Four Night South Dakota Road Trip!

Old Jul 4th, 2024, 07:06 AM
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Four Night South Dakota Road Trip!

My spouse, Linda, and I (both retired, love adventures, been together for over 30 years) wanted to see some wildlife and re-visit Mount Rushmore and environs as adults. We planned out a four-night getaway that would take in Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and the Black Hills. I am the researcher in the family so I went at it! The basic outline I mapped out was the first night in Keystone, the second in Custer, the third in Deadwood, and the last night in Rapid City to be close to the airport for a 7AM flight back to San Francisco for one big loop of travel.

The price of the non-stop flight to Rapid City seemed reasonable on United. A perk was a possible free upgrade to Economy Plus (for both of us) at check-in as Linda has attained United’s Premier Silver status. We ended up upgrading on outgoing and incoming flights! Because we were departing early on a Saturday morning, we couldn’t take BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit…like Chicago’s EL) to the airport from our suburban location as BART didn’t run early on the weekends. Uber came through at 4:30AM, and we made it to the airport in a record 35 minutes! We were off!

I arranged for a rental car through Black Hill Car Rental. The reviews were excellent and the cost of a four-day rental was several hundred dollars cheaper than the poorly rated big-name agencies in Rapid City. BH Car Rental picked us up from the airport (“call us when your plane lands”) and we were driven to the office just outside of downtown to complete the paperwork. The car used to pick us up was the car we were assigned…a 2021 Kia Rio. The young man who picked us up took a video of the car with his phone before we took possession and told us that the video would be posted on YouTube if we wanted to look. I thought the video was a great idea to record the car’s condition at the onset. It had been awhile since we rented a car, maybe that’s how it’s done now. As we drove off, Linda remarked, “This car feels like a Rent-a Wreck.” Funny you should say that, I tell her, as the paperwork I just carried out to the car had Rent A Wreck as the primary logo not Black Hills Car Rental. Nothing I had read in the reviews or on the website mentioned Rent a Wreck. Fortunately, everything worked out. We didn’t have any kind of driving emergency where we had to call anyone after hours (not that we could have); there was no disputing the condition of the returned car. We consumed about a tank of gas and topped it off at a gas station near the BH Car Rental office upon return spending about $26 in gas in total and logging 308 miles I would definitely rent a car from them again. Yes, my back was sore from so much sitting and so little seat padding in the Kia. We really missed the comfort of our Lexus!

We stopped at a Walmart (Ouch! I’m Team Target) on our way out of town to pick up some ice, water and diet coke. I had purchased a collapsible, zippered cooler and packed it in my luggage. It held us in good stead for the duration of the trip. We refreshed the ice at every hotel and kept some ice in a baggie in the cooler in case we needed some fresh ice for a drink or an ice pack. We also grabbed a sandwich at Walmart’s Subway store.

Not too far from Walmart, again on the road to Keystone/Mount Rushmore, was Bear Country ($20 each senior rate). Bear Country is like an outdoor zoo to witness animals in the “wild.” Cars drive slowly around the circuit with posted placards (along with a map you are given) showing you a picture of the animals you might see in this particular section. The bears were plentiful…climbing on some tree roots, swimming in a little lake, pacing back and forth across the roadway. There was a wolf sunning himself on a large rock, reindeer gathered as if in some kind of meeting (without Santa 😉, thick ringed horns on the long horn sheep, and magnificent bull elks.

We headed toward the K Bar S Lodge ($222.49 a night)in Keystone for our first night. Great location off the main highway, nestled in the hills. Take a right just before the little city center of Keystone, and you’ll see the lodge on your right. There were many sets of two-story buildings. We were on the top floor with a balcony view of the hills. The room was large, clean, and had a king bed. Mini-fridge, Nespresso with pods, strong air-conditioning, firm bed, big towels…loved the room. The included buffet breakfast the following morning was served by two hard-working women. There was fresh fruit, strong coffee, juices, two types of scrambled eggs, sliced ham, breads, muffins, cereals, and a pancake machine. Each lodge area had four rooms or so on the bottom floor and four on the top. There was an ice machine on the first floor next to an outdoor hot tub. I noticed that there was a Tauck touring bus in the parking lot so the hotel must attract bus groups.

We went out to dinner to the highly recommended Powder House restaurant. Apparently, it was the old ammunition storage when the miners were active in the area. Cute little log cabin set up. The special was a rib eye steak so we decided to share the entrée along with a spinach/artichoke dip with fresh bread. The steak was very gristly, and we piled up the gristle on a plate to show the waitress. She comped us an apple tart. Now that was tasty: soft apples, delicate pastry topped with a large scoop of ice cream.

We thought we might drive out to Mount Rushmore that night to see it all lit up, but we were too tired.

Day 2

We were viewing Mount Rushmore by 7:30 the following morning! Very few people so it was easy to walk the Avenue of Flags (a display of each state’s flag and a plaque with the year the state was admitted to the Union along with where the state fell in the order of admittance) and enjoy the view. We visited the museum and enjoyed the film about the history of Mount Rushmore. If you are a senior, pay for your parking ticket at the gift shop ($5) instead of the machines when you head back to your car ($10). We exited the monument, drove a bit, and pulled into a parking area where we could stop and view the side of Washington’s head. Sounds strange but it was very picturesque.

From there we headed to the Needles Highway, a 14-mile stretch of road that takes you through the tall, pointed, needle-like Black Hill rock formations. There were two instances where we drove through a tunnel carved out of the rock. Lots of places to pull over to the side of the road to take in the view. It was an awesome loop! As a Northern Californian where our hills are already scorched brown by the sun, it was soothing to see so much green everywhere. More than one person told us that we had come to SD at the best time, that by August the hills would be brown and the area more crowded.

We easily merged into the Custer Wildlife Loop from the Needles Highway. You need to pay for a pass for the Custer Valley…$20 for seven days. Fortunately, the car rental place had left a pass on the windshield. Though it was due to expire the day we entered the park, the ranger who checked us in extended the pass to cover the new few days. So kind.

The Custer Wildlife Loop is an 18-mile loop that takes you through heavily animal-populated areas. People drive slowly in parts as they notice buffalos, sheep, antelope, wild burros, etc. We slowed down many times to observe such sights as a buffalo eating by the side of the road five feet away. The most awesome sight, however, was a lone buffalo running through the trees. We stopped at a couple of visitor’s centers as well as the Bison Center.

Our last stop for the day was the Crazy Horse Memorial ($30 for two in a car).Head and one arm with a pointed finger is currently emerging from the rock wall after a 75-year amazing effort. We had a side view from the visitor’s center and could take a bus ride to get closer, but the thought of being cooped up in a bus on such a hot day was a no go. Most folks it seemed viewed the memorial as we did. You couldn’t get too close to the mountain side because it was an active work site. We enjoyed the movie explaining the carving, the attached museum with artifacts as well as modern art from Native Americans. We admired a ceramic buffalo with carvings with a horse-hair finish but the shop attendants couldn’t tell us the meaning of the symbols. When we returned home, I found the artist on eBay, and we ordered a buffalo with symbols we knew and liked.

It had been a long, good day and we headed to downtown Custer for a late lunch/early dinner at the Begging Burro Mexican Bistro. Good food, tasty margaritas, and homemade salsa. We finished that off with a slice of peanut butter pie (worth the stop! So creamy) to share later from Bobkat’s Purple Pie Place a little further down the road on the main drag.

We drove a few miles outside of downtown Custer to our lodging for the night, Eagle’s Landing Lodge ($132.22)I found on Earlier in the day I received a VM from the owner asking if I wouldn’t mind switching out our room because of a “double booking.” She offered a stand-alone cabin with a queen bed as opposed to our booked king in the lodge/farmhouse. She said we could drive right up to the cabin and unpack (as a selling point). I called her back and said I’d prefer to stay where we were.

Our room was just inside the front door with the two main windows looking out across the front of the property, the deck, parking area, and on to the main road. The air-conditioning was a box jutting out from one of the windows. The curtains closed over the unit so the curtains needed to remain open to feel the cooler air. This proved a bit of an inconvenience on two accounts. Another guest sat just outside our window and I could see the back of his head. Closing the curtain was not an option as it would block the aircon so it was awkward. About 10PM that night, again with the curtain open to maximize the cooler air flow, someone turned on some Edison-style lights on the front porch, brightening up our room like a sunrise when we were trying to sleep. I opened the door and addressed the woman at the entry asking her to please turn off the lights, explaining the aircon situation. I guess she was the owner as she said she would but she initially turned them on because a guest was arriving at 2AM and thought the additional lights would help. The room was roomy with the spa tub in the main room and the sink and bidet/toilet in another room. The problem with the shower head was that it was on cord (usually a good thing) but the fixture where you hung the shower head was flimsy and wouldn’t really hold the shower head in a manner that was comfortable to just shower. In addition, the shower head either went to splaying soft sprays or another twist and you’d get a direct, narrow force. It made for an unsatisfactory shower! I didn’t feel like I was really clean. To top that off, no hair dryer could be found. We were able to sleep despite the constant walking/shuffling from the folks on the floor above us. Would I stay there again? No.

Day 3

We headed out early for our drive to Deadwood. Because a major highway was closed in parts due to roadwork, we ended up heading to Deadwood via a section of Wyoming. About 40 minutes in we stopped in Newcastle, Wyoming for a fill up and a bag of ice. I looked at tripadvisor Newcastle restaurants and found Donna’s Downtown Diner AKA Curley’s Que Diner nearby. What a quintessential or maybe stereotypical breakfast diner that was! Clearly locals loved the place and Donna knew everyone. WE had a fantastic egg, bacon, and hash browns breakfast with a side of one pancake to share. THE BEST PANCAKE EVER. I asked Donna if there was a secret ingredient and she whispered, “sweet cream.

We drove through the 20-mile Spearhead Canyon Scenic Byway and admired tall, “needle” juts of rock while driving the canyon floor as well as sheer-faced walls of rock.

We then headed to the hotel, Holiday Inn Resorts Deadwood Mountain Grand ($215.84) and parked in the parking lot. We had to walk through the casino lobby, up the elevator and entered the big, bright, and airy hotel lobby. Though our room wasn’t ready at 11:30, the deskperson said she’d call when it was ready and she did just after 1PM. We really liked this hotel. From our parked car to the hotel lobby was about two minutes door-to-door which made it easy to haul things to and from the trunk. Upon checking in, the hotel gave us a parking permit to hang on our rear-view mirror. Clean room, comfortable bed and linens, great shower, and hair dryer with a view of a mountain wall. Room stayed cool with good air conditioning. I checked out the guest laundry room: one washer, one dryer, a change machine, and a detergent dispenser. I booked a rate that included a $25 breakfast voucher for the hotel’s restaurant for an extra $10 that worked out well. The location of the hotel was at the optimal end of the main street, close to the area where the mock 2PM shoot out would be, the Visitor’s Center, and the Adams Museum (suggested donation: $10 each). The museum was full of interesting exhibits and artifacts. The main street was full of casino’s, bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops.

Dinner that night was at Mavericks, one of many steak-heavy restaurants in town. We were welcomed by Kitty, a knowledgeable, friendly, and energetic waitress. We ended up ordering a rack of bourbon-glazed pork ribs and an artichoke and spinach dip. Instead of the tortilla chips that came with the dip, I asked about bread instead. Kitty brought out the most delectable dinner rolls (Parker House?) still warm from the oven. The ribs were the best we’ve ever had! To top it all off, the lemon drop cheesecake dessert was amazing. That was a five-star meal with a five-star waitress!

Day 4

After a good breakfast at the hotel…I only had to add a quarter and tip to my voucher, we headed back toward Rapid City with our final stop before turning in the car would be Reptile Gardens ($23.00 each senior rate). Considered to be one of the largest collections of reptiles in the world, it was full of lizards, crocodiles, frogs, snakes, tortoises large and small, and a few birds--this was a fun time. Some many types of tarantulas and frogs! We enjoyed watching the big tortoises on a grassy area and thought we were witnessing an intimate act as one turtle mounted another. No, they are both boys, and one is showing dominance, said the young attendant. The smallest turtles were born just last year and were actively scouting the perimeter of their fenced in area. Reptiles Gardens puts on Snake Shows and Gator Shows throughout the day.

After dropping off our car and getting a lift to our hotel, Best Western’s Rushmore Hotel and Suites ($199.97 per night), we were pleased to find out our room was ready. Two queen beds (significantly cheaper than one king) and an all-around nice set up right in the heart of the three main downtown streets. I originally booked a room at Hotel Alex Johnson, an historical hotel, but after reading someone’s review of the Best Western, the writer mentioned the BW offers a $10 each airport shuttle beginning at 4:30. Taxis and Ubers seemed unreliable in the early morning hours when I talked to the Alex Johnson desk clerk, so I switched our resy to the BW. Glad we did. The hotel’s own shuttle bus, with room for maybe 12, met us promptly in the lobby at 5:10AM, loaded our bags and those of two other couples, and we were at the airport fifteen minutes later. Definitely would recommend the hotel.

We wandered the streets a bit, bobbing in to a few stores (again, mostly bars and restaurants). We did walk into the lobby of the Hotel Alex Johnson, and it was beautiful. Rapid City bills itself as the City of Presidents because on the corners of the downtown streets are sculptures of all the presidents through Obama. We headed to the Indian restaurant across from the hotel, Kathmandu Bistro. Reviews were favorable so we were looking forward to a tasty meal. Wrong. The tikka masala was oh so bland!! The samosas were cold in the center. Never experienced such a dud of an Indian meal.

Day 5

Homeward bound.

So that was our trip!!


· I had forgotten how fun it was to see license plates from all different states. Walking through the parking lot at the lodge or the Custer visitor’s centers or Mount Rushmore, there were cars from all over our country.

· Americans take a lot of pride in Mount Rushmore! It felt so patriotic to be there among so many others.

· Pack binoculars! Great for close-ups of the animals and the monuments!

Helpful book: Moon’s South Dakota’s Black Hills with Mount Rushmore & Badlands National Park
Helpful websites:
Tripadvisor,, and Tripadvisor travel forums for Deadwood, Keystone, Custer, and Rapid City

Janeyre is online now  
Old Jul 4th, 2024, 07:54 AM
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Great TR, lots of good information for when we get back to that part of the world. Thanks for reporting
oldemalloy is online now  
Old Jul 7th, 2024, 09:15 AM
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Thank you, oldemalloy, glad you found the information helpful!
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