Not that I’m biased or anything, but South Dakota is one of the greatest states of the Great Plains. Sweeping grasslands, wild rock formations, mind-boggling badlands, and fun cities like Sioux Falls and Rapid City mean that while South Dakota is often overlooked, it’s well worth exploring for us travelers who love to discover all of the wonders across the United States.
One of the top attractions in South Dakota is – of course – Mount Rushmore; it draws some 2 million visitors each year. Most of those people spend a day exploring the memorial then continue on to other parts of the state or country – but there are some fantastic things to do near Mount Rushmore too.
If you’re planning a trip to Mount Rushmore, consider adding a day or two to your travel itinerary to experience other activities, natural wonders, and even another towering rock memorial in the area. Read on to discover how to fill your days exploring the region around Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
In this post, I promote travel to destinations that are the traditional lands of the Apsáalooke (Crow), Tséstho’e (Cheyenne), and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Visit Custer State Park
If seeing wildlife in abundance is your goal, head to Custer State Park. Located in the Black Hills, this wilderness encompasses 71,000 acres, where bison, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and burros live and roam freely.
Besides its beautiful scenery, the park has become one of the top attractions near Mount Rushmore for providing direct access to spot wildlife. Visitors can drive the Wildlife Loop, but, according to the rangers you have to detour a little bit on a dirt road to see the bison. It is worth it! You may see the groups of bison pass in front of the car and the burros who are very friendly – some go up to the car windows as the cars drive in.
If you’d like to get some exercise, you can do the Harney Peak trail and see Black Elk Peak, the highest point in South Dakota. The trail starts near Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park.
Drive Down Needles Highway
Turning your wheels down the Needles Highway is one of the best things to do near Mount Rushmore.
The 14-mile-long drive passes by the most beautiful scenery. It twists and turns through the tall, needle-like rock formations from which it gets its name, and offers one spectacular view after another of the surrounding hills. It passes Sylvan Lake as well as several trailheads, if you want to get out and stretch your legs.
Finally, and perhaps coolest of all, it goes through three tight tunnels cut in the rock – so it’s far from a dull drive.
Explore Black Hills National Forest
At 1.25-million acres, Black Hills National Forest offers countless spots to visit and activities to try. The park boasts over 13,000 acres of wilderness, 1,300 miles of streams, 450 miles of hiking trails, and 2 national scenic byways.
If you’re short on time, the Cathedral Spires Trail is a great hike! It’s approximately 1.5 miles one-way and generally considered moderately challenging due to some rocky elevation rise through the middle section. The first part goes up through a wooded valley. At the top, you turn into an expansive, open valley surrounded by the large, needle-like rock formations that give the trail its name; as you might guess, it’s breathtakingly beautiful.
Drive Down the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway
Spanning 2o miles, the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway is an exceptional drive. The route runs alongside Spearfish Creek, providing some very beautiful views along the way. It has waterfalls, hiking and bike trails, and picnic areas.
There is something for everyone here, whether you are just driving through, or stopping here and there for some short hikes to view some very impressive scenery. While Spearfish Canyon is beautiful any time of the year, Fall offers the most picturesque drive. There’s color everywhere, the leaves on top of the trees boast stunning shades of gold, red, and yellow that accent the evergreen backdrop. The changing of the leaves normally peaks during the first week of October.
Browse for Souvenirs at Wall Drug
If you’ve checked posts about what to do near Mount Rushmore, they always mention the Wall Drug Store at some point. Despite the name, Wall Drug isn’t a drugstore, but a complex of small interconnected stores. It’s become famous for the countless signs saying “Wall Drug” that the store has put on the I-90 – there’s at least one sign per mile for two hours.
The venue is filled with quirky shops, selling goods, paintings, souvenirs, and goods. They are known for their free ice water (yes, if you bring a whole bucket I heard they will fill it) as well as their 5-cent coffee. Don’t forget to pick up your free “Where the heck is Wall Drug?” bumper sticker from the Wall Drug gift shop.
Hike at Badlands National Park
Visiting Badlands National Park should be high on your list of things to do near Mount Rushmore. Its dramatic landscapes are surreal. Look to one side and there are miles of sprawling grasslands. Look to the other side and you see layered rock formations, steep canyons, and towering spires. Isn’t it amazing what natural erosion can cause?
There are tons of ways to explore Badlands’ majestic landscapes. Drive down the Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) to wind past scenic lookouts. You can also do a bit of hiking. Several trails begin near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, but you don’t want to miss the Door, Window, and Notch Hikes. The Notch Trail is a bit more demanding since it includes a 70-foot ladder.
Go on a Cave Tour at Wind Cave National Park
Since we’re talking about how amazing nature can be, it’s worth mentioning Wind Cave National Park. This park features the world’s largest concentration of rare boxwork formations (honeycomb-shaped calcite formations). The park offers different tours to explore Wind Cave, but if it’s your first time, take the Fairgrounds tour. It is about two hours and you go 200 feet down via elevator to discover a fraction of the cave’s 154 miles of passageways (discovered so far). You’ll also learn facts and historical stories about the Wind Cave.
One piece of advice: book your tickets in advance via Recreation.gov. Wind Cave is one of the most popular things to do near Mount Rushmore and tickets easily sell out for the entire day by midday.
Soak up the History of Deadwood
The Black Hills Gold Rush started in 1874 and led to the establishment of mining camps near Custer, Hill City, and Deadwood.
The small town of Deadwood quickly became popular for its lawlessness. Alongside miners and gold seekers, the town attracted a fair share of gamblers, outlaws, and gunslingers who played by their own rules. Some of the most famous characters of the Lawless West called Deadwood home: Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Sol Star, and Potato Creek Johnny all settled in these lands.
Should you be so inspired by the name of this place, you can also see their graves at Mount Moriah Cemetery.
Check out the Crazy Horse Memorial
The Black Hills of South Dakota is home to two of the largest sculpted mountains in the world. Of course, there’s Mount Rushmore, and there’s also Crazy Horse.
While everyone knows the men whose faces adorn Mount Rushmore, fewer are familiar with the subject of this memorial; Crazy Horse is actually the Oglala Lakota Native American warrior. The 600-foot mountain monument will depict Crazy Horse, riding a horse, and pointing southeast to the tribal land where his people lie buried.
The carving started in 1948 by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and is still in progress. Still, what’s been built so far is impressive in scale, and when finished, it will be the world’s second-largest mountain.
Do you know of other great things to do near Mount Rushmore, or have questions about these suggestions? Let me know in the comments!