After Great Sand Dunes National Park we headed to the Black Hills for a week of fun. Keeping with our lunch in parks theme we stopped at Library Park in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Oh my word…this is a gorgeous town! Or at least the area around Library Park is. So much green everywhere and huge trees lining every street. It reminded me of something out of a movie.
Last summer the kids requested that Mount Rushmore be our next destination so this trip was planned with Mount Rushmore as the focal point. When I started planning I was surprised to find how much there is to do in the area. The Black Hills are beautiful and everything is fairly close. Close as in 15 minutes to two hours away. We do not mind driving and enjoy getting in the car and making a day of whatever it is we are doing. No timelines, lunch in the cooler for wherever we find a nice spot and an activity or two to serve as the destination for the day.
Custer State Park
The weather was terrible the entire week we were in the Black Hills so we had to plan our outdoor activities around rainstorms. One morning the forecast was morning sun with afternoon showers so we quickly hopped in our car and headed to Custer State Park to take advantage of several of the scenic drives before the storms set in. Custer State Park is home to many animals, several scenic drives, beautiful scenery, camping, fishing, hiking and more!
We are National Treasure movie fans and National Treasure 2 was filmed in the Black Hills. For those that have not seen the movie, Mount Rushmore is a cover up for the City of Gold and they find the entrance in some large rocks at a lake. We think the lake they used in the movie is Sylvan Lake so we wanted to stop. The kids were hoping to find the City of Gold but someone else beat us to it – bummer. The lake is beautiful though and since we were there early in the morning the water was like glass.
There is a one mile loop that goes around the lake. It’s a really nice walk but the entire loop is not suitable for strollers or little kids. The lake is dammed and rather than crossing the dam, you walk down some fairly steep steps and rocks to the the bottom of the dam and then back up some steps on the other side.
The Needles Highway
The Needles Highway is on the west side of the park and starts near Sylvan Lake. It is a 14 mile drive and is absolutely beautiful! It takes about an hour depending on how fast you drive.
There are two rock tunnels along the way and several viewing areas where you can stop and take pictures. The rock tunnels are single lane tunnels and are tight. They fit tour buses through them so you’ll be fine.
If you are in the area the drive is worth the time. Especially if you are not used to gorgeous green trees and winding mountain roads.
Wildlife Loop Road
Wildlife Loop Road is an 18 mile stretch along the southern end of Custer State Park where much of the park’s wildlife calls home. Wildlife viewing is supposed to be best early in the morning or late in the day. We spent too much time at Sylvan Lake and on the Needles Highway so we ended up here around lunch time. Oops! We saw so many buffalo, a few antelope and my favorite, a prairie dog town! There is a family of burros in the park and supposedly they will stick their heads in your vehicle. When we entered the park the ranger gave us a bag of burro food. We did not see any burros, much to my disappointment, but I attribute that to our poor timing.
We stopped and ate lunch at a pullout on the road and had such an enjoyable time. Three deer hung out in the area for the majority of our lunch. Wildlife always adds excitement to any trip.
I have seen prairie dogs at our local zoo but never stopped to think about where they live outside of zoo life. I was so excited when we stumbled upon a prairie dog town. We had so much fun watching them run around. At one point they were startled by a noise and it was neat to watch them all take up their positions and guard their territory.
Everywhere we went we saw baby animals. This little guy wanted to play in the road. His parents were trying to get him to the side and he would just run in circles around them. It was so cute. Eventually they got him to the side and they ran off into the trees.
Iron Mountain Road
Iron Mountain Road connects Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore. There are three rock tunnels along the road that frame Mount Rushmore as you drive through them. We did the full loop of the area, Needles Highway, Wildlife Loop Road and then the Iron Mountain Road so that we would be in the proper direction to see Mount Rushmore through the tunnels. You will want to be going north on Iron Mountain Road to see Mount Rushmore.
Towards the top of the mountain there is a pull out where you can see Mount Rushmore in the distance and can use binoculars to view the monument.
Being that we had not seen Mount Rushmore yet, this made for an exciting afternoon. The road also contains several pigtail bridges, which are circular bridges, and more gorgeous scenery.
We were hoping to see Mount Rushmore with blue skies but mother nature had other plans. We waited all week for the weather to clear up and it did not so we went anyway since that is the reason why we were in the area. We got there, took a few pictures just before it started sprinkling and then the clouds took over the monument. The kids were working on their Junior Ranger packets so we hung out in the visitor center reading the exhibits and completing their packets. We also watched a movie on the history of the monument. By the time the kids completed their packets the weather had not let up so we headed for our car. I am disappointed that we did not get to spend more time there but I am glad that we were able to see it at all.
As you drive past the monument to the west you are able to view George Washington’s profile. There is a pullout so you can take a picture if you would like.
Mount Rushmore KOA
While in the Black Hills we stayed at the Mount Rushmore KOA. This happens to be the second largest KOA in the country and there is so much to do!
We did not get to take advantage of many of the actives because of the weather but it would be a perfect spot for days full of sunshine. There are several pools, two water slides, a splash pad, several playgrounds, a giant chess/checkers board, a jumping pillow and a daily activity schedule that includes games for the kids, family friendly movies and wine tasting for the adults.
Since we stayed here for a week we splurged on a deluxe cabin so that we would have our own bathroom and kitchen. Little did we know at the time but this was one of the best decisions we made. I was feeling a little guilty for spending extra money on nicer accommodations but it just so happened that a huge storm system hung out in the Black Hills the entire week we were there. The temp was in the 40s & 50s for the majority of the week and it rained almost every day, some days all day. We were so thankful that we were in a cabin with heat and out of the elements. We had some crazy hail storms too and the entire town even lost electricity one evening. Good times.
This was the view from our cabin. There are four cabins with this view. They are building three more deluxe cabins across the street from these but they do not seem to have a view of anything but other cabins. Several more deluxe cabins are being built near the playground and they would be great for families that want to be near the activities.
The cabin sleeps six and has a kitchen with a small fridge, microwave and sink and outside is a BBQ grill.
We were very pleased with this KOA. The campground is really large and spread out. There are spaces (cabin, tent and RV) near playgrounds, in grassy areas and in more wooded areas. If you have a particular preference of where you would like to stay be sure to check out their map and make your request when you make your reservation.
If you have reservations at the Mount Rushmore KOA you can get into the National Presidential Wax Museum and Holy Terror Mini Golf in Keystone for free. The wax museum was just OK but it gave us something to do on a rainy afternoon. The golf course is next door to the museum and since we were the only crazy ones out that afternoon we had the golf course to ourselves. It was a fun course and it made for a nice, albeit slightly wet, afternoon.
Despite the weather we made the best of our time in the area. We ventured out of the Black Hills to visit several other national parks a little farther away and the recap of those parks will be in the next post.