A Road Trip To South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore & Custer State Park

October 25, 2020

I feel like South Dakota really used to fly under the radar.  Other states like Utah, Wyoming, and Oregon got most of the glory for natural beauty.  But the state offers so many different “must-see” options, perhaps the most iconic of which is the one-two punch day trip of Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park.

If my friends’ social feeds are anything to go by, though, this area is having a real moment right now.  Interest in U.S. domestic travel and roadtrips in particular have risen intensely during COVID, and it’s exciting to see people discovering how great South Dakota is.

A South Dakota Day Trip to Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, & More | The Black Hills of South Dakota offer so many different types of natural beauty as well as some interesting man-made ones. This day trip from Rapid City (or multi-day) has the natural beauty and wildlife of Custer State Park and the surrounding area, the iconic Mount Rushmore, a quirky hike to Hippie Hole, local wineries, and more. What to do in South Dakota, Rapid City day trip ideas! #southdakota #mountrushmore #stateparks #usroadtrip

The attractions in and around the Black Hills of South Dakota are perhaps the biggest draw to the whole Rapid City area.

In this one day (or multiple day) road trip you can hit up Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, the Crazy Horse Monument, and a few fun little towns and local breweries or wineries.  There are some off-the-beaten-path options as well, depending on how much time you have.

Other info to help plan your South Dakota roadtrip:

A First-Timer’s Guide to Rapid City

A Roadtrip Through South Dakota’s Badlands National Park

Visiting Mount Rushmore & Custer State Park, a South Dakota day trip

What you can see on this day (or multiple day) trip:

  • Mount Rushmore
  • Custer State Park
  • Crazy Horse Monument (we skipped)
  • Hippie Hole (see notes)
  • Iron Mountain Highway
  • Needles Scenic Highway

Personally Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse didn’t hold a ton of appeal to me.  My family wanted to do Rushmore, though, so we made a quick stop.  It’s pretty easy to hit since it’s right on the way and you only need to spend like 15-30 minutes there and then can move on.

Driving Iron Mountain Road near Custer State Park

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Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Cost to visit:  Free, but parking is $10

This is one of those iconic American places that I feel like everyone has to see once.  It feels a bit cheesy to me (but I also saw it a number of times as a kid)…I’m less into manmade monuments vs. natural beauty.  It is quite impressive, though.

If you’re starting from Rapid City, all you have to do is head south on Highway 16 and follow all the signs (SO many signs) to Mount Rushmore.  Because it’s a national memorial there’s no cost to enter, but because the parking is operated privately there is a small cost per car.

While a little cheesy, seeing Mount Rushmore is a rite of passage...easy on the way to Custer State Park

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There are a number of different angles from which you can stare at the heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

The memorial was begun in the late 1920s, but not finished until 1941.  And it still requires a lot of maintenance to battle the elements…as you can see, Teddy Roosevelt was getting a bit of a face lift done while we were there.

A South Dakota Day Trip to Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, & More | The Black Hills of South Dakota offer so many different types of natural beauty as well as some interesting man-made ones. This day trip from Rapid City (or multi-day) has the natural beauty and wildlife of Custer State Park and the surrounding area, the iconic Mount Rushmore, a quirky hike to Hippie Hole, local wineries, and more. What to do in South Dakota, Rapid City day trip ideas! #southdakota #mountrushmore #stateparks #usroadtrip

You have a couple options from here that we *didn’t* take…you can head up to Hill City and check out Miner Brewing Company (bummed I missed this), or you can head south on Highway 16/385 to the Crazy Horse Memorial.

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Hippie Hole

Hippie Hole was…well, interesting.  First, let’s talk logistics.  You can approach it from two different directions.  The first was our choice, a short hike down to and then along Battle Creek from the small parking area (found off of South Rockerville Road).  The other is very strenuous hike off of Hwy 40 (no thanks!).

To get to the shorter hike, from Rockerville you’d head south on S Rockerville Rd (or head north if coming from Highway 40), until you come to Foster Gulch Rd.  It is a gravel and I’d strongly suggest having a truck or some kind of 4WD.  We got about halfway in my rental car and then high-centered and had to admit defeat.  Thankfully my uncle came along in his Jeep and piled us all in.

It’s a few miles, just stay right at all the forks and you’ll hit the dirt parking area.  This is that parking area (no signs, nothing).

The parking lot of the Hippie Hole hike

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There’s a hike to a swimming hole and small waterfall, and it sounded lovely.  What I had read was the hike is about 1/3 of a mile…we didn’t measure exactly but I’d say more like a mile each way.  Not hard, just longer than I’d read.

We started down what seemed like the logical path from the parking area (and did end up being right).  It wasn’t bad at all, and then we hit soooooo much poison ivy.  SO. MUCH.  I chickened out at this point, as I’m INSANELY allergic and had it for 3 months last time I got it.  But the rest of my family continued on.

And they loved their time at Hippie Hole…you can jump from the waterfall, float in the pool, or just sunbathe on the rocks.  Enjoy the scenery.  Pray you don’t get poison ivy.

Water fun in Hippie Hole, near Custer State Park

Hippie Hole is a nice off-the-beaten-path option for your itinerary if you’ve got time while visiting the Black Hills of South Dakota, but do beware the poison ivy and make sure you have a 4WD.

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Iron Mountain Highway

So when my mom and I abandoned ship at Hippie Hole, we instead headed toward Custer State Park.  We easily found our way to Iron Mountain Road, which connects Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park.  While only 17 miles long, it’s a slow drive (like several others here) due to the constant switchbacks and wanting to enjoy the scenery.

I’ll be honest, either we missed the main part of this road on our route, OR it was just okay but not as “captivating” as I’d read.  Good to drive but I wouldn’t go out of my way.  To access the road, follow signs for 16A from Rushmore or Custer State Park.

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Stop at a brewery or winery

I had several on my list, but my mom and I ended up swinging into Prairie Berry Winery and Bistro for a flight of local wines and a spot of lunch.  We had a nice time trying a few different wines (the Poker Face wine was a fave of mine) and liked the overall vibe.

Basically right next door to Prairie Berry you’ll find Sick-n-Twisted Brewery and Naked Winery, and there are several others nearby.

Make sure to stop by a local brewery or winery near Custer State Park

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Soak in Custer State Park

Cost to visit:  $20 for a week-long permit (though we didn’t end up hitting a guard stand)

Custer is South Dakota’s oldest state park, with a multitude of scenic drives, hikes, fishing, and wildlife (including over 1,500 free-roaming bison).

Sylvan Lake

This pretty lake is a great place to stop and have a walk around (it’s about a mile around the lake), have a picnic, or just enjoy the scenery a bit.

It’s a man-made, created by building a dam across Sunday Gulch.  Along with the rock formations behind it, the lake offers one of the best photo locations in Custer State Park.  The day we went, it was JUMPIN’ with mid-summer crowds swimming, kids playing, people kayaking, and locals generally having a good time.

(I’m just realizing my pictures don’t actually show that, but trust me it was nuts and parking was a bear…I kind of squeezed myself in somewhere not terribly legit for a hot minute just to grab a few pics.)

A day trip to Mount Rushmore & Custer State Park - Sylvan Lake

Beautiful Sylvan Lake - Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park day trip in South Dakota's Black Hills

Wildlife Loop Road

I wanted to do Wildlife Loop Road, but we just didn’t have the time.  It’s an 18-mile drive through the park and one of your best bets to see and photograph some of the park’s amazing wildlife.

You have a good chance of seeing bison, though they may be fairly far away (which isn’t bad from a safety standpoint).  Some other wildlife you may see are pronghorn, burros, elk, or bighorn sheep.  Allow minimum 45 minutes for this drive, but I’d say longer since you’ll want to stop and take pictures.

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Needles Highway 

This is a CAN’T MISS part of the park.  Named for the cool granite peaks spearing out of the terrain (resembling needles), this scenic drive covers 14 miles of narrow, winding mountainous roads.  It’ll take you along Highway 87 from Highway 16 past Sylvan Lake, and ends near Legion Lake.

Expect this drive to take about an hour, and go slowly…both for safety and to soak in the views.  As always, if someone wants to go faster and get around you, just find a place to briefly pull over and let them past.

Driving the Needles Highway - beauty in the Black Hills South Dakota

Needles Highway - what to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota - visiting Mount Rushmore & Custer State Park

Additionally, there are three narrow short tunnels—as small as 8’4″ (8 feet, 4 inches) wide by 9’10” (9 feet, 10 inches) tall—where you’re “threading the Eye of the Needle”.  Trust me, it FEELS tight.

Threading the eye of the needle - what to see in Black Hills of South Dakota - visiting Mount Rushmore & Custer State Park

You have to admit that looks pretty cool.  I wanted to spend more time in Custer State Park, but it was getting quite late and we had to get back to Rapid City for some family stuff.

Our day trip from Rapid City through Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and the surrounding Black Hills was sure a whirlwind, but managed to cover quite a bit of ground.  I wish I’d had a full day for Custer, to be honest, but if you’re on a tight timeframe (or just packing your itinerary to the brim), seeing most of this is definitely doable.

Other scenic roadtrips you’ll love:

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A South Dakota Day Trip to Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, & More | The Black Hills of South Dakota offer so many different types of natural beauty as well as some interesting man-made ones. This day trip from Rapid City (or multi-day) has the natural beauty and wildlife of Custer State Park and the surrounding area, the iconic Mount Rushmore, a quirky hike to Hippie Hole, local wineries, and more. What to do in South Dakota, Rapid City day trip ideas! #southdakota #mountrushmore #stateparks #usroadtrip

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