A few weeks ago, my family and our best friend’s family did a tag-team road trip to Mount Rushmore. Neither of us had ever been, and the area is a quick 5-6 hour drive from Denver. So we decided to pack as much as we could into a 3-day weekend… but as I started to research the Black Hills area of South Dakota, I realized there were many things we would not be able to fit in!
I will describe where we went, and some alternatives/add-ons you may consider if you have more time. I definitely recommend planning at least the driving route fairly well because we lost cell service many times over the weekend – and, as always when driving in the west – be mindful of how full your gas tank is.
We pretty much did a loop, since we were coming in from the south. The map below shows our route, and while this seems like a huge amount of ground to cover, we did Hot Springs to Deadwood in one (long) day.
Mount Rushmore Road Trip
Another thing I will include is the diary that our friend’s 9yo kept of the trip. It’s actually more of a “report” his parents forced him to write to be all educational about the trip and stuff, but “diary” sounds more fun. However, you will notice this kid sounds more educated than some presidential candidates, so maybe these “reports” are a good idea!
Hot Springs and Mammoth Site
We arrived late in the evening on Friday, but I wish we had gotten an earlier start so we would have had time for the actual hot springs in Hot Springs, South Dakota.
But we did, however, make it in time to see the Mammoth Site – which is a huge room built around a archeological fossil site. Whaaaa? Not kidding! More than 26,000 years ago, woolly mammoths became trapped and died in a hot spring-fed pond near what is now Hot Springs. It was incredible to see all the fossils stacked up on top of each other; you can clearly see how they struggled to get out of the sink-hole. To date, 61 mammoths have been identified, along with the remains of a bear, camel, llama, prairie dog, wolf, and various fish.
Mount Rushmore Road Trip Day 2
Wind Cave National Park
We had all been in caves and caverns like Wind Cave before, so we knew what to expect in terms of a tour. It’s a bit chilly because you go far underground, and the walking can be cramped and creepy. The thing that makes Wind Cave special is 95% of the world’s boxwork is there. My photos below are just with my phone, and this stuff was everywhere. There are three main tours for families with kids to take: Garden of Eden, Natural Entrance and Fairgrounds. I recommend getting there early, because tickets are first come first serve, unless you are a large group.
Needles Highway and Needle Eye Tunnel
There are several scenic routes on the way from Wind Cave to Mount Rushmore, and we got advice from the park rangers about which way to go. Ultimately, we wanted to see Needles Highway (SD HWY 87) which is inside Custer State Park. You can see from the photos why it’s named this way! We also laughed because our truck’s blind spot sensors were going nuts as we drove through Needle Eye Tunnel (…although, don’t worry! It’s RVs and campers that actually can’t fit.)
We had heard that Mount Rushmore itself was not something you needed a whole day for, and it’s true. We arrived in time for a late lunch at the one cafe there and enjoyed some chill time marveling at the statues. I was glad we only planned an hour or two tops for a stop here; it was plenty. Some people like to time their trip to be there for the nightly lighting ceremony, when the president’s heads get illuminated from below – we just had too much other fun stuff planned. The park itself is free, but you have to pay to park. There are also paths to walk around if you need to stretch your legs and/or are interested in learning more about how the monument was created.
We loved finally seeing this American icon!
Bear Country USA
This private zoo has many different kinds of animals, but the absolute stars of the show are the bears. We drove around safari-style through Bear Country USA and had to avoid the bears as they roamed freely. It’s a 3-mile drive through the 200-acre park that is also home to elk, reindeer, deer, cougars, bobcats, rocky mountain goats, bighorn sheep, dall sheep, pronghorn, and buffalo.
The thing not to miss is Babyland – because we nearly did. We were tired after a long day and almost skipped the separate enclosures at the end of the drive. DO NOT DO THIS! All the baby animals – specifically the baby bears – live in this area. We ended up staying for at least another 45 minutes just to watch these little guys play in their pool, with each other, and to climb trees.
Mount Rushmore Road Trip Day 3
We spent the night in Deadwood, mainly because I wanted to see this old west town. However, Keystone is a very cute town right next to Mount Rushmore, if you want to structure your trip differently. Rapid City is close too.
But we loved Deadwood! It was a great mix of beautiful buildings and charm. We are not into gambling, but if you enjoy that – there are a ton of casinos, of course. Also, it was fun to see all of Kevin Costner’s movie costumes in his place, Midnight Star.
And then home to Denver!
Other things in the area we did not have time for:
- Devil’s Tower, Wyoming
- Badlands National Park
- Jewel Cave
- Crazy Horse Memorial
- Rushmore Tramway Adventures
- Old MacDonald’s Petting Farm
- Cosmos Mystery Area
- Rushmore Cave & Rush Mountain Adventure Park
What are your top picks for things to do around Mount Rushmore?