Mt. Rushmore is iconic, monumental, and inspiring. By all means, go and see it. Check out the museum below the viewing platform, and definitely stop for some vanilla ice cream made from Thomas Jefferson’s original recipe. (The shop is located directly in the monument cafeteria.) After you’ve crossed this landmark off your list, however, you’ll find an array of outdoor, active things to do in Custer, South Dakota and the surrounding area.
Custer State Park:
First and foremost, spend at least a day (two is even better) in Custer State Park. See our full post all about this fantastic park. (Coming soon!)
Take to the 3,000 miles of ATV trails traversing the Black Hills. We toured the area with Black Hills ATV Adventures, starting at Custer Gulch resort…a private campground outside Custer with trails directly from the campground. Families can rent two or four-person UTVs (buggy-like vehicles with full harnesses and seats) for full or half-days. Trail maps are available on-site, and trails are wide and well maintained. We saw the rural outskirts of Custer this way, and loved checking out the area’s many well-kept ranches and homesteads. The UTVs were stable and safe, and easy and fun to drive. In some areas of trail, it’s possible to drive up to 50 mph. Rentals start at $225 for a four-seat UTV for a family for half-day, and may well be worth becoming your ‘big splurge’ attraction, provided you’re comfortable with driving.
Bringing your own ATVs or UTVs? Start here for more information on permits and trails.
Biking on Mickelson Trail:
This rail trail runs over 100 miles from Deadwood to the Southern hills, and goes right through Custer. Ride a few miles down and back to get a sampling of the trail, as we did with a free morning, or tackle a larger portion of the trail to and from Hill City or Pringle. To access the trail in Custer, just head across the street from the Chamber of Commerce, downtown. The trail is highly interesting to kids, as it goes over bridges and through rail tunnels.
Maps are available in the Chamber building, and rentals can be found at Frontier Photos in Custer or Rabbit Bike in Hill City. Note: you’ll need a trail pass, which is only a few dollars and available at the Chamber.
Aerial Park in Keystone:
There’s a reason this post is centered around the town of Custer instead of the town of Keystone. Keystone is closer to Mt. Rushmore, and as such, we found it far more touristy and busy than its neighbor, Custer. This said, the aerial ropes course park at Rushmore Tramway Adventures is worth the stop into Keystone. And afterward, if you’re in the mood for some fun souvenir shopping, take a stroll along Keystone’s kitchy downtown district for t-shirts and such. Prices start at $29 for kids, which is a good deal with over 80 elements to try.
Helicopter ride with Black Hills Aerial Adventure:
If it’s in your budget, seeing the Black Hills, Mt. Rushmore, and Custer State Park from the air is absolutely spectacular. We tried this the day we entered the Custer area, and it made for a wonderful introduction to the region. We saw the top of Harney Peak, which we planned to hike the following day, herds of bison, plus an elk and mountain goat, Sylvan Lake, the Crazy Horse memorial in progress, the towns of Custer and Hill City and the Mickelson Trail, and Mt. Rushmore. I had never seen Mt. Rushmore before, and seeing for the first time via helicopter was a very unique way to do it!
Black Hills Aerial Adventure has seven helicopters to use, which means that families can likely ride together, or if not, two helicopters can go simultaneously, so family groups can still enjoy flights at the same time…a big convenience if you’ve ever tried to schedule scenic flights.
There are multiple flight packages to choose from; we chose the package that included all the sights above, but we could have downgraded and not seen Mt. Rushmore (if perhaps you’ve seen it). Check out flight options and pricing. The heliport is located at 24564 US Highway 16 in Custer.
Where to eat in Custer:
We found downtown Custer to be easily walkable and kid-friendly, with bison sculptures on the corners (don’t climb them, but admire their paint jobs) and pedestrian-friendly walkways. We ate a great meal at Bitter Esters Brewhouse, located at 607 Mt. Rushmore Road. This restaurant has local brews on tap, brewed on-site, and kid-friendly selections as well. Absolutely indulge in a plate of their potato chip nachos for a starter! Though we didn’t get a chance to try it, Black Hills Burger and Bun Co was also recommended to us.
If you have room for pie, head to the Purple Pie Place just down the street. You can’t miss it…the farmhouse-type building is bright purple. They have multiple flavors of pie always at the ready, plus ice cream and sundaes.
Just outside Custer in Hill City, Prairie Berry Winery and Miner’s Brewery are deserving of a dedicated afternoon or lunch stop. Prairie Berry specializes in berry and fruit wines (their Red Ass Rhubarb is quite famous in the area), and their free tasting is very fun. Kids are welcome, and there are even some toys and games set aside for their use while parents are tasting wines. Sandwiches and soups are available for lunch, and just next door, Miner’s brewery offers up great brews on tap, made on-site.
Where to stay in Custer:
Head to Rock Crest Lodge, located at 15 West Mt. Rushmore Road (just at the edge of town). This roadside upscale motel has rooms and cabins available, plus a nice outdoor pool and playground. I stayed in a roomy cabin with a single bedroom/kitchenette with dining table and bathroom. It had a microwave, sink, and mini-fridge, but no oven or stovetop. However, cabins vary, and some do have full kitchens and multiple bedrooms. This page offers a full list.
We explored the Custer area as guests of the chamber office, for the purpose of review. All opinions remain our own.