How To Plan The Perfect Mount Rushmore Vacation



Mount Rushmore in South Dakota glowing pink at sunrise

Mount Rushmore is an incredibly popular vacation spot in the heart of South Dakota’s beautiful Black Hills. But what is there to do once you arrive at the world-famous national memorial? And what do you need to know about the surrounding area to help with planning your visit?

In this guide we’ll show you exactly how to plan your vacation to Mount Rushmore, based entirely on our own experiences.

Our Mt Rushmore Experience

Couple with winter coats stood together for a photo in front of Mount Rushmore on a cold dull and snowy day
Here we are at Mt Rushmore on a cold snowy day in the Black Hills

We’ve visited Mount Rushmore twice since we created this travel blog in 2018. First, we saw the 4 former presidents’ expressionless faces during twilight one early October morning in 2019. We found a great spot and watched a stunning sunrise illuminate the sculpture with soft pink and orange hues. Our second visit was during a cold and snowy afternoon in April, which was a complete contrast!

Both our trips to Mount Rushmore were as part of wider road trips, so we’ve spent a total of 8 full days exploring South Dakota’s Black Hills. We think Mt Rushmore and the Black Hills are a fantastic place to take a family vacation because there’s lots to do, it’s affordable and it’s comparatively quiet. Read more about us.

Getting To Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore is located along SD-244, just 3 miles southwest of Keystone, South Dakota.

  • Airport: It’s easy to reach Mount Rushmore from Rapid City airport if you’ll be flying into the region. Once you pick up your hire car it’s a 31-mile drive, which should take you around 40 minutes.
  • Driving: If you’re driving to the Black Hills from the east or west on I-90, Mount Rushmore is around 30 minutes south of the Interstate on US-16.

Click the map below to activate.

You can see the location of Mount Rushmore, but we encourage you to zoom in and out, move around the Black Hills and get to know the area.

You can click the blue “Directions” icon, which will open up your Google Maps app and show directions from your current location.

Further Reading: 4-7 days South Dakota road trip itinerary


Cars parked inside a multi story concrete parking lot at Mt Rushmore
The middle floor of Mt Rushmore’s multi story parking garage

Once you arrive to Mount Rushmore you’ll take a ticket from a kiosk, pass through a barrier and enter a multi-story parking lot with 3 levels. Small RV’s must park on the lower level but regular cars and motorcycles can park anywhere.

There is no entry fee to access Mount Rushmore National Memorial, but you will have to pay $10 to park your vehicle in the parking lot. You’ll pick up a ticket as you enter and you must pay the $10 at a machine inside the parking lot before you attempt to leave through the exit barrier.

You cannot use your America the Beautiful Pass (interagency) to gain free entrance at Mount Rushmore because it’s a national memorial, not a national monument. For example, you can use your interagency pass to gain entrance to nearby Devils Tower National Monument.

Parking lot opening hours:

  • November 1 to March 9 – 7:00am to 9:00pm
  • March 10 to September 30 – 5:00am to 11:00pm
  • October 1 to October 31 – 5:00am to 9:00pm

Travel tip: Your Mount Rushmore parking pass is valid for one year after purchase, so you can visit the memorial as many times as you wish during your visit to the Black Hills. We recommend going for sunrise and then going again to watch the evening lighting ceremony.

Memorial Grounds Opening Hours

Close up of Lincoln in the Mt Rushmore sculpture at sunrise
Close up of Lincoln during our sunrise visit to the memorial

The grounds at Mount Rushmore National Memorial are open all day, every day throughout the year with one exception on December 25th when all buildings close.

The cafe, ice cream shop and gift shop have various opening hours based on seasonality.

One place you’ll definitely want to see when you arrive to Mt Rushmore is the Lincoln Borglum visitor center and information center. And here are the opening hours:

  • November 1 to May 25 – 8:00am to 5:00pm
  • May 26 to August 10 – 8:00am to 10:00pm
  • August 11 to September 30 – 8:00am to 9:00pm
  • October 1 to October 31 – 8:00am to 6:00pm

What To Do At Mount Rushmore

With the experience of two separate visits to the memorial under our belts, we think you should plan for 3 hours to fully explore Mount Rushmore’s grounds.

That’s enough time to enjoy views of the memorial from the amphitheater, learn about the building process in Sculptor’s Studio and walk the Presidential Trail.

Here’s what you can do at Mount Rushmore:

1. Lincoln Borglum Amphitheater

Wide angle photo showing an empty Lincoln Borglum amphitheater overlooking Mount Rushmore with snow on the ground and clouds in the sky
It was very quiet at Lincoln Borglum amphitheater when we visited in April

The amphitheater is the first stop you’ll make after entering the grounds and passing through the visitor center. It has lots of seating and it’s where you’ll get the closest unobstructed front-on views of Mount Rushmore.

Directly behind you can stand on the higher up Grand View Terrace but that’s usually much busier, which means the amphitheater is a great place to sit quietly and enjoy the view. The path is smooth and accessible for all visitors up to Grand View Terrace, when steps drop down into the amphitheater.

2. Sculptors Studio

Photo of the front side of Sculptor's Studio in South Dakota
Entrance to the Sculptor’s Studio

The Sculptor’s Studio is a small sculpture museum inside the grounds of Mount Rushmore. It’s located just a few minutes walk down stone steps from the amphitheater and it contains a 1/12th scale model of the real sculpture.

It was inside this studio that Guzton Borglum worked for 2 years on the project. In summer, you can join a ranger-led talk explaining the tools and techniques used by workers under Borglum.

Need help planning your Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone road trip?

Our popular 45+ page Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone Guidebook includes a detailed 10 day itinerary with maps, directions and top attractions.

3. Presidential Trail

Photo of a couple with trees and a gap to a granite carving on a mountain behind
Here we are at the top of the Presidential Trail with a close up underneath view of the sculpture

The Presidential Trail is a 0.6-mile roundtrip loop following a paved path and wooden boardwalks with lots of steps. You can walk the trail in any direction, but you’ll climb fewer steps overall if you go clockwise.

Going clockwise, you’ll begin at the amphitheater, follow an accessible-friendly path for 0.2 miles to a close up Mt Rushmore from directly below, continue down boardwalk steps to Sculptor’s Studio and end with a climb up stone steps back to the amphitheater. It’s the only hike inside the memorial grounds.

4. Evening Lighting Ceremony

Photo showing Mount Rushmore lit up at night from a distance with the path and trees leading up to the entrance covered in dark shadows
This is what the sculpture looks like lit up at night

If you plan your Mount Rushmore vacation between the end of May and the end of September you’ll have an opportunity to watch the evening lighting ceremony. Now, the sculpture lights up every night of the year but the evening lighting ceremony is a ranger-led night program with far more meaning.

It’s a 45 minute program with a ranger talk about presidents and America’s history, a captioned movie, honoring of currently serving military and veterans, lowering of the flag and finally the illumination of Mt Rushmore. You should grab your seat in the amphitheater around 30 minutes before it begins (check times here).

Note: If you want to see the evening lighting ceremony, you might want to begin your visit to Mt Rushmore around 2-3 hours before it begins so you can explore the grounds first. Traffic is usually bad getting out afterwards, so it might be worth having a look around the gift shop for 15 minutes or so.

Walkthrough Of Our Sunrise Visit

Mount Rushmore glowing orange at sunrise with a deep blue clear sky behind
The presidents faces glowing orange the morning we watched sunrise

Just to give you an example, we’ll quickly walk you through the morning we spent at Mt Rushmore in October 2019 (our favorite time). We knew the sculpture faced southeast so it would take a direct hit at sunrise and as travel photographers we couldn’t miss that opportunity.

So we got an early start, arrived as the only car in the parking lot, walked up through the entrance and saw the amphitheater was completely closed off with barriers for redevelopment. We couldn’t believe it! But we adapted quickly and found a great viewpoint with a direct line of sight overlooking the sculpture.

It was a cold but clear and crisp morning, not a cloud in the sky. Mt Rushmore started out a dull grey color with a deep blue and purple sky behind, but it turned out to be a stunning sunrise. The first rays lit up presidents faces and it glowed with soft pinks before transitioning into a vibrant orange.

After the sunrise, we walked the Presidents Trail to stand directly underneath the faces (the view isn’t as good from close up) and then we looked around the Sculptor’s Studio. There were barely any others on the grounds because it was early morning, so we highly recommend you do the same!

What To Do Near Mount Rushmore

Hikers crouched down for a photo with a sign in Badlands National Park in South Dakota's Black Hills on a cloudy day
Here we are hiking in Badlands National Park near the Black Hills

Planning a Mount Rushmore vacation is as much about filling your itinerary with nearby attractions as it is about seeing Mt Rushmore itself. It’ll only take you a few hours to see the sculpture, so what will you do with the rest of your time in the Black Hills?

Well, you’re in luck! There’s lots more excellent places to visit, scenic roads to drive and fun trails to hike in the Black Hills.

Here’s our top recommendations:

1. Custer Wildlife Loop

The Custer Wildlife Loop is an 18-mile one-way drive through gorgeous rolling hills filled with wildlife roaming freely. You can see bison, elk, burros, prairie dogs and eagles, so it’s great if you’re visiting the Black Hills as a family. It costs $20 for vehicle entry and your pass is good for 7 days.

2. Needles Highway

Needles Highway is a 14-mile scenic drive through the most picturesque section of the Black Hills. The road has hairpin turns, tight tunnels and stunning views. It leads to Sylvan Lake and a great hike called Cathedral Spires (short but moderate). Iron Mountain Road is the other scenic drive you can’t miss.

3. Black Elk Peak

Black Elk Peak is the best hike near Mount Rushmore. It’s a moderately difficult 7-mile roundtrip trail with 1,500 feet elevation gain, so it’ll take you a good 4-5 hours but it’s well worth it. We recommend you take trail #9 up and trail #4 down. Your reward is striking 360 degree views as far as the horizon.

4. Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is a unique and incredibly photogenic landscape just 1 hour 30 minutes from Mount Rushmore, and it’s definitely worth a visit. We recommend you hike Door Trail and Notch Trail, before stopping at the park’s main overlooks for a great half day trip.

5. Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park is home to one of the world’s longest and most complex cave systems, as well as rolling hills with hikes and wildlife above ground. The only way you can see the caves is with a ranger-led tour, so we recommend you book in advance at this official site.

Further Reading: The 10 best things to do near Mount Rushmore

Where To Stay

Photo of the entrance to the historic Keystone SD boardwalk
Keystone is the most convenient place to stay on your Mt Rushmore vacation

You have a good selection of potential places to stay near Mt Rushmore. Keystone is the obvious choice because it’s just 3 miles away from the memorial grounds, but you can also stay in Custer, Hill City or even Rapid City. We’ve stayed at several hotels in Keystone and Custer.

Keystone is great if you’ll just be visiting Mt Rushmore or if you plan to watch the evening lighting ceremony. But Custer is a bigger place with more hotels and restaurants so it suits longer stays in the area. Custer also has a more central location for accessing other attractions like Wind Cave, Sylvan Lake and Custer Wildlife Loop.

Top rated hotels in Keystone:

Further Reading: Best places to stay in Keystone SD

Top rated hotels in Custer:

Further Reading: Best places to stay in Custer SD


There’s a handful of campsites close to Mount Rushmore, but the highly rated Horsethief Lake campground is just 2 miles away.

If you don’t mind being a bit further from Mount Rushmore but closer to many other top attractions, we recommend the excellent Sylvan Lake campground.

Exclusive: We’ve partnered with The Dyrt to offer our readers an exclusive no-strings 30 day free trial with The Dyrt PRO, which you can use to get alerts on openings at fully booked campgrounds in the Black Hills.

Mount Rushmore Vacation Map

Click the map below to activate. Zoom in and out, move around the Black Hills and see the locations of key attractions for your vacation.

Map key:

  • Grey – Rapid City airport
  • Red – Things to do at Mt Rushmore
  • Blue – Nearby attractions
  • Purple – Top Keystone hotels
  • Green – Top Custer hotels

When To Plan Your Trip

Granite mountain with caved faces dull grey in twilight with a deep blue sky behind
Soft grey on the mountain during twilight a few minutes before the sunrise

We think the best times to plan a Mount Rushmore vacation are right after it fully opens at the end of May and just before it closes for the season at the end of September. You benefit from everything being open at the memorial (including the evening lighting ceremony), fewer crowds when compared to summer, and more hotel availability at cheaper prices.

Both these times of year are also perfect for planning a Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone road trip because all park roads are open in Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

During a summer visit to Mount Rushmore you’d benefit from warmer temperatures and longer daylight hours, but attractions across the Black Hills will be busier and hotel prices will be inflated.

Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone Road Trip Guidebook by Where Are Those Morgans

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We hope this Mount Rushmore vacation guide helps with planning your trip to South Dakota’s Black Hills!

Please let us know if you have any questions or need help planning your visit in the comments below.

Happy Travels,

Mark and Kristen

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4 thoughts on “How To Plan The Perfect Mount Rushmore Vacation”

  1. Very informative especially as I am hopefully planning a trip to that area later this year. Best travelogue info i have found/read

  2. This is a nice post but I was disappointed you didn’t look at any local places to stay while you were here. There are some amazing lodging options that are less expensive than the ones you shared. Such as Battle Creek Lodge and Vacation Rentals or The Powder House Lodge. For guests looking for something a little more private and high end, I would suggest Yak Ridge Farmstead. In a time where local small businesses are struggling and working so hard to work in these little communities, it would have been nice to see you put more focus on that. Thanks so much for getting the word out on this incredible area! It truly is one of the most inspiring outdoor area’s in our Country and people here love to share it with traveler’s. It is a great place to visit during Covid because there are so many outdoor safe opportunities.

    • Hi Tammy, thank you very much for the comment and you’re absolutely right about including local places to stay when visiting the Mount Rushmore area – we will be sure to look at your suggestions. Supporting local businesses is more important than ever so we’re glad you brought this up. The hotel options we initially included were based more around convenience of being right in Keystone than anything else. We actually visited the region before coronavirus and we certainly plan to visit again once it is safe to do so. We agree, all of the awesome places we wrote about in SD are safe outdoor opportunities to visit during covid. Hope you’re staying safe and we’ll be in the area soon!


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