The 1880 Train leaves from Keystone and Hill City. The Keystone location is right downtown. It's exciting to ride behind a real steam engine and the grades of the hills are quite steep which adds to the excitement. Going up the inclines we often wondered if the train would make it and we were strongly reminded of Casey Jr. saying "I think I can, I think I can, . . . ." It was amazing to think that this span of track has existed as long as it has and even more amazing that it was built with such steep grades. The scenery is beautiful and you get a nice view of Harney Peak from the train. We spotted a lot of deer and wild turkeys and supposedly a week prior to our ride, someone had spotted a mountain lion. The ride takes about 2 1/2 hours round trip and I would highly recommend finding a car that has the cushioned seats.
Jewel Cave's scenic tour is well worth the time if you happen to be in the area for more than two days. The tour is mildly strenuous and has 723 steps (most of which are down). My two boys aged 5 and 7 had no trouble whatsoever with the tour. You cannot call in advance for reservations except for three days before. We did this and I would highly recommend doing so. We took one of the earliest tours of the day and when we were leaving, the tours had a wait time of over an hour for "walk-ins". The caves are cold - 47 degrees or so - so make sure you bring a sweatshirt or jacket. There was a family who wore short-sleeved shirts, shorts, and sandals and they were all miserable. The National Park Service recommends closed-toe shoes and I would have to agree because the ground and steps can be slick in spots. When in the cave, be careful not to brush up against the cave walls. The bottoms of my jeans must have and there was a black substance on them. It came off with pre-treating, but I couldn't wear them for the rest of the trip. You won't see a whole lot of stalactites or stalagmites since the cave wasn't formed by water, but there are a lot of other cool formations.
If you've never seen Mt. Rushmore, your first view of it is awe-inspiring. As you drive toward the entrance, you will first catch of glimpse of it through the trees (which is pretty exciting), but it's when you walk through the entrance that you begin to understand the enormity of the accomplishment. As you walk along the entranceway, tribute is paid to each state on part of a column and with its flag. In the auditorium, a movie is shown every 15 minutes or so showing how they built this great tribute. The film itself lasts for around 10 minutes and is well worth your time. While we were there, one of the men who worked on the monument was there speaking to people. He was very kind and shook each of our children's hands. Interestingly enough, he donated the funds for the wall listing everyone who worked on creating this monument. If you have the time, be sure to take the president's walk; it is mildly strenuous due to the amount of steps, but is well worth it. Information about each of the presidents on the monument can be found throughout the walk and ranger guides also give informative tours along the walkway. You can find out when the next guided tour is by asking in the auditorium's gift shop.
The Mammoth Site is amazing. As of our visit, the volunteer paleontologists had discovered 54 mammoths. It is an active paleontologist dig site so not only can you observe the uncovered fossils, but you can observe the paleontological process. Tours are given every 20 minutes and the guides are very knowledgeable. Not only did we learn about the history of the site and the species that have been discovered here, but we were able to speak to the volunteers about their discoveries. There are other sections of the building that are outside of the dig site that give information about the various species that have been discovered there as well. We truly enjoyed our visit here - the site was very educational and well done.
The Mt. Rushmore Lighting Ceremony should not be missed. It begins with a park ranger explaining why this site was chosen for the monument along with other information about the area. Then, a movie is shown that explains why each of the presidents were chosen along with a brief history of the nation. After the movie, a "music video" featuring patriotic music plays while the monument is slowly illuminated. When taking pictures, remember to take your flash off to get the best effect on film; however, the pictures don't completely convey its magnificance. The lighting ceremony reminded us of why Mt. Rushmore was created and refreshed our knowledge of these four inspiring presidents.
The Presidents' Slide is on the way to Mt. Rushmore. The slide is fun for the kids; but is like any alpine slide anywhere. You will ride a chairlift up and can take the chairlift down if you'd rather not slide. When you are almost to the top, they will take a picture of you - if you'd like to buy this picture, make sure to raise the bar of the chairlift so your faces aren't blocked (especially if you're riding with children). Once at the top, you can turn left to get a bite to eat (they claim that you can see Mt. Rushmore from the terrace, but we didn't eat there so I don't know), or turn right to get in line. Children under 7 are not allowed to ride alone and double riders must take the slow path. The line will progress more quickly if you are able to take the fast path. You can buy individual rides or in a block of five or ten (which are cheaper per ride). Your children will want to go again, so if you have the time purchase the block of rides. The ride itself is fun and the sled that you're riding on is easy to control. It's a nice family activity, but I wouldn't go out of my way to do it.
The Big Thunder Gold Mine is also in Keystone and is interesting if you have time to take the tour. I would suggest taking a sweatshirt or sweater because the mine is around 50 degrees. The tour guides are informative and point out many interesting features of the mine and discuss how history has affected the mine. They also are very knowledgeable about the history of the mine itself. There is also a mill there with artifact tools and they are describe for which each tool was used. You will have to wear a hard hat in the mine so ponytails are impossible. You can also pan for gold - one of the tour guides will show you the technique and you will find some gold dust which, though fairly worthless, is exciting all the same.
If you have children aged 4-13, they can be a junior paleontologist at the Mammoth Site. It is a fantastic program that was very educational and the kids learned the "rules" of paleontology, too. The instructors' explanations were given in language that the kids could easily comprehend and there was one instructor for every 8 children. Parents were able to get involved with their children's experience too, which was a wonderful part of our family vacation. Not only did the children learn how to excavate fossils, but they learned how to identify what they found. My five-year-old proudly told me that he had found a mammoth's tibia after checking out his fossil with the chart on the wall with the instructor. The instructor helped him find similarities and differences from his fossil with those on the chart. After they complete their excavations, the children receive a certificate proclaiming their accomplishment and they get to share with the other children what fossil they found. I would highly recommend this experience for children (make your reservations early) - it was certainly one of the highlights of my children's trip.
First of all, let me just clarify something that is very misleading. There is NO free parking at this monument any longer. They closed this lot after September 11, 2001. You MUST pay the $8.00 parking fee in order to get into the monument. However, the admission fee is good for the entire calendar year (like anyone not from SD actually uses that benefit). You will see recent brochures and maps all over this area which still feature the free parking. Ignore these documents, as they are false!
After driving all over trying to find the free parking, my husband refuses to pay for parking, we finally gave up and went to the car entrance line. The woman working at the booth informed us that the free parking was closed, so we paid our fee (not without grumbling) and parking in the first spot we could find.
It was close to dinnertime for us, so we headed to the cafeteria first. Though we are well traveled and know the exorbitant prices of museum and monument food areas, we resigned ourselves to eating here. The menu didn't hold anything exceptional, so we settled on the special: Spaghetti and meatballs, salad, a roll, a fountain beverage for under $6.00. We were very surprised to see that the plate of spaghetti we were given was HUGE and that we could get free refills on our sodas. It turned out to be a great meal for a great price! We were very impressed. The dining area is large, clean and very modern.
After our meal, we visited the very informative and well put-together museums. We also walked the Presidential Trail, which is a boardwalk trail with stairs up and down, but isn't too strenuous. The trail takes you directly under the monument and also to the Sculptor's Studio, which had closed by the time we got there.
Mt. Rushmore is a huge monument carved on the side of a mountain. It depicts four former US presidents; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, and Aberaham Lincoln. Cool, huh?
"Mount Rushmore is a memorial that symbolizes America, and Americans should never lose sight of their cultural beginnings." -Gerard Baker
Length: To Harney Peak, 3.25 miles (one way) 6.5 miles (round trip).
Time: 4 - 5 hours (round trip)
Elevation gain: about 2,000 ft.
There are two trails which lead you to Harney Peak. Trail #4 leaves from near the Sylvan Lake day use area and also connects with Little Devil's Tower. Trail #9 is the easiest trail to Harney Peak and also leaves from the Sylvan Lake day use area. We decided to take Trail #4 in case we wanted to also climb to Little Devil's Tower.
The trail starts out on a flat forest bottom and begins to climb after about one mile. We encountered some fellow hikers who I think were from Spain, who said that they lost the trail and had to turn around. This made us a bit nervous, but we kept on hiking anyway. We never strayed off of the trail and found our way to the summit quite easily.
The hike splits to Little Devil's Tower just after the ascent begins. Trail #4 connects with Trail #9 for the last one mile of the hike to Harney Peak. Though this trail did not compare to the trails we took in the later part of our trip in the Rocky Mountains, I thought it was still quite strenuous. This was until I saw a woman who must have been around 80 years old with a cane at the top of the peak. If she can do it, anyone can!!
As you approach the summit, the climb gets more technical with many rocks and boulders. Just below the peak, the park service has built metal and stone steps to make the climb easier. At the top of the peak is an old stone ranger station which is now used as a lookout point. There were many many small bugs up on the peak, which I could not identify. They didn't bite, but they seemed to stick to everything and everyone. You can climb out a bit further on the peak's stones to see a 360 degree view of the Black Hills.
It took us about 5 hours to complete the trail from start to finish. Make sure you bring enough water, as there are no lakes or streams for water along the trail. Also bring along rain gear, as the weather can change unexpectedly.
Length: 1.5 miles to Cathedral Spires, one way
Time: 2 hours
When we stopped by the Custer State Park Visitor's Center, we asked the man and woman behind the desk if they had any recommendations for trails. Because they were so enthusiastic about their state park, the ended up telling us about all of the trails. When they explained Cathedral Spires, the man pointed to a huge picture on the wall of rocks in the shape of, well, cathedral spires! They looked so beautiful that we couldn't resist doing this trail.
The trailhead is along the Needles Highway, about 2.5 miles from Sylvan Lake. There is a small parking area at the trailhead. The trail begins a semi-steep climb up the hill, where it leads you to a walk between two sets of the spires. It does get a bit technical with rocks and bolders, but isn't too strenuous. The map and the marker at the trailhead clearly state that this trail does not connect with any of the Harkey Peak trails. However, we ran into a couple with their dog who were convinced that it did. The trail ends quite abruptly with no signs or notice. It was only then that they realized that they could not go any further on it.
I would consider this hike to be a great warmup to a hike up to Harney Peak. The Cathedral Spires are a registered National Landmark and are very beautiful. There is no lookout on this hike, but rather you are surrounded by the scenery.
"You HAVE to go to Wall Drug when you visit South Dakota. It is a must."
This is what everyone told us before leaving on our vacation. We couldn't resist. After seeing Wall Drug on the Travel Channel and other tv shows and movies, we had to stop.
I had heard stories about the numerous signs along Interstate 90 for the tourist attraction, but it was more than I could have imagined! Every few miles, and even few feet, as you get closer, the store advertises their, "Free Ice Water," or how they have been, "Featured on NBC's Today Show." It is hillarious! The signs not only dot the South Dakota countryside, but they are also in the London Underground, Paris, and now in Zaire, Africa.
The store began in the 1900s as a small-town pharmacy. How it grew to be a multi-building souvenir and western-wear store, is a mystery to me. It has restaurants, a theatre, a backpacking store, bookstores, and an art gallery. Millions of visitors cram into the small aisles of the stores in the summer. We lucked out and came there on a slow day. I bought a clearanced t-shirt, we picked up our complimentary bumper sticker (yet even more advertising), had a glass or two of free ice water, and took some pictures. I can imagine that kids would get quite a kick out of the faux-styled western town with the enormous jackalope and other photo ops. Visit Wall Drug for the novelty of the place, but don't expect to get much more than they promise on their many signs: "Free Ice Water."
It was so wonderful we went back three times. The monument lighting ceremony was very moving, the music, veterans, flags were memorable. Admission is $10.00 parking fee that is good for the rest of the year.
If possible, view the sculpture at daybreak, when the golden orb of the sun crawls out of the morning mist of the badlands. Few vacationers are awake at sunrise, making it among the best times to enjoy a more contemplative and less crowded experience. And there may be no finer setting for breakfast than the park's Buffalo Dining Room, which affords a commanding view of the presidents.
A complete visit to Rushmore may be accomplished in 2 to 3 hours. Even with its new repertoire of interpretive exhibits, trails, and theaters, the park can be fully explored and appreciated in a fraction of the time of many of its western counterparts.
The patriotic ranger program and dramatic lighting ceremony, held nightly at 8pm from mid-May through September, also make the memorial inspiring at night.
We enjoyed impressive view of the sculpture that is best reached by car. After leaving the park's parking lot, turn right on S. Dak. 244 and proceed west then northwest around the memorial. Less than a mile from the parking lot you'll discover the proud profile of George Washington in the upper-right corner of your windshield. While surveying the scene, keep an eye out for Rocky Mountain goats that frequent the memorial and the Black Elk Wilderness Area to the west.
The Memorial is best viewed and photographed in morning light. You can find good viewing spots at the Grand View Terrace, Borglum View Terrace, the amphitheater, Presidential Trail, along with the Avenue of Flags and terrace near the Sculptor’s Studio. At Mount Rushmore warm days and cool nights are common in the summer, but July and August are typically hot.
The nighttime lighting of the monument begins at 8:00pm. Unfortunately, it began to rain while we were sitting in the amphitheater, waiting for the show to begin. The rain at first was on and off, but soon a thunderstorm began to roll through. The ranger who was giving the presentation decided to shorten the program and simply turned on the lights for us. I have been told since that they normally play classic US songs during this, but our lighting was accompanied only by the soft sounds of rolling thunder. It was quite eerie. After my husband spent some time taking great care to snap the photos you see below, we walked to the gift shop. The gift shop is quite large and had many of the souvenirs that we had seen in many other shops throughout South Dakota. Since the rain began to pick up, we had to cut our visit short with a dash to our car!