Soaring airfares need not curtail an epic family trip. For those with modest budgets and a tolerance for driving, the mountainous Black Hills provide the stuff of family-vacation legends. Up-close views of Mount Rushmore (free, except for $10 for parking) and the Crazy Horse Memorial ($10 each, or $27 per carload) alone make the trip worthwhile. Everyone should walk Rushmore's Presidential Trail; this 1-mile paved path loops under the presidents' noses and provides outstanding photo opportunities.
The storied Iron Mountain Road winds around corkscrew bridges to connect Rushmore with Custer State Park ($15 for a week-long pass). About 1,500 bison, the nation's largest remaining herd, roam part of the 71,000-acre park’s Wildlife Loop. Trails throughout meander to overlooks and creeks perfect for wading, and four affordable, family-friendly lodges each offer a unique character. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Sylvan Lake Lodge on a rock-rimmed pool even starred in the movie National Treasure II. Double rooms run just $135 in peak season.
Three bucks buys a day pass on the George S. Mickelson Trail, a converted-railbed bike path running 109 miles through the Hills beside streams, over trestles and through tunnels; a Custer State Park pass nets one of the Hills' best views at the end of a drive up Mount Coolidge, encompassing Crazy Horse, Rushmore and the Badlands. And that scene, of course, is priceless.