Originally when we talked about visiting Mount Rushmore on the way out to Yellowstone, we were only planning on staying a night or two. When we started looking into how much there was to do in the area, we decided to stay longer. It ended up being some of our favorite spots on the trip!
Fort Welikit Campground
We decided to stay at Fort Welikit Campground in Custer, SD. It was one of the cheaper options in the area at around $40/night, and although it did not have a pool there were many lakes neaby.
Jewel Cave National Monument
We started our first day at Jewel Cave National Monument. We had reservations for an 11am tour. We choose the scenic tour, a 90 minute tour with 734 steps along a 1/2 mile route. Some of the stairs are super steep. An elevator takes you down into the cave. Make sure you dress for the weather, as the cave is 49 degrees. There is also a visitor center where the kids can get stamps for their books.
Next we decided to visit a few wineries. The first stop was Naked Winery which was our favorite. They did icecream tastings for the kids in which they had to guess the flavor of icecream! This was a smaller winery but it had plenty of space inside and a great patio area.
Next we visited Prairie Berry Winery. They had a lot more choices but it was also very commercialized and had a lot of tour groups.
Big Thunder Gold Mine
Next we headed up to Big Thunder Gold Mine for a save tour and some gem mining. Was it super touristy? yes! Did the kids love it? Also yes. We picked this particular one because it had a groupon!
We ended our day with what we came to see, Mount Rushmore! This was super cool to see. A little smaller then we expected but it was fun! Make sure you also walk the Presidential Trail (.6 miles each way with 422 stairs) to get a close up view of Mount Rushmore.
We started our day on Needles Highway. I would suggest getting up early to take this scenic drive, as some of the tunnels are one way and traffic increased later in the day. In the morning, we had it to ourselves and even got a picture in front of the tunnel with no cars in sight.
Cathedral Spires Trail
Off of Needles highway, we decided to hike the Cathedral Spires trail. Another reason for an early start: this trail parking fills up fast! This is a 2 mile round trip hike and worth every step! It is steep in parts.
Next we backtracked the 2 miles to Sylvan Lake. We needed to cool off after our hike! It was a little crowded when we got there but we were able to get a spot, even though it was a bit of a walk. The lake is great for swimming, and you can also rent SUP or kayaks. There is a loop around the lake that has a great walking path.
We finished off the day by doing the part of Needles Highway we didn’t get to earlier
Mount Coolidge Fire Tower
Our first stop of the day was Mount Coolidge Fire Tower. This can be difficult to get to depending on your vehicle, its a 2 mile unpaved windy trail to the top. There are some great views if you do decide to check it out!
Custer Wildlife Loop
Next we continued on to Custer Wildlife Loop. This is an 18 mile scenic drive and where you are almost guaranteed to see the Buffalo! We probably saw 40 or 50, plus some other animals. We started off at the end furthest from the visitor center, and drove to the visitor center at the end. This was fun because they track where people see the buffalo each day and we were the first ones to arrive from the direction of the buffalo so the kids got to place to buffalo statue on the map for the day.
On the way back we went to Stockade Lake with our packed lunches and relaxed the rest of the day. The lake was uncrowded with only 3 other families there. There was a playground on the water, and if you traveled to the other side there were kayak rentals available.
Town of Custer
After dinner, we walked through the town of Custer for icecream. There are a lot of great souvenir shops and places to eat. Artists have painted buffalo statues throughout the town, there are around a dozen to see.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of things to do in the area, just the things we were able to do. Crazy Horse is another great site nearby that we did not have time to visit. There are a lot of small cute towns with shops and restaurants. Other nearby places within 2 hours drive are Deadwood, Hot Springs, and Spearfish Canyon. I feel like you could easily spend a week or more exploring the area.