I have a few requirements for family-friendly trails: they aren’t too strenuous, they aren’t so long that I hear a chorus of “are we there yet” every few minutes, and most importantly, they have things to keep hikers of all ages excited about the journey. Bonus points for pretty scenery that makes for great family photos. Luckily, there are plenty of fun and family-friendly trails across South Dakota, from hikes along the large rivers and prairies in the east to trails with sweeping mountain views in the west.
1. Riparian Trail
Good Earth State Park is the newest state park, but one of the oldest inhabited spots in the state. The Oneota people inhabited the area around 1500 A.D., but others lived in the area as early as 6500 B.C. Nestled along the banks of the Big Sioux River, southeast of Sioux Falls, the park is home to wildlife, large oak trees, and this 3.1-mile loop trail. The kids will love looking for birds, deer, and other wildlife. The park also hosts a variety of kid-friendly activities throughout the year to get youngsters even more excited about hiking through the park.
2. Devil’s Bathtub
Locals have known about Devil’s Bathtub for quite some time, and usually do their best to keep Spearfish Canyon’s best kept secret just that. But if you’re lucky enough to find out where the trailhead begins (spoiler: you can find good instructions here), this short hike is one that is perfect for a sultry summer day. A moderate half mile hike eventually leads to a little limestone canyon, with natural pools and waterslides carved out by the flowing of the creek through the rock. This Instagram-worthy hike is best suited for teens and tweens since the unmarked trail crisscrosses through a fast-flowing creek.
3. Gavin’s Point Nature Trail
There is nothing like tales of Lewis and Clark’s adventure up the Missouri River to stoke young one’s minds. The 1.2-mile trail on the edge of Lewis and Clark Lake, which is actually a section of the Missouri River near the town of Yankton, meanders through marshes, hardwood forests, and up the chalkstone bluffs overlooking the Mighty Mo. At the top, a gazebo and perfect picnic spot look out over the river. Kid-friendly signs point out things to be on the lookout for including wildlife such as hawks and cliff swallows that make their homes in the bluffs, deer, wild turkey, native plants and other natural wonders.
4. Cathedral Spires Trail
The trail to the iconic Cathedral Spires is actually an approach for the climbing areas in the spires. However, hikers of all ages will love this 1.6 mile out-and-back trail in Custer State Park. The trailhead is found on Needles Highway, just beyond the Needle’s Eye area and is the perfect way to break up drives through the scenic Black Hills. There are a few areas where young adventurers may have to scramble over rocks. Along the way, be on the lookout for massive ferns that line the trail, bright orange tiger lilies and mountain goats that call the rocky area home. After a short, steep section, you will arrive at the base of the Cathedral Spires. The enormous spires tower over the mountain playground and seem to create a maze. You could easily spend as much time wandering through the granite pillars as you do on the approach up.
5. Notch Trail
Saving the most adventurous for last, Notch Trail in Badlands National Park, is perfect for adventure-seeking families. The 1.5-mile trail snakes around the base of the otherworldly landscape, then comes to a log and metal rope ladder that crawls up to the top of the formations. Even adults may find the ladder to be a little intimidating at first, but the rest of the hike is well worth the adventure. The trail then follows ledges built into the formations, like balconies to the ground below. Eventually, you come into a wide canyon and then to the trail’s namesake, The Notch, where hundred-mile views of the White River Valley below splay out toward the horizon. Younger children or those with fears of heights may be challenged by this one, however, with careful guidance, it should be possible for all ages to have fun.
Originally written for South Dakota Tourism.