Exploring South Dakota: Road Trips in the Mount Rushmore State

By Kimberly Graf. Published on May 28, 2024

South Dakota is a literal gold mine of things to do! From the famous Mount Rushmore to the expansive Custer National Park, you'll never be bored when traveling in South Dakota. This guide focuses mostly on the western part of the state, which is the most populated and houses the most attractions. We'll take a look at some of the natural wonders of the state and some of the best things to see!

Custer Nature Trip

Custer National Park takes up a large portion of the western part of South Dakota. There are plenty of interesting things to do within the park and all around it, which is the basis for this trip. Drive time is going to run you 2 hours and 45 minutes, and cover approximately 115 miles. We're going to start out at Spearfish Canyon, at the northern edge of the Black Hills National Forest.

Custer State Park

This area is south of the town of Spearfish. It's a deep gorge that was carved out by the Spearfish Creek. It's been thousands of years in the making, and now you can walk around the edge and take a dip in the creek below! When you're finished, head 15 miles south for a look at the Broken Boot Gold Mines.

This is in Deadwood, South Dakota – an infamous old-west town that is still a great tourist attraction today. The gold mines offer tours of gold mines that have long since closed. There are other places that are worth stopping at in Deadwood, so take some time to look around!

And after, head 22 miles to the east towards Bear Butte. The local Native Americans hold this place as sacred. Besides being visually appealing, it's also a very peaceful place. Remember to be respectful when visiting. Local tribes believe that their ancestors speak to them on this mountain!

Bear Butte State Park

After taking a moment there, you're going to head down past Rapid City. Reptile Gardens is an animal park and sanctuary for snakes, reptiles, amphibians, bugs, and even birds! Your kids are going to love visiting here, especially if they are particularly fond of any of those types of animals. Take some time to enjoy it and be educated about the animals!

Our next stop is Black Elk Peak, which is almost an hour away. It's the highest point in South Dakota – or at least the highest natural peak! You can hike up to the fire tower and see for miles and miles – including a view of the nearby Mount Rushmore!

If you'd like to stop at Mount Rushmore during this trip, that's perfectly fine! It's not too far off course. We're headed there in our next trip for sure, though!

The Black Elk Peak Fire Tower looks out over Custer State Park.

Needles in very close, only a few miles away from Black Elk Peak. If you enjoy rock climbing, you're going to love this place! It's an entire area full of granite pillars and spires that have been eroded away by time and rain. It's a geological region like no other!

And when you're done hiking there, head just about 7 minutes away and take a dip in Sylvan Lake. This has often been called the most beautiful lake in the Custer National Park, and for good reason! It's not overly forested, but the lake looks like it's made of glass in the right light, and there are always ducks and swans paddling around.

We are sure that the nature lover in you is going to love this trip. If that's not really your thing, our next trip showcases some more indoor sightseeing and tourism opportunities.

Western South Dakota Sightseeing

The start point for this trip is just a few miles to the west of where the last trip ended. The Crazy Horse Memorial is an unfinished mountain carving, as well as a Native American museum. It's one of those places that you just have to see if you're in the area – and wonder over how it might have looked if it was finished.

Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota

From there, we're going to backtrack to Mount Rushmore. No matter when you chose to go, you are sure to encounter a crowd here. If you are somehow unaware, Mount Rushmore consists of the faces of four former US presidents carved into the mountain. There's a museum and a lot of other stuff to do in the area, but this place is on many peoples' bucket lists – for good reason!

About 20 miles away near Rapid City is Bear Country USA. If you plan well ahead, you might be able to get in to hold baby bears here! They also have a wide variety of animals that are native to North America, including wolves and elk. It's an animal park with a petting zoo area! Your kids are going to love it.

When you're finished there, we're heading to another family fun attraction – Dinosaur Park! It's the roadside attraction that a lot of people go out of their way to see, though it's still in Rapid City. It's right on track for us. This park consists of 20 acres on a hill that overlooks Rapid City. In that field are a bunch of cement dinosaurs that were created in the 1930's. It's completely free and definitely unique.

WaTiki Indoor Water Resort

Our last stop is one where you can stay a few days if you'd like. The WaTiki Indoor Waterpark and Resort takes up an amazing 30,000 square feet and contains the usual water park fair, including slides, pools, and lazy rivers. Plus there's an arcade and restaurant! But you can stay in the adjoining hotel and enjoy the whole thing over a couple of days.

This trip will take you a total of 1 hour and 24 minutes of drive time, but you're probably going to want to spend a lot more time looking at the sights!


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