Here's what you need to know about planning a family road trip to Mount Rushmore

Let me preface that I am NOT a road tripper. I know, I know- it’s the journey not the destination. But when said destination includes 950 miles in a confined space with two teens and a husband that I swear has a second bladder… that journey needs to go a little damn faster.

mt-rushmoreFor years my husband has wanted to make the trek to the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, and Yosemite. For years I’ve gotten off the hook because of travel sports.

It’s not that I don’t want to see them… I don’t want to be in the car that long.

But, maybe because our oldest is going to be a senior this year, the trip was happening… with or without me.

While I seriously considered letting this trip become a fabulous bonding opportunity for my husband and kids- or flying part way to meet them- reality hit: my daughter is going to be a senior…family memories…bonding…possibility of finding great coffee shops.

So, with about 4 days notice, our road trip began.

I am a planner.
My husband is not.

Though I was taking a backseat (literally at times) to his dream road trip- I needed a couple compromises:

  • a hotel reserved for the first night
  • bathroom breaks
  • save Yosemite for a different trip (seriously- it’s 8 hours further west)

Making this trip with two teenagers is obviously different than traveling with infants and toddlers. But, if you’re planning this trip with older kids here are 7 things I discovered driving from Illinois to South Dakota.

1- No sexual innuendo goes unnoticed (really, Iowa? Kum n’ Go gas stations everywhere?).

sioux-falls2- Sioux Falls is a surprisingly cool city. Little ones might be bored after the Falls Park, but with older kids there’s several great restaurants and indie shops.

Josiah’s Coffeehouse is likely the coziest coffee shop/cafe I’ve ever been in (picture a Chip & Joanna’s Fixer Upper long before Magnolia took over Waco). We actually planned our route home so we could stop again on the way back too: try their flatbread pizza, cinnamon rolls, fresh toast, and fried egg/bacon panini.

If you’re full after Josiah’s be sure to pick up something to go from Queen City Bakery– not only also adorable- but delicious muffins and baked goods- bread pudding & mini-quiche.

In all honesty I hadn’t heard much about Sioux Falls, but I would definitely go back. The Hilton Garden Inn was our only pre-booked hotel – conveniently located across the street from Queen City and within walking distance to Josiah’s and the downtown shops. It’s a great spot even for great girls weekend, though I’d probably fly there.

3. There is NOTHING for hundreds of miles between Sioux Falls and the Badlands. No trees. No hills. Nothing. Well, except hundreds of signs leading you to the infamous Wall Drug (Corn Palace is on the way too, but we skipped it) promising

  • 5 Cent Coffee!
  • Free Water!
  • Worlds Largest Jackalope!
  • and Fresh Donuts!

You’ll also have a time change during the never ending stretch between Sioux Falls and Grand Rapids. Likely they picked the Wall Drug location because just when you think you’re getting close to civilization, you suddenly have another hour to go.

Yes, the Wall Drug is exactly as the billboards make it sound- a street long town of hokey-ness in all it’s glory. Love it. Hate it. But it does break up the monotony of the drive and where else can you pick up a pair of cowboy boots, lunch, and a fresh donut all under one roof?

badlands4. If you’re making the drive to Mount Rushmore, you’re likely including a stop at the Badlands National Park.

If it’s not on your list- add it.

The scenery is stunning and while you can drive through the park, there are plenty of paths, rocks to climb, and observation spots: strollers would be tough, toddlers would be exhausting- keep a close eye!

Although we visited in July, we lucked out with unseasonably cool weather. Regardless, bring sunscreen. There is relatively no shade or shelter from the sun.

We were warned by several friends to watch out for the goats- they’re everywhere and don’t move for cars. We didn’t see one goat.

You can catch sight of a few bison or prairie dogs within the park, but before entering you can stop and feed the prairie dogs. Do this. Prairie dogs are hilarious and adorable!

mount-rushmore5. We used Rapid City as our central location for the Badlands and the Mount Rushmore area. It’s about 45 minutes to either, and there’s more options for food and hotels (especially if you’re waiting until 11pm to find a hotel- ahem, did I mention that he’s not a planner).

Unlike the Chicago area- driving anywhere in South Dakota is fairly stress free- there’s little traffic and the speed limit is 80 mph (yes, teenagers will eagerly volunteer to drive).

I expected Mount Rushmore would be visible from virtually every road close to it- sort of how I can see the Sears Tower from 20 miles away on a clear day. So it seemed crazy that even a few miles away there was still no site of it. It makes it a little more awe-inspiring when you finally round a turn and there they are.

It’s every bit as touristy as anticipated, but despite three million visitors a year- most of them in the summer- it didn’t feel crowded or claustrophobic.

We arrived a little later in the afternoon so we could stay for the evening “lighting” presentation. You can wander the grounds (we did), take the presidential trail (we did), watch a brief film about the construction of it (we didn’t), and there’s a junior ranger program (kids too old).

We were there on July 3rd, so not sure if they invite visitors who are active and retired military for the the folding of the flag presentation every night, but it was a little emotional to see men and women of various ages lining the stage.

Also- presentations were abbreviated because of a storm. But- watching the clouds roll in and lightening over the monument was actually a spectacular sight- don’t let the threat of rain stop you from going.

A couple hours tops is really all you need here- your entrance pass ($10 car, $5 seniors, Free for active military) allows unlimited access for a year so you could see the monument in the day and evening different times on your trip.

Again- because our trip wasn’t necessarily planned- I didn’t learn until afterwards that we could’ve spent a night “glamping” at Mount Rushmore which would’ve been amazing (I may get talked into the Yellowstone trip just because they have sites available there too!).

custer-state-park6. Since they’re in close proximity to Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park and Needle’s Eye Highway are popular attractions. On the advice of the ridiculously friendly staff at Recreational Springs Resort (more on them later), they insisted we take the Wildlife Loop, photo op at Sylvan Lake, and venture to the final three tunnels.

All were spot on.

Sylvan Lake was staggeringly beautiful. With a little planning you could stay at the lodge or rent kayaks… we observed a little enviously! Definitely ample spots for gorgeous pictures though.

While the Wildlife loop added a couple hours to our Custer State Park visit- I doubt there’s anywhere else you’ll get this close to wild buffalo.

The narrow tunnels throughout the park are cool on their own- but take your time approaching the Skoval Tunnel… you’re eye level with Mount Rushmore. It’d be amazing to see at night when the monument is lit, but driving the steep, narrow, winding roads after sundown would make me panicky.

spearfish-canyon7. Always ask the locals. Sometimes a waiter will lead you to place you’d consider calling home. For as barren as eastern and middle South Dakota feel, about an hour north of Rapid City feels like you’ve entered Colorado: gorgeous pines, waterfalls, hiking, and ATV rentals if you’re game… and willing to get muddy!

Deadwood and Sturgis are along the way- but they’re definitely more touristy while downtown Spearfish felt more quaint- and I loved it.

Go beyond the viewer deck at the Bridal Veil Falls- your feet will get a little wet but it’s beautiful. There’s several other waterfalls accessible through relatively easy hiking trails.

Spearfish Canyon Lodge looked cool, but it was fully booked. Even if you don’t stay there, stop at the restaurant across the street and eat on the outdoor patio (or if you’re in town, hit Dough Trader’s pizza!).

You can rent ATV’s from the Canyon Lodge, but drive just a little further to Recreational Springs Resort in Lead. The friendliest people ever, and they gave us the great tip for the Wildlife Trail and Skoval Tunnel.

Our teens were disappointed that you had to be 18 to drive them, but the terrain is really rugged and I’m glad I didn’t drive either. With as much driving as we did on this trip- a few hours on the ATV was more than enough time.

As with any road trip, countless memories were made. I’m glad we did the trip, but I wouldn’t necessarily need to do the tourist attractions again… though I’d gladly fly to Sylvan Lake, Spearfish Canyon, and Sioux Falls.

If you’re traveling with little ones or really love scenery and flying is an option- starting from Colorado or Wyoming might be a great option. You may be able to add Yosemite into the plans then too.

Have you driven the Mount Rushmore/Badlands trek? Which family road trips top your list?

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