A guide to seeing Mt. Rushmore and the Badlands in one day on a family road trip. Some great tips and hints to help make your trip easy and fun!
We had some limited time in Rapid City, SD on our road trip, so we wanted to optimize the time that we had! We got up early and started our day at Mt. Rushmore, and ended it with hiking in the Badlands. It was one of the best days we have had as a family.
Arriving at Mt. Rushmore
We started our day early – around 8:30 at Mt. Rushmore. Early is key!!! We had absolutely no lines to pay for parking – but when we left around 10:30 the traffic was wrapped down the hill.
The parking structure and memorial grounds actually open at 5 am, but I felt like our 8:30 am time frame was perfect!
The park entrance is free, but parking is $10 a car. The neat thing is the parking is valid for a year, so if you wanted to return the next day (perhaps for the night show), you wouldn’t have to pay again.
When you walk up from the parking lot, you immediately see the flags. As you walk under the flags, you get a majestic view of Mt. Rushmore. You are lead to the Grand Terrace for some great head on views and perfect photo ops.
The Presidential Trail at Mt. Rushmore
We went on the beginning of the Presidential Trail, which provided close access to the sculpture. There was a beautiful rock formation that allowed you to glimpse Washinton through a crack in the rock.
We took time to go through the gift shop and got some souvenirs including a Junior Ranger t-shirt for my son and a Christmas ornament. (I collect Christmas ornaments on our vacations. It’s a fun reminder of all our family vacations when I decorate the tree every year.)
We also meandered through the museum, and then sat out on the bleachers to get yet another view of Mt. Rushmore. It doesn’t get any less majestic no matter how long you look at it.
Eating at Mt. Rushmore
Since we were the early birds, we had breakfast in the Carvers’ Cafe. It wasn’t the worlds best breakfast food, but it wasn’t horrible and we were able to get full. We had scrambled eggs, potatoes, and bacon, and my son had some french toast sticks.
Thomas Jefferson Ice Cream
After breakfast, we went to the Ice Cream shop. Yes, it was a little early for ice cream (I can’t believe I said that – is it ever too early for ice cream?!), but we couldn’t pass up ice cream made by Thomas Jefferson’s original recipe!!!
Arriving to the Badlands
Once we finished up at Mt. Rushmore, we were on to the Badlands. First of all, let me highly suggest to you to avoid the interstate and go via highway 44 for breathtaking views. Fair warning: There will be no stops for the hour or so you are driving. Make sure you have plenty of gas in the car.
We stopped at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center as we went in the Interior entrance. There is a gift shop there but it also has a nice educational area. You can even stop by the paleontology lab and watch them working on the found fossils and discoveries they have recently found in the badlands. My son loved this part!
There are a lot of educational signs on what to do if you found a fossil! They had pictures of many people who had found their own discoveries!
Badlands Hiking Trails
Badlands National Park offers a variety of designated hiking trails that allow you to experience the beauty of the park. Hikes range from flat stretches, man-made boardwalks, through the prairie landscape, to uphill climbs through the Badlands formations.
We stocked up our bag with water and protein bars that morning, so we were prepared for a long day of hiking. They recommend two quarts of water per person per 2-hour hike.
Cliff Shelf Trail
The first small hike we did was the Cliff Shelf trail, which was 0.5 miles. It’s considered a moderate hike because it has a lot of steps. Otherwise, it’s on a built walkway and no rough terrain. his loop trail follows boardwalks and climbs stairs through a juniper forest along the Badlands Wall. There are some beautiful panoramic views. It climbs approximately 200 feet in elevation.
Next, we stopped at the Window Trail, which is 0.25 miles. It is considered an easy trail. This short trail leads to a natural window in the Badlands Wall with a view of an eroded canyon.
My favorite of the day was the Door Trail. It is 0.75 miles. The first 0.25 mile is on a boardwalk. It leads through a break in the Badlands Wall known as “the Door” and to a view of the Badlands. The maintained trail then ends, but there are colored markers to help you keep track of your whereabouts.
The next favorite was the very small portion of the Castle Trail that we walked. Castle Trail is about 10 miles if you walk the whole thing. We did not do this, but we walked probably 0.5-0.75 miles of it starting from near the Fossil Exhibit trail. You walk through the typical Badlands terrain, but then it opens up to grasslands and prairie. It was spectacular. When I return to the Badlands again (and I will return), I plan to walk all 10 miles of it.
Fossil Exhibit Trail
The Fossil Exhibit trail was fun for my 8-year-old. It was along a boardwalk and featured fossil replicas and exhibits of now extinct creatures that once roamed the area.
If you plan to go hiking in the Badlands, I suggest you check out my Hiking Essentials list to get an idea of things to pack!
Like I mentioned earlier, this was one of the best days we had as a family. I want to go back to South Dakota, and revisit a few of these places, as well as add others we didn’t have time for on this trip!! Do you have suggestions on the next road trip?