*This post was a paid partnership with Travel South Dakota. All opinions and thoughts are my own!*
Last week we spent most of our days exploring and seeing all that the eastern side of South Dakota has to offer! When I was asked if I would be interested in seeing this side of the state, I will be honest, I was a little hesitant at what we would be able to do, knowing that on the western side of the state has a lot of the main attractions one thinks of when they think of traveling to SD… Mount Rushmore, The Badlands, The Black Hills… and so on.
BUT! I was so happily surprised by all that there IS to do on the eastern side of the state, so I am excited to share all that we did, saw, and experienced that made such a sweet family summer vacation for us. There were so many places and activities there is to offer on this side of the state, and if you have small children that aren’t quite ready/will be able to appreciate the landmarks out to the west, this would be such a great trip to take that is budget-friendly, family-friendly, and just a short drive from the Twin Cities or northwestern parts of Minnesota near Fargo-Moorhead!
d a y o n e . . .
We arrived to Brookings, SD on Monday, June 17th, and before checking in to our hotel, decided to check out our first stop, The McCrory Gardens. Located in the midst of SDSU, this garden is filled with so much beauty and paths to walk with your little ones to take in God’s amazing creation! They had a rock garden with a waterfall, that Collins just loved! I loved all of the different flowers, especially a coral looking flower I saw sporadically that I couldn’t find the name for! It looks like a peony though. 🙂
This was the perfect activity to start off our trip, shake out our legs after a 3 hour car ride, and soak up all that beauty and sunshine! If you are local to the area, this would be a great place to have a membership at to be able to come here regularly for walks or enjoy lunch or doing some work at many of their tables/chairs they have set up throughout the gardens, but this is a very affordable activity to do once if you are just visiting. Adults are $6, youth ages 6-17 are $4, and children 5 and under are FREE!
After walking through the gardens we decided to check in to our hotel. We stayed at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Brookings, and the service and accommodations were great! We didn’t spend too much time in our hotel during our stay, but it was the perfect place to come back to and rest after our busy days. We didn’t spend too long at the hotel before we were off the explore more and find a spot for dinner. We decided to try Nick’s Hamburgers that many of your recommended, and you did not disappoint! We loved the diner set up inside in this restaurant that’s been around since 1929. You can tell there is so much history within this space, so we were happy we stopped by to try it. We also loved the burgers, which are a smaller patty, served and made fresh to order in front of you in the center of the oval diner countertop for you. We learned that there are a few ways you can get your burger prepared- flashes, dipped (aka add more grease!), or original. We got two original double cheeseburgers with everything on it. They make their own relish served fresh daily, fresh buns (they were soooo soft and delicious!), and also make their pies fresh daily. We were so full from our burgers + malts we had that we didn’t have room for our rhubarb pie we originally had ordered. This is a definite must-try if you are visiting the eastern side of South Dakota with your family! After our dinner, we definitely needed a good walk though! So, we met with some of our friends that live close by and went for a walk through Oakwood Lakes State Park and played at one of their playgrounds they have in 1 of 3 of their parks within the grounds. This park is HUGE and has tons of spots to bring your RV in to park and stay for a week or weekend. Our friend said these spots fill up quickly for the summer, though, so you want to plan ahead if you want to stay! The grounds were very well-kept as we walked around the lake and trails, so if you are in to camping or have an RV you like to take to different parks- this would be a great spot to check out! The park offers year-round recreational activities like: fishing, hiking, canoeing, boating, and swimming with the two lakes within the state park- Johnson Lake and Lake Tetonkaha. We had so much fun going for a short evening walk and hanging out with our friends who also have two small children. It was the perfect ending to our first day in SD.
d a y t w o . . .
Our second day started off by grabbing breakfast at our hotel then swung in to Kool Beans Coffee shop before spending most of our morning and early afternoon at the Children’s Museum of SD! It was such a blast and a highlight of our trip! Dakota and I loved the size of this children’s museum in comparison to the science or children’s museums in the Twin Cities. Don’t get me wrong, those are awesome too, but the size of this one was so perfect for Collins and Tommy’s age. We both felt like we didn’t have to rush through each exhibit to get through everything, because the size of the museum wasn’t overwhelming. Instant worth your money right there in my book, but it is a very affordable spot to check out though anyways! $8/adult and children / children under age 1 are a FREE! We went on a Tuesday, and it was definitely busy still with summer camp kids and other moms with littles getting out and about on a beautiful day, but it definitely didn’t feel like the same busy as the science or children’s museums do in the cities.
They had a bunch of great exhibits to explore. By far, the grocery shopping exhibit was C’s favorite. We spent a lot of time at that exhibit first. Shopping for groceries with child-sized carts, pretending to be the cashier while I handed her my groceries, watching her fervently press the buttons then put my item in the cart… it was so much fun watching her at work! Dakota asked her if she was going to work at a Dollar General one day, haha! 🙂
There was a Farm exhibit that C also really enjoyed. You could pretend to pick your crops out of the ground or from stalks they had filled with pretend corn, tomatoes, carrots, and potatoes… then you could grab a child-sized wheelbarrow, load it up, and bring your harvested crops to a conveyor belt that sent the produce to the market where you grocery shop. That was another neat part of the museum that C was very fascinated by! She figured out the conveyor belt quickly, so that was super fun to see unfold.
We rounded out the first part of our exploring at the craft exhibit where we made colored pencil drawings and painted over them with water to create a watercolor project, then explored more of the Sensations exhibit before heading to the Splash Exhibit! The Splash Exhibit was another highlight of our time- C loved the massive water table that we learned is brand new! You could definitely tell they had spent a lot of time making sure this update to the exhibit was well-worth it… it had so many different aspects to it that you could explore and play at. One of my favorites was watching Collins send small plastic balls up a tube that shot the ball with air to different parts of the tubes before mazing its way down the wall and back into the water tables!
We ate lunch right onsite at their Café Coteau, which was very good! They have a whole outdoor playground/splash pad type of area, so we parked it outside and played there while we waited for our lunch to be made and brought to our table. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, so we enjoyed being able to eat outside together and watch the action below the patio on the playground. One exhibit C was not a huge fan of was their T-rex dinosaur “Mama” and raptor “Max” they had tucked in their own area outside. We were the only ones there when we went and looked at them, and I think I know why now… ;). I carried C back inside where we decided to play in the 4 and under exhibit, so the last thing she did there wasn’t shake in fear of the dinosaurs. We explained over and over again how they were pretend and similar to toys she has that move and make noises when you press a button on them… but she still shared her least part of the day was dinosaurs, haha! 😉
With two tired babies from playing all morning, Dakota and I strapped them up for a car ride to our next spot for the day, and they quickly settled in for a nap! We wanted them to sleep, so we drove around downtown Brookings for a little bit, found another coffee shop – Cottonwood Coffee Shop- for me to stop in and grab a pick-me-up (my miel was amazing!), then we hit the road for De Smet, SD to check out the Ingall’s Homestead!
What a neat piece of history right here in SD! I had absolutely loved reading this series of books as a young girl, but never really knew all of the history behind Laura. I learned she was from Pepin, WI! She also lived in Walnut Grove, MN at one point, which was another neat thing I learned during our time at the Homestead. The home they had on-site and the Haybarn were at the De Smet Homestead, and were made into a replica of what it would have looked like, so that was fun to walk around in briefly and see what a house (and here I have been complaining about not having two separate hotel rooms with two little ones!), and see what a haybarn looked like during that time period. We met some curious chickens (and chicks!) during our exploring, along with a tiny pony, too.
We didn’t stay at this spot very long- we had a potty accident in the parking lot upon our arrival (great!), the kiddos didn’t get a super long nap in, and I was really the only one who knew of these books! I enjoyed visiting here since I read the books and knew some background/context of the history here, but Dakota had never read the books, and the little ones obviously hadn’t either, but if you have read the books yourself or have older children who you’ve read these book aloud to or they’ve read on their own… this would be a super neat spot to check out if you’re visiting the eastern side of South Dakota! We took one last gaze out at the whole Homestead before loading back up and heading to Brookings for dinner and a MUCH needed bath night for all (some more than others) 😉
We finished out the day by taking a family walk/run around Dakota Nature Park, which is a hidden gem IMHO. It was similar to a Elm Creek Park in Maple Grove for all my Twin Cities readers, but on a smaller scale! It was one of my favorite things we did, though! It was so peaceful and quiet, and I always feel a nearness to God in nature, as does Dakota, so we both loved the fresh air around the small lakes!
d a y t h r e e . . .
Day three we decided to grab coffee at a local favorite breakfast diner called Cook’s Kitchen, super delicious and reasonably priced!, walked a few doors down to Kool Bean’s Coffee for the second day in a row to grab a miel to go (loooove the inside of this space, a definite must in Brookings for a great cup of coffee!), and loaded up the babies to head to Aberdeen, SD for the day to check out Storybook Land/Wylie Park and The Dakotah Prairie Museum! Before we hit the road though, we had to swing in to Micro Doughnuts to try their donuts made fresh to order! They were amazing and I love how little they are!!
We had such beautiful weather every day so far while we were in SD, but of course it started to rain shortly after we arrived to Storybook Land. That didn’t stop us, though! We were prepared with umbrellas, rain jackets, and we loaded up the stroller and did what we could while we were there! There were lots of different statues and set ups from different stories… Winnie the Pooh, Three Little Pigs, Bambi, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears were a few that stood out to her! There were also several rides that children could go on, but due to the rain only the carousel was open, which we got to ride alllll by ourselves since everyone else that was at the park had probably left by then! It was also C’s first time riding a carousel, so that was so fun to get to experience with her and she did great! She was definitely a little unsure at first, but fake smiled until it was a real smile by the end, lol!
There were different playgrounds set up throughout the park that children could play at, which we didn’t get to do too much of either since everything was wet and slippery. Dakota and C did have a chance to play at one that wasn’t super wet during the break from the rain before we left. The storybook features throughout the parks weren’t really interactive, just more for decoration around the park in my opinion, so without the rides going and the playgrounds being accessible, there wasn’t a ton for us to do that day, but we still made the best of it, because gratitude changes everything. We did get a great walk in, had a chance to see some animals like elk, yaks, tried to see the prairie dogs but they were hiding, and also deer at their animal exhibit, and play a little before heading out to lunch. I could definitely see how kids would love a place like that on a gorgeous day! Between that and the Children’s Museum of SD… I would definitely say the Children’s Museum was our preference… no matter if it’s rainy or sunny! But Storybook Land is definitely a spot to check out in eastern SD on a promised sunshiney day!
We enjoyed lunch at a small restaurant in town called The Palm Garden Café. Everything inside was tropical looking with tons of small palm trees and other plants throughout the restaurant. They served mostly sandwiches, and mine was very tasty! Another neat thing about this spot is that it is also a Chocolate Shoppe. We definitely got a few to-go… the homemade PB cup and the chocolate caramel latte truffle were pretty amazing! 🙂
Before heading out, we made one last stop in Aberdeen at the Dakotah Prairie Museum, and it was the perfect activity to do on a rainy day to tucker out the kiddos before a long car ride (2.5 hours roughly back to Brookings, SD). We learned about farming history, history of the land and railroad surrounding Aberdeen, the history of native people in Aberdeen and frontier settlers, and got to play in a few interactive areas for children upstairs (definitely a highlight for both babies!). I am not normally a big history buff tbh, but the size of this museum wasn’t overwhelming, but it had a variety of exhibits and activities to check out during your tour through. Another plus about this activity is that is is completely FREE! 🙂
d a y f o u r . . .
Hey! Good news! The last night of our stay was the night everyone got the best sleep and settled in for the night the easiest (usually how that works, right!?) 😉 On our last morning in Brookings, we needed to grab one more coffee to go at one of the local coffee shops in downtown Brookings before making a last minute decision to go BACK to the Children’s Museum of SD! Going there was probably the highlight of our trip aside from seeing sweet friends on our first night and walking through Dakota Nature Park on the second night of our trip. ***SIDE NOTE***: This park was similar to Elm Creek Park Preserve in Maple Grove, MN for my Minnesota friends reading this, but on a much smaller scale. It has a small 1-2 mile loop you can take around three different small lakes, and they also offer things like kayaking, fishing, canoeing, or paddle boats. We didn’t do any of that since we had an almost-3 and almost-1 year old with us, but Dakota and I definitely would’ve done that if the kids were older or it was just the two of us! This is a hidden gem of eastern SD, IMO, and we loved walking together, running on the paved trails, talking about what we were most thankful to God for so far on our trip, and enjoying the gorgeous night!
Anyway, with us visiting that park a few nights prior, that freed up our last morning in eastern SD before heading back home! So since the Children’s Museum was so close, we decided to take the babies there to get their energy out before our big car ride. We decided to go early before it opened at 10:00 and enjoyed breakfast at their café, and it was very good! I got an omelet and we shared the french toast, which was delicious! We finished breakfast right before it opened, so we were one of the first families to go into the museum for the day, and it was so nice and quiet. I’m telling you- this place was so awesome, and I am so glad so many of you recommended it to me when I was taking some polls in my stories about where to go and what to do a few weeks ago! It is such a well-kept and clean museum, too, which I noticed right away when we were walking around when it was just us and one other family in the museum.We played and played and played some more, once again!
Our favorites again were the grocery shopping exhibit, and we spent the other part of the morning back in the Splash Exhibit at the water table, and finished with checking out some of the other areas we didn’t get to the other day like the Café Oscar Exhibit and Kids TV News Exhibit. We did not go check out Mama the Dinosaur or Max the Dinosaur again, though. 😉 We got all tuckered out from learning and playing, and walked across the street (literally!) to try a new spot for lunch at the Old Market Eatery before grabbing a small scoop of ice cream from the Dairy Bar on our way out of town. It was fun to check out the ice cream making room they have for you to look in to at the Dairy Bar and they have different cheeses and other dairy products available for purchase that have been created by the students at SDSU. We had a great last morning together in Brookings- spent praising God for providing us this special trip and being able to soak in some quality time and making memories together over the last few days.
I think one of the most special moments during our trip was in the car on our way back from Aberdeen to Brookings after I had just read Collins a short Minnie and Mickey mini board book titled “Vacation” when she asked us… “what are vacations made of?”. Isn’t that an awesome question?! I think she meant it literally like it was a food or something lol, but I responded with… “love, laughing, praising God…” daddy added in “spending time together in new places…” and it went on a little more before she asked the question, “what are turtles made of?!” Haha! 🙂 Never a dull moment with that one… she is something else! I just loved that sweet and curious question she asked us, and it stopped me in my tracks and other thoughts I was having to just relish in all that vacation means to me and meant for our family during our 4 days in eastern South Dakota. I am beyond grateful for this opportunity that South Dakota Tourism allowed my family and I to take in partnership with them to show you all that there is a lot to do even on the opposite side of South Dakota, too! It really was our first “family vacation” together, and it is something Dakota and I (and hopefully Collins a little bit at least!) will remember.
What are your vacation travel plans this summer? If you’re looking for an affordable, drivable, and family-friendly summer vacation perfect for your young family, I would totally recommend checking out Eastern South Dakota this summer and all that it has to offer! And while you’re vacationing, don’t forget to stop and press pause to think about what vacation is made of for you, too! Happy traveling, friend!