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    [Video] The Best of Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills – 21 things to do – Travel Guide

    The Best of Mt Rushmore & the Black Hills: 21 things to do including Custer State Park and more

    Mt Rushmore and the Black Hills Script


    Hi, I’m Matt Schoss and I’m excited to share more of the best of the west with you. Today we will be visiting Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills.  

    In this video 

    In this video, we will remember some of America’s greatest presidents and learn about the process used to sculpt Mount Rushmore. We will see another monument 4 times as large still being sculpted. We’ll see the beautiful black hills the way they were meant to be seen. We will make new friends on the wildlife loop before hiking to the tallest peak in South Dakota. We’ll see plenty of quirky roadside attractions, and we will take some side trips to see more of the Black Hills and beyond. 

    The Black Hills

    The Black Hills are the oldest mountain range in North America. They are not part of the Rocky Mountains — you can tell that they’re older by how time has worn down and rounded them off. 

    They stand tall in a sea of Great Plains and have been called the Gateway to the West. Coming from the east, it’s the first mountain range you’ll see.  It’s said they got the name the Black Hills from the Lakota Native Americans due to the hills their dark appearance from a distance. 

    The land was once claimed by the Kiowa, who were kicked out by the Cheyenne. Then the Lakota moved into this area from present-day Minnesota around the time of the American revolution and kicked out the Cheyenne. Finally, the Lakota were kicked out by the United States almost 100 years later. 

    The Black Hills is generally broken into the Northern Black Hills, with wealthier cities like Deadwood, Rapid City, and Sturgis. And the southern Black Hills, with smaller towns like Hill City, Keystone, and Custer.  These are closer to the main attractions, Mt Rushmore and Custer State Park. 

    The entire black hills area is very patriotic. It’s all touristy to one degree or another, with quirky roadside attractions and family-friendly activities. But it’s one of my favorite areas in the country. Everywhere you drive is on a winding country road through gorgeous scenery!

    Mount Rushmore

    The defining attraction of the Black Hills is a manmade feature that is often used as a synonym with greatness: Mount Rushmore. 

    The image is so well-known, that for many visitors, the expectations exceed reality. Basically, it’s a victim of its own success.  It’s like hearing about that great movie that everyone is talking about and expecting it to be incredible, only to be let down when you see it. 

    Word to the wise: lower your expectations and try to appreciate the craftsmanship, not the scale. 

    Not that the scale isn’t impressive. The faces are 60 feet tall. So basically, you’re only about as tall as the pupils in their eyes.  Lincoln’s mole is 16 feet tall, and Teddy Roosevelt’s mustache is 20 feet tall. But it can be difficult to appreciate the size from the viewing platform. 

    When you arrive, you’ll feel presidential as you walk down the avenue of flags. The flags frame in the sculpted faces. You have to admit, they do look presidential.  

    The Presidential Trail offers a closer look at the men on the mountain, along with interpretive displays. It’s a boardwalk, but there are stairs, so don’t bring a stroller like these crazy people did. 

    George Washington protrudes majestically on the left, and he represents the founding of the country.  As the saying goes, he was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countryman. And I say, first in presidential rankings. He gave up power not once, but twice, establishing a precedent of rotation in office that was crucial to the early republic. 

    Thomas Jefferson, who was the third president, stands on Washington’s left. Jefferson, who authorized the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, represents the expansion of the young country. If you’re wondering where the second president, John Adams, is, well, that poor guy can’t seem to get a monument or statue anywhere. 

    Jefferson was originally placed on Washington’s right, but fissures in the rock forced them to move Jefferson to the other side of Washington. 

    Another fissure ran through Jefferson’s nose, so they had to tilt his head back so he didn’t pull a Michael Jackson.

    The nice thing about Jefferson being moved? Now we get this great profile shot of Washington from the nearby road. 

    Washington made our country and Lincoln saved it. He stands opposite Washington, his haggard, bearded face an iconic symbol in its own right. Lincoln’s entire presidency consisted of conducting the Civil War. He even had to run for reelection during the war against one of his own generals who wanted to concede the war to the south. Lincoln was shot shortly after his reelection when the victory was virtually assured.

    For some today, the one president who seems out of place is Theodore Roosevelt, who is now the second most popular President Roosevelt, behind his cousin Franklin D.

    But Theodore represents the growth of America into a world power. Teddy is virtually impossible to understand in our current political climate. He was many things, but above all, he felt America had a larger role to play on the world stage. He was a man of action, and he brought more energy to the White House than any other president. 

    At the end of the President’s Trail is the sculptor’s studio. The man hired to sculpt Mount Rushmore was Gutzon Borglum. Yep, that’s his real name. Gutzon was born in southern Idaho, where he is memorialized today. He was gifted but notoriously difficult. He got fired from working on Stone Mountain in Georgia, which freed him up to create Mount Rushmore. 

    A park ranger teaches us about the fascinating construction process of this bold project. The initial design looked like this, with the carvings extending down to the president’s wastes. But lack of funding due to World War 2 brought an early end to the project. 

    A nearby museum has an informative video and loads of information about the construction process. It was made possible by 3 things: jackhammers, dynamite, and funding from the government, which came and went over 14 years. In all, over 400 men and women worked on the monument, and remarkably, not one person died in the construction process.

    Make sure to leave time for the sculptor’s studio and the museum. 

    And don’t miss the night program. Patriotic to the core, a ranger discusses each president and his contribution to American history.  She invites active and former military to join her on stage, where she lowers the flag and pays tribute to them. 

    She lowers the flag and honors those in the audience who served in the military. 

    Mount Rushmore is the brainchild of two men: Doane Robinson, the South Dakota state historian, and Peter Norbek, a senator. The whole idea was to entice tourists to the Black Hills. It worked! Today many people come to see Mt Rushmore but fall in love with the black hills. 

    Custer, SD

    Custer is perhaps the oldest town in the Black Hills. Of course, it’s named after General Custer.  It’s small and touristy, but more authentic than its more famous brother, Deadwood. No gambling allowed here, though. 

    A monument commemorates the discovery of gold here, and every year the town celebrates Gold Discovery Days on July 15. 

    Climb the short but steep Skywalk to see great views of the town. The deer won’t even mind.

    For food, try Broasted Chicken takeout for the crispiest chicken you’ll ever taste, or the Baker’s Bakery and Cafe, where they promise that you’ll love their buns. I’m not making this up.  Another option is Pounding Fathers. 

    I recommend staying in Custer, as it is a great jumping-off point to see the Black Hills. 

    And there’s no better way to see them than in an open-top. We’re renting a slingshot from Adventure Rental Center. 

    Custer State Park

    The heart of the Black Hills isn’t Mount Rushmore. It’s Custer State Park. This state park rivals any National Park in terms of scenic drives, hiking, and wildlife. 

    The laconic President Calvin Coolidge once stayed in the State Game Lodge for the summer, which came to be called the Summer White House. While visiting, Coolidge actually promised that the government would pay for Mount Rushmore, and the project began during his presidency.  

    Coolidge, by the way, was known for rarely talking. The old joke goes that someone approached him and said, Mr. President, my friend bet me I couldn’t get you to say three words. He replied, “you lose.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Wildlife Loop

    There are three scenic drives in Custer State Park; they’re all different and special. 

    Wildlife Loop is an 18-mile road that always seems to deliver.  As you can see, we’re in the prairie here. Prairie dog down is full of barking little ground squirrels.  The big game get all the attention, but it’s these little guys that often do the dirty work for the ecosystem to support the big game. 

    The wild burros are our favorite. Like the mountain goats, they aren’t native but were left behind by miners, and now wander wild, although as you can see, they aren’t all that wild. 

    With over 1300 Bison roaming the park, bison jams are common. A few years ago, we seemingly ran into the entire herd at dusk.  This was one of my most treasured bison sightings, and I’ve seen many over the years. 

    The Needles Highway 

    There’s a reason the bikers gather in Sturgis every August – there’s no better place to ride than on the winding scenic roads in the black hills. 

    The Needles Highway winds through granite formations jutting out of the ground. 

    The initial idea for Mount Rushmore was actually to carve faces of western legends like Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and Sitting Bull on the tops of the needles. But it was too impractical and not national enough in scope. 

    Stop at some overlooks and you might get lucky and run into mountain goats. Six of these cute guys came from Canada about a hundred years ago and were placed in a zoo nearby. The first night, they escaped from the zoo and they’ve been wandering the Black Hills ever since. 

    Sylvan Lake

    At the end of the Needles Highway is the famous Sylvan Lake. 

    This was one of the locations in the movie National Treasure. The movie portrayed it as being directly behind Mount Rushmore, but it’s actually a few miles away. 

    A walking path leads around the lake. The path instantly transforms from low def video from 2009 to hi-def 2021!  I think I liked myself better on low def. 

    This little lake is created by this little dam. 

    With the exception of one steep little hill, the walk is flat and short — anyone can do it! You’ll probably spend more time stopping to smell the flowers than you will walking. 

    Feel free to climb on the rocks for memorable overlooks.

    Visit the general store to rent kayaks and canoes. Pick up your lifejacket at the shed, and you’re off!  An hour is all you need to paddle around the crown jewel of Custer State Park. 

    Restless kids? Let them swim in the little alcove. 

    Black Elk Peak

    Sylvan Lake is also the jumping-off point for Black Elk Peak. At over 7200 feet, it’s the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains and a popular hiking destination. 

    There are many routes you can take to the top. The hike is about 7 miles round trip, depending on which route you take. 

    The hike has wildflowers, meadows, and rock formations to admire along the way. 

    Black Elk Peak used to be named Harney Peak, but the name was changed in 2016 to honor the Lakota medicine man Black Elk. 

    Cheryl and I brought our two oldest sons with us as hiking companions. This is the joy of having older kids. I’m enjoying every minute. As you’ve seen, we visited here with them when they were little tykes.  Then we blinked, and they became teenagers. The time goes fast. 

    Black Elk Peak provides gorgeous panoramic views of the Black Hills.  I look exhausted. 

    At the top is a fire lookout tower.  This was built in the 1930s by the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. Interestingly, it also operated as a US Post Office for about 7 years, one of the highest post offices in the United States. 

    The trip back down is much easier. That is, if it doesn’t rain and hail on you, like it did us. 

    This reminded me of our honeymoon in San Francisco when it rained on us in the Redwoods. So we recreated the moment.  

    Iron Mountain Road

    For many people, this is their first view of Mount Rushmore. But, the better way to approach the memorial is to drive the 17-mile Iron Mountain Road.

    We’ve covered the Wildlife Loop and the Needles Highway. Iron Mountain Road is the third scenic drive in Custer State Park and connects the park to Mount Rushmore. 

    The construction of Iron Mountain and the Needles was overseen by Peter Norbeck, the South Dakota governor and senator who did so much to make Mount Rushmore a reality.  Together, these roads are called the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. 

    Norbeck combined engineering and art to show off the best of the Black Hills. The drive is an experience. Norbeck said they were meant to be driven at 20 miles per hour so you can appreciate the scenery.  So even if you can’t get a slingshot to do it, at least take your time and enjoy the ride. 

    The Iron Mountain Road begins on the valley floor before winding through the forest. 

    The “Pigtail Bridges” are famous and fun to drive!

    So too are the three one-lane tunnels — if you can fit through them. They’re about 11 feet by 11 feet, but check the Custer State Park website for the exact dimensions of each tunnel if you have an RV. 

    The tunnels also frame Mount Rushmore in the distance. The final tunnel is named after Doane Robinson and provides the best Mount Rushmore views.  

    Pull off at the overlook to let the kids get their wiggles out and see Mount Rushmore in its context.  

    Crazy Horse

    Mount Rushmore isn’t the only rock sculpture to visit in the Black Hills.  Just minutes away is the Crazy Horse Memorial. Here we’ll visit the museum, take a bus ride to the memorial, and watch a nighttime laser show. 

    As the construction on Mount Rushmore was winding down, a Lakota Chief named Henry Standing Bear wanted to honor one of his heroes, Crazy Horse.  So he commissioned a man named Korczak Ziolkowski to carve Crazy Horse. 

    After obtaining Thunder Mountain, Ziolkowski spent the rest of his life on the carving. The federal government offered $10 million dollars for the project, but Ziolkowski refused the offer, which is why it’s only partially completed after 80 years of work. It’s all financed by revenue from visitors and donors. 

    Ziolkowski died in 1980 and his widow Ruth carried on the project until she passed away in 2014.

    The monument is massive, much bigger than Mount Rushmore.  In fact, Mount Rushmore can fit inside Crazy Horse’s head. 

    But here again, the visitor center is far enough away from the memorial that it’s difficult to appreciate the size. 

    So I recommend taking the optional bus ride — for an extra fee, of course — to the base of the memorial.  The guide tells interesting stories and stops at the base for some pictures. 

    Back at the museum, a room is dedicated to Ziolkowski. He’s as much a part of the story here as Crazy Horse, to the dismay of some Native Americans.  Some also say they don’t want the memorial built at all, although it was commissioned by a Lakota Leader.  

    Because they need visitors to finance the project, they need to entertain as well.  So every evening they cast a laser show on the mountain. 

    The whole experience is in direct contrast to the National Park Service’s understated, polished presentation of Mount Rushmore.  If you’re used to the national park service’s style, Crazy Horse can be off putting. But the circumstances are different here, and I can appreciate what they’re able to do without a completed sculpture or public funding. 

    Hill City & Keystone

    The twin cities of Keystone and Hill City bookend Mount Rushmore. These tiny towns have about 1500 residents between the two of them. 

    They were once mining towns that died out when the mines ran out. But thanks to Mount Rushmore and the tourism industry, they’ve rebounded.  

    Dahl’s chainsaw art has locations in each city, and it’s a fun photo op. Just make sure to leave them a little tip. Smokey the Bear is an homage to the local high school, the Hill City Rangers. They’re the only school in the country with Smokey the Bear as their mascot. 

    Keystone is located 10 miles away. While Hill City focused more on the arts scene, Keystone, which is located literally next to Mount Rushmore, turned to tourism.  Here, it’s Sasquatch who greets you.

    The Black Hills Central Railroad connects Hill City and Keystone. The original railroad died out in the 50s, but it was revived in the 90s as a tourist attraction.  Today, you can ride the 1880 Train, an actual steam engine.

    This last year, I tried to talk my family, including my parents and Cheryl’s parents, into going on the 1880 train, but they weren’t too keen on the idea due to our last experience on the train. 

    So I’ve transported us back to 2009 again to share with you the ultimate train ride experience.  

    Finally, a diesel engine arrived to take us back to Hill City. We never did make our destination of Keystone, but we did get our money back. I’m not here to damage any businesses’ reputation by any means. I love the tourism industry that takes care of us. This was a one-time flukey thing and I would still like to finish that 10-mile ride sometime. But I don’t think my family will join me. 

    George S. Mickelson Trail

    The Central Railroad Line is still running but in most of the Black Hills, the railroad tracks have been replaced with bike trails. 

    The George S. Mickelson Trail is a 109 mile trail going from Deadwood in the north to Edgemont in the south. 

    We rented bikes to ride just a portion of it. On the trail, I ran into a few people who were biking the length of the trail, and they told me most people do it from north to south over two days. 

    Regular bike rentals are quite affordable. EBikes will cost a lot more but you’ll be able to cover a lot more ground. 

    Wind Cave

    Next up is one of the first and most underrated national parks in the country. 

    Wind Cave is the 3rd longest cave in the US and 7th in the world. It was set aside by Teddy Roosevelt as the 7th national park in 1903, ahead of other famous parks like the Grand Canyon.

    It gets its name from the wind blowing out of the only natural entrance to the cave, a result of changes in air pressure inside and outside the cave. 

    Here’s a cross section of the cave and here’s all the known tunnels. There are so many they offer different kinds of guided tours. Just make sure to get your tickets in advance. 

    The cave is famous for this interesting formation called Boxwork. It has 95% of the world’s boxwork.  So it has a virtual monopoly on boxwork. I wonder if Teddy Roosevelt knew he was preserving a monopoly. 

    Since caves make for bad video, I’ll just say that this was one of our favorite experiences in the Black Hills. But wait, there’s more!

    Up above ground, there’s more bison, prairie dogs, and winding roads. 

    I believe the Wind Cave bison herd is one of 4 purebred herds in North America. Bison are the largest animal in North America, and a few years ago, they were designated our national mammal, although I’m not really sure what that means. 

    If you’ve never been this close to a bison, let me tell you, you’ll be a little freaked. They’re big enough to push your vehicle over if they want to. The thing is, they’re generally very docile, like cows. I’ve never seen one attack. That is, until this year when I stopped to see a herd by my house. I had a fence between us and it still took my breath away.  So follow the rules and stay 25 feet away from one of these massive creatures. 

    Like Custer State Park, Wind Cave has its own Prairie Dog Town. They guys are just fun to watch, but there were so many I was afraid I’d run one over. 

    The Wind Cave scenic loop was a really nice treat, on par with the Wildlife Loop in Custer State park. I’m telling you, South Dakotans really know how to build roads. 

    On our way back to Custer, we ran into another cave. This quirky bike cave is one of many roadside attractions in the Black Hills. 

    There are two other attractions in the southern Black Hills: Mammoth Site and Jewel Cave. At mammoth, the remains of over 60 Woolly mammoths have been found – the greatest concentration of mammoths in the world. Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the world and is a national park site. 

    We haven’t been to either of these, so we’re going to close the book on the southern Black Hills and start moving northward with one last slingshot ride. 

    Family Activities

    Between Mount Rushmore and Rapid City there are many family-friendly options for fun, but I’ll quickly cover two that we’ve been to.    

    Reptile Gardens is the world’s largest reptile zoo.  Our kids loved it, especially the alligator show. 

    And Rush Mountain was another big hit for our family. Rush Mountain is a theme park built on top of a cave. 

    The wing walker challenge course lets you climb around on tall things with no fear of falling. 

    The rushmore mountain coaster is one of those “safe” alpine slides, where you can’t fall off, like we used to when I was a kid. Just push the stick forward full blast; don’t slow everyone down. 

    Rushmore Cave is one of many caves in the Black Hills, and it’s over 3,000 feet long. Do a pre-test to see if you can fit into certain sections of the cave, and enjoy the guided exploration. 

    Rapid City

    Rapid City is the gateway to  the Black Hills and is the largest city with about 70,000 people. 

    Rapid City is known as the “City of Presidents.” Expanding on the Mount Rushmore theme, they have a statue for every president on Main Street. John Adams, the lion of the revolution, has a statue after all.

    Art Alley is a functioning alleyway where local artists can express themselves. It draws artists, locals, and tourists to see what’s new in this ever-changing part of the city. 

    They also have a free dinosaur park and a park called Storybook Island.  We took our kids here years ago and they had a great time. 

    Deadwood & Lead

    Perhaps the most famous town in the Black Hills is Deadwood. They even did a whole tv series about it. 

    Deadwood was a gold rush town and one of those lawless old west places. The town went into disrepair by the 1950s but was revived when they legalized gambling as a way of marketing that old west feel. 

    Wild Bill Hickock is the star here. As the story goes, he liked to sit in the corner when he played poker so he could see his enemies coming through the door. But one day his corner seat was taken, so he sat with his back to the saloon entrance. Jack McCall entered and shot him in the back while he was holding a pair of Aces and 8’s. Even today it’s still called dead man’s hand. 

    He’s buried in nearby Mount Moriah cemetery near another famous western figure, Calamity Jane. 

    Lead is nearby and is home to the largest and deepest gold mine in North America, the Homestake Mine. We stopped at the park in town for a picnic, where we got to peek into the mine that was active for over 100 years.  A monument commemorates the miners who lost their lives in the mine. 

    Spearfish Canyon

    Admittedly, I haven’t done the northern Black Hills justice in this travel guide, but that’s because I think the south is the better half.  

    But near Deadwood is Spearfish Canyon, which we quite enjoy.  This time we’re hiking to something called the Devil’s Bathtub, a fun and interesting natural water slide. 

    Side Trips from the Black Hills

    OK, that mostly does it for the Black Hills, but don’t leave yet because there are some side trips that are almost always done in connection with a trip to the Black Hills.

    Devil’s Tower is to the West in Wyoming, Badlands National park is to the east, and about 4 hours north is Teddy Roosevelt National Park. 

    Devils Tower

    Devils’ Tower is located in Wyoming but it’s still considered part of the Black Hills.  

    Devil’s Tower was set aside by Teddy Roosevelt as the nation’s first national monument.  

    Park at the visitor center and take the short walk around the tower. 

    It’s a strange geologic feature that is much more impressive in person than on video. Every time I visit Devil’s Tower I forget how big and impressive it is.

    The paved walking path winds through trees and boulders and provides different angles of the tower. It’s hard to explain, but it’s really a joyful place to be. Everyone I talk to says it’s just a cool place. 

    Native American legends explain the vertical lines on the tower as scratches by a giant bear who was trying to eat some children on top. 

    The tower was featured in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the local campground shows the film every night. 

    Hundreds of rock climbers climb to the top every year on one of many different established routes.  But only one man parachuted onto the top of the tower.  

    In 1941, George Hopkins landed on top of the tower and planned to repel down to the ground. But his equipment fell off the ledge, and he was stranded on the tower for 6 days in terrible weather. The story got national attention even during world war 2. He earned the nickname Jumpin George for the stunt.

    He’s lucky he didn’t get hit by lightning, as the tower gets struck often. If you look close you can see white spots on the tower where it has been struck. 

    Near the campground is the Wind Peace Sculpture, also called the Circle of Smoke Sculpture. It was created by a Japanese artist in 2008 to represent peace. 

    And here’s another Prairie Dog Town. While it may seem like there are tons of prairie dogs around, their population is only a tiny fraction of what it once was. Farmers don’t like them, but ecologists consider them a keystone species and they are protected in some areas. 

    It’s worth half a day to walk around the tower, see the Wind Peace sculpture, and to stop and see the prairie dogs. And it is certainly worth a detour on your great American road trip. 

    This year we stayed in tipis near the tower. This was a fun family experience that I think the kids will remember for a long time. If not for the tipis, for playing baseball with cow chips. Welcome to the West. 

    It was kind of cool hearing the canvas beating in the wind much of the night.  In the morning, we caught up with the owner Juliana. She’s an absolute trip to talk to. She’s every bit a part of the experience as the tipis are. 


    Now let’s move to the east and visit the Badland. 

    Badlands National Park was created in the 1970s after being a national monument for about 40 years. 

    The term Badlands seems to refer to many eroding prairie formations, mostly in South and North Dakota. 

    For many people coming from the east on their great big American road trip, this is one of the first dramatic views of western scenery they get. Buckle your seat belts, because the scenery only gets better from here. 

    Not that the Badlands aren’t great. Here again, every time I visit the Badlands I’ve forgotten how amazing they are. As someone said, “they’re beautiful in a desolate sort of way.” 

    The scenic drive winds in and out of formations and from the top of the plateau to the bottom. There are many overlooks and hikes to enjoy the scenery; you can’t go wrong with any of them. 

    Wall Drug

    Near the Badlands is Wall Drug, which is both a store and the name of the town. 

    Wall Drug started out as a drug store in the 1930s in the middle of nowhere. But they found their niche when they began offering free water to travelers headed to Mount Rushmore. Free water made Wall Drug, and if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Today they still offer free water. 

    It’s so big you need a map to navigate it. 

    It’s a 100% tourist trap, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It knows what it is and doesn’t apologize for it. It’s as over the top as it gets, and it’s an experience you won’t forget. 

    If you’re above something like this, just ignore the many signs you’ll see for hundreds of miles on the freeway and pass right on by it. 

    But if you don’t mind tongue in cheek weirdness, give it a shot. 

    Bill Bryson said “It’s an awful place, one of the world’s worst tourist traps, but I loved it and I won’t have a word said against it.”

    Take the kids to the gigantic T Rex but don’t tell them the terror they’re about to experience!

    Wait in the long line for cafeteria food, don’t forget the donuts, and then just walk around until you find a table.

    Wall Drug. You can’t miss it, and you won’t forget it!

    Theodore Roosevelt National Park

    Wall Drug is a quirky slice of Americana, but if it’s patriotism you’re looking for, head north to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, located in Medora, North Dakota. 

    4 hours north of the Black Hills, Theodore Roosevelt National Park takes some effort to get to. It’s not on the way to the Black Hills, but for me, I couldn’t envision another scenario where I’d happen to be driving by it on my way to some place, so I figured it was now or never. 

    And I’m really glad I did it. 

    I call this our Teddy Roosevelt trip, because we saw his face on Mount Rushmore, we saw two parks he established, we did the Roosevelt chuck wagon dinner in Yellowstone and finished our vacation off by driving through Roosevelt arch in Yellowstone. 

    And here in North Dakota, we’re seeing where he lived – a place that was incredibly special to him. 

    Teddy had a wealthy upbringing in New York. When he was in his 20s, his wife and his mother died on the same day. He said the light went out in his life that day, so he went West to his ranch in North Dakota for reflection.  

    He learned to fit in with the cowboys, who at first thought he was just a 4-eyed city slicker. But he proved his toughness on the rowdy frontier. 

    The best story was when some thieves stole his little boat. He and a few friends chased them down on the Little Missouri River. When he caught them, it wasn’t enough just to get the boat back. He wanted justice. So Teddy decided to march the thieves himself 3 days to the nearest city where he turned them into the sheriff. 

    Teddy found rejuvenation in the West, and went on to be one of the most influential Americans ever and became the youngest president in history at the age of 42. 

    He said that without his time in the Dakotas he would never have become president. 

    This section of North Dakota is also called the Badlands, although they aren’t near as dramatic as the South Dakota badlands. 

    So why make it a national park? To memorialize Teddy, who did so much to preserve lands and wildlife in the west. It’s the only National Park named after a person. 

    The park has three sections: the south unit is by far the most visited as it is next to the freeway and the town of Medora. 

    The scenic drive provides…you guessed it! Prairie dogs and bison!  

    But the highlight is the mustangs. There are wild horses living on public and private lands all over the west, but this is the only herd administered by the national park service. It’s purpose is to help recreate the time period when Teddy lived here. 

    There are some hikes and overlooks, and with far fewer crowds than the major national parks, you’ll walk away from the whole experience feeling as rejuvenated as Teddy did. 

    Even more so if you visit the north unit, where solitude reigns. We were debating whether to take the hour drive to the North Unit, but we’re glad we did. We probably saw 3 or 4 cars total. 

    Even the bison come here to get away from the crowds.

    The south unit has mustangs, the north unit has longhorns. 

    Let’s return to the south and visit the park’s neighbor and best friend, the town of Medora. 

    When Teddy arrived in the area, there was another big personality already here: the Marquis de Mores from France. 

    De Mores established the town and named it after his wife, Medora. 

    The Château de Mores, his summer home, lords over the town. 

    Roosevelt and de Mores both failed at ranching and moved on. The town nearly died out, but it was revived in the 1980s by the non profit Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation. 

    Today, the foundation owns nearly everything in the town. No joke, everywhere we went we saw people wearing foundation vests. 

    I was confused by it for a while before I found out the story. I started referring to it as the cult. The whole town was part of the cult! 

    You can even apply to volunteer here as a cult member! Apply in November. If chosen, you’ll work for free for a week, doing whatever the town needs, like serving ice cream or giving tours. 

    Stroll around the town; it really only takes a few minutes. The town is small and charming and I’d love to go back as a volunteer with my mom, who loved Medora. Positions are competitive; Volunteers come from all over the country. 

    It’s all Teddy all the time in this area. Even the baseball team in Dickinson uses him for its mascot. 

    Want to meet Teddy? Attend the Teddy Roosevelt Show, where an actor will tell you all about Teddy’s life in first person. Good luck trying to get him to break character!

    The must-watch show is the Medora Musical. I heard so much about this show before I visited and it did not disappoint.  It’s part play, part musical, part variety show. It’s 100% fun, enjoyable, and patriotic.  And the setting is unforgettable. 

    I believe the play was originally called Old Four Eyes and was all about Roosevelt’s life. It’s changed over the years, though they still reference Roosevelt. This comedian and performer was our favorite.


    I can’t possibly top that performance, so I’ll wrap it up here. I hope you enjoyed this travel guide for the Black Hills and beyond.  We’ll see you next time. Go west traveler!


    We’re Matt and Cheryl, and we’re in the Rockies. :) We are both teachers. Cheryl teaches special ed, and Matt teaches American history. We love the American West and the national parks. We want to help you have a great vacation on your next trip to the Rockies.


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