Mount Rushmore is a top US road trip destination, and for good reason. The four iconic heads impossibly carved into the granite cliffs of the Black Hills in western South Dakota are an amazing sight. If you arrive early to beat the crowds and walk the President’s Trail to get up close to those carvings, you’ll be impressed.
But some folks, once people they’ve seen those heads, ask themselves, “Wait, that’s it? I drove 12 hours for this?”
That happens when road-trippers make Mount Rushmore the only stop on their South Dakota itinerary — overlooking all that lies within two hours of the monument. South Dakota epitomizes the frontier of America. Grassy plains stretching far beyond the horizon, herds of grunting and stampeding buffalo, and dramatically shifting landscapes from east to west create a playground for outdoor junkies.
Beyond the outdoor possibilities, small towns dotted throughout the Black Hills provide yet more reasons to pull over on the way to Rushmore. Breweries, museums, and one unnecessarily large drug store are just a few must-sees in a state that has more than you might think. Mount Rushmore may be the reason you drive all the way to South Dakota, but it’s just one of the many things to see there. Here are the destinations you should add.
If you’re heading west on I-90, before you get to Mount Rushmore, the badlands rise up out of nowhere. After hours of driving through flat expanses of land, the bizarre, rugged rock formations for which the park is best known — layers of sedimentary rock eroded by wind and water for millions of years into off formations — appear like a mirage.
The closer you get, the weirder the terrain looks, and it becomes clear why both the Lakota and early French-Canadian fur trappers referred to the area as bad lands to traverse. The shorthand name of “bad lands” stuck.
While the park consists of three units, the vast majority of visitors explore the North Unit, where a better infrastructure of paved roads, hiking trails, and campgrounds makes that unit easier to access. The entire park, though, is full of wildlife. Bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and thousands of prairie dogs are just a few animals you don’t have to work too hard to spot, as they’re everywhere.
You can spot massive herds of bison along the Sage Creek Road to the west. That area of the park also is more remote, if you’re seeking some solitude. You’ll most likely only be sharing the plains with the bison. Rattlesnakes are also found throughout the park in the warmer months. In fact, scorching summers and brutally cold winters mean each season is a radically different experience for visitors.
Once the sun goes down, the stargazing opportunities are fantastic. Due to the landscape, visitors get uninterrupted views of the night sky, and on clear nights the milky way brilliantly shines above. Those not in the mood for physical exertion will find that the park is also rich with history. You can park your car at the head of the Fossil Exhibit Trail and read about the beasts that once roamed the badlands. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center has information about the Native American and US military history that played out in the area as well.
Driving distance from Mount Rushmore: 105 miles, or about 1 hour and 45 minutes
2. Wall Drug
There are some destinations that road-trippers make a stop for solely on the basis of their quirkiness and peculiarity. Wall Drug provides some of that flair as well as a bit more. The hundreds of billboards that advertise the place might seem a bit excessive, but if you stop in, you’ll realize that excessiveness is just par for the course at the legendary store.
Founded in 1931, Wall Drug has long been an oasis for travelers. What started as a regular hole-in-the-wall drug store has now turned into an entire block-long wooden behemoth.
A typical visit includes shopping for books and cowboy boots, eating at a restaurant known for its buffalo burgers and homemade doughnuts, and just marveling at how many bizarre knick knacks, crafts, and more are stuffed into one building. You won’t be able to see everything in the store no matter how much time you spend there. Wall Drug is just north of Badlands National Park, so heed the billboards and actually stop in.
Driving distance from Mount Rushmore: 76.5 miles, or about 1 hour and 17 minutes
3. Wind Cave National Park
Beyond Mount Rushmore, the terrain in the western part of the state changes quickly. The vast plains that sweep over the badlands disappear, the roads begin to twist and turn, and the granite cliffs of the Black Hills start to look more like the neighboring state of Wyoming than the rest of the state you’ve left behind.
The Black Hills area has the state’s only other national park: Wind Cave. One of the oldest national parks in the country, Wind Cave was declared a national park in 1903. Park rangers lead tours of the cave which gave the park its name and is one of the longest and most complex cave systems in the world.
The Lakota, Cheyenne, and a number of other Native American tribes refer to the cave as sacred ground, and some allude to the underground labyrinth as a space of “breathing earth.” Park entrance is free, but tours cost a small, but worthwhile, fee. Aboveground, hikes through pine forests lead to overlooks that have uninterrupted views of seemingly never-ending green hills.
Driving distance from Mount Rushmore: 40 miles, or about 50 minutes
Custer State Park shares a border with Wind Cave, and both parks draw far fewer visitors than Badlands and Mount Rushmore, giving hikers intimate encounters with bison, elk, bighorn sheep, and even mountain goats. It’s conveniently located a stone’s throw from Mount Rushmore, and you’ll pass by Custer on your way to Wind Cave.
The 71,000-acre park was South Dakota’s first state park, and offers plenty of options for hiking, swimming, and fishing. You’ll find horse trails as well, and options for guided horse rides. In September, Custer hosts an annual Buffalo Roundup and arts festival. Custer is a scenic and worthy escape from the crowds of Rushmore.
Driving distance from Mount Rushmore: 29.5 miles, or 40 minutes.
5. Small towns in the Black Hills
When it’s time to get off your feet, the Black Hills has a few towns where you can do just that. The town of Hot Springs, where Wind Cave is located, is naturally endowed with mineral springs where tired travelers can soak. Hot Springs also has a mammoth site and museum with the world’s largest collection of Columbian mammoths. It’s an active dig site, but visitors can still tour the museum. You can also visit the Pioneer Museum, an 1890s sandstone schoolhouse converted into a gallery packed with relics from the Old West.
The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary has hundreds of free-roaming mustangs that stampede across the plains as they have done for thousands of years. These horses are rescues that were mistreated or unwanted and were taken into the sanctuary where they now roam free. Tours are offered, and the sanctuary is open year-round.
Hill City and Keystone are over-commercialized but entertaining enough to warrant a stop. Old-fashioned saloons and trading posts provide a campy look at what the area might have looked like in the late 19th century. While Hot Springs is a better getaway for adults with its natural spring spas, these two towns are a good option for families with young children.
Driving distance from Mount Rushmore: To Hot Springs it’s 51 miles, or about 1 hour; Hill City is 12.5 miles away, or 20 minutes; and Keystone is 4 miles away, or 10 minutes
6. Rapid City
While the small towns in the Black Hills have their charm, you can hit everything on the itinerary in a relatively short amount of time. Rapid City, on the other hand, is bigger and serves as the main hub for travelers looking to stay the night on their Rushmore trip.
Firehouse Brewing Co. is another spot that you will probably have seen advertised throughout South Dakota. The old firehouse-turned-brewery (complete with a fire pole) is an incredibly unique drinking experience and, if you’re there in the summer, its cold brews are a welcome respite from the stifling heat. Plenty of other wineries, breweries, and distilleries call Rapid City their home, as well. Rapid City is large enough to have an actual nightlife scene, and the town’s coffee shops and art galleries make it a rewarding stop for a night or two.
Driving distance from Mount Rushmore: 23.5 miles, or 33 minutes