Forget the 1,000-mile routes that crisscross the entire country. South Dakota's Iron Mountain Road is only 17 miles long, but it's just as action-packed as any interstate drive. This short portion of pavement is actually one of the most picturesque in the country, winding through the state's famed Black Hills region, home to some unspoiled wilderness and—its claim to fame—the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. With a speed limit of 35, you can casually meander across the road’s dramatic twists and turns while marveling at the natural beauty around you. The route features three tunnels, three pigtail bridges, and free passage through Custer State Park.
Named for the infamous George Custer and the Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer State Park offers 17,000 acres of natural beauty and adventure on the sidelines of Iron Mountain Road. There are several ways to explore the dozens of miles of trail in the park, but hiking and biking are the most popular. You can also explore the region on a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour or a guided horseback ride. Kayaks and canoes are also available to rent.
But while the park is packed with adventure, it’s also a great place to rest and recuperate from extensive driving (not that 17 miles is very far). There are nine tent lots for camping and an abundance of space for RVs. If you do happen to stay overnight, you'll find hot showers and laundry facilities scattered throughout the park.
If you’re into camping, backpacking, wildlife, or big adventure, Black Elk Wilderness offers 13,000 acres of all the above. Inducted into the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1980, Black Elk is also home to the 7,242-foot Black Elk Peak (formerly called Harney Peak), which offers views of four different states from its summit. This area has a unique ecosystem of rocky slopes and classic cragged peaks where mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and elk are often spotted. Motorized vehicles and bikes aren’t allowed in the wilderness area.
The Black Hills region is sacred to many local Native American tribes including the Lakota. You can honor their presence and all the Native people who have cared for this land by visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial—which has been under construction since 1948—on Thunderhead Mountain. The Memorial is approximately 17 miles from Mount Rushmore.
The monument, carved by Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, depicts the late Lakota warrior on horseback, pointing across the region. When completed, the Memorial will house the Crazy Horse Monument, an Indian Museum of North America, and a Native American Cultural Center. The finished carving will stand at 641 feet long and 563 feet high, making it the second largest statue in the world. Though it’s not yet finished, the under-construction statue is still a sight to behold and the Welcome Center gives visitors great information on the land and project.
The Cosmos Mystery Area is one of those quirky American roadside attractions that you simply can't pass up, especially if you're traveling with kids. The main attraction at Cosmos is the Mystery House, a unique structure built to make water flow upwards, make small things appear large, and people stand at an angle. In the Mystery House, all laws of nature and physics appear to be obsolete. The Cosmos Mystery Area costs $11 admission for adults and $6 for children aged 5 to 11. Children 4 and under get in free.
After exploring the Mystery House, head into the Geode Mine, where kids can dig through rubble and break open crystals with a hydraulic press. Families can keep whatever geodes and formations they find. The Geode Mine is a fun way for kids to learn about the geology and history of the surrounding land.
Mount Rushmore is the crown jewel of an Iron Mountain Road trip. Located in Keystone, the monument was completed in 1941 and has hosted millions of visitors since. It took sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his aptly-named son, Lincoln, around 14 years to carve the 60-foot heads of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.
You can spend hours walking around the main plaza and gazing up at the faces in the rock, but there’s more to do than sit and stare. The best way to begin is by perusing the exhibits and watching the 14-minute documentary at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center. After learning a little bit of background on the site, stroll down Presidential Trail for a quick snapshot of the area. If you have a half or full day, consider booking a ranger-guided tour.
For camping around Mount Rushmore, there's a Kampgrounds of America (KOA) property just down the road at Palmer Gulch Resort. It provides electric and water hookups for RVs and plenty of camp spots for pitching a tent. If you prefer creature comforts, this KOA also has cabins. It also offers a slew of fun Mount Rushmore-related programming such as guided horseback rides, chuckwagon-style dinners, and a shuttle service to the nighttime Mount Rushmore lighting ceremony.