Falling in Love with the Black Hills
one coffee, drive, and dinosaur at a time
Clay says it wasn’t until he came back to South Dakota that he appreciated the beauty of the small towns, open spaces, and countless opportunities for exploring something new in the Black Hills. He grew up working at his dad’s pizza place in Custer, then left to attend school out of state in New Mexico for his master’s degree, always assuming he would find a full-time career elsewhere. Clay moved back to Hill City after completing an internship in Pierre, and his life took a new turn.
Clay’s path crossed Marci’s, the director of a youth ministry in Hill City called Young Life, while working together at a sporting goods store – reconnecting after meeting each other a decade before. The couple hit it off and the rest was history! Clay took a full-time position as a manager of three tourist businesses in Keystone – the National Presidential Wax Museum, Grapes & Grinds Coffee Shop & Wine Bar, and Holy Terror Mini Golf – and is still there to this day.
“Since moving back to South Dakota, I’ve made it a point to go experience as many places as possible, and I am consistently blown away by how much I’ve enjoyed playing tourist in my own backyard.”
“Since that first hectic summer managing these businesses in Keystone, I have fallen back in love with the Black Hills and discovered a new love for the tourism industry, which is small enough to be like a big family,” Clay says with a smile.
Today, Clay and Marci are parents to Pearl, their newborn baby girl, and Wilder, a “threenager” who is quickly developing a love of the area, too. From the family’s weekly walks to a local Hill City coffee shop to their drives around the Black Hills, if there is a latte, a play area, or dinosaurs nearby, the King family is sure to be exploring it.
“Wilder Jane is so much joy and silliness, and magic,” Marci explains fondly of her oldest daughter. “She gives me a fresh perspective on the world and teaches me to slow down and pay attention to everything…and everyone!”
As many parents can attest, things change frequently when you have a little one in the house. Just when you think you have parenting all figured out, they move onto the next stage of life, forever keeping you on your toes. However, Clay and Marci have kept their adoration for adventure at a high level of priority for their family of four—and that has trickled down to Wilder.
“I want our daughters to learn kindness, teach them ingenuity and perseverance, and I want them to remember all the things we got to do as a family to build tight bonds with each other,” says Clay. “I’m a firm believer that quantity and quality of time are both important in a family.”
Any time the Kings get a chance, they load up and take a drive through the Hills, visiting favorite spots in Custer State Park, Slate Creek Dam, and Palmer Creek Road, while always on the lookout for new adventures. These leisurely drives in the Black Hills have become a treasured family activity.
“We are totally Sunday drivers,” Clay remarks with a laugh. “We often find ourselves getting as far off the beaten path as we can.”
Now that Wilder is getting older, she is discovering her own favorites, too – especially ones that feature dinosaurs. “We try to get to the museum at the Black Hills Institute regularly,” Clay says. The occasional visit to Reptile Gardens has quickly turned into an exciting road trip for her, too.
As a local, it is far too easy to glance at a billboard or social post for the area’s attractions, parks, and restaurants and create an assumption about what the places are like without ever experiencing them firsthand. However, Clay and Marci urge Black Hills families to get out of their neighborhoods and go explore together!
“Since moving back to South Dakota, I’ve made it a point to go experience as many places as possible, and I am consistently blown away by how much I’ve enjoyed playing tourist in my own backyard,” admits Clay.
Echoing his satisfaction for area attractions, Marci shares all the budget-friendly things families can take advantage of, too. Programs at Outdoor Campus West are free, as are Junior Ranger programs at Custer State Park. Throughout the entire Black Hills, there are plenty of family-friendly activities that won’t break the bank.
“When we allow our lives to be lived on autopilot, firmly within the confines of our routines, it becomes increasingly difficult to create memorable experiences with each other. I feel like spending time outdoors is a natural antidote.” – Clay King
We all spend so much time on autopilot, it’s important to mix things up. Find some spontaneity over a weekend this summer to unplug and play in the Black Hills!
“Unstructured time together as a family will give you the perfect opportunity to connect, build relationships, and organically instill important lessons in your children,” says Marci.
With an abundance of opportunities to try something new in the Black Hills of South Dakota, your family is sure to find a way to create new memories together that will be treasured for years to come.
Written by Jenna Carda
Photos by Jesse Brown Nelson