Posts Tagged ‘South Dakota with Kids’

Another hidden gem in South Dakota is The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs.

This is an active archeological dig at the site of a prehistoric sinkhole into which hundreds of Woolly Mammoths fell and ultimately died.  The very informative guided tour begins with a short film, then leads you through the dig site to see mammoth bones being excavated at various levels.  The neat thing about this tour is that these are the actual mammoth bones, not plaster casts or replicas.

Visitors listen to the guide at banks of phone receivers placed at various stops throughout the tour as she directs attention to certain things.  We learned a lot about the archaeological process and what they have learned about the behavior of mammoths through this research.

Miraculously, the site was accidentally discovered during a large scale residential construction project and saved from destruction.

There were no archaeologists working the day we visited, but many days you can see the scientists in action.  During the summer, the site offers a “Junior Paleontologist Excavation Program” where kids ages 4-13 can learn real excavation techniques.  Unfortunately, the program had just ended for the year, and our kids were really disappointed.

After the 30 minute tour, visitors are free to go back and more closely at any part of the dig site.  There is also a large room of exhibits to explore and an extensive gift shop.

Allison’s take (age 11):

The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota, was really interesting.  About 11,000 years ago, there was a really big sinkhole which a lot of male mammoths fell into and died.  Now people are excavating the sinkhole and many skeletons have been found.  55 tusks have been found have been found making 26 and a half mammoths so far.  We went on a “telephone tour”, meaning the guide talked to us at certain points through a phone.

The fossil footprints look something like huge shoe soles, and each fossilized tooth was bigger than my hand.

plaster cast of a mammoth footprint

“Murray” Antoinette (there are no females in the pit), the second most complete skeleton, is missing its head, and “Napoleon Bone-Apart” is all twisted and scattered.

"Murray Antoinette"

He must have died a painful death!  We tried to see the lab, but it was closed.

I don't think you should touch that!

In the museum, we saw the skull of a prehistoric cave bear and lots of woolly mammoth models.  Cave people even used mammoth bones to make their houses!  There was also a prehistoric monkey skeleton.  This place was really cool.

House made from mammoth bones and pelts


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This area of the country is known for the vast amount of prehistoric fossils discovered here. The girls and I read a book from the Time Spies series called Bones In the Badlands.  This story is set during the great “Bone Wars” of the late 1800s, when paleontologists were vying to see who could unearth the most dinosaur skeletons in the fossil-rich areas of Montana and Wyoming.  We were excited to see the rocky landscape for ourselves.

We made our home base in Rapid City, South Dakota, at a Best Western Ramkota with (surprise, surprise) an indoor waterpark.  This was a welcome change from our horrible experience at the KOA outside Devil’s Tower (read about it here).

The first morning we drove to the nearby town of Lead (pronounced “Leed”), South Dakota, to visit the Black Hills Mining Museum.  Both of Mom’s great-grandfathers were miners in Oklahoma, and we were eager to learn all about the dangerous occupation of mining for gold.

Mom's great-grandfather Francis Kitto is the crew supervisor kneeling in the front.

The Black Hills Mining Museum is different from other mining museums because it is a recreation of a mine shaft built completely above ground.  Other museums involve a trip deep into retired mine shafts, and Mom and Dad were not remotely interested in going underground.

We arrived at 1:15 and were told that a tour had just started and we would need to wait another hour.  Mom was very surprised because the museum’s website said that tours started every half hour beginning at 9:30 AM with no tour from 12 to 1.  With a squirmy four year-old in tow, we had planned our arrival to avoid a long wait.  Unfortunately, the clerk did not understand the concept of good customer service and replied (in a very snarky tone), “Well, I don’t know where you read that.  That isn’t our website.  Go look in the exhibit hall until its time.” (You can check for yourself here.  Mom was right, not that she holds a grudge.)

Luckily, the tour guide heard us in the exhibit hall (four year-olds can’t always wait quietly) and offered to let us join the tour already in progress.   He quickly recapped what we had missed and we continued down the replica mine shaft.  Our guide was very knowledgeable and full of interesting local stories.  The replica mine shaft has life-sized equipment and mannequins in realistic situations illustrating every aspect of gold mining from the early days to modern times.  The attention to detail is amazing, and you really feel as if you are underground.  Unfortunately, taking pictures was not successful in the dim light.

This section of the tour lets out into the large exhibit room filled with historic photographs and mining implements.  For an additional fee, you can pan for gold in a replica sluice, and you are guaranteed to find some.  Our guide patiently helped each of our kids learn the proper way to swirl the pan to separate the gold from the sediment taken from the actual retired mine in Lead.

Panning for gold

Any tiny gold flakes discovered were placed in a water-filled glass vial to take home.  Our kids really enjoyed this part, and they were so proud of their finds.


Despite the rocky start, we recommend the Black Hills Mining Museum.  This very interactive tour was a fun way to learn about the process and history of mining for gold.

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Handmade rope and corncob dolls

In August, we visited the Homestead of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The kids had such a good time, we let them write the blog!

Allison’s viewpoint (age 11):

We went to visit the homestead of Laura Ingalls Wilder in De Smet, South Dakota.   We saw the house her father built and added on to three times.  It was still very small, but nice.  Also there was a barn, covered wagon rides, a dugout (a house made of sod and “dug out” of a hill), a shanty, and a garage for the farm machinery. I liked this museum because it was hands-on and not “This is Laura’s stuff.  Don’t touch it.”  We twisted hay, held kittens, made corncob dolls, fed a colt, made rope, petted cows, and experienced an 1870 school session in a real schoolhouse.  We even got to drive the mules pulling the covered wagon, and it is harder than it looks. I was going down a hill and made extremely curvy tracks in the dust.  It was like making modern art!

Curving wagon tracks in the dust

That night we had our first family tent-experience.  There were SO MANY mosquitos!!!  Andrew, Audrey, and I chased prairie gophers and helped set up the tent.  We had s’mores and hot dogs for dinner.    Camping there was lots of fun!

Audrey’s view (age 8):

My favorite part was the trip to the schoolhouse on a covered wagon.  It was exciting.  The girls had to put on dresses and bonnets like Laura would have worn, and the boys wore straw hats.  I got to help the teacher read aloud to the class and with the math lesson.  We played a game called “wring the dishrag” where everyone holds hands and spins around with a partner.  We sang “Pop Goes the Weasel” and twisted around on the “Pop” part.  We learned about what kids used to bring for lunch.  They had strange things like lard sandwiches, and apples were a special treat because they were hard to get.  After school was over, we got back on the covered wagon and I got to drive it to the church.  The church was really pretty.

Driving the covered wagon is harder than it looks.

At Ma’s house we learned to do laundry.  They took soap and rubbed it across a washboard and then rubbed the clothes across it.  Then you rinse it in a bucket of water and put it through a wringer.  Last we hung it on the clothesline with two clothespins.  It was not easy.  We also learned to make a toy with a piece of thread and a button.

Doing laundry the hard way.

We camped on the prairie in the tent and made hot dogs and s’mores.

Andrew’s view (age 4):

I had fun making my rope.

The truly cool twist their own rope.

I loved roasting the marshmallows on the campfire and eating Cheetos.  I really liked making my corncob superhero.  In the barn was the first time I ever got to hold a kitten.  I saw a baby horse and I saw his mommy poop a whole bunch.

Mom adds:

This was a really neat place.  I highly recommend it, even if your kids are not big fans of the Little House books.  There are so many hands-on activities and experiences that everyone in the family will have a great time.

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