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!
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!
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 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
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.
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.
As you are cruising down I-90 in South Dakota, you start to notice a slow change in the scenery in the distance. Then suddenly rising from the wind swept prairies and cow pastures, you are greeted by the stunning formations of Badlands National Park.
The Badlands are just absolutely beautiful. I don’t know what I was expecting but I wasn’t expecting all of this:
The park is very large and the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the main visitor center for the whole park. Depending on how you enter the park, the visitor center may not be close. The parking lot is also very small compared to the size of the park so just a heads up there.
There are lots of great view points and kid friendly trails. We enjoyed the Window Trail, Door Trail and the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead.
The most popular hike in the park is the Notch Trailhead. This trail leads you to a log ladder that you can climb up to an awesome view. Unfortunately, it had rained the night before our visit and this trail was too muddy for our liking during our visit but you should try it for yours.
We were able to see several kinds of animals throughout the park. The prairie dogs were plentiful and we even saw some roaming bison. The bison are mainly near the Pinnacles Entrance as there is more open prairie at this end of the park.
Another great thing about Badlands is that there is another National Historic site close by. Located on Interstate 90 is the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
This is an absolutely fascinating stop where you can learn about the Cold War and the nuclear arsenal stored nearby. You stop by the visitor center to watch the movie, see the displays and gather the Jr Ranger book. Then you can stop at other locations along I90 and see the now decommissioned missile sites and bunkers. Don’t skip over this stop.
Another great stop on I90 is Wall Drug Store. You can’t miss it because there are a million signs along the interstate pointing you that way. This is a large complex filled with a drug store, restaurant, shops, kids play area and even a splash pad. There are Tesla charging stations also available. It is an iconic stop and its just plain fun.
Just as you are leaving Wall Drug, you will pass right by the National Grasslands Visitor Center. The Visitor Center is currently being renovated but you can still pick up a super fun Jr Ranger booklet and earn another badge. The booklet is focused on the black footed ferret and my kids really enjoyed this one.
The Badlands were stunning and, despite the location appearing the be in the middle of nowhere, there is actually a lot to be done in this area of South Dakota.
As you are meandering your way through the fields of Western Nebraska, you will suddenly be greeted by a gigantic series of bluffs that have risen out of the ground seemingly from nowhere. Welcome to Scotts Bluff National Monument!
The Bluffs are a stark contrast to the surrounding plains and due to this they were a landmark for the covered wagons making their way along the Oregon Trail (also California and Mormon Trails).
We stopped in to the newly renovated visitor center. There were lots of kid-friendly, hands-on exhibits. We also took the short Oregon Trail Pathway that leaves from the visitor center.
This brings you to the covered wagon replicas but also brought us to some living history demonstrations. These re-enactors taught us about how food and water was transported, common kids toys, and how to assess a buffalo chip to see if it is ready to be used for fuel. My kids were fascinated by the buffalo chip thing and this would come in handy when we visited Custer State Park. Ha! If you walk to the end of this trail you will also see the old wagon wheel ruts that mark the Oregon Trail.
When returning to the visitor center, you can either take the Saddle Rock trail (1.6 miles) up to the top of the Bluff or you can drive to the top. We opted to drive.
There are 2 overlook trails at the top. Both are easy to manage and you can view down to the valley with the visitor center or look over the town of Scottsbluff.
This was a quick stop and you can easily do some other activities in the area to complete your day. May I suggest:
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
This is located northwest of Scottsbluff. It is a bit out of the way but still fun and they do offer an engaging junior ranger program. The visitor center is surprisingly big with large fossil displays. The Native American artifacts and story steal the show.
There are two trails available in this monument and we opted for the Daemonlix Trail. There is a Paleocastor fossil displayed on this trail. This is the spiral corkscrew fossil that made this monument famous. The story is really interesting but I don’t want to ruin the surprise.
This famous rock (that is displayed on the Nebraska quarter) is due east of Scottsbluff. You can see the rock from the Overlook Trails at Scotts Bluff NM. This was also a landmark for travelers on the trails. There is a hands on museum located here but it is not included in the National Park Pass.
This is advertised as “The Nebraska answer to Stonehenge”. It just cracks me up. We were thwarted in our visit due to a Thunderstorm and I was devastated. It looks amazing. This is also east of Scottsbluff in Alliance, NE so you could loop this together with Chimney Rock.
Runzas are these doughy balls full of ground beef (along with cabbage and onion I believe). They are a Nebraska tradition and I’m pretty sure you are required to eat at least one before leaving the state. The Runza chain restaurant that is located throughout the state will help you accomplish this goal.
Town of Scottsbluff
The town of Scottsbluff itself is fairly large. It has large chain restaurants, shopping and hotels. We stayed overnight here to break up the trip. There are other tourist attractions in the town including the Legacy of the Plains Museum. So don’t just skip over Scottsbluff.
Petroglyph National Monument is kind of quirky. This National Monument is located in the middle of the suburbs of Albuquerque. The Visitor Center has no trails and does not connect to other parts of the park. Oh and there is no museum. Don’t worry. It’s still worth a stop.
You can swing by the Visitor Center to pick up a map or other information before starting your journey. However, everything is available online if needed. We stopped at the Visitor Center first so we could pick up the Jr Ranger Booklets before heading out to the trails. There are 3 canyons to choose from when deciding which route you would like to take. You do have to drive between each canyon area as they are also not connected. I told you it was quirky. We decided to complete the Boca Negra Canyon.
There are 3 trails at the Boca Negra Canyon: Mesa Point, Macaw and Cliff Base. The park service lists the Macaw and Cliff Base as moderate intensity and Mesa Point as strenuous. However the Macaw and Cliff Base were very short trails that can be completed quickly. None of these trails are stroller or wheelchair friendly but they are not difficult. Our kiddos were able to easily complete them.
Petroglyphs were easily viewable from the trails.
Boca Negra Canyon is the only fully developed area at the National Monument so there were bathrooms, water fountains, picnic tables and viewing binoculars. The other canyons do not have water available so make sure to bring your own.
This ended up being just a quick stop but the kiddos learned a lot. The National Monument is so easily located in town that you can visit this place in the morning and still have plenty of time for other activities in the day. Happy Hiking!
White Sands is stunning. The bright white gypsum sands are constantly changing. The winds shift the dunes in all directions and the sunlight makes the view morph throughout the day. We arrived in the rain the first day but were lucky to have time to return the next morning. The morning light made it feel like we had arrived at a completely new destination.
On the first day, we dodged rain drops to complete the Dune Life Nature Trail and the Interdune Boardwalk trail. The boardwalk trail is stroller and wheelchair friendly. Both of these trails are very short, kid friendly and have informative signs throughout.
The rain became more intense as the day moved on. So we completed the Dunes Drive and hiked up to see some views. However, we decided to wait for the next day for sledding.
When we arrived the next day to sunshine, the view was completely different.
Sledding is the most popular event at White Sands and we had to try it out.
The kids absolutely loved it. Even the adults gave it a try.
It was cooler in the morning and you could almost be tricked into believing we were sledding in the snow.
The kids could have stayed here all day.
After a fun morning in the sand, we headed out for Albuquerque.
For Your Trip
The White Sands visitor center is located about 20 minutes from Alamogordo. White Sands Missile Range also happens to be in this area. So the road out to the visitor center is sometimes closed due to missile testing. Check the parks website for closure updates while you are planning your visit.
You are going to want to sled in the park. Guaranteed. There are several options when it comes to sleds. You can bring your own from home, buy some at the visitor center or buy them in Alamogordo. The sleds are just basic circular snow sleds. They are twice the price at the visitor center as they are in town. During our visit, Walmart was sold out but Big 5 Sporting Goods store had them available right by the front door. If you have time I would recommend buying them in town.
The visitor center gift shop used to buy back the sleds and give some money back. However, when we were there they had stopped the buy back program and would give you a sticker or some other small item for bringing back the sled. Since the program changed, some people were bringing back sleds and trading them with other people in the parking lot. Also when we arrived early the next morning before the visitor center opened, there was a sled someone just left outside the gift shop. So if you get lucky, that might be an option.
A lot of people were asking about the Trinity Site (where the first atomic bomb was tested) at the visitor center. White Sands Missile Range manages this site and not the National Park. The Trinity site is only open to visitors twice a year on the first Saturday in April and in October. You must contact the Missile Range Public Affairs department or the Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce to arrange a visit.
Don’t forget to stop by the World’s Largest Pistachio on your way out of town! Happy Travels!
Carlsbad Caverns is one of the most unique National Parks in America. Yes there is Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, etc and they are all amazing (and you should go visit them). Carlsbad stands out from the rest in that this national park is mostly underground. It is reported that Will Rogers called Carlsbad Caverns “The Grand Canyon with a roof over it” and I think that is the perfect analogy.
Like most National Parks these days, we had to book our entrance tickets in advance. You can still use your annual pass to get in but you must book an entrance time. We opted for early in the morning as once you are in side there is no time limit on leaving so the middle of the day the cave can get quite crowded. You will check in at the front desk to confirm your entrance ticket (and show your annual pass or pay the entrance fee) and then you are directed back toward the elevator that will take you down into the Big Room. What is unique about the elevator is that it will show you how many feet you are descending.
You will descend 750ft in total through solid limestone. Another option to enter the cave is via the natural entrance trail. This is a 1.25 mile trail that starts with descending switchbacks all the way down to the first discovered entrance. It is fairly steep so you will have to decide what is best for your visit. Either way you end up in the Big Room and it is stunning.
The most common trail inside the Cavern is the Big Room Trail which is 1.25 miles long. About half way through this trail there is a bailout point which allows you to cut through and make the route shorter. Warning: There are only bathrooms near the elevators. Once you’ve started the trail there is no turning back. We may have had to hustle through the last 1/4 mile as a kiddo really needed to go despite us using the restroom before we started.
The trail was fairly easy but there are wet spots everywhere. The beginning portion of the trail is wheelchair accessible but you will have to take the shortcut portion to return and can’t do the full loop. Closed toe shoes are recommended. Low lighting is used throughout the cavern which might be a concern for some.
Besides the rush to the bathroom at the end, the kids really enjoyed being inside the cave. They became absolutely fascinated with bats.
The visitor center above the Caverns was very well done. There was fun interactive displays and a special area for junior rangers to finish up their booklets.
Overall we had a great and smooth experience at Carlsbad Caverns. But our adventure didn’t end there. We took a short detour over to Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
While doing research on our trip to Carlsbad, I stumbled upon Guadalupe Mountains National Park. It is located in Texas so I hadn’t been considering it for our New Mexico road trip. However, it is just across the state line and is actually only 45 minutes from Carlsbad Caverns. We decided we had to go check it out.
We arrived at the Pine Springs Visitor Center in the middle of a snow storm. In my mind, we were going even farther south and into Texas and therefore it would be hot. Snow was not exactly on my radar. However, mother nature had other plans.
Needless to say, all of our hiking plans were thrown aside. We were able to go into the visitor center but the main part was closed and only a small shop area was open.
For those of you that arrive when the weather is nice, there is a short Pinery Trail that is paved and is supposed to be an easy hike with kids. The most popular trail in the park is the Devil’s Hall which is 3.8 mile round trip. This trail also starts at the Pine Springs Visitor Center. Another place we were planning to stop was the Frijole Ranch Museum. We were planning to hike the Manzanita Spring trail as well which starts from the Museum. It is only a 1/2 mile trail that is easy for children. A slightly longer and more difficult hike is the Smith Spring Trail loop that also leaves from the ranch area. It is 2.3 miles but there is supposed to be a tiny waterfall and shaded area at the end. But again…..snow.
After having a picnic lunch in the car and realizing the snow was not letting up, we decided to head back to Carlsbad. We didn’t even get to see El Capitan (the most popular mountain in the park) due to the clouds 😦 We did get a small glimpse of the coral reef mountains on the way back into town. Maybe next time Guadalupe!
For Your Trip
Don’t forget to book those entrance tickets for the Cavern. The tickets come out 4 weeks in advance.
There are guided tours into other areas of the Caverns but those also need to be booked in advance.
The bats are not at Carlsbad year round. They are only there from late May to early October. When they are at the cave there are nightly bat programs and an amphitheater that you can watch them leave the cave. Pretty amazing stuff!
There are not a lot of food options for either Carlsbad Caverns or Guadalupe Mountains. I highly recommend you bring all food and water with you….and maybe a roll of toilet paper.
The masking requirements are changing frequently so check on the website before heading over to the Caverns.
The drive from Santa Fe to Carlsbad, New Mexico is long. Empty fields for 4 1/2 hours. The one thing to look forward to is the pitstop at Roswell.
I’m sure you all know the story. A mysterious object crashed into a field outside of Roswell in the summer of 1947. Was it a UFO? A weather balloon? Spycraft? The truth seems to be a bit muddled but the city of Roswell is sticking with UFO and they have bought into the story 100%.
Every part of town is Alien themed. That includes the McDonald’s shaped like a spaceship and the local minor league baseball team (Roswell Invaders) sporting an Alien Head in the middle of their team logo. Most of the main attractions are on Main Street, including the spaceship McDonald’s.
We were a little short on time during our stop so we had to pick between the International UFO Museum or the Roswell UFO Spacewalk. There was an alien autopsy scene at the International UFO museum that I thought might be a little intense for the kids so we opted for the Spacewalk.
The Roswell UFO Spacewalk is this super adorable little place put together by a charming couple. They obviously worked very hard on this blacklight walk through. Entrance fee was very reasonable and you can walk through as many times as you would like. If you have little kids, this is the stop for you. I loved this place, I loved the owners, and I loved that they seemed to do it all just for fun.
This was a great stop to stretch our legs, do some tacky tourists shopping, and then get back on the road to Carlsbad.
For Your Trip
You have to get a picture by the Roswell sign. There are signs at 4 different entrances into town and all of them are a little different. Google which one you want to stop at but you need to get that picture. Another random picture you may want to get is a piece of art called Cowboy Ruckus by John Cerney. This is located north of Roswell (about 70 miles or so).
Roswell is a good sized town. You could probably spend a whole day there as there are several parks in the area including Bottomless Lake State park and museums including Roswell Museum and a Contemporary Art Museum. The International UFO Museum looks like a great stop if you have older kids. New attractions also seem to be popping up everyday so make sure to stop at the Roswell Visitors Center for the latest info. All the major grocery store chains are in town so stock up before you head out into those open fields again. And don’t forget to watch the skies on the way out of town 😉