The Complete Mount Rushmore Vacation Planner, South Dakota

by Mark & Kristen Morgan
Mount Rushmore vacation guide sunrise over the presidents faces

Mount Rushmore is one of the United States most iconic and revered monuments. Who among us hasn’t always wanted to go on vacation to the see those gigantic expressionless sculptures of the 4 former presidents who helped shape America?!

We certainly had.

Visiting this colossal National Memorial was a dead cert on our US road trip, right after Badlands National Park and just before Custer State Park.

We learned a thing or two during our visit that will be of interest to you.

This Mount Rushmore vacation planner features a 3 hour sunrise itinerary … yes we know sunrise means waking up early! But arriving for sunrise gets you 3 things:

1 Spectacular photography from twilight through sunrise

2 You will have the entire place to yourself

3 Free Entrance (instead of US$ 10).

Don’t sweat it if you can’t make it for sunrise, you can apply the same itinerary to any time of day.

Mount Rushmore and the surrounding areas of South Dakota are simply stunning and they fully deserve to be contenders on your family vacation shortlist.

Let’s dig in!

When planning your Mount Rushmore vacation, you might want to read our South Dakota Road Trip guide detailing all the best stops including Mt. Rushmore as part of an action packed 4 day itinerary!

We got a little footage of Mount Rushmore with our old GoPro and threw a quick video together. This certainly won’t win any oscars but it’s a fun take on arriving for sunrise!

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Mount Rushmore is located in the South West of South Dakota, inside the Black Hills National Forest boundary. 

Keystone is the nearest town and where we recommend you set up base for your vacation if you prefer to stay in hotels. For the campers, you have plenty of options in the area. More on lodging/camping later.

Nearest airport – Rapid City 31.5 miles / 40 minutes drive away.

If traveling from afar, be sure to search for best value flights using Skyscanner before booking a hire car to pick up at Rapid City airport.

Denver – Under 6 hours drive

Yellowstone / Grand Teton – Just over 8 hours drive

We took the latter route, stopping in Buffalo, WY for lunch and driving the awesome Cloud Peak Skyway (Highway 16), before staying a night in Cody, WY.

Note: If you have a little more time in the area and enjoy hiking, don’t miss Black Elk Peak. We were blown away by this amazing hike!

Your Mount Rushmore Vacation Visitors Quick Guide

Address: 13000 SD-244, Keystone, SD 57751
Website: nps.gov/moru
Phone: (605) 574-2523

Park Hours: All day, every day
Entrance Fee: No entrance fee but US$ 10 to park at the memorial (after 7am)

Accommodation: Keystone, Custer, Rapid City, various campgrounds

Top Activities: Sightseeing, short walks, much more in surrounding area

Annual Visitors: Between 2 – 2.5 million

Best Time to Visit: May – October (wet Spring, hot & busy Summer, best Fall)

3 Hour Mount Rushmore Vacation Itinerary

Telephoto shot of Mount Rushmore before sunrise golden hour

As we mentioned earlier, this is a sunrise itinerary but you can apply it to any time of day. A few hours is enough time to fully explore Mount Rushmore.

If you’re visiting between late May and the end of September, don’t forget you can catch an evening lighting ceremony held in the Lincoln Borglum visitor center amphitheater.

However, we highly recommend getting up (agonizingly!) early to see the presidents faces glow with the first rays of sunlight.

If you like sunrises and photography, you can’t miss Mesa Arch in Utah. Wow!

Let’s get stuck into your 3 hour Mount Rushmore vacation itinerary:

COVID Travel: Are you planning to travel in Winter 2020 or Spring 2021? Be sure to read our 5 things you can expect traveling during Coronavirus article for an insight.

Arrive Before Sunrise

Dim yellow glow sunrise in South Dakota

We know this sounds like a lot of effort, arriving anywhere before sunrise is not easy. But trust us, it is worth setting that early alarm.

We would never recommend something we haven’t done ourselves and you will stand a good chance of having the entirety of Mount Rushmore to yourself.

The solitude is worth the effort alone, but the best part is still to come…

Mount Rushmore after sunrise illuminated yellow and orange

You will be able to witness an incredible sunrise as the 4 presidents are dramatically bathed in unobstructed orange, yellow and red rays.

The reason we suggest arriving before sunrise is so you can photograph the memorial before and during golden hour, which means no shadows, followed by a beautiful red aura and bright orange.

Arrive any later and you will only be able to see the granite stone color, full of shadows.

If the colors were the best still to come, then we will call this our top tip:

If you arrive before sunrise you can park for free. Yes, free! Any arrivals before 7am will not have to pay US$ 10 to park because the ticket counters at the entrance don’t open until 7am.

It’s almost like they appreciate the effort of those who want to watch the sunrise!

Park Up and Enter the Memorial

Our car the only one in the parking lot at Mount Rushmore

Drive through the open entrance barriers and round to the left, head inside the parking lot and park up. It is very likely you will be the only car in the parking garage, just as we were.

If the sun is beginning to creep up, leg it up the stone staircase until you arrive at the entrance to the memorial. Don’t forget your camera!

Approaching the entrance to Mount Rushmore with presidents heads small in distance

Walk under the columned gate and you will catch your first Mount Rushmore glimpse of the vacation, looking smaller than you imagined in the distance. That will change as you get closer!

Quickly Find The Best Vantage Point

Path closed into amphitheater

You won’t have long before sunlight begins to illuminate the polished granite stone. Quickly observe where you want to set up your camera and try out a few angles to make sure you’re happy with your spot.

You will probably be happy enough in the amphitheater but remember it might not be the exact frame you are looking for.

We visited in October and discovered this was out of season for both Keystone and Mount Rushmore. Much to our shock and dismay the amphitheater had been cordoned off with a closed for renovation sign.

Oh crap!

Terrible vantage point of Mount Rushmore

We were stuck with a terrible view as you can see in the photo above! Under pressure, we managed to formulate a rough idea of where we could get a better vantage point.

Fortunately, we quickly found another location to set up and had an excellent view. This place will work for you if you don’t visit at sunrise and the amphitheater is packed…

Our ‘Secret’ Viewing Terrace

Mount Rushmore vacation photo from before sunrise in Keystone SD

Okay, it’s not exactly secret, it’s on the map!

So, grab a map, keep the entrance to the South and the presidents to the North. Look for the Nature Trail that takes you to Sculptor’s Studio but only follow it as far as Borglum View Terrace.

Take a left and another left, follow the path up some stairs and take a right to a little square directly to the right of the amphitheater.

Tree in the way of sunrise over presidents heads keystone

This is at a higher vantage point than the amphitheater and is where we were able to set up just in the nick of time. The only issue here is overgrown treetops that – even with the telephoto lens on – just about creep into the bottom of the frame.

Sculptor’s Studio

Sculptor's studio keystone South Dakota

Once you have your sunrise photographs, take a very short walk to the Sculptor’s Studio. It was originally built as a second on-site sculpting studio for Gutzon Borglum to design and sculpt Mount Rushmore.

Construction of the National Monument took 14 years from 1927 to 1941, the second half saw Borglum’s son Lincoln join his father as assistant sculptor.

Machine used to help carve Mount Rushmore

Models and tools related to the design and construction of Mount Rushmore can be found in the studio for those interested in the history of the memorial.

Walk the Presidential Trail

Boardwalk through Mount Rushmore Memorial

Once you’ve marveled at the range of colors glowing on the four presidents intricately carved faces, it’s time to blow the early morning cobwebs off with a brisk uphill walk.

And by uphill, we mean up-stairs. A lot of stairs! 250 to be precise.

The Presidential Trail loops from Sculptor’s Studio, up to a closer view of the presidents faces, then back down to the amphitheater – an anti clockwise route. Alternatively, take it clockwise and end at Sculptor’s Studio.

Roosevelt sign Mount Rushmore vacation

The trail is a lovely walk following pristine wooden boardwalks through low hanging trees and a low sun in the sky behind you.

There are plenty of stop off points but keep an eye out for the 4 information boards detailing the lives of the 4 presidents faces you have been looking at all morning: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the father of America’s National Parks – Theodore Roosevelt.

The Top (and Cave View)

Mark and kristen highest vantage point Mount Rushmore

In all honesty, the top is a little disappointing because the trail doesn’t lead to anything in particular.

Perhaps another viewing platform directly below the sculpture would help. Or finding the gold from National Treasure 2!

There are some areas you can see views of the faces but it’s more like under-chin views and many of the facial features are hidden because of the angle.

We’re actually kneeling on the boardwalk and leaning forwards slightly to get a not-up-the-nose photo!

George Washington through a cave slit

There is one cool shot to look for though, it’s just off the main boardwalk and you can see Washington through a cave shaped like an eye. If it had flames inside, it would look just like the eye of Sauron!

The Best Things to do Near Mount Rushmore

Custer State Park & Wildlife Loop

Hood tunnel on needles highway in Custer state park things to do near Mount Rushmore on South Dakota road trip itinerary

Custer State Park is regarded as one of the best state parks in the US. You can drive along the incredibly scenic Iron Mountain Road and Needles highway, plus visit Custer’s famous wildlife loop. This 18 mile one-way road takes you through rolling hills and meadows filled with Bison, Deer, Donkeys, Elk, Antelope and more. Visit early or late in the day for the best chance of spotting active animals.

Distance from Mount Rushmore – 20.7 miles / 50 minutes with stunning views from Iron Mountain Road and Needles highway.

Black Elk Peak Hike

Black elk peak hike trail in custer state park is epic and one of the best things to do near Mount Rushmore on a South Dakota road trip itinerary

Our top hiking recommendation near Mount Rushmore is without question the Black Elk Peak trail. Formerly known as Harney peak, Black Elk Peak hike is around 3.5 miles up and 3.5 miles back down for a total of 7 miles. It should take approximately 4-5 hours but allow more time for stops and 30 minutes at the summit, which has spectacular views over 4 states.

Distance from Mount Rushmore – 15.8 miles / 32 minutes.

Badlands National Park

Badlands national park is an incredible alien landscape just over an hour from mt rushmore and one of the best things to do near Mount Rushmore on a South Dakota road trip itinerary

If time allows, you should not miss the spectacular martian landscapes at Badlands National Park. We do recommend staying a night at or close to Badlands, but it can easily be seen on a day trip from the Keystone/Mt Rushmore area if you don’t have spare days. Short hikes with dramatic viewpoints and photography are the best things to do at Badlands. Need convincing about visiting? Check out our favorite Badlands photographs.

Distance from Mount Rushmore – 85 miles / 1 hour 30 minutes.

Mount Rushmore Vacation Interactive Map

Where To Stay Near Mount Rushmore

Campgrounds Near Mt. Rushmore

There are a handful of campsites within close proximity to Mount Rushmore but our top selection would be Horse Thief Lake campground, only 3 miles away.

A more suitable family location for camping could be around the Sylvan Lake area of Custer State Park. Sylvan Lake campground is 16 miles (30 minutes) from Mount Rushmore but offers much more in its immediate area.

Black Elk Peak trailhead begins at Sylvan Lake. Plus, the lake is half way along Needles scenic highway, which has tunnels, switchbacks and stunning views over the Black Forest.

Best Hotels Near Mt. Rushmore

There are several options for setting up your vacation base close to Mount Rushmore.

The most obvious choice for those who prefer a built up area is the small town of Keystone, under 10 minutes drive from the stoic faces of Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelt and Jefferson.

We stayed in Keystone and can vouch for its convenience with plenty of restaurants and bars.

There are a lot of hotels to choose between but be aware that Summer is extremely busy so it’s a good idea to book in advance.

The best value for money hotels in the area are listed below. Click each hotel name to check prices and availability.

 Ramada | K and S Lodge | Roosevelt Inn | Holiday Inn

We hope this helped you plan your Mount Rushmore vacation!

If there’s anything else you would like to know about the area or your vacation plans, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.

Don’t forget you can check out more of our itineraries, destinations or USA specific travel guides!

-Happy Travels-

Trivia: In feet, how long are the presidents' eyes, noses and mouths?

Eyes – 11 feet across
Noses – 20 feet long
Mouths – 18 feet wide

Impressive structure! Each head is the size of a six-story building! The original plan was to sculpt each president from waist upwards but the required funding wasn’t in place.

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