Day 4: Mount Rushmore & Custer State Park

Day 4 brought low clouds and fog with the promise of thunderstorms in the afternoon: not ideal weather for a second attempt at viewing a mountainside. We dilly-dallied a bit in the morning, hoping the fog would lift. Eventually, it lifted a bit, though we still debated about whether heading to Mt Rushmore was the right activity for the morning.

Keystone, SD is a touristy town. If you’ve been to Gatlinburg, TN, you have a sense of what Keystone is like. Presidential Wax Museum. Alpine Slide. Mini-Golf. Lots of motels with presidential names. And a plethora of souvenir, fudge & ice cream shops. Exactly why they sell salt-water taffy in all such places, even miles from the ocean, is beyond me.

Roosevelt Inn is on the far south side of Keystone, almost the last hotel before the mountain begins to climb toward the Presidents. Just a ¼ mile from the National Park and 2 miles from the entrance gate, we decided to give it a try, even with the foggy weather. Fog in the mountains can be a funny thing. It often seems that the clouds are coming down to meet you. When you’re driving in it, you can even feel that you’re driving in and out of the clouds. As we headed up the mountain, we remained uncertain of our choice until we rounded a corner and voila: there they were! Cloud-cover framed the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt & Lincoln, but they were clearly visible. Success! We had been wondering if we could leave the area not having actually seen Mount Rushmore.

We walked the Presidential Trail, around the base of the mountain. There is a little Heritage Village that demonstrates some of the Sioux teepee-making and wool-spinning techniques. This is the interior of a winterized teepee. The trail is asphalt and boardwalk for the first ¼ of the trail and offers interesting, underneath views of the sculpture with explanations regarding why these presidents were chosen and how the sculpture was made. That’s impressive in itself.

The rest of the trail was indicated strenuous. While we initially doubted this claim, the 250+ steps was certainly excellent exercise for the day! If you’re traveling with people capable of hiking this trail, I would recommend it. It took us about 45 mins. Lovely views and interesting information about the history of the sculpture. The Sculptor’s Studio, at the back of the trail, exhibits the plaster casts and original smaller-scale model used to construct the sculpture. Did you know that Mt Rushmore was constructed between 1927 and 1941 and was never completed?

Why these Presidents? Washington for the BIRTH of the nation. Jefferson for the EXPANSION of the nation (Louisiana Purchase). Roosevelt for the DEVELOPMENT of the nation (Panama Canal, Trust Buster & National Parks). Lincoln for the PRESERVATION of the nation (saving the union during the Civil War).

The fact I found most interesting about the history is that Historian Doane Robinson began with an idea to erect a monument to heroes of the western frontier. He pursued funding for his idea with the state and federal legislature, and he approached the sculptor, Gutzon Borglun, with his idea. Borglun was known for being a demanding and finicky artist. In fact, he left a job he was dissatisfied with to begin work on Mt Rushmore. However, Borglun wasn’t interested in sculpting western heroes. He wanted to do something with a more national focus and suggested the Presidents. And so, we have the national monument that we have today.

America the Beautiful – The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass – Annual PassMt Rushmore does not have an entry fee per se, but to enter, you must park and parking is $11 for a one-year pass. We had decided a few weeks ago to get an annual pass to all the National Parks and Monuments. Definitely worth it if you’re going to multiple parks: $80 for the annual pass. Parking is considered a “concession,” though, so it is not included in the annual pass.

Before we finished at Mt Rushmore, we had lunch at Carver’s Cafe, their food service. Cafeteria-style, we enjoyed buffalo burgers (American buffalo or bison: excellent, low-fat, low-cholesterol meat! A little dry, but delicious with condiments, and the Cafe had a wonderful burger condiment bar) and salads. The employees were from all over the world, with their country of origin on their nametags. The service was terrific and polite. There’s also a yummy-looking ice cream shop, though we didn’t choose to partake!

From Mt Rushmore, we headed to Custer State Park. We had heard that the Wildlife Loop Road was worth a drive. This 18-mile 2-lane road meanders through grasslands, evergreen forests and craggy, red-rock mountainsides. The landscape is beautiful and certainly worth the drive, just for that. But, oh, the wildlife! A couple miles into the drive, no one voiced this thought, but Hal and I both began wondering what all the fuss was about. Give it a bit, though, and the Wildlife Loop Road will not disappoint. We saw many pronghorns grazing in the fields. They are a deer-like animal often confused with antelope. We saw a few big-horn sheep on a hillside. We saw tons of little prairie dogs in a field, popping in and out of their holes and cheeping to one another, probably to warn one another that we had arrived. We saw burros, a lot of burros. They are descended from burros that used to give rides up a nearby mountain. When the family that owned them stopped giving rides, the herd was donated to the State Park and they have maintained the herd in their grasslands. The burros were the friendliest wildlife we saw during the afternoon. Despite warnings to the contrary, many visitors feed the burros carrots and apples, so they know that humans bring them food. Fortunately, they seemed pretty friendly! The most amazing animals we saw were probably the American Buffalo or Bison. We would see one here and there, out grazing or lying in a field. That was fun. But, oh my goodness, were we in for a surprise! Near the end of the Loop, there was a herd . . . and when I say a herd, I mean hundreds of buffalo . . . along the side of the road and walking in the middle of the road. They all seemed to be going somewhere and would just walk wherever they wanted. The absolute cutest were the babies with the Mamas, some nursing along the side of the road. They were within 5 feet of our car, walking right toward it, and then walking on by. Amazing, powerful creatures.

We spent so much time on the Wildlife Loop Road that we missed the last tour at Wind Cave National Park, which is south of Custer State Park. That would have been fun and we hope to tour another cave later in the summer.

We swung back north into the State Park as it approached evening. I had been reading about some of the lodges in the Park. There are four. If you wanted to go to Mt Rushmore, but stay in a more wooded, less touristy area, investigating one of the lodges would be a great idea. I could see doing that if we came back to the area. Each of the lodges have dining rooms open to the public. We decided to make a reservation at the State Game Lodge because it was President Calvin Coolidge’s 1927 Summer White House. That summer is when he dedicated Mount Rushmore. That sounded interesting, so we filled up on gas and wound back through the beautifully forested park to the Lodge. Here’s the Lodge: a rustic, but regal building. I can see why the President chose it. It has 7 hotel rooms in the Lodge, but now also has a motel attached, as well as cabins on the property. The dining room is gorgeous: high log-beamed ceilings, white table cloths, a party room being used by a large group in the back. I was so impressed by the wait staff. Our server was one of the best I’ve ever had: always available when you needed him, constantly attentive, but never intrusive. He was helpful with the menu, offering suggestions and opinions. He was patient and friendly with the children. One great thing about the restaurant was that, despite the prices ($$$) and the white table cloths, there were lots of families with young children and many travelers in shorts and t-shirts. We felt right at home and enjoyed a terrific meal. Their specialty was local fish and game, so I enjoyed some Elk medallions in a blueberry compote, alongside some fresh steamed veggies and a delicious slice of a loaf of bread. Hal had the Walleye. Two kids had steaks and one had ribs. The adults had salads with delicious home-made dressings. Yum. I have not had a meal so delicious or well-served in a very long time. Oh, and the pies. I cannot forget the pies. I had pecan a la mode and Hal had blueberry a la mode. Don’t miss the pie.

A very windy 45 min drive took us back to our hotel. Our daughter found the switchbacks (including fully coiled 360+ degree turns) a bit much and called for the trash can after a while. If you ever wonder why it pays to have a trash can in your van, now you know. A quick response from Dad saved the day! I was driving and loved the ride. If you ever drive this road, be sure that your driver who likes a challenge is driving.

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3 Responses to Day 4: Mount Rushmore & Custer State Park

  1. Mimi Larson says:

    When you get a chance enjoy the huckleberries – you should be able to start getting them especially if you are traveling farther west. They are my favorite….huckleberry ice cream and huckleberry shakes….yummmm! Enjoy your trip. I feel like I am reliving some of my childhood trips with all that you are doing!

  2. jennifer says:

    Yum! We did have some of the sweetest blueberries I’ve ever had at Bryce Canyon yesterday. But they were from California : ).

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