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Nothing beats taking the kids to the zoo

Denver isn’t that far away

It’s grizzly bear dinner time at the Denver Zoo.

It’s grizzly bear dinner time at the Denver Zoo.

DENVER –– If you live in western South Dakota, and you want to go to a zoo, you have a long drive ahead of you. Bismarck and Sioux Falls and Watertown have little zoos, but the nearest big zoos are Omaha and Denver.

The late Marlin Perkins and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom made the Omaha Zoo world famous, and it is an outstanding zoo, with impressive habitats and theme buildings, but there is something else it has, oppressive midsummer humidity and stifling heat.

It will get hot at the Denver Zoo, but since the city is a mile above sea level, the humidity is never a problem. The zoo itself, is laid out in user friendly, interlocking, circular sections with plenty of parking on the north side, and a large lake on the south side.

One of the fascinating exhibits at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, a carnivorous cow-sized warthog called Enteledont, one of the ugliest mammals to ever live and a common sight in southwestern South Dakota 35 million years ago.

One of the fascinating exhibits at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, a carnivorous cow-sized warthog called Enteledont, one of the ugliest mammals to ever live and a common sight in southwestern South Dakota 35 million years ago.

Parking south of the lake is tempting, because there is plenty of parking spots, but it is ill advised, as vehicle theft is common. A security patrolled parking garage on the northwest corner of the zoo has a walkway leading to the main zoo entrance.

An Indian elephant on his way to cool off in the stifling midsummer.

An Indian elephant on his way to cool off in the stifling midsummer.

You should plan for a whole day at the zoo. The gate opens at 9 am, and closes at 5 pm during the summer, and starting in November, hours are 10 am to 4 pm. Summer prices are $17 for adults 12-64, $14 for seniors 65+, $12 for children 3-11, and children 2 and under are free. Winter prices are $13, $11, and $9, respectively. Not bad, considering you can spend all day there.

A gigantic Monitor Lizard poses for onlookers.

A gigantic Monitor Lizard poses for onlookers.

Like all zoos, you take your chances with the animals. They are not employees and feel no obligation to keep themselves on display for your convenience. You can drive hundreds of miles to be frustrated by a critter that won’t leave his den or building, but if you put each failure behind you, and focus on the next section, something unexpected and memorable that you did not expect usually makes up for what you lost.

For example, the polar bears. They refused to dive in the water so you could view them underwater through a glass wall, and they were just ignoring people. Just when spectator interest started to wane, a man from the crowd got down in a crouching position and moved back and forth along the polar bear habitat. A bear immediately responded and began to enthusiastically mirror his movements. When he raced to the far side of the habitat the bear raced along with him. Along the way, the bear saw people pressed up against the glass watching, and suddenly changed di

Not only does the zoo have just about every exotic animal you can imagine, except large marine life, like whales, new displays are up of extinct life. Full color, anatomically correct, animatrons are scattered throughout the zoo, and they can move and make sounds.

There is a merry-go-round and a train and conveniently placed restaurants and watering stations. There are plenty of benches underneath shade trees, and it is best to take full advantage of these, and pace yourself, otherwise you will get halfway through the zoo, your tummy full of lunch, and feel like heading back to the hotel to take a nap.

Accommodations are relatively easy to find, and a good hotel room in downtown Denver won’t cost you much more than a motel room in Rapid City. You should spend the morning of your second day at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which is adjacent to the zoo. The museum is open everyday from 9am to 5 pm, the only day it is closed being Christmas Day.

Prices are similar to the zoo, at $16.95 for adults, $13.95 for seniors, and $11.95 for ages 3-13. Apparently they are charging a nickel less to steal some zoo business. There is a planetarium and IMAX theater at the museum which are well worth the time and money. These will cost you extra but package deals are available which can result in significant savings. There is special exhibit room. Last July it was about the Vikings, and the current exhibits are Nature’s Amazing Machines, Egyptian Mummies, and Konovalenko Gem Carvings of Russian Folklife.

Each floor has specific sections devoted to a period of history, or a type of environment. Dining establishments are the T-Rex Café and the Grab & Go. The café has hot entrees, the Grab & Go is basically fast food with a healthy section of bagels and fresh fruit.

A comprehensive trip to Denver should include the amusement park, Elitch’s Gardens, and a Colorado Rockies baseball game. Both the park and Coors Field will be close to your downtown hotel. You can walk from most hotels to Coors Field and the ticket prices are extremely reasonable at about $68 dollars a person for decent seats. Get seats along third base, because the setting sun will hammer you for sometime if you sit along first base.

Leave early on your walk to the stadium because the 16th Street Mall is full of interesting products and street characters. After the game, try to get over to Bubba Gump Shrimp. The food is outstanding and they will stay open past closing to accommodate you.

The worst part about the trip down to Denver is the havoc it plays with your cell phone. You will probably lose service for a time, but if you shut off your phone and restart, service is restored. If you don’t shut it off, you never get back the internet.

The great thing is you can accomplish all of this by driving down Saturday and coming back Sunday. You will also have time to hit stores with products and themes not available back in South Dakota. You should have these places scoped out before you get to Denver. If you don’t want to journey more than eight hours from home, the weekend Denver trip is about as much fun as can be had, and it won’t bust your bank account.

(James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at

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