Mount Rushmore is an enduring testimony to American exploration, expansion, unity, and preservation. Started in 1927 and completed in 1941, these faces of four presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt—were created by 400 workers, who toiled to carve them into the hard granite mountain. The creators of the monument picked the location well. Gorgeous lakes, spires, and pine-covered peaks surround Mount Rushmore, offering numerous outdoor activities and winding mountain drives.

Hill City and Keystone are a few miles from Mount Rushmore, to the west and east, respectively. Each has seen its share of boom and bust cycles; first it was gold, then mica, then tin, and then a long period of economic recession. When it was time to find a location for the monument, the fact that Keystone had a road, electricity, and a rail line in place clearly made a positive impression. Mount Rushmore brought life back to both communities, but each has evolved in its own direction. Keystone, closest to the monument, is action central, filled with gift shops, restaurants, and attractions. Hill City has evolved into a quaint, charming arts center in the hills.

Mount Rushmore and the small cities and tourist industries that grew up around it are filled with sights and activities to delight just about every kind of traveler.As the biggest city in the area, Rapid City is the urban heart of the Black Hills. Initially created to serve as the commercial center for the mining towns of the Northern Hills, Rapid City made a concerted run to become the “Queen City of the Plains.” It lost the title (and subsequent population growth) to Denver, but as a result of its efforts, the rich historic district has much to offer visitors. Cozy pubs, fine dining, art galleries, and boutique shopping are all within easy walking distance. Centrally located, and with the only commercial airport in the region, Rapid City frequently serves as the start and end point of a Black Hills vacation.

Planning Your Time at Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore and the small cities and tourist industries that grew up around it are filled with sights and activities to delight just about every kind of traveler. It is possible to spend as little as a day here, celebrating American history at Mount Rushmore, or a full two weeks or more, experiencing the outdoor recreation opportunities, museums, galleries, and attractions of the region. In order to experience the best the Central Hills region has to offer, plan to spend a minimum of three days in the area. The Black Hills region in its entirety is compact, but the winding mountain roads in the Central Hills can result in a lot of time behind the wheel, so you’ll want to plan your time carefully.

There are two basic travel strategies for visiting the Black Hills. You can choose a location to use as a base camp and plot a series of day trips around it, or plan a meandering route through the hills, spending one night here, two nights there, as the route and attractions dictate. The ideal itinerary for you will depend on your overall travel plans and personal preference. If you plan to spend more than a day or two exploring the Central Hills, consider Hill City or Keystone as a base camp for your visit, as both are conveniently close to all the attractions of the Central Hills. For a short visit, day trips from Rapid City, just 45 minutes from Mount Rushmore, can also be a successful approach.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, South Dakota.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, South Dakota. Photo © Jesse Kraft/123rf.

If you are starting your journey into the hills from Rapid City, the fastest road to Mount Rushmore is U.S. 16, also known as Mount Rushmore Road. But if you have the time and would enjoy a dramatic approach, go a little out of your way to approach the carving from Iron Mountain Road (U.S. 16A). Iron Mountain Road begins in the south in Custer State Park and then heads north to Mount Rushmore. To drive to Mount Rushmore on this scenic byway, travel south from Rapid City on Highway 79, and then head west (take a right) on Highway 36. Continue for nine miles. Just as you enter Custer State Park, go north (take a right) on Iron Mountain Road. Enjoy the scenery and watch for the faces of Mount Rushmore to appear, framed by one of the tunnels through which the road is carved. Bring carrots for the wild burro herd you are likely to encounter.

Visitors approach the Avenue of Flags at Mount Rushmore National Monument.

Visitors approach the Avenue of Flags at Mount Rushmore National Monument. Photo © Brenda Kean/123rf.

Highlights

Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center & Museum: Everything you’d ever want to know about Mount Rushmore, its sculptor, the carving process, the wildlife at the park, and even western American history can be found at the center. Did you know that Washington has the biggest nose of all the presidents on the mountain? This visitors center is full of fascinating facts.

The 1880 Train: Created by rail enthusiasts who refused to allow steam trains to disappear from the landscape, the 1880 Train provides a leisurely trip between Hill City and Keystone.

The Museum at Black Hills Institute: The founders of the Black Hills Institute and subsequent museum were involved with the discovery of the famous Tyrannosaurus rex Sue. There are dinosaur bones in South Dakota, and the institute is known for excellent excavation and restoration work.

Prairie Edge Trading Company and Galleries: This gallery of the best in contemporary and historic Native American arts includes exquisite beadwork, star quilts, powwow regalia, ledger art, and music.

Journey Museum: The definitive museum of the Black Hills has great interactive exhibits on archaeology, Lakota culture, geology, pioneer history, and local ecology.

Storybook Island: Fairy tales and nursery rhymes come to life at this children’s theme park, where kids can meet the Three Little Pigs, the Cat in the Hat, Winnie the Pooh, and over 100 other characters.

Reptile Gardens: At this delightful site for kids of all ages, daily shows feature live exhibits and talks about crocodiles, poisonous snakes, and raptors. Best of all are the free-roaming giant tortoises.

Bear Country U.S.A.: Large animals roam this drive-through park, so you can view elk, bears, wolves, badgers, and wildlife babies from the safety of your car.

Travel map of Mount Rushmore and the Central Hills

Mount Rushmore and the Central Hills

Excerpted from The Third Edition of Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills.