I'm often asked if we have any advice for Mt. Rushmore and the surrounding area. Since we're pretty much in love with the Black Hills, you can bet I do!! And strangely, finding much specific visitor information online is hard to come by.
The Black Hills of South Dakota are picturesque and without a doubt worth the drive no matter where you reside. One minute you're standing among wildflowers on the prairie and the next you're marveling at nature's magnificent sculptures along Needles Highway.
Mt. Rushmore itself will take about 3 hours if you really want to get the most out of your visit. And trust me, you do! You MUST go to the museum downstairs, there is so much information in one place. There is a paved/wooden walking trail that you should go on, it's the only one in this area. Now trust me on this one (seriously!), start the trail on George's side first, follow the trail from Mr. Washington to Mr. Lincoln, the trail is much more leisurely when you walk it this way. You'll end up at the sculptors studio, which is also worth a quick visit and then wind your way back up to the Grand Terrace. The ice cream hits the spot on a hot summer day. And the gift shop will draw you in.
Specifically, I highly encourage you to visit on your first day and get a good feel for Rushmore - then on the 2nd or 3rd day once you've seen other things go back to Rushmore for a night lighting after dinner - it's very patriotic and you get a totally different feel for the sculpting. The parking pass you pay for allows you in unlimited times for a year, so you only pay once.
The Black Hills is a driving area. There is a fantastic map that you can find just about anywhere in town, at the tourist areas, or where you're staying. Grab that map and don't lose it! You'll want to do the Wildlife Loop for sure - bring some carrots for the begging burros and camera for the bison.
Iron Mountain Road definitely - just don't have the camper with you. Needles Highway - get out of the car and take pictures when you get to the rock formations. Crazy Horse - some people swear you have to go, others say eh, it's not really worth it because you can see it from the road. Read the website and see if it interests your family.
The 1880 Train is great, though I'm not sure older kids would love it as much as my little kids did. Just a note, it does get stuffy on a hot summer day.
Sylvan Lake is the lake you'll recognize from National Treasure 2 - though you will notice it is not behind Mt. Rushmore ;-) sneaky Hollywood! Get there about 10:30, before the big crowds, walk around and explore, then sit down and have lunch. Then skoot before it gets crazy. Harney Peak is a GREAT hike!! Beautiful views - must do!
Two years ago we went to the Badger Clark cabin and trail and that was a nice tiny little hike with some interesting history on the Poet Laureate of South Dakota. The shade feels fantastic on those same hot summer days.
Personally, I feel they hype up Deadwood a little too much and we (4 adults and 4 kids) were all extremely disappointed - it's all casinos, T-shirt shops, and one main street shoot out reenactment that you can't even hear what they say.
All the little towns in the area don't really have anything specific to see, but all of them have good options to grab a bite of food.
If you head to Badlands (which you should!) a stop at Wall Drug is almost necessary. It's goofy and hyped up and you only go once. But then you can say you went! Now Badlands National Park is simply awe inspiring. I highly encourage a day trip to the area and you can read more about that here.
My husband LOVES both Wind Cave and Jewel Cave, though I've never been. We literally didn't see a single prairie dog at the Prairie Dog exhibit, don't bother heading down there unless you're on your way to a cave.
Museums, helicopter tours, chuckwagons, trams and other experiences abound in this tourist driven area. No matter where you turn there is something else to do! I can tell you that you can have a wonderful trip without any of them. But, I also know people who say these places are a must see. Nearly all of the touristy places have the ability to buy tickets online and save a little money, so I recommend a Google search on the Black Hills before you go. I will say a chuckwagon meal is SO much fun, we went to this one.
Extra advice - Rapid City has a WalMart that is perfect for a big stock up of groceries. Especially if you don't want to tow a camper chock-full of supplies up and down the mountains. Otherwise, there is a ShopKo Hometown on the east edge of Custer on Mt. Rushmore Rd that has just about anything you need and at much better prices than anywhere else in the small towns. It's also on the way back into one of the entrances to Custer SP which makes it convenient. They always have s'mores supplies, sweatshirts, and ice. We have the best luck with gas prices, food and shopping in Custer. The purple restaurant (I forget the name) apparently has amazing pie. The Flinstones Bedrock City is hysterical to visit if you loved the cartoon, but the food is lackluster and greasy. And use that trusty Gas Buddy app for the best prices on gas (this is always great advice in touristy areas).
I hope these Tips and Tricks for a GREAT trip to Mt. Rushmore helped you plan a little of your trip. If you have any questions please feel free to ask in the comments below!