Tip for Visiting Mount Rushmore:
Do not plan any bucket list activities for the first day you arrive in Rapid City, South Dakota in case your flight is delayed or canceled.
Rapid City’s highways are so easy and quiet to drive on!
Day Trip Idea 1 Near Mount Rushmore:
First things first: plan a flexible itinerary for your visit so you can go to the evening lighting ceremony at Mount Rushmore National Monument. If it is a clear night on your first day, go that night because weather can be unpredictable. Be prepared to sit on aluminum or cement for 45 minutes.
TIP: take a hotel room towel in case it rains during your day trip.
You do not pay an entrance fee, but you do pay a parking fee when you leave. Pay at the stand on each level of the parking deck or pay the guys directing crosswalk traffic.
TIP: if you plan on returning AT ALL in one year, pay close attention to getting your Mount Rushmore parking ticket validated so that you do not have to pay to park on your next visit. You can see great pictures with parking rules too.
The 45 minute evening program changes start time hours so be sure to check their website. The park rangers speak, there is a short video about the presidents (and they do not gloss over the horrific mistakes of our country’s treatment of the natives), you all sing The National Anthem, and then they honor any veterans in the crowd. So patriotic!
And do taste Thomas Jefferson’s ice cream (2 huge scoops are the norm).
Day Trip Idea 2 Near Mount Rushmore:
Wherever you start your day trip, see the Badlands. I had very low expectations about the 24 mile drive of rock, dirt and wildlife, but I think that was my favorite thing we did near Mount Rushmore.
But THIS tip is the part that made The Badlands visit “monnumental:”
We booked an audio tour last minute. You then download the app and when you get to the park entrance and pay the fee or show your National Park Pass, the audio tour starts talking through your speakers. We were so skeptical of this audio tour, but it was only $14.99 and the email gives directions to download the app WAYYYYY before you leave your wifi AND it tells you to open the app right after or before the park entrance.
Because of the magic of bluetooth, the app keeps track of where your phone is and will start talking at each of the 25 stopping points. We took our time but recommend visiting in the morning. Be prepared for travel with this packing list for Fall.
TIP: visit Wall Drug for a potty break before or after your trip. Visiting Wall Drug is a historical treat so do not miss that stop! Wall Drug is an area with lots of parking but with indoor shops, a restaurant and 5 cent coffee. Lots of little things for kids to do too!
I did not think I would want to stop and look at the views that often, but each curve and mound and jagged edge is worth every pop in my knees getting out of the car. I have heard to go near sunset.
Y’all, this day trip to the Badlands is a must-do!
Day Trip Number 3:
This was our long day of things to do near Mount Rushmore. We booked an aerial helicopter tour of Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial because we were only in Rapid City, SD for 3 days. I wish we would’ve driven closer and seen the Crazy Horse Memorial, though, since we were so close to it.
Day Trip Number 4:
We then ate lunch at the Sylvan Lake Lodge where I thought there would be better views, but the trees block your view. But the French Onion Soup and salad were divine! The lodge staff in the lobby were very helpful. We PLANNED on walking at Sylvan Lake and using the potty afterwards before making our way to Custer State Park. You could spend an hour enjoying this area! But plan for rain at the drop of a hat. I would have a hotel towel or maybe wear water-resistant shoes or at least have them in the car. And once the rain hits in the 85 degree summer afternoons, the temperature drops dramatically. So I kept my cashmere sweater in the rental car each day trip.
TIP: you must have a printed copy (not online) of your Custer State Park pass to get to Sylvan Lake. We printed ours out at our hotel before visiting their rooftop bar and outdoor patio. You must know the day of your visit. There is no wifi, but there are plenty of places to stop and ask questions.
Continue your day trip:
Drive under 25 mph through Needles Highway after Sylvan Lake. I did not get nauseoud whatsoever because you cannot go fast at all. TIP: make sure your rental car is not too wide from the few micro tunnels. Wow, this is another must-do and so close to Mount Rushmore! The tiny tunnels are big enough for one car to enter at a time so be prepared for traffic and back ups, along with waiting for tourists taking pictures. Bring road trip snacks because you want to relax and just enjoy creation! It may take you 2 hours to get through it.
Then what?! That was my concern. You will pass through camp grounds and end up inside of Custer State Park. I would check out the maps of Custer so that you can plan more efficiently. But “always take the scenic route” can apply on this day trip. We entered Custer State Park again, showing our day pass.
You will most likely see bison, but the beautiful and easy drive through the park is why I want to go back. This drive will take an hour or two because you are only going 45 mph, taking in the absolutely beautiful rolling hills and begging donkeys roadside (another reason to pack some crackers or snacks). We saw a pronghorn, prairie dogs, burros and bison finally!
Here is how to see bison:
Somehow we saw a bison station or museum once inside the park again and this is the best tip to visiting Custer State Park: ask the rangers where the bison have last been seen. Luckily they were last seen on the way out of Custer very close to Mount Rushmore.
But do not be in a hurry in Custer State Park. Take it all in! Imagine yourself hunting here years ago. It is beautiful and humbling at the same time!
So the good news about Custer State Park is that you can head toward Mount Rushmore to exit the park without going on the Needles Highway again.
But you do get to go through 2 more micro tunnels, and once you drive through one of them, be prepared to take a snapshot of the presidents between the trees. Beautiful!
By this third day we were exhausted. So I recommend eating in Keystone before returning to your hotel. Keystone seemed too touristy when I was planning our trip, but we were pleasantly surprised! Think ski town.
We opted for Hotel Alex Johnson in downtown Rapid City. Although they have great views from a rooftop patio, the rooms are very old. But across the street is a great breakfast shop with awesome coffee too! Hotel Alex Johnson was within walking distance to so many restaurants.
After Your Road Trips Near Mount Rushmore:
The chef makes her own butter and they serve homemade bread with their locally sourced delicious food. I would return just for that meal! AND they have a parking lot so you do not have to hunt for a spot.
If you need to pack for a day trip or a flight, my pilot wife packing-in-a-carry-on-for-20-years experience will help you with a packing list you can grab for free. Check it out below. Or find me on YouTube for in-depth travel tip videos.