Mount Rushmore, South Dakota (The Black Hills)

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota (Purestock/Getty)

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota (PhotoDisc)

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota (PhotoDisc)

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What to do in Mount Rushmore

South Dakota makes for an intriguing family vacation, offering a fun-filled combination of natural beauty, unusual geological features, and distinct Native American and Westward Expansion heritage.

A good starting point in Rapid City is the Journey Museum, which recounts two versions of Great Plains history: a scientific explanation based on fossils and geologic cross-sections as well as the mythological explanation from the Lakota Sioux. Check out the Native American exhibit with its hologram of a woman talking in a tepee for an especially revealing glimpse of regional folklore.

Nearby, the Black Hills region of South Dakota, approximately 65 miles wide and 125 miles long, includes five national parks and memorials. The most well-known is the Mount Rushmore National Monument, with its 60-foot-long chiseled faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, embedded in the American psyche as much as they are the granite of Mount Rushmore. The best time to view these iconic busts is between sunrise and ten o'clock. The half-mile Presidential Trail gets you up close to the carvings.

Balance the history lesson by visiting a fifth face at the nine-story Crazy Horse Memorial, a monument to the leader of the Lakota Indians. When complete, the sculpture will be the world's largest mountain carving at 563 feet wide by 641 feet tall. June 3 to 4 marks the only time in the year that you can walk the 6.2-mile round-trip path onto the arm and take in the panoramic valley views. Stay for the evening laser show of images projected onto the stone.

Custer State Park, situated on 71,000 acres of rolling grasslands and pine forests 40 miles southwest of Rapid City, is home to about 1,500 head of buffalo, one of the largest herds in the U.S. Jeep safari drives, which depart from the State Game Lodge, get you out into the backcountry to see these living icons of the West. Then head south to Wind Cave, the highlight of Wind Cave National Park, which is reputed to be the fourth-longest U.S. cave with nearly 120 miles of mapped passages. Guides lead you through a half-mile tour that takes about 75 minutes and features abundant boxwork—thin calcite fins resembling honeycombs, for which the cave is known.

In the nearby town of Hot Springs is the indoor Mammoth Site, one of the richest mammoth finds in North America, with 53 skeletons, many of them in situ as when they were first uncovered. With the Junior Paleontologist Excavation, kids ages four to 13 can dig for fossil replicas. Note: it only runs from June 1 through August 15, so reserve well ahead for a space in this popular program.

Known for its unusual calcite formations, Jewel Cave National Monument is the third-longest cave in the world with 133 miles of mapped passages. Ninety-minute guided tours are available. The monument is 55 miles southwest of Rapid City.

Wind and water created the wild assortment of pinnacles, cones, peaks, canyons, and ridges you see at 244,000-acre Badlands National Park. Drive through the park and keep an eye out for bison, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep, but be sure to walk around, even a short way, for a different perspective. The quarter-mile Fossil Exhibit Trail, a wheelchair- and stroller-accessible loop, has replicas of area fossils.

Tip: Custer State Park's buffalo roundup occurs the first Monday in October. Book months ahead for park lodging or arrive very early that morning to watch the herd come thundering into the corrals.

Recommended Side Trips: Sturgis, Pierre

Traveler Reviews of Mount Rushmore


Lacy rates Mount Rushmore
It's really hard to get kids interested in historical attractions. And my experience at Mount Rushmore speaks directly to that. I was 12 and I certainly didn't want to be in the back of a pickup truck cruising the Black Hills with my parents. As much as I hate to admit it, I looked at the faces, ate some lunch, and was ready to head on out of there. Mount Rushmore is a fascinating place, though I think you need to work extra hard on your planning to get your little ones involved. Don't just stay cooped up in the car all day -- ??get out and hike, or plan activities that let them run free. Camping is a great option as well, though maybe give them their own little tent so they feel some independence.
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Pete rates Mount Rushmore
In Rapid City for a wedding, I thought Mount Rushmore might be an overcrowded, underwhelming, cheesy, tourist-trap experience. Boy, was I wrong. On an early October day that shifted from bright sun and blue sky, to gray, misting drizzle, to sunset and nightfall, the presidential monument was a majestic, inspiring, and ever-changing sight (particularly at sunset and when lit at night). Nearby, Hill City has a few interesting shops, restaurants, a winery tasting room (?!) and the rustically elegant Alpine Inn. There are some nearby hiking and biking trails we didn't have time to tackle, and the in-progress Crazy Horse monument and museum (beware the $27/car entry fee). Rapid City itself was a great weekend host, we especially enjoyed the Silver Spoon Cafe, Firehouse Brewery, and amazing Western and Native American galleries and shops.
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