South Dakota’s Black Hills are best known for Mount Rushmore, where George, Tom, Teddy, and Abe cast their stony glances.
Indeed, onlookers jam the memorial during its prime vacation window, roughly May through October. But what else can a vacationer do in the Black Hills and the nearby Badlands?
My family of four explored various cracks and crevices of both regions for 10 days, and we found them packed with rough-and-tumble history, riveting wildlife, and just plain fun. The adventure passed our vacation-satisfaction litmus test: Our 8-year-old daughter keeps asking when we can go back.
Here are 10 things we would recommend that you do after snapping a selfie at the Mount Rushmore Memorial.
Scout out downtown Rapid City
Rapid City, 30 minutes northeast of Mount Rushmore, is known as the “Gateway to the Black Hills.” Visit the Journey Museum to delve into the area’s rich history, then experience the city’s creative vibe and ethnic diversity. One way is during “Summer Nights,” a free downtown celebration that draws thousands on Thursdays from May through August. Observe life-size, bronze statues of past presidents on every street corner, splash in the fountains at Main Street Square and pop into Prairie Edge for Native American and western wares. Check out Art Alley, between Main and St. Joseph streets, where the buildings are an ever-changing canvas for graffiti artists and a backdrop for street performers. Don’t miss Blind Lion, a modern speakeasy that’s open on Fridays and Saturdays beneath Murphy’s Pub & Grill.
Greet a bear, hug a snake
Bear Country USA and Reptile Gardens, two worthy roadside attractions located three miles apart between Rapid City and Mount Rushmore, allow you to interact with wild critters in clever ways. Bear Country, which opened in 1972, is a privately-owned, drive-through wildlife park that spans more than 200 acres. We drove (windows up) past free-roaming wolves, reindeer, and lots of bears. Reptile Gardens opened in 1937 and claims to have more types of reptiles than any other zoo or park in the world. We saw and petted our fair share, including an albino Burmese python named Marilyn and a baby alligator named Fluffy. Best of all, we got to scratch the neck of a gentle giant tortoise named Tank.
Embrace your freedom
We like to seek out free excursions while we’re on vacation. In Rapid City, a life-size, concrete Apatosaurus is one of seven sculptures that tower over Dinosaur Park, a throwback type of playground that opened in 1936 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Another free diversion in Rapid City is Storybook Island. Opened in 1959, the appealing children’s park has dozens of sculpted characters straight from the pages of children’s literature. When you’re in the Badlands, visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, where you can dive into a Cold War-era bunker and see where atomic weaponry could have been launched.
Chug through the Black Hills
Climb aboard a vintage steam train for a two-hour, narrated excursion between Hill City and Keystone, home of Mount Rushmore. The “1880 Train” meanders through the Black Hills and alongside Battle Creek, where prospectors once panned for gold. Spot mule deer and wild turkeys outside the wide windows. Disembark at either end of the route for kitschy shopping opportunities such as the snug Teddy Bear Town in Hill City, with 8,000 bears stuffed inside. If you’re hungry head across the street to the Alpine Inn, where filet mignon dominates the dinner menu.
Drop into Deadwood
Deadwood, S.D., (above) is one of those towns that looks like a Hollywood movie set, but the Old West facades and aged portraits of menacing men and women are the real deal. Deadwood has been renovated over the years to resuscitate the 1880s, thanks to a heap of casino money. Actors play out the past, so you can see Wild Bill Hickok shot down several times a day at Saloon No. 10. You also can take fast-draw lessons at Deadwood Guns, pan for gold at the Broken Boot Gold Mine, and ride a bus to Mount Moriah Cemetery to view the adjacent gravesites of Hickok and Calamity Jane.
Horse around in the Badlands
Hop on a horse and ride Western style like a real cowboy across an open prairie peppered with buffalo grass, prickly pear cacti and rattlesnakes on a working Badlands ranch. Hurley Butte Horseback in Interior, S.D. — an hour and a half east of Mount Rushmore — offers treks alongside breathtaking buttes for first-timers and experienced riders. Visitors also can camp under the stars and eat meals from a Dutch oven, or partake in an authentic cattle drive in June and September. Just remember to bring cash.
Climb to the head of Crazy Horse
Crazy Horse Memorial (above) is an under-construction tribute to the Lakota Sioux warrior. For $3 you can hike 6.2 miles to the top of the memorial and gaze at the completed face during the biannual Volksmarch. The privately funded memorial is poised to become the largest mountain carving in the world when complete. The organized march, held in June and September, draws tens of thousands of hikers to the area, 30 minutes southwest of Mount Rushmore.
Pick a bone at Mammoth Site
Drive an hour south of Mount Rushmore to the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, S.D., to see genuine mammoth remains being dug up. You can watch or even assist paleontologists as they painstakingly excavate 26,000-year-old wooly-mammoth bones using trowels, whisk brooms and buckets. The site, discovered in 1974 by a land developer, contains 61 mammoths and other animals. “Leave the bones where you found them,” my kids were told as they dug for fossil replicas in the site’s Junior Paleontologist program.
Explore a cave
Get inside the Black Hills at Rushmore Cave, nine miles east of Mount Rushmore in Keystone, where you can squeeze your body through tight passages for more than two hours. We marveled at the many twists and turns, including a room where dozens of people from the 19th century carved their initials. The thrill is exploring behind the natural cave’s walls, and for some it’s a passion. “The old joke is that cavers are the guys who go out and rescue spelunkers,” says owner Tom Hager, who leads small groups on spelunking tours. My family opted for an hour-long walking tour, watching adventurous souls periodically appearing from meager openings.
Jeep it, Custer style
Jump into a jeep at Custer State Park, 30 miles south of Mount Rushmore, for an off-road adventure in the heart of buffalo country. Our tour guide, Meryl Block, took us on a two-hour romp in an open-air jeep, beginning and ending near the 1920-built State Game Lodge. While most tourists drove the Wildlife Loop Road hoping to see burros, buffalo, and mountain goats, Block took us right to them. We also saw a prairie-dog town and several pronghorns. Other park activities include a chuck wagon cookout, guided horseback rides, and a fall buffalo roundup.