The celebration of the 100 year anniversary of the National Parks Service starts on April 16, 2016. There are a lot of celebrations going on and it makes you think – with so much beauty available in our national parks, why would you look outside the US for wonderful vacations? You’re right – the history isn’t as old as it is in Europe. There aren’t the architectural wonders there are in Asia. The people aren’t as colorful as they may be in India. But seriously – there incredible areas set aside to explore, at a really reasonable price, right here, within the boundaries of the US. And for a family vacation, there’s almost nothing better.
From Acadia National Park in Maine to the Grand Canyon, the opportunities for family adventure are limitless. If you’re not into camping, that’s ok; there are plenty of places available in and around the national parks for spending the night out of the elements and away from critters. If you’re not a big fan of outdoors, a trip to one of the national parks can change your mind or at least make it seem less intimidating and, for children,
So much of the childhood of the past decades has gone from outdoor play to indoor play. Running around the neighborhood with the other kids is now taking place in the world of online gaming; there’s even a trend to classify online gaming as “sport,” complete with national teams and tournaments coming to a television network near you. But the benefits to children of being outside, especially with those special adults in their lives, are countless. According to the National Wildlife Federation, children who spend time outside in our national parks have big physical and mental health benefits, as well as developing cognitive skills:
- Increased fitness levels and reduction of childhood obesity
- Increased levels of vitamin D
- Improved eyesight, especially for distances
- Reduction in ADHD levels
- Higher test scores
- Improved critical thinking skills
- Reduction of stress levels
- Enhanced social skills
These benefits don’t just apply to children; as an adult, unplugging and spending time in nature will reduce your stress levels almost automatically. It’ll reconnect you to your family and friends. It’ll help you with your critical thinking skills and you’ll just feel better, almost without realizing it.
Just as a snapshot, think about Mount Rushmore. Crazy Horse. These names are familiar to almost everyone, but where are they? And is that all there is? Not by a long shot. They inhabit one of the most breath-taking areas of the country – the Black Hills National Forest, located in western South Dakota, along the border with Wyoming.
The Black Hills take up 1.2 million acres of forest and mountains, covering an area of 110 miles long and 70 miles wide. Still held sacred by the Native American tribes that inhabit the area, the Black Hills can be seen on weather maps as a dark smudge in the left corner of South Dakota. They’re the highest peaks between the Appalachian Mountains and the Rockies.
The Black Hills were home to the Lakota and Crow tribes when, after the Civil War, Americans looking for fortune found gold. Because the area was considered part of the Lakota Nation, it wasn’t US territory, so the laws of the US didn’t apply. Soon, towns like Deadwood and Lead were hotbeds of miners, business people and general malcontents, making the area legend.
Deadwood still exists near the northern area of the Black Hills, along with its sister city, Lead (pronounced “leed”). Deadwood has been designated a National Historic District and features gambling casinos, amazing walks and a recreation of the trial of the man who killed Wild Bill Hikock, right in the streets of town.
Lead is right next door and, until 2002, it was home to the deepest gold mine in the world, at over 8000 feet. Throughout their history, both Deadwood and Lead have vied for the more robust economy, with Lead making its way through the depression with hardly a dent, as it was supplying gold to the government, as well as for jewelry and other uses. Deadwood was where everyone lived; Lead was where everyone worked. Matt, a painting contractor living in Lead, said he and his family could feel the blasting under their house from the mine up until 2002; when it was over, he said it felt weird to not have it going on.
Between Lead and Spearfish is Spearfish Canyon. What amazing scenery. The final parts of “Dancing With Wolves” was filmed in Spearfish Canyon, where Kevin Costner and the tribe are escaping from the soldiers. Kevin Costner has played a huge role in rebuilding the Black Hills, from his restaurant/casino, the Midnight Star, to his creation of Tatanka, a life-sized bronze sculpture of a buffalo hunt by Native Americans on horseback. Upstairs from the Midnight Star you’ll see displays of Kevin’s costumes from quite a few of his movies; pretty interesting.
As you drive south, you’ll go through gorgeous forests and streams, with lots of fantastic hiking trails and fishing. Matt said he often goes fishing and has only seen one game warden in all his time there. More often, you’re the only one on the stream or reservoir, watching the eagles soar and the hawks chase smaller game.
The landscape doesn’t change much as you make your way down to Mount Rushmore. The Rushmore part of the National Forest has been built to match the surrounding landscape and, as you drive into Rushmore, you don’t see much of the famous faces until you’re actually there, closer to the monument, unlike Crazy Horse, which is in Custer, the next town over.
Drive down the mountain road from Custer toward Lead and Crazy Horse pops up on the right side of the road. You can see it from quite a distance away and will be amazed as you get closer and the size of the rock carving sinks in. While Mount Rushmore was built by the US government, Crazy Horse has been a labor of love from one family and is being supported by voluntary donations, the main reason it’s still not finished after more than 50 years. Within Crazy Horse is a fantastic museum dedicated to both the Native Americans who have inhabited the area for eons and those settlers who came after, as well as the story of the family building Crazy Horse.
There is a wealth of nature available in the US. To learn more about the National Park Service and our national parks, visit NPS’ website here.