We didn’t realize how much there is to see in South Dakota. I previously mentioned we gained an extra day in the Badlands, which was needed. I was starting to get nervous we didn’t have enough time planned for our second stop, Custer. Our intentions were to see Mt Rushmore, Custer State Park, drive along the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road, we had scheduled a Buffalo Jeep Safari (in Custer SP) and tour Wind Cave. We also found a few unplanned things after we arrived.
In Custer, we stayed at Big Pine Campground. The location was again chosen after reading reviews on Allstays. I liked Custer’s location being central to the aforementioned sites on our wish list. Also, it was adjacent to a nice path going further west into Wyoming on the last leg of our trip. Again, a very solid choice and we were 2 for 2 on this trip using Allstays. Props to Kristen Turner for recommending this app to us!!!
After setting up camp, we took off to find Mt Rushmore. Tripp was really intrigued by the warning signs we found on the way into Custer, entering both the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road. Both scenic driving routes had very low clearances (like as low as 8′!!!!), single lane tunnels built into the mountains, pigtails, divided highways, etc., etc. Always a fan of numbers and statistics, Tripp loved the sign (see below) as we entered Iron Mountain Road. We would recommend driving Iron Mountain from South to North, as you end this route with the window on Mt Rushmore view below that is breathtaking. If you travel opposite our recommendation, you just don’t see the carvings through this final tunnel.
Mt Rushmore does not have an entrance fee, but it does have a parking fee. Once you pay the $10 parking fee, it’s good for a year. We visited in the afternoon and decided to go back the following evening to watch the nighttime lighting of the monument.
Mt Rushmore was most amazing when you realize this monument was constructed so long ago, with much less advanced technology than we have today. The visitor center and museum is fascinating to learn how the carving operation worked. And not to spoil the surprise, but the monument was never truly finished.
Day 1 in Custer was a huge success, upon leaving Mt Rushmore we realized how hungry we were and drove to Sylvan Lake Lodge for dinner. This route was via the Needles Highway, equally as scenic as Iron Mountain. I will post shortly a separate entry on Custer State Park and the Buffalo Jeep Safari, but I will say that our dinner at Sylvan was nothing short of fantastic. Roy had buffalo short ribs, I enjoyed buffalo stroganoff and Tripp finished off his elk ravioli. Everyone was happy and full.
On the drive back to the campground, we saw this guy. Our first buffalo sighting!!!
Single lane tunnel on Needles Highway. Needless to say, Huckleberry Tiffin didn’t make this particular drive.
Tip: We purchased an America the Beautiful (annual) pass before we departed for South Dakota. This pass covers entrance fees (when charged) at all National Parks, National Historic Sites, National Forests and National Monuments. The pass is $80 for the year, but each park on our list charged between $20 – $35 entrance fee. We recouped the annual pass fee on this trip, plus have plans for additional trips before it expires. All entrance fees are posted on the National Park Service website for each individual park so you can do the math and see if it’s worth it to purchase a pass.