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!

Badlands

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.

Happy Travels!

Scotts Bluff

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. 

Chimney Rock

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. 

Carhenge

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

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. 

Our next destination….South Dakota!

Happy Travels!

Petroglyph National Monument

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!

Carlsbad Caverns

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.

Happy Trails!

Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier National Monument is one of my favorite places. We have been here many times and keep coming back. It is just an engaging park that really draws the kids in and focus their attention on history, hiking, and having some fun. 

Our latest trip to Bandelier was in March 2022. We lucked out with some beautiful, cool weather along with sunshine. Even though March is technically the off season, we still made sure to get to the parking lot at the Visitor Center early to snag a spot. We aren’t the only ones that love this place. The most popular trail is the Pueblo (or Main) Loop Trail that starts directly behind the visitors center. 

This trail is 1.4 miles and is fairly smooth until you get to some sites in which you will want to climb up. There are some very uneven steps, tight spaces and ladders. The ladders are the best part. 

You can go around the step/climbing portion if needed. You can view the cliff houses from the lower portion and then both sections will meet up at the lower cliff dwellings and long houses. I highly recommend going up to the cliff houses and climbing the houses if possible. The views are worth it.

The long houses are interesting as well with some paint still visible.

You can retrace your steps at the end of the trail or loop through via the Nature trail to return back to the Visitor Center. The Nature trail offers more shade and has a little creek running by it. So that is always our choice for the return. 

If you visit in the Spring, I would recommend the Falls Trail to see the winter runoff. The falls can dry up in the summer. This trail is more difficult and honestly I wouldn’t recommend it with small children. Also check for ice or snow on the trail due to recent weather. This trail starts near the visitor center so you can decide if the conditions are right for you after you arrive. 

For Your Trip

Its important to note that Bandelier is an extremely popular spot. In the off season, you can drive down the canyon to the visitor center and park but get there early. In the summer, you must take a shuttle if arriving between 9am and 3pm. The shuttle starts at the White Rock Visitor Center. This is located 20 min away from the Bandelier visitor center and you will most likely pass it first if you are coming in from Santa Fe. So check your watch when you are in White Rock to save yourself a long trip into the canyon and back. 

Bandelier is 1 hr from Santa Fe. There are limited services during parts of this drive with basically nothing between White Rock and the entrance to the Monument. I recommend checking your fuel gauge and bringing some snacks/packed lunch. There is a cafe at the Bandelier Visitor Center, which had lovely coffee. However, this place can get crowded. There is also a lovely patio just outside this cafe with picnic tables that you can sit and have your lunch or finish up your junior ranger booklets.

If you can’t make it to Bandelier this year or just want a sneak peek before you go, their website also offers a virtual tour. You can also check there for closures due to weather or fires (which unfortunately happened recently).

Bandelier National Monument is an absolute must. Add it to your bucket list and I’m sure you will be coming back again after that first visit.