“I can't believe it's really real!” my 7-year-old daughter breathed as she gazed up at the four most famous faces in South Dakota. It was the first time she'd seen Mount Rushmore outside the pages of a book, and her awe at the sight of it made me smile. Growing up in an era when life before iPads and Internet is unfathomable, a giant rock carving still captures her imagination. It's just one of the reasons Mount Rushmore and the surrounding Black Hills of South Dakota is well worth the trip.
Our family visited the area in late April, just before the busy summer tourism season kicked off. While some area attractions weren't open yet, we found plenty of activities to keep our family of five busy. Here are 6 of our favorite things to do in the area:
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
There's something both outrageous and logical about four of America's most beloved presidents immortalized as 60-foot-tall granite faces. Sculptor Gutzom Borglum's vision brought to life on Mount Rushmore is truly a sight to behold; you almost can't help but come away feeling gleefully patriotic (true story: I caught my daughter quietly humming the National Anthem as we walked away!).
The park grounds themselves are clean, well-kept, and easily navigaved with a stroller. Park rangers are readily accessible and happy to share information about the site's history (we learned all the equipment and men used to carve the faces were trasported to the top of the cliff via pulley system!). There's a comfortable cafe on the grounds to grab lunch or some delicious ice cream (Bottineau, North Dakota's own Pride Dairy supplies the exclusive TJ's Vanilla flavor, made from Thomas Jefferson's own recipe). There's also a nice gift shop where you can find everything from books to Black Hills Gold jewelry to Mount Rushmore miniatures.
The monument is illuminated each evening at nightfall (in the summertime, it's part of a very well-done nightly lighting ceremony put on by the Park Service) and is a must-see as part of your visit.
Tip: Make sure to walk the “Presidential Trail” (0.6mi long) which leads right to the base of the memorial and provides some incredible views and fascinating facts.
Three miles from Mount Rushmore, the tourist town of Keystone is worth the visit. Origninally a gold mining settlement, Keystone is a quaint little town with plenty of shopping, food, and attractions for the whole family. You can pan for gold, explore nearby caves, or stroll the boardwalk where you'll find shops and restaurants.
Tip: Grab a map of the area from one of the hotels or shops and ask for tips from the locals on what to see and do.
Iron Mountain Road
Some of the most unique parts of the area are the scenic drives that wind their way up and down the Black Hills. One of these twisty roadways is Iron Mountain Road, and it was one of my kids' favorite parts of our visit to the area. Along the narrow (and be warned: very curvy!) road, you'll pass through three single-lane rock tunnels—and Mount Rushmore is framed perfectly in the distance by each of them. There are also areas to pull off the road and climb or hike and take in the breathtaking views of the Black Hills National Forest (something my grandfather, Harold Hanson, did in 1935, pictured below next to my daughter 81 years later at the same spot).
Tip: It takes about an hour to drive this 17-mile road, so bring snacks and take a bathroom break before you head out.
Cosmos Mystery Area
Along the highway between Rapid City and Keystone, you'll notice a few billboards that read, “Cosmos Mystery Area: See it. Feel it. Survive it!” And truly—it's something you really have to experience to believe. Both my husband and I visited the Cosmos when we were kids, and the experience stuck with both of us, so of course we had to take our own kids there.
This family-friendly 30-minute guided, interactive tour will take you through a mystery house that seems to defy the laws of gravity. Here, water flows uphill, chairs balance on walls, and walking—even standing—is a hilarious challenge. Our kids still talk about the Cosmos weeks later, and I'm sure the experience will stick with them for years to come.
Tip: The tour is not stroller friendly, and not suitable for children who can't walk or anyone with balance issues.
Sylvan Lake & Needles Highway
Another scenic drive in the Black Hills is found along the Needles Highway. Former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck mapped out the entire 14-mile road by foot and on horseback in the 1920s, and the resulting path is breathtaking. At the entrance to the roadway is the beautifully scenic Sylvan Lake. Impressive rock formations are the hallmark of this crystal clear lake, and it's a great area to explore on foot. Our kids (ages 7, 5, and 2) loved hiking the trail and climbing the very manageable rocks.
Along Needles Highway, be sure to stop at the various tunnels and scenic overviews to climb on the giant rocks and take in the impressive views.
Tip: The Needles Highway takes at least 90 minutes to drive, and another 90 minutes if you take the connected Wildlife Loop through Custer State Park.
About 50 miles east of Rapid City on I-90, Wall Drug has been doling out free ice water since 1936. Of course, there's much more than ice water, but the gimmick started by Dorothy and Ted Hustead in an effort to attract thirsty travelers to their floundering drugstore turned Wall Drug into a tourist destination that continues to flourish 80 years later.
Billboards for the drugstore line the highway for miles—and they're not just in South Dakota; signs saying how many miles to Wall Drug can be found in Paris, London, and even Antarctica, all part of the clever marketing strategies dreamed up by the Husteads.
The drugstore itself is a fun stop with a family. Besides that free ice water, there are delicious homemade, old fashioned donuts and pies; plenty of gift shops; and even a dinosaur. It's the kind of place you can't just drive by—Wall Drug is a fun stop full of history and humor, and one you should definitely make if you're in the area.
Tip: As you're driving to Wall Drug, read up on the fascinating family history of the store and how one silly idea changed everything here.