HOT SPRINGS, SOUTH DAKOTA — THE SOUTHERN GATEWAY TO THE BLACK HILLS

Before we purchased our motorhome we rented one, just to see if we would enjoy RVing as much as we thought we would. And, to no one’s surprise, we loved it. That trip took us to Yellowstone National Park and back, with an overnight stop in the Black Hills.

We made the obligatory visit to Mount Rushmore and the girls earned their Junior Ranger Badges, but we had time for little else, leaving us longing to return to southwestern South Dakota.

Fast forward a few years and we were back in our own RV. This time, we set up camp at the KOA in Hot Springs, the southern ‘Gateway to the Black Hills’.

Though I had a few attractions on our itinerary, this trip was more a ‘let’s explore and see what we find’ adventure, with plenty of pool time for my water babies in the evenings.

 

 

My girls are a bit horse crazy – most girls are, I think — so I had initially planned to take them to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, but tours to view the herds were booked full. With the help of the Hot Springs visitors’ bureau I learned of Windcross Conservancy, a Spanish Mustang Preservation.

 

 

 

The highlight of the conservancy is getting to meet these majestic animals and learn their history – from herds of thousands, to near extinction, and now their conservation.

After learning of animals near extinction, we moved on to a completely extinct animal – the mammoth. An on-going archeological dig, the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, is the world’s largest Columbian mammoth exhibit as well as the only site where both Columbian and Wooly Mammoths have been discovered in the same dig.

 

 

During the 30 minute tour, a guide leads you through the enclosed site, sharing bits of information, as well as the fun names the mammoths have been given. After the tour, you can explore the site at your own pace, learning about different mammoth types, the geology that created the sinkhole that trapped them, and the findings of the dig before moving on to the Ice Age Exhibit.

 

 

Here, a mammoth bone hut, looking like prehistoric Lincoln Logs, is on display along with skeletons of other extinct creatures. In the paleontology lab, you can watch and talk to paleontologists as they clean, repair, and catalog the discoveries.

 

 

Though we had plans to cook dinner at our campsite, a flier for a Chuckwagon & Cowboy Show at the Circle B Ranch caught my eye. It’s more than just dinner and a show. Arrive early to let the kids pan for gems, learn to shoot (with wax bullets), practice their ropin’ skills, and help catch a bandit!

 

 

After the kids caught the Circle B bandit, dinner was served, Chuckwagon style – you wait in line with your tin plate and the food is slapped on. As you eat, the Circle B Cowboys perform short, humorous skits and old-time music.

The next morning, my heart was set on cycling the Mickenson Trail – or at least a bit that was nearby. The old rail line stretches over 100 miles through the Black Hills.

 

 

Though the trail has only a small grade, pulling a tag-along on the gravel path proved to be a workout! We rode northward on the path for an hour or so, stopping for glimpses of wildlife, interesting rock formations, and to just take in the beauty around us.

 

 

Turning around to ride back to the car, we learned a secret: start at the north and ride south! It’s much easier as the trail goes, ever so slightly, downhill!

After all that riding, we were hungry! Luckily, after a few conversations with locals, we learned that the best food in the Black Hills was served at a small bar in Pringle.

 

 

I’ll admit a bit of trepidation as we pulled up to the Hitch Rail. It looked, from the outside, every bit the ‘biker bar’ it had once been (and still is on one side). Thankfully, we made it past the exterior because inside was the best food in the Black Hills! Chef Dennis, a former executive chef in Houston, makes everything from scratch. Everything – from the buffalo burger to the 4 cheese mac & cheese – they were both incredible.

Bellies comfortably filled, we made our way to Wind Cave National Park and were lucky enough to get spots on the final cave tour of the day. As we waited for the tour, the girls worked through their Junior Ranger books.

 

 

Our 1 ½ hour tour began with an elevator ride deep into the earth. Our guide, Ranger Whitney, led us through tunnels, down many stairs, and into caverns, while sharing the cave’s unique formations and interesting history.

Our final morning brought wet, cool weather, so we packed quickly and began our journey home. Armed with even more information on sights to see and things to do, a return to southwestern South Dakota is definitely in our plans.