Let me tell you a true story. When I lived in Japan, over a decade ago, I had this unbelievable urge to go see Mount Rushmore. I loved being in Japan, but I think I had an innate need to do something particularly American when I got back to the States. It took me many years after my return, but I finally got there!
What I hadn’t considered all those years ago, however, was just how much more there was to do and see beyond “just” Mount Rushmore! When a friend mentioned that she had been vicariously traveling through my blog, I told her to tell me where she wanted to go and we’d make it happen. We landed on Mount Rushmore, and truth be told, everything we did exceeded our expectations. Here are the top 10 things to do and see on your trip to Mount Rushmore, because you will want to go beyond!
See Mount Rushmore
This is the main reason South Dakota is even on your radar, right? And it’s a great reason! Very honestly, this was even more American pride-inducing and impressive than I ever anticipated. I would go back just for this! Truly, this was worth the whole trip, and everything else was the sweetest icing on the most patriotic cake.
I mean sure, you’re there to see the monument, but when you see it down the Avenue of Flags, look up (way up!) at it from various places on the Presidential Trail, read a little about each of the four featured presidents, and listen to the U.S. Park Ranger talk about the making of the monument, you will have a whole new appreciation for American skill, stick-to-itiveness, and ingenuity.
More here: Tips for Visiting Mount Rushmore
Walk the Presidential Trail
Speaking of looking way up at the presidents, this trail is not to be missed. The caveat is that there are nearly 500 steps to go up and down throughout the 0.6 mile trail (start the trail to the left as you’re looking at the monument through the flags for fewer “up” steps). That said, this is a worthwhile way to see the monument!
The trail is paved and wood, and along the way you’ll catch glimpses of the presidents through the trees. There are also informational signs along the way to tell you a bit about each one, which are certainly worth reading. This was an amazing way to not only appreciate the monument, but also Black Hills National Forest and its gorgeous evergreens.
Keep reading: The Ultimate USA Bucket List
Take the Scenic Route
Many of the roads in southwest South Dakota can be considered “the scenic route” because the general roads do go through some very beautiful scenery! But the road from Mount Rushmore to Crazy Horse and then through Custer State Park is one of the best routes for this. You’ll see George Washington’s profile (with pull-of area for photos), Black Hills National Forest (with lookout areas), Crazy Horse (from a distance—still worth driving to the site itself!), and more. The landscape of this area is peaceful, beautiful, and truly has that wide open, “big sky country” feel!
Read on: The Ultimate List of Road Trip Tips
Visit the Crazy Horse Memorial
This was the surprise and delight of the trip! I had heard about the Crazy Horse Memorial project, but I didn’t quite know the magnitude or the story behind it or the original sculptor until we visited. You can see the memorial here—do not miss the video presentation—but there is also an amazing gift shop full of locally made items, the Indian Museum of North America that includes the most beautiful artifacts, and a restaurant serving authentic local, tribal fare. Plan to spend an hour or more here to see and experience everything.
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See the Bison at Custer State Park
This was epic! They are so big, even in summer when they are not at their “fluffiest.” There are herds of them inside Custer State Park and elsewhere. When you drive in, you will get information about the park, the bison (or buffalo), and if they know where the herd is, they will tell you. Just keep in mind that herds do move around!
Also, keep your distance, and do not approach them, but definitely bring a camera or phone with a good zoom so you can capture the moment! be sure to, stop by the Bison Visitor Center for more information about the bison, and maybe some bison jerky from the state park processing plant to chomp on as well!
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Feed the Prairie Dogs on the Highway to the Badlands
This was an unscheduled stop, and it’s one of the best things we did! There is a roadside stand on the way into Badlands National Park with a sign that beckons, “Stop to Feed the Prairie Dogs!” Well, seeing the prairie dogs on the side of the road at Custer State Park was an absolute highlight of the previous day, so how could we resist?
Go inside the little store for a $1 bag of prairie dog food (aka whole peanuts), then step out into the designated area and just wait. They will come! And these little guys are, shall we say, well-fed. They know just what to do for peanuts, and they are not afraid to come close! They are the funniest things to watch, and we spent who knows how long here just laughing and feeding and watching them. Fun for kids and adults alike!
Take a Hike
This is one of the best things to do in Badlands National Park. There are numerous trails at all lengths and for all levels, and it’s truly the best way to get up-close and personal with the Badlands. I kept thinking about how much it looked like we were on another planet, and some of the Badlands looked like giant ant hills. It was both bizarre and beautiful!
More here: The Best Hiking Tips You’ll Find for Travel
Photograph the Badlands (especially the Yellow Mounds!)
This landscape is so different. I can’t imagine trying to navigate this place by horseback, much less covered wagon! Interestingly, the area that’s now the Badlands was once under water, so the fossils that have been found here are all ocean-related. It’s completely unique, which is why this is designated as a National Park. Pictures won’t do it justice, but they will sure bring back the memories when you look at them later. Especially the yellow mounds. Yes, they are really that color!
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Admire the Sunflowers in Season
This was another unscheduled stop, as well as an unexpected delight! Along Interstate 90, between Rapid City and the Badlands, there are massive sunflower fields. Acres and acres and acres are completely covered, for as far as you can see! They are spectacular. We joined others who pulled off on the side of the Interstate (carefully, of course) and hopped out for some photos. It’s a memory I will keep forever.
Dine on Bison, Elk, Wild Boar, Deer, Antelope, and More
This is a must for meat eaters! You can find all these, but especially the bison, as burgers, hot dogs, steaks, even in ravioli and served in a cream sauce. Want to take some for the road? You’ll find locally-sourced jerky in basically every gift shop and convenience store. If you’re at all curious, it’s well worth a try!
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