If you’re planning a road trip to see Mount Rushmore, it makes the most sense to divide the surrounding area into three main scenic driving routes:
The Black Hills and Mount Rushmore loop will take a full day.
The Badlands and Spearfish Canyon can be done in as little as half a day, but you’ll probably want a bit more time.
For the best experience, plan on spending three days here, and base yourself in Rapid City.
Ah, now this is the reason you know about South Dakota.
How could anyone miss the iconic sight of four founding fathers carved into a mountainside?
But there’s so much more to discover in the surrounding Black Hills and Custer State Park: you should really plan on a full day of exploring here.
The spectacular landscape is punctuated with thousands of granite spires, shady forests of ponderosa, herds of bison and solitary antelope, and the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, one of the most scenic drives in the United States.
A ninety-mile loop, this tour takes in all the best sights, from the spectacular hairpin turns of the Needles Highway to the pigtail bridges of Iron Mountain Road, with an optional detour on the Custer Wildlife Loop, before finally concluding at Mount Rushmore.
You can also add a few more detours to your drive, depending on your interests: these include Jewel Cave, Wind Cave, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and even the former cabin of cowboy poet Charles Badger Clark.
The Black Hills are just east of Rapid City; it’s a quick thirty-minute drive from Rapid City to Mount Rushmore.
Access to the wild and bizarre Badlands is so easy it would be criminal to skip this striking national park.
Just pull off the interstate and you’re practically there!
A surreal landscape of dramatically eroding colorful buttes in the middle of a sea of prairie grass, the highlights are the various photo-ops along the scenic drive, but you won’t want to miss the short hikes near the East Entrance, or the chance to spot bison and visit a prairie dog town on Sage Creek Rim Road near the West Entrance.
Also worth visiting is the famous Wall Drug near the West Entrance, in business since 1936 and still offering five-cent coffee and freshly baked donuts.
Less famous, but more thought-provoking, is the Minuteman Missile Museum near the East Entrance. The latter is a window onto the Cold War era, when thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles lay hidden beneath the Great Plains, ready to launch at a minute’s notice.
After touring the park, you’ll emerge 40 miles from where you started, so it’s particularly good if you’re traveling east or west on I-90 — no detours or backtracking is required.
For those based in Rapid City, it’s only an hour’s drive east of town.
Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Seth Bullock, and George Hearst are just a few of the legendary Wild West figures who passed through Deadwood, the one-time boom town known for its lawless ways and rich veins of gold.
There’s still plenty of gambling, but most visitors will just be passing through en route to the more scenic treasures of Spearfish Canyon, where high limestone cliffs contrast with the forested valley and its trio of waterfalls.
Connecting Deadwood and Spearfish Canyon is the old stagecoach route the Deadwood Stage, which ran to Cheyenne, Wyoming, about 275 miles away.
Just west of Spearfish Canyon is the DC Booth Historic Fish Hatchery, the second-oldest fish hatchery in the United States.
This drive is a good option if you’re headed west from Rapid City toward Wyoming – it takes about the same time as driving the interstate, and is considerably more scenic.