Our family recently returned from a SUPER QUICK trip to Mount Rushmore over our fall break. It was over 700 miles one way to get there and we split the driving into two days, going there and coming back, which only left us with about a day and a half in South Dakota. But we had a great time and packed as much fun in as we possibly could! Here are some of our favorite ways to enjoy Mt. Rushmore with Kids (and the surrounding area, of course).
I would HIGHLY recommend going to Mt. Rushmore/Rapid City in mid-October. The cottonwood trees turn BRIGHT yellow and they pepper the Black Hills with pops of color. It is gorgeous!!! The summer tourist season is over and everything is much slower-paced. Just make sure to book your hotel in advance as the weekend we went nearly everything was sold out due to a soccer tournament and some other big events happening in Rapid City that weekend. We ended up staying at a Holiday Inn Express in the northeast part of town because the hotels in Keystone and closer to Mount Rushmore were all sold out when we booked (about a month in advance). It was about a 30 minute drive to get to Mount Rushmore from our hotel.
Day 1: The Badlands National Park
Most of our first day was spent driving (even after getting a 5 hours head start the night before) but we planned out our destination so that we could do the scenic drive through the Badlands National Park. We almost skipped this as everyone was tired of being in the car (and it adds about an hour onto your trip in drive time alone), but I am SO GLAD that we decided to stop. The terrain was truly incredible and our kids had a blast hiking and climbing around.
Not only were we able to bypass the $20 per car fee thanks to our “Every Kid in a Park” pass, our kids were able to participate in the Junior Ranger Program and they all got their Badlands National Park plastic badges.
My husband and I agreed that this was our favorite attraction of the trip! Not only did we see amazing land formations, we also saw Big Horn Sheep and prairie dogs as we drove through the scenic byway. A word of warning, however, the Badlands are a natural habitat for rattlesnakes so make sure to keep your kids somewhat close and watch your step!
Day 2: Bear Country USA, Mount Rushmore, and Big Thunder Gold Mine
Bear Country USA
On our way to Keystone, SD (where you will find Mount Rushmore), we stopped and spent about an hour and a half at Bear Country USA. The main part of this attraction is a 3-mile drive-thru wildlife park that is the home to HUNDREDS of bears, several wolves, buffalo, elk, and mountain lions. At the end of the road is a small zoo of sorts with lots of other animals like skunks (with their glands removed), baby bears, badgers, and more. Prices may vary depending on the season, but we paid about $50 per car to enter (and combined into one vehicle for the tour).
All of our little animal lovers especially enjoyed this part of the trip. It was so neat to get to see these animals up close and personal while in the safety of our vehicle.
Mount Rushmore (the main attraction)
After going through Bear Country USA, we grabbed a bite to eat in the town of Keystone before heading to Mount Rushmore (just a few miles drive from Keystone). We could see Mount Rushmore from the road and it was pretty incredible! We paid $10 to park (National Park passes don’t work) and then we headed in to get a closer look. Unfortunately, since it was the off season, the Youth Exploration Area and the Sculptor’s Studio were both closed. But we were able to gawk at the giant sculptures and enjoy the President’s Walk, home to many beautiful views (and lots of stairs). If you do the President’s Walk, start on the left side when facing Mount Rushmore…the trek is a bit more downhill this way as opposed to going the opposite direction.
I loved seeing Mount Rushmore and reading about the history of the presidents and of the artist Gutzon Borglum, but if I had to do it over again I would do the audio tour (which would have been a bit difficult while managing children) and we would have gone into the museum downstairs (which we didn’t realize existed until after we had already left). There is also a Junior Ranger program at Mount Rushmore which we didn’t know about at the time either!
Big Thunder Gold Mine
Finally, we ended the day at the Big Thunder Gold Mine. In all honesty, this was my least favorite part of the trip but the kids seemed to enjoy it. We attempted to do a tour of the gold mine…but it was cut short. The gold mine doubles as a haunted house in October (word of warning for those of you with sensitive children…they try to cover the scary stuff during the day but they still had some creepy things in view). Someone had accidentally turned on the fog machine inside the mine and because I have a child with asthma, we had to leave the mine immediately and didn’t get to do the rest of the tour. The cashier was very gracious to reimburse us some of our expense but it was disappointing nonetheless.
The big kids learned to pan for gold (and were guaranteed to get a few flecks) which was both fun and a bit frustrating for the kids as panning of gold is definitely an art that takes a lot of practice! Learning the history of the mine and the “honey pot” was pretty entertaining.
Day 3: Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park and The Mammoth Site
Custer State Park:
We woke up bright and early to head southbound from our hotel in Rapid City. We quickly discovered that Custer State Park rivals many of the big national parks we have been to with beautiful scenery, wildlife, and even the “braying burros” (donkeys) that you can pet. We could have easily spent much more time here, but a cold front moved in this day and the high winds made it less than desirable to spend much time outside of the car. We took the Wildlife Loop as early as we could in the morning (a tip we read beforehand) and we were able to see lots of active animals! Be sure to pack some donkey-approved snacks as the donkeys are the only animals you are allowed to touch and feed!
Wind Cave National Park:
Wind Cave National Park is one of the country’s oldest national parks, the 8th in our country, and has been protected since 1903 thanks to Teddy Roosevelt. It is the sixth longest underground cavern system in the world and is famous for the boxwork formation (95% of the world’s boxwork formations are found in Wind Cave).
We stopped at Wind Cave National Park (just a few minutes from Custer State Park) and were so excited to take a tour of the underground caves only to find out that the next available tour left 2.5 hours later. Due to it being a super windy and cold day (unlike the rest of our trip which was unseasonably warm), there was little we could do outside and only the visitor’s center and gift shop to keep us occupied. We elected to not do the cavern tour but our kids did get to the Junior Park Ranger program even without the tour.
Words of Wisdom: Call ahead to see what times the tours leave for the day you will be visiting and make reservations ahead of time.
We have done a similar cavern tour in Missouri and it is totally worth the stop if you can arrange it!
The Mammoth Site
In all honesty, I had very low expectations for this stop (even after reading good reviews) but it ended up being one of the coolest places! The Mammoth Site is a recently discovered paleontological site with the largest number of mammoths in the world. They have uncovered 61 total mammoths at this site and they are still working. The tour guides were extremely knowledgeable and even kindly answered all of our kids’ crazy questions!
All in all, this was a super fun long weekend getaway for us Midwesterner’s! Have you been to Mt. Rushmore with Kids? What was your favorite attraction or activity???