Chapel in the Hills

We had an amazing trip to Norway in 2019. You can see more info on that here. However, it was such a busy trip that we did miss out on some stops that I really wanted to see. One of those stops was Borgund Stave Church (Borgund Stavkirke). Well luck was on my side! I got a second chance in the most unlikely place….Rapid City, South Dakota.

Rapid City is the home to Chapel in the Hills. It is an exact replica of Borgund Stave.

The back story is kind of crazy. A Lutheran radio show host started the idea to build the church. They raised the funds and the Norwegian Department of Antiquities provided a set of blueprints of the original Borgund church. They built the church exactly the same and even brought in a Norwegian woodcarver to complete all the details. IN SOUTH DAKOTA.

Chapel in the Hills is tucked in a quiet neighborhood on the edge of Rapid City. There is a Stabbur (or store house) on site that is used as the visitor center and gift shop. There is also a log cabin museum. But the main attraction is the gorgeous Church.

Visiting the Chapel is free and open to visitors in the summer. Completely worth a stop on your South Dakota road trip!

Storybook Island

There is a little slice of kids paradise hiding in Rapid City. It is the most enchanting, with a little side of nostalgia, playground you can find. It is Storybook Island.

There are different areas set up around the 8.5 acre park. You’ll see some familiar characters from Princesses to Pooh. There are slides, swings and climbing areas but a lot of the sections are designed for children to engage in imaginative play. My kids absolutely loved it.

There is also a train and merry-go-round that are an additional fee but since this whole place is FREE it is worth it. 

Did you read that? FREE! This amazing place is FREE.

The kids loved this place so much that we went here twice.

Storybook Island is an actual dream and we recommend it to all of our friends who are traveling with kids through Rapid City in the summer. If you are in the area you have to stop by!

Devils Tower

Ok I know Devils Tower (Bears Lodge) is in Wyoming but it was actually a perfect addition to our South Dakota road trip. The monument is located in the Northeast corner of the state and it made sense to loop it in to our road trip. The Tower looms large over the flat plains that surround it.

Devils Tower was the first National Monument and it continues to maintain its popularity through all these years. We are talking celebrity status popularity. Despite the monument’s extreme popularity, the visitor center is actually rather small and the parking lot matches. I can not stress this enough that you have to get there early.

Once you are parked, you can walk toward the visitor center and you will find newspaper stands outside of the building. You can pick up a junior ranger booklet and the badge inside of these. Also the restroom entrance is located on the outside of the visitor center. So if you need either of these don’t bother going into the small building. To also reduce crowds in the visitor center there was a small covered gazebo like area just before the start of the Tower Trail. There were rangers stationed here answering questions for people before they started their hike.

We completed the Tower Trail, which is a paved loop trail around the monument. It is 1.3 miles long and once you ascend to the main loop then it is fairly flat though I would say not really wheelchair or stroller friendly. It was interesting to see the Tower from various angles and lighting.

The junior ranger book was excellent and it helped engage the kiddos during the walk. Something to note on your hike. There are prayer cloths throughout the trees that you will notice during the walk. You are not supposed to touch them or photograph them. 

After completing our hike, we started heading for the exit but there was one more place we needed to stop: The Wind Circle Statue or Sacred Circle of Smoke Statue.

This statue was created by the Japanese artist Junkyu Muto. It is one in a series of statues around the world to promote peace. It is supposed to represent the smoke that rises from a pipe when first lit and to acknowledge the multiple Native American tribes in the area that consider this place sacred. There is also signage here that describes the Lakota story of Pte-san win-an and it is worth the read. 

Surprisingly, this area of the park was absolutely empty (near the Belle Fourche Campground). We were the only ones there to see the sculpture and there was plenty of parking places. It was a beautiful and serene spot and I highly recommend stopping here. It is a nice way to complete your trip to the Tower. 

A couple of add ons for a loop trip from South Dakota

On the way back, we detoured so that we could see the “Geographic Center of the US” located in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. I’m just going to post the sign here because it was shocking to me that it would be located here so here is the explanation.

There was a nice visitor center here that was kid friendly and this giant marker.

It was cute but if you are in a hurry you can probably skip it 🙂

After this stop we headed to Spearfish, South Dakota. We were planning on spending our entire afternoon here. We arrived at the first waterfall, got a photo and then a massive rainstorm rolled in completely dashing our afternoon plans. Spearfish (the canyon and town) looked absolutely stunning. We will have to return on a sunnier day.

Don’t forget Devils Tower National Monument as an add on for your South Dakota road trip! Happy Travels!

Mt Rushmore

Mt Rushmore is one of those iconic stops. It is not the biggest or prettiest and it is not without its own controversy. However, it is just one of those road trip stops that has to be done. If you are in South Dakota, you need to go visit the Presidents and let me get you through the Mt Rushmore Checklist.

Step 1: Picture with the State Flag

Every state flag is displayed on the walkway up toward the viewing point. Find your flag and snap that picture. Come on! Everyone’s doing it.

Step 2: Picture with the Presidents

Self explanatory.

Step 3: Go to the Visitor Center/Museum

Ok this one is trickier than it sounds. When you first walk into the Memorial, you will find an information center located on the right. There are park rangers there and you can pick up the Jr Ranger booklet and brochures here. This space is small and is just a quick info stop. It is not the main visitor center and a lot of people are confused by this. To reach the actual Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center and the attached museum, you need to walk all the way down to the amphitheater. You then take the stairs (or elevator) down into the amphitheater area and the entrance to the visitor center is located there. Apparently, a lot of visitors miss the museum because it is not in an obvious location. We found the museum very interesting and there were some hands on activities for the kids. There is a Park Ranger desk as well and the kiddos were able to get their junior ranger badges at this location.

Step 4: Go for a hike 

There are a couple of trails available at the Memorial. The Presidential Trail is probably the most popular and it does a loop that goes closer to the mountain with view points. Warning: these trails can get very crowded but worth it for some better views.

Step 5: Get an ice cream

Ok but this isn’t just any ice cream. All of the little cafes and kiosks offer a vanilla ice cream that is made from a recipe that was recorded by Thomas Jefferson. I guess you could say the first American version of ice cream. The kids loved it and its a nice treat to finish your trip to Mt Rushmore. 

Other Info:

Just a reminder: Mt Rushmore doesn’t have an admission fee but the parking is NOT free. You have to pay for your parking ticket at one of the many kiosks located around the Memorial before heading back to your car.

Seeing the whole Memorial doesn’t take that long. We started our morning here and still had time to visit another stop (see below) before lunch. Add more time if you are going to stay and watch the film or other program that may be available. 

Mt Rushmore is famous world wide but unlike the bigger parks, there just isn’t a lot of space to spread out. So this place gets crazy busy. Just be aware as that can be daunting at times.

Cosmos Mystery Area

On our way to Rapid City from Mt Rushmore, we came across the Cosmos Mystery Area. This is a super fun roadside attraction. Our kids were absolutely amazed by this place and it made the detour worth it for us. I don’t want to give away too many secrets so here are just some pictures to convince you that this place is worth a Google. 

Happy Travels!