! For our entree we shared the seared sesame tuna and oh my goodness was it fresh and so good! The entree came with seaweed salad which I have never liked any other time I've tried it but this place had the best seaweed salad ever! This was far from our traditional Christmas Eve dinner but you can't beat fresh seafood at an open-air restaurant, with a sand floor, watching yachts float by.
There are lots of good eateries in Key West. My major regret was that I didn't have time to try other places; however, I was really happy with our choices. I'd give all of the places listed five stars!
On Christmas Eve 2016, Andrew and I visited the Dry Tortugas National Park. We boarded the Yankee Freedom III Ferry in Key West to travel to Dry Tortugas. The National Park is made up of seven small islands but the main attraction is the historic Fort Jefferson, which was once used as a prison and blockade during the Civil War. I was surprised to find out it was a Union fort; because of its location I would have originally thought it was a Confederate fort. The Union used Fort Jefferson to block the Confederates from Southern shipping. It was also used as a prison for criminals and Union deserters during the war. The most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was imprisoned for his involvement in the assasination of President Abraham Lincoln. We were able to see the prison cell that Dr. Mudd was kept in. Though used briefly during both world wars, it has long since been closed. The actual island was discovered in 1513 and the fort was constructed in the 1800's. You can travel to the Dry Tortugas via the ferry, a charted or private boat, or a charted or private plane. If you can afford to take the plane out to the fort, that's what you should do! Doing so will allow you additional time to explore Dry Tortugas. We went by ferry and left the port at 8am and had to be back by 5pm so we only got to spend four hours on the island.
Here are some facts that I found really cool on Fort Jefferson: 16 million bricks were used, they had 420 heavy guns, 37 powder magazines, a moat, and casemates (gunrooms) form the backbone of the fort. Construction began on the fort in 1846, and although it was never officially finished, it remains one of the most historic places to visit in The Keys. When you travel to Dry Tortugas you have the option of going on a 40-60 minute guided tour led by one of their expert naturalists or you can download a self-guided tour and view it on your cellphone or other device. Andrew and I elected to do the self-guided tour so we could check out exactly what we wanted to see and spend more of our time doing other things on the island. If you're mainly going to see the fort then I'd recommend doing the guided tour. The fort was like nothing I've ever seen before, it was absolutley massive and took up almost the entire island. There was also a moat around the fort which was neat since the only moats I've ever seen are around sand castles!
Andrew and I were completley in awe of the fort and were so glad we got to see it but the main things we wanted to do were snorkel, fly fish (Andrew), and relax on the secluded beaches. The water is crystal clear so snorkeling is a must! We took our own gear but the Yankee Freedom III provided snorkel gear to anyone that needed it. It depends on the way the wind is blowing which side of the island you'll want to snorkel on but I was able to see three barracudas, a moon jellyfish, and lots of other fish. Andrew didn't catch anything this trip but he did have fun fly fishing. I think it's also worth the trip out to the Dry Tortugas just for the beach. The sand is soft and powdery and the beaches are pristine. The only peope that stay on the island are the park rangers and the campers so it feels very private and secluded.
We really enjoyed our trip to Dry Tortugas and want to visit again. My only regret is that we didn't have enough time on this trip. I hope you enjoy these photos! If you've got any questions about our Dry Tortugas excursion commend below.
I don't think there is a better way to spend a weekend other than with good friends and a mini vacation which is exactly what Andrew and i did for the first weekend of October. Our friends, Eric and Rachel, are great and they make amazing hosts; this is our second time visiting them in six months. Madison, WI is only about 6 hours from Omaha so we're able to make the trip for the weekend and still have plenty of time for fun!
This trip, we basically ate our way through Madison. Eric cooked a phenomenal dish one night which consisted of homemade spaghetti and meatballs, yum! The photo below really doesn't do it justice.
Some of the standout food items of the weekend included: amazing sushi from Red, steel pan pizza from Lucille's, and fried cheese curds from The Great Dane. It's an obligation that you have to eat cheese curds while in Wisconsin, I ate them twice.
On Saturday we visited the Wollersheim Winery. We were able to tour their brand new distillery and do some spirit tasting (not my personal favorite). The distillery was really neat but the tour guide was almost overly informative. If you are a brandy drinker, they do have three different types you can try. I also tried licorice absinthe...not my best idea. Let's just say I used the "pour bucket" quite a bit. I wasn't trying to be rude but spirits aren't my thing. The winery itself is absolutely beautiful! It sits on the hillside across from the Wisconsin River about 20 minutes outside of Madison. The winery originally opened in the 1840's but since the 1970's it's been owned and operated by the Wollersheim family. It won "Small Winery of the Year" in 2015 from the San Diego International Wine Festival. We chose to take the wine tour which gave us a bit more background on the property history and a different view of the grounds. We were also permitted to go into the original wine cellar which was very neat! I was surprised that my favorite of their wines were both whites and I'm usually a red wine drinker. The Prairie Fume and the White Riesling both impressed me. The Wollersheim Winery was a fun day trip for us!
Sadly enough, our weekend had to come to an end and we hit the road back home. Thank goodness for audio books! Until next time Madison, Peace!
Savannah is the oldest city in the state of Georgia and one of my favorite cities in the United States. While I was vacationing just an hour north of Savannah, a friend and I took a day trip into the city. Each year Savannah attracts millions of visitors to it's historic cobblestone streets and there are so many reasons why! We only had a few hours to spend in Savannah which means I had to choose wisely on how we spent our day.
If you've never been to Savannah before, let me clue you in on something: eating as much as you can is a must! This town boasts some of the best food I have ever tasted! I originally wanted to try a place called Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room which is only open for lunch Monday-Friday. Its southern style cooking and seating which means that you share a table with strangers and platters of food are placed on the table. The menu changes daily and it's a staple in downtown Savannah. I had heard so many good reviews about this restaurant so my friend, Erin, and I got there right after Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room opened and found the line was already out the door and almost down an entire block. I asked a lady at the front of the line how long she'd been waiting and she said at least one hour, which means she was there waiting well before the restaurant opened and she still hadn't been seated. I'm guessing the food is as good as everyone says; I wouldn't know as we didn't want to spend an hour or more waiting in line to eat. I didn't have a plan B on food but you really can't go wrong in Savannah so I did what anyone would do, I got out my phone and Googled! We ended up walking and eating at Clary's Cafe. Clary's Cafe is world famous; it serves breakfast all day but they also have a lunch menu as well. The food was stellar and the service was great as well. It had a very homey feel to it, I'd recommend this place to anyone and if you go, get the special of the day! After you've had your fill of southern cooking, you'll need dessert. You can't visit Savannah without getting a pecan praline. I'd recommend purchasing these treats at River Street Sweets. They make their candies right in front of you and give out samples! After you walk around on the downtown River Walk, you'll probably be tired, hot (depending on the time of year), and of course thirsty! Be sure to stop in Wet Willie's to grab a libation. You can enjoy people watching through their glass windows or you can leave with your drink and keep going. It is legal to drink alcohol on the streets in Savannah but it's illegal to "double fist" so make sure you have just one drink in your hand.
You'll find beautiful homes, parks, and churches in the historic district. Erin and I mainly walked around for a few hours just looking at the beautiful architecture of the city. We visited plenty of parks but my favorite and probably the most well-known is Forsyth which is the largest park in the historical district of Savannah. There were people in the park playing instruments and the fountain is magnificent. Both locals and tourists enjoy it's offerings. We also visited The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and my oh my were we impressed! The church is free to enter and is absolutely breathtaking! I was most impressed with the stained glass art. This Cathedral should absolutely be on your Savannah agenda!
With only a few hours, we managed to pack quite a bit into our little day trip despite all of the walking and near heat exhaustion.
Andrew had a work conference in Orlando, Florida and of course, I tagged along! Fortunately, two of my friends were in town because their husbands were attending the same conference; therefore, we all got to spend time together. The three of us girls decided we wanted to go to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter which means we'd be going to Universal Studios- Islands of Adventure. Granted, I would have gone to Universal Studios alone but it was much more fun with friends!
I'm a huge Harry Potter fan; I've read all of the books and some of them I've read multiple times. I was so ecstatic to visit the theme park! Walking through The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was like being in the movies. We rode all of the rides, tasted Butterbeer (get the frozen kind), and walked in all of the shops. The architects that design those theme parks are truly artists. I couldn't believe how well they captured exactly how J.K. Rowling describes these places in the books! We took time to walk around and ride rides in the rest of the park but found ourselves starting and ending the day in Hogsmeade. It was a magical day, I would have paid the park entrance fee just to go into Harry Potter World.
My three favorite things about the day were:
We chose not to buy the park-to-park pass so we weren't able to ride the Hogwarts Express over to Diagon Alley. We did get a picture with the conductor and he never broke character once! The entire experience was magnificent and I'm so glad I was finally able to visit!
Andrew and I have been wanting to travel to South Dakota ever since we moved to Nebraska and since we are so close we thought that it would be fun to make it a road trip adventure! Because Andrew's mom, Charlotte (all three of us pictured above), was on Spring Break, we invited her to join us and were please that she accepted! Although, we only had two days in The Black Hills, with my ninja planning skills operating at full capacity, we were able to make our adventures work!
We stayed in Hill City, SD which I would highly recommend. It was the absolute perfect location! South Dakota is a big state, as you know, and most of the things I'm going to mention were not close to each other. Hill City proved to be the most central location to all of the large attractions. We chose to visit South Dakota in the off season because we were told from May-August it's swarming with tourists! It was so nice to be able to take our time doing whatever we wanted and not have to fight the crowds. I'd highly recommend visiting in April or September if you're able. From what I understand, April can be a hit of miss as there might still be snow. We got really lucky because while we were there, it was mostly sunny and a comfortable temperature.
It was a bit chilly on our first day so we decided to do the activities that were for the most part, indoors. Early that morning, we drove to Jewel Cavern in Custer, SD. The cave is the third longest cave in the world with over 180 miles of mapped passage ways and more to be discovered. We chose to do the Scenic Tour which provides an opportunity to visit different cave chambers and see many of the "decorations" the cave has to offer. You will be walking up and down 723 stairs and a 1/2 mile in total so make sure you bring comfortable shoes and dress warmly. The cave temperature is always 49 degrees Fahrenheit. I've been inside several caves throughout my travels and this was by far the most diversified. It had very different formations than what I was accustomed. The tour is only $12 per person and totally worth it! You could pick a cold and/or rainy day to do this tour as it's all obviously underground. The next thing on our list for the day was Custer State Park. This was by far my favorite activity that we did in South Dakota. We chose to drive on the Wildlife Loop which travels through 18 miles of open grasslands and hills. This is where you have a chance to see much of the park's wildlife. You might see bison, pronghorn, whitetail and mule deer, elk, coyotes, burros, prairie dogs, eagles, hawks, and a variety of other birds. The wildlife did not disappoint us; we got up close and personal with some of the animals. The loop itself isn't long but we spent about two hours driving it because we stopped for so many pictures and to watch the animals roam. This loop gives a whole new meaning to "where the buffalo roam..." After our drive through the park, we drove back to our rental cabin on The Needles highway which is also a must do in South Dakota! The rock formations are insane and you might even see a mountain goat climbing to the top! We were really lucky and were able to spot a lot of wildlife. If you have binoculars, take them with you!
On our second day we traveled to Mt. Rushmore which is about 20 minutes from Hill City. I've heard mixed reviews about the mountain, some people loved it and some people weren't as impressed. I'm going to say I was very impressed!!! We spent a total of four hours at the National Memorial. First, I'd recommend stopping at the book store (right when you walk in, to your left) to grab a map, then walk through all of the state flags where you'll come to the first viewing point of this amazing sculpture. Before you do anything else, you'll want to visit the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center to view exhibits and a 15 minute film describing the reasons for and methods used in carving Mount Rushmore. I highly recommend that you allow sufficient time in the Visitors Center to read about the exhibits. If you're there around the lunch hour, you should eat at the cafe, it's good food and allows you to spend more time on the mountain. Once you have a full belly and some extra energy you'll want to walk the Presidential Trail which is about 0.6 miles long. This trail allows you to get up close and personal with the mountain sculpture and possibly see some area wildlife. Are you noticing a wildlife trend?! If you visit May-September, then you'll get the chance to see the Sculptor's Studio, where Gutzon Borglum spent much of his time refining his scale model. After our walk, we went back to the cafe and got a very large ice cream treat! The entire experience at Mount Rushmore was amazing and I'd go back again and again as I'm sure I'd learn something new each time. We were on a high after this experience and wanted to continue the mountain sculpture theme. Next on our list was The Crazy Horse Memorial. This is a mountain monument under construction on private land in The Black Hills. It's about 15 minutes from Mount Rushmore. The sculpture depicts Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota warrior. I am positive that when this memorial is finished it will be absolutely stunning; however, it has been in progress since 1948 and is far from completion. If ever completed, it will become the world's largest sculpture. I hate to this but, I was not impressed. It cost $28 per car to get onto the property and there isn't much to see once you are there. If you're interested in Indian artifacts, then I'd say you should definitely stop by but if you only want to catch a glimpse of the sculpture, you can see it from the road and read all about it online. Before coming on the trip, I was told by numerous people that we had to stop here but I was seriously underwhelmed. I think I was disappointed because the chances of this memorial to be finished in my lifetime are slim-to-none. I will say, it's a site to behold as the memorial is massive and will truly be a masterpiece if ever completed.
Our last adventure in South Dakota was to The Badlands. We drove the 240 Loop Road which took us about an hour and a half. The Badlands is a place everyone should see at least once in his/her lifetime! I've never seen anything like it before, you truly feel like you should be on Mars when you're driving through the park. The Badlands draw visitors from around the world and the geological features are striking! Because ancient mammals such as the saber-toothed cat once roamed here, it's also one of the world's richest fossil beds. I can't explain the site here, it's something you need to experience for yourself.
Because we were driving to South Dakota from Omaha, Nebraska we were able to do a lot of extra stops on our road trip. We stopped at two total tourist traps: The Corn Palace and Wall Drug. Both of these places are now on the list of "I've been there but won't go again." Neither place is a must do but if you're already driving through you might as well stop. If you don't have the option to drive and you're flying from South Dakota I'd say you should stay in Hill City unless you're interested in good food and night life. Hill City has very few places to eat and nothing to do past 8 o'clock pm. Our family was totally fine with that as we had a hot tub at our cabin and plenty of board games to keep us happy. Additionally, we were so tired by night fall that we had no energy to do anything. If you're interested in staying for an extended period and you'd rather stay in a more happening place, I'd recommend Rapid City. If you choose Rapid City you'll be driving anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to do any of the things I've mentioned. Feel free to contact me about any questions from our trip or if you'd like the information about the cabin we stayed in. Also, I'd love to hear your commends if you've been to South Dakota before and agree or disagree about any of the adventures listed!
A southern girl living in the Mid-West. My husband and I love to travel and go on new adventures--We love Jesus and the blessings He provides!