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Greetings Internet Stranger! Welcome to my perfect Mount Rushmore Tour day trip! One of the best things in life is checking items off a travel bucket list. Really, checking anything off any list is enough to give an amazing sense of accomplishment. But for many people, America’s fantastic Mount Rushmore monument, located in South Dakota, is so hard to get to that it’s difficult to see.
That’s why this Mount Rushmore tour day trip is for you! This itinerary will show you how easy and fun it is to check Mount Rushmore and some of South Dakota’s other most beautiful sights off your bucket list. If I, a native New Yorker who can’t drive, can do it, you can do it too! Let’s go!
Mount Rushmore Tour Day Trip
Where to Stay?
I suggest choosing a hotel in Rapid City for this Mount Rushmore tour day trip. If you’re anything like me, you can’t resist staying in a hotel with a touch of historic charm. That’s why I recommend the Hotel Alex Johnson, located right in the center of Rapid City. It’s an easy walk to basically any location in Rapid City you could want to visit!
But more importantly for classic movie lovers, it’s where Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint stayed when they were filming North by Northwest. They even mention the hotel in the movie! How’s that for glamour?
If you care for more modern touches, enjoy the secret rooftop bar, Vertex, on top of the hotel. You either need to be a hotel guest or a member to come here, so it’s Very Exclusive! You can indulge in fancy cocktails and get great views of Rapid City.
Mount Rushmore Tour Day Trip
What to Pack?
The weather in South Dakota can be…unpredictable. I don’t recommend visiting Mount Rushmore in the winter, so I’m not going to suggest you need a winter coat. But you will need an umbrella. My favorite travel umbrella is the Repel Teflon Waterproof Umbrella. It is strong enough to stand up to the sometimes-quite-strong winds of South Dakota. I hear they’re strong enough to carve the faces of some presidents on the side of a mountain.
If the weather is rainy or snowy, which can happen in Rapid City, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day, even on a Mount Rushmore Day Trip. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them out without feeling like some gauche tourist with gross feet.
Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so I’ll never run out of juice!
Mount Rushmore Tour Day Trip
Morning: Mount Rushmore
The easiest way to take a Mount Rushmore Tour Day Trip is to hire a local to do it for you! Fortunately, there is an excellent company known as Mount Rushmore Tours that will take you on an all-day experience to Mount Rushmore and all over the Black Hills of Dakota. They’ll even throw in your meals! You can get more info on their website here.
The Mount Rushmore Tour Day Trip starts at their base just a short drive or Uber ride away from downtown Rapid City. Once you get there, you’ll be well on your way to learning…
Three Fun Facts: Mount Rushmore
1) What Can You Do Before the Tour Starts?
There are plenty of activities to enjoy at Fort Hays, which is where the Mount Rushmore tour begins. First, you get to chow down on something called an “all-you-can-eat cowboy breakfast”. I think the cowboy part comes from the metal plate.
I usually don’t eat a big breakfast, so I didn’t take advantage of the all-you-can-eat part, but I recommend the biscuits and gravy because the gravy had a nice kick to it. The coffee was tasty too.
You might wonder why Fort Hays looks like something out of the 1800s. Was it really built during the days of the Wild West? No, my dear Internet Stranger. In fact, this is the set of the movie Dances with Wolves. Feel free to explore the set while you wait for your bus tour to start.
You can even see a bullet hole in the window from a scene in the movie when someone gets shot. That seems kind of dangerous to me to have people firing loaded guns around Kevin Costner. But since Costner also directed that movie, I guess he knew how to keep himself out of harm’s way.
2) What Tips Should I Keep in Mind for Seeing Mount Rushmore?
Your driver will drop you off at the monument and give you a good amount of free time to explore. I suggest picking up the audio guide, which is an extra charge. It will make your wanderings more purposeful and interesting. Keep in mind that the Mount Rushmore peeps will make you leave a photo ID as collateral so you don’t walk away with their Very Valuable Audio guide.
I visited during the high season, but Mount Rushmore wasn’t too crowded. Enjoy walking along the path, listening to fun facts on the audio guide, and taking as many photos as you can of Abe Lincoln’s profile and about a jillion Ponderosa pines.
There are at least 29 different stops on the audio guide tour, but don’t feel that you have to listen to all of them. Start at the Avenue of Flags, and stop and listen to the guide whenever you feel like it. There will be no test at the end!
3) Why is Mount Rushmore?
An excellent question, Internet Stranger! Mount Rushmore was designed by an American sculptor named Gutzon Borglum. Originally it was just supposed to honor Washington and Lincoln. But Jefferson was added because he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
A lot of people question why Teddy Roosevelt is the fourth President featured here. The main reason was that he played an important role in conserving America’s natural resources. But also, TR was a damn badass. Someone shot him and instead of going to the hospital, Roosevelt insisted on giving a speech he had planned to make that day. So if anyone deserves to have their face on a rock, it’s President Teddy.
But Mount Rushmore was not without controversy. Native Americans protested because the Black Hills are sacred to them, and they didn’t want the faces of American presidents carved into them. (We’ll learn more about this later on the tour.)
One fun fact I liked is that even though it was difficult to carve Mount Rushmore, no workers were killed during its creation. There is a monument to all the people who worked on Mount Rushmore, so you can stop for a moment at the wall, read their names, and pay a little tribute to their monumental efforts.
Mount Rushmore Tour Day Trip
Afternoon: Explore the Black Hills
There’s so much more to the Black Hills of South Dakota than just Mount Rushmore! And fortunately we have a very capable local driver/guide to take us around to all of it. There will be yummy downhome cooking, gorgeous nature, fascinating history, and pigtails. Lots and lots of pigtails. I’ll get you started with…
Approximately Top 5: Black Hills
One of the fun things about taking a bus tour for a non-driver like me is to have the chance to ride along some very wacky roads. Our driver, whom I shall call Kevin, took us down the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway so we could experience the famous pigtail bridges. These bridges got their name because of their odd corkscrew design. Going across them is almost like being in a slow rollercoaster.
Kevin kept joking that he was a student driver or that it was his first time driving as he made this difficult turns without batting an eyelash. Even if you are an experienced driver, I think it’s better to go along these roads on the tour because your driver will handle them like a pro. If you’d never gone over a pigtail bridge before, I’d think it would be a little freaky.
We stopped for lunch at the State Game Lodge, where President Calvin Coolidge used to have his summer home. I can see why “Silent Cal” would have enjoyed it here. There’s basically no one around for miles to bother you with a conversation. Unless you count a babbling brook as talking.
You can order a la carte, but I recommend the buffet because it’s a better value. Look at all those veggies and yummy mashed potatoes I loaded up on! The best thing at the buffet is the buffalo stew. That might sound kind of odd, but buffalo is actually a lean, healthy, and sustainable meat. American buffalo (more properly called bison) are at risk for overpopulation, so it’s better to eat some than have to wait for the extra old ones to be culled.
3) Sylvan Lake
After lunch, we get to stretch our legs a bit at the beautiful Sylvan Lake. This is one of the most famous beauty spots in all of Custer State Park. There won’t be enough time to get on the water, but you can walk off that lean buffalo meat by taking a stroll around Sylvan Lake’s sapphire waters.
Fun Fact! Sylvan Lake was not actually made by elves, which is what I assumed when I heard the name. It’s a completely man-made lake. Just when I think about giving up on humanity altogether, I see a lake like this, and I realize if a human can build this, we can probably stop sending abusive messages to each other on Twitter.
4) The Animals of Custer State Park
Custer State Park is the largest state park in South Dakota. (It was named after famously controversial Lt. Colonol Custer from Custer’s Last Stand.) We’ve been driving through it on this Mount Rushmore tour day trip ever since we left Mount Rushmore. Sylvan Lake just might be the most beautiful part of Custer State Park, but it’s not the number one reason to visit.
The best reason to see Custer State Park is the opportunity to see bison up close and personal. Well, not too close because as Kevin reminded us, it’s the law that you need to stay 100 feet away from the animals. But you can still see a lot from the safety of the vehicle.
Don’t miss the chance to see the baby bison. They are a gorgeous golden color. Kevin said the color would change as they get older. I suddenly had a great idea for a sequel to 101 Dalmatians about Cruella de Vil tracking down baby bison to make a fabulous gold coat. It could be called 101 Baby Bison. Disney, I give this idea to you! All I ask is ten percent of the gross.
5) Crazy Horse Memorial
Our final stop on the Mount Rushmore tour day trip is the Crazy Horse Memorial. Leaders of the Lakota Sioux community wanted a famous North American Indian leader carved into the Black Hills after the creation of Mount Rushmore. They chose Crazy Horse because of his importance to the community and his military prowess. (He led the Lakota to victory against Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.)
As you can see, the monument isn’t finished. The Lakota have opted to finance the construction of the sculpture themselves instead of relying on money from the federal government, which means the project will take longer to complete. In fact, the original sculptor, a Polish-American named Korczak Ziolkowski, died because the project has taken so long, so his family is continuing the work.
If you want to support the Crazy Horse memorial, consider doing some shopping at the gift shop. They sell many Lakota made products like jewelry and pottery. I bought some adorable beaded buffalo earrings from a local Lakota artist named Noel Brown. They are so cute, but I need to remind myself not to eat them because buffalo meat is delicious.
Mount Rushmore Tour Day Trip
Evening: Dinner and a Show
Once your Mount Rushmore Tour Day Trip bus tour is over, the night time’s fun can begin. You’ll get dropped off at Fort Hays where you can spend a little more time exploring. Check out the ropemaking shop and see how the cowboys would have made their own rope out of rawhide. Why didn’t they just order it on Amazon?
Soon enough the fine folks at Fort Hays will call you for dinner. As you can see, it’s a ton of food, though none of it’s fancy because it’s meant to be a cowboy-style chuckwagon dinner. You get a big potato baked in foil, beans, and applesauce. The applesauce was my favorite side because there were real chunks of apple in it.
For the main course, you can choose between beef or chicken. I definitely recommend getting the chicken. It was by far the more popular choice, based on what I heard from the people sitting around me. There’s also a small biscuit with honey in it and a spice cake. I preferred the spice cake because it was fluffy and not too sweet. The one thing I didn’t really recommend was the lemonade because it tasted like it came from powder. Water was fine with me as a beverage!
The evening ended with a rootin-tootin country show. This show had everything: an Elvis impersonator, a lady fiddle player, my very favorite country song, and a patriotic tribute to our troops. There’s no way I could have seen any of this back home in NYC.
That’s a Mount Rushmore Tour Day Trip!
What would you do on a Mount Rushmore Tour Day Trip? Which is better, an Elvis impersonator or a lady playing the fiddle? And who was trying to assassinate Kevin Costner on the set of Dances with Wolves? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to learn more about how I put my itineraries together, just click here! There are tons more fun things to do in Rapid City than you can fit on one Mount Rushmore tour day trip. If you have time, add on this Rapid City itinerary. And if you want to see an itinerary for delightful North Dakota city Fargo, just click here or even here.