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Black Hills — Trip to South Dakota is rock solid

Almost any place is magical when seen through the eyes of a child.

That's doubly true of an already-beautiful place like South Dakota's Black Hills, where my husband and I took our daughters recently for a visit.

The Black Hills, and indeed most of western South Dakota, are a mass of contradictions. The Hills, as South Dakotans call them, still bear traces of the "Wild West" of the 1800s and of the mining interests that continue to hold sway in some areas, but they are also the Paha Sapa, center of Lakota spiritualism and one of the culture's most sacred places.

And then there's the contrast between the dignity and natural inspiration of places like Mount Rushmore, the under-construction Crazy Horse memorial and the area's natural wonders, and the many kitschy money-making ventures lining the Hills' scenic highways.

A South Dakota vacation always has been affordable, and it's getting more so, thanks to the new Children's Fun Pass, which offers discounts or free admission to more than 40 hotels, campgrounds and popular attractions in the Black Hills, and more across the state.

Unfortunately for us, we didn't discover the pass, which costs $15 for kids ages 6 to12, until the second of our three days there, but we'll keep it in mind for our next visit. The Black Hills are just a long day's drive from northern Utah and well worth repeat trips.

I enjoyed the Black Hills on previous visits, but having our three girls along made the place come alive. Things I'd laughed off condescendingly became fun, while others gained in poignancy and importance as we shared their stories with our daughters.

'The Shrine'

You can't skip a visit to Mount Rushmore, the granddaddy of all Hills attractions. The 60-foot-high faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln welcome visitors from a mountaintop perch 500 feet above the park's visitors center.

You can see Mount Rushmore from the road, but exploring the memorial is fun and inspiring. There's no charge to enter the park, but there is an $8 "special use fee" for using the parking structure. The fee covers you for a year, making it possible to visit the visitors center and sculptor's studio early one day, then return the next evening for the popular lighting ceremony.

Our daughters enjoyed finding the state flags of Utah and other states in which friends and relatives live as we walked down the memorial's Avenue of Flags.

They wanted to see "The Shrine to Democracy" from all angles on the sprawling Grandview Terrace. We didn't have time to walk the half-mile Presidential Trail, which has the closest views of the mountain, or visit the preserved studio of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, which contains his original model and other materials.

We did, however, watch the park's short film, "The Shrine," and wander the halls of the Lincoln Borglum Museum. Completed in 1998, the museum, named after the sculptor's son, tells the Mount Rushmore story from every conceivable angle.

The hands-down, and hands-on, kids' favorite was the exhibit in which visitors depress a big metal plunger, activating footage of some of the thousands of explosions that shaped the memorial.

The Junior Ranger program, a feature at many national parks, captivated our oldest daughter. Mount Rushmore's free Junior Ranger booklet contains activities and challenges for older and younger kids, and those who complete the book get a free certificate signed and stamped by a ranger and the chance to buy a Junior Ranger patch.

That ranger in our case was Harold Reese, a friendly and knowledgeable guide who told Emma about his job and the history of the memorial. She grinned when Reese signed her certificate and advised her to visit some of Utah's many national parks.

Then it was on to the massive main gift shop and the large concession area, which includes a place for visitors to vote for their favorite president. Not surprisingly, considering the view out the massive windows, Abraham Lincoln is the current front-runner.

A place for other heroes

Just a few minutes drive west of Mount Rushmore is the sculpture that, when completed, will dwarf it in size, if not in vision: the Crazy Horse memorial. In 1939, Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote to sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski asking him to carve a mountain sculpture in the Black Hills to honor American Indians.

"My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too," Standing Bear wrote at the time. Ziolkowski took up the challenge and made it his life's mission, eventually enlisting the help of his wife, Ruth, and seven of their 10 children.

Korczak Ziolkowski is dead now, but Ruth Ziolkowski and their children have continued his work, which includes cultural and humanitarian goals in addition to seeing the sculpture finished.

The Crazy Horse complex includes the Indian Museum of North America, the Native American Educational and Cultural Center, Ziolkowski's studio, eateries, shopping areas, a theater and performing spaces.

That's a lot of entertainment and learning for the entrance fee of $20 per car or $9 per adult, whichever is cheaper. The entire memorial is kid-friendly. The museum spaces are open and welcoming, with a full-size tepee that kids can play in and, in the studio, a huge bin of rocky debris blasted off the mountain that is free to anyone who wants to take home a piece of history.

As we admired the museum's Indian art and artifacts, our daughters were transfixed at the sight of an Indian dancer in full regalia, including a headdress and majestic feathered bustle, making his way through the museum to announce a demonstration of Indian dancing in the cultural center.

The dancers, all volunteers, gave short and pithy explanations of what each dance is about and encouraged the kids to make intimidating warrior faces, ask questions and repeat Lakota words.

We were lucky enough to visit Crazy Horse on Ruth Ziolkowski's 78th birthday, so we were on hand that night for a thrilling, 78-explosion tribute to her that ended with a real blast to continue the founders' visionary work.

Below the surface

There are some amazing things happening under the Black Hills, too. The Hills are full of caves, most of them commercial operations. However, two — Jewel Cave and Wind Cave national parks — are publicly owned.

We visited Wind Cave, an easy distance from both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. On a fairly isolated site off most main roads, the park's above-ground nature preserve shelters buffalo and other animal and plant species of the high prairie.

The cave, seventh-longest in the world (Jewel Cave is third-longest), offers tours ranging from a one-hour jaunt with only 150 stairs that starts and ends at an elevator to a four-hour "Wild Cave Tour" that requires grubby clothes and hard hats and includes a lot of crawling.

We took the Natural Entrance Tour, which starts near the cave's only known natural entrance, a meager hole about the size of a large pizza.

The many kids in our group took turns peering into the natural entrance, which either blows or sucks in air depending on the day's barometric pressure. On this day, a strong and steady current of cool air blew our hair back.

Then it was time to take a winding, narrow staircase down to the middle level of the cave, which is chock-full of side passages, vaulting rock formations and the cave's crown jewel, boxwork.

This weird-looking rock formation is, at first glance, not nearly as arresting as the stalactites and stalagmites that distinguish more famous caves. But the masses of delicately thin fins of calcite protruding from the ceilings and walls become more fascinating the more you see them.

Plus, they're rare. Wind Cave contains 97 percent of the world's known boxwork, and a substantial portion of it was on display on our tour, along with bunchy calcite formations called popcorn.

Our engaging guide talked about the formations and history of the cave, made us laugh with stories of an early guide who accidentally left a party of sightseers in the cave overnight, and both thrilled and scared the kids when he demonstrated the absolute blackness of the cave by turning off the lights for a few minutes.

Badlands beauty

For me, it's unthinkable to leave the Black Hills without driving a couple of hours east to the Badlands loop, a 32-mile jaunt off I-90 that leads through Badlands National Park and some of the oddest scenery in the world.

Early fall is a nice time to visit the Badlands; days are warm, nights are cool and most of the summer programs are still going.

The Badlands have neither the scale nor the spectacular colors of Utah parks like Canyonlands, Bryce and Zion. But there is something in the still, twisting, pink-and-tan landscape that captures the imagination. With the great vaulting bowl of the sky above and the austere, otherworldly rock formations stretching as far as the eye can see, you feel a reverence that's almost spiritual.

It's also a welcoming park, with two visitors centers, picnic areas, ample hiking and walking trails, campgrounds, guest cabins and liberal camping regulations that allow backpackers to camp anywhere not visible from roads and at least a half-mile from any road or trail.

Developed trails run anywhere from a fraction of a mile to 10 miles. We took the quarter-mile Fossil Exhibit trail, which with its raised boardwalk is fully accessible to wheelchairs. The trail loops through some nice scenery, but its primary attraction is the fossils preserved at trailside under clear domes.

In the main Ben Reifel Visitor Center just off the Badlands Loop, there's a "touch room" where kids can experience fossils and other natural wonders and, as in all national parks, a Junior Ranger program.