Voyage to Mt. Rushmore and Beyond: The First Bucket List Trip

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If you are a regular reader of this blog, you have probably encountered some of our guest posts recounting trips we have taken (examples here and here). Generally, they are of the “bucket list” variety. Bucket lists are what you do when you realize that there is a lot more sand at the bottom of the hourglass of life than there is at the top. So, before the proverbial bucket is kicked, you want to see some things and do some things. That is where we are in our lives. At the very top of our list was a trip to Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Since it was first, I guess it must have been at least a 50 gallon bucket. We took this trip a couple of years ago but the memories and excitement are still very fresh.

This trip was several years ago  pre-Mommy Points, and prior to our immersion in the miles and points game. You can read about our conversion in a previous post. Consequently, this report will not provide any insights into monies saved by the wise use of anything but cash. Sorry about that.

We are patriots. We are Americans and we love our country. We were excited to go to Mt. Rushmore. We flew into Denver and rented a car there for the 6 hour drive to Keystone, South Dakota. Airfares from Houston to Denver are usually very competitive thanks to several how cost carriers and good fares can be found. Denver is also traditionally an inexpensive car rental location. Our adrenaline was up and our drive was fun, fast, and furious. The pronghorn antelopes must have been having their version of the million manimals march as they were everywhere, in abundance.

Keystone, South Dakota is only about two miles from Mt. Rushmore and is very much of a tourist town. We stayed at the K-Bar-S Lodge just a few blocks off the town’s main drag but its seclusion and natural environment made it seem much more isolated. It was wonderful. It was peaceful. It was beautiful. It was more of a take a deep breath resort than a hold your breath motel. Deer could be readily seen on the green velvet lawn and the profiles of Washington and Jefferson could be seen from your porch. A delightful breakfast area awaited you each morning.

We deliberately took this trip immediately after school let out the first of June to beat the summer crowds and we beat the summer heat, as well. Grandma Points was still a full-time teacher at this point, so we couldn’t leave before school let out.  The weather was quite cool for the entire trip, refreshingly so. The first morning there, we ate an early, but unhurried, pleasant breakfast and headed up to Mt. Rushmore. What awaited us will be remembered till our dying day. All the anticipation and excitement, all the planning and researching, all the build up and expectations, and what did we see when we got to Mt. Rushmore? Nothing, we saw nothing.


A thick combination of fog and low clouds completely shrouded the giant carvings. A sign showed us where they were supposed to be. Could it be they were just late getting to work that day? Was it a federal holiday? It was hysterical. Our laughter echoed off something very solid and very large nearby. What, we weren’t quite sure. We were in tears.  People that approached must have thought we were totally devastated and upset by the situation and consequently couldn’t hold back our emotional outpouring.  The truth is that the tears were from laughing so hard. To compose ourselves, we did what all tourists do, we went into the well stocked national park store and souvenir shop to buy a sweatshirt because it was cool and to get a Coke because we were dehydrated from all the crying. The whole experience reminded us of Alana Morissette’s song, Isn’t It Ironic.

We were fortunate in that we had allocated four days for the area and even though we knew we would have a better day to see this iconic monument we decided to take the walkway up to base of the statues anyway. We took a leap of faith in our government in taking this pathway to the unknown. We could have been going to meet the foggy lagoon swamp monster or even ascending into the clouds to meet our Maker. It was that foggy.

As we climbed, a gentle breeze did stir the environment enough for us to fortuitously see a mountain goat and her new kid exploring the forest but they too soon disappeared. We eventually think we got a glimpse of a giant nose and an impressive ear. Or, was it a chin and an eye? It was hard to tell.  The walk ended at the park concession area where we had a truly memorable bowl of delicious buffalo chili. We savored the moment, literally and figuratively, and vowed to come back tomorrow. We are big believers that tomorrow can be a better day.

The Mt. Rushmore area has a lot to offer. so it is not a one trick pony. On the way back from the unseen Rushmore, we decided to take a ride through Custer State Park. This state park is huge and is home to the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains. It has wonderful roads that present mountainous forests and grassy plains as you travel in tunnels blasted through solid granite and on unique pigtail bridges that are architectural and engineering marvels.


The park is also home to a sizable herd of buffalo that you will certainly encounter on the road or just off of grazing in the meadows and grasses. There are lakes and streams and camera worthy wildflowered vistas. You will see prairie dogs and begging, mooching burros that stop traffic looking for handouts. On the nearby Iron Mountain Road, three tunnels offer interesting views of the four presidents on Rushmore. Custer State Park does what parks should do. It relaxes, excites and rewards its visitors.

Our second day began with a morning air that was chilled and pure and awoke your lungs like a fresh eaten peppermint. Our first order of business was the 1880 train ride through the Black Hills. The train is steam engine powered and runs between Keystone and Hill City. You can ride one way or round trip and the ticket price is in the $20s. The ride is in authentic vintage passenger cars and each way takes about an hour. The train can handle hundreds for each trip but we had less than ten on our nostalgic clickety clack, clickety clack, swaying on the railroad track.



After a quick look around town, we headed back to Mt. Rushmore. It was a beautiful day and our views were unimpeded. It was majestic and powerful. Like many things on this planet, it made us feel small and insignificant. These were not just busts done in an artist workshop in a controlled and safe environment. These were giant busts done on the side of a granite mountain in dangerous and unpredictable conditions for 14 years. What a remarkable feat!  The museums on site provide all the necessary info to enhance the awe and wow of this marvel.



A few interesting facts for your consideration and enlightenment are (1) the sculptures were originally intended to be waist length but time and money ran out and (2) that Jefferson was originally on Washington’s left (as viewed) but was dynamited off when it was determined it wasn’t going to fit properly. We viewed Mt. Rushmore in the morning, afternoon and night, in the fog, in the sun, in the twilight and by floodlight. It was inspiring. Just an FYI, an isolated great view of Washington can be seen by traveling a few miles further west on Hwy 16.

The next day was dedicated to to The Badlands National Park which is about an hour east of Rushmore. The Badlands got its name from the Lakotas. They called it mako sica. The Badlands seems like a cross between Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Red Rock Canyon and Valley of Fire State Park with magnificent native grasses outlining the rise and fall of the rugged landscape. The geologic features are very erosion sensitive and up close seem like dried mud. There is a terrific loop road that allows easy access and viewing with many turnouts and scenic lookouts provided. A prairie dog metropolis exists on the route and makes for bonus entertainment. The Badlands were anything but bad, to us.





Another extremely interesting stop near The Badlands was the Wall Drug Store. This is a famous piece of Americana that is hard to describe. It is a drug store, a museum, a chapel, a souvenir shop, an arcade, bookstore, amusement park, restaurant, clothing store, photo op, jewelry store, gift shop and pitstop all rolled into one labyrinth of a building times ten. It is a maze of amazement. I would not say it is classy, but it is overwhelmingly big and interesting. You may never see anything quite like it.

Also nearby, is the ongoing Crazy Horse Memorial sculpture. This massive undertaking’s intent is to pay homage by depicting a great Native American astride his horse and pointing to the future. The project is now in its 66th year and a completion date is not forecast. This is a private venture that when finished will dwarf the figures on Mt. Rushmore.
Other area attractions include Sturgis, the annual home of the huge motorcycle rally and Deadwood, a lovely preserved town that offers rich history, beautiful buildings and low key gambling. In Keystone you can see nightly shootouts on Main Street and pan for gold, if you survive.

Rapid City anchors the entire south and west part of South Dakota and can provides visitors with all the necessary comforts and urban needs.  One impression we had of South Dakota is that it must have powerful national representation in D.C..  This state has fantastic roads, marvelous parks and woodlands. It seems very clean and modern while protecting its past. It looks and feels well taken care of. Money does not seem to be an issue.

It has been fun to revisit a part of this great trip. Great memories. We want to go back. Mt. Rushmore is a must see for all. It is enough by itself to warrant the journey, but there is so much more to see and do once you are there.  Please go.  You will be glad you did.


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  1. Lee,
    You win the inaugural spot the error prize. This just goes to show me that one should never asiouxm any city is correct when writing with rapidity. And it wasn’t even foggy the day we were in Rapid City. Foggy brain, perhaps.
    Thanks for reading and being a Mommypoints follower.
    Grandpa Points

  2. One of the very best views of Mt. Rushmore (when the fog is lifted) is driving North out of Custer State Park. You go through a tunnel in the mountain and then, Wow!

  3. A popular place to see nearby is Devils Tower national Monument, Wyoming. Every evening at the nearby campground they play Close Encounters of the Third Kind outside while facing the monument.

  4. Thanks for the tip about the train. I planned on visiting Keystone, but I did not know about the train ride. I will definitely take it.

    Been to Rushmore and also Crazy Horse. I am not Indian, but Crazy Horse left me awestruck. Even more amazing than the sculpture is the story behind it. The Chief saw a newspaper article of a famous sculptor (who at the time was in NY) so Chief sends him a letter and basically asks him “to devote the rest of his life” and come and build the Crazy Horse monument – to which the guy says YES. I think it was a miracle that the letter even reached him in the first place. If anyone goes to see Crazy Horse, definitely sit through the short movie inside that tells the story properly. On my trip there, it was a rainy, drizzly day, with clouds and mist moving about the mountain. At times the head would appear and dissapear. It was spooky, but in a really good way.

    Thanks for the post. It brought back some memories and now I’m inspired me to go back!

  5. I’ll be there in a month. Very much looking forward to it.

    Just out of curiosity – why did you drive from Denver instead of flying into Rapid City?

  6. I really enjoyed this article. Mt Rushmore has been near the top of my list for places I want to see, I’m just waiting until my little ones are a bit old. This really got me excited about the possibility of planning a trip there. Thanks!

  7. @UAPhil – probably because of cheap air into DEN. As the piece mentioned, flights from Houston to Denver are relatively inexpensive. Also car rentals in DEN can be really cheap, some as low as $17/day. I have been the recipient of such great deals at DEN and in some cases, I was able to rent an SUV for that price! So I think that is why.

  8. to UAPhil,
    Nick’s response was correct. The flight from Houston to Denver was priced to encourage this move and the car may have been even less than the $17.00 he suggested. Also, Mt. Rushmore was just the first stop on this journey that also included Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. We made a grand loop.

    to Allen,
    We did go up to Devil’s Tower and found it fascinating. It is one interesting geologic experience.

    Thanks to all for reading and sharing.
    Grandpa Points

  9. I am not American but I loved my visit to Mt Rushmore…and the area IS amazing.
    Thank yo for reminding me!

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