We rode into Custer, South Dakota, and drove up the main strip of shops and saloons, the way cowboys did back in 1875. Our transportation along Mt. Rushmore Road was a minivan, not a quarter horse, but the town definitely had an Old West feel to it. It was dusk, with streaks of pink sunset staining a few wispy clouds, but that meant it was already late this far north in the middle of summer. My sister, the kids, and I were starving.
Saloons without the saddle sores
We pulled up to the Buglin’ Bull Restaurant, loving the street’s mix of brick storefronts stacked neatly together next to clapboard saloons and coffee shops. We imagined this would have been a perfect setting for a gunfight and felt like we’d wandered into a Western movie, where Americans were gritty, hardworking, and no-nonsense. The Buglin’ Bull was warm, welcoming, and very much South Dakota, its walls boasting hunting trophies and its bar serving local craft brews.
When the server arrived, my niece, Alex, said, “Howdy partner,” earning a grin from the whole table. The menu offered a wide variety of options and even had a few vegetarian things for my son, Parker, to choose from. I fell in love with the marshmallow dip served with the sweet-potato fries, and by the end of the meal, I was ready to snuggle into a hotel bed.
Best sleep without your bedroom
For our first night in South Dakota, I knew we wouldn’t be ready for roughing it in a tent, so we picked a hotel near the monument, based primarily on cute online photos. The Bavarian Inn in the Black Hills invites you in with baskets overflowing with flowers around its front entrance. Its rooms were clean, cozy, and comfortable—a perfect retreat after a long day of driving.
We were tired but couldn’t resist checking out the indoor pool and hot tub, so after changing out of our travel duds, we headed to the pool. The pool had the fun glow of a lit up aquatic world, and the kids quickly joined the half-dozen swimmers who were already enjoying a splash. My sister and I were content to soak in the large oblong hot tub until Parker and Alex were done. Before heading back to the room, Parker picked out one of the board games available so we could play a game of Pictionary before heading to sleep.
In the morning, I snuck out before everyone else woke and grabbed some coffee from the inn’s pancake bar before it got busy with hungry travelers. I ventured out into the morning, wandering around the inn’s buildings. Nestled in the trees as it was, I never would have guessed that the inn had both an outdoor pool and a tennis court on its grounds. It also had a few hammocks strategically placed for maximum relaxation around the back of the property. I wandered the trails and enjoyed the lovely summer morning, but seeing all there was to do there, I wished we had planned to stay longer at the inn.
We headed down the road to the sight that has been bringing people to these hills ever since Washington’s head was dedicated in 1930. Washington’s profile is the first thing we saw as we wound through the trees and caught a glimpse of the big monument. We pulled over to get some shots of him, looking off into the distance, as if he stood apart from those presidents who followed him. Before entering the park, we drove past the rest of the monument, getting out of the car to take more pictures and hike up the mountain a bit for a different perspective. From this angle, all four presidents were visible, and we immediately started hamming it up by standing in a carefully arranged cluster, creating our own selfie-monument with the real thing in the background.
Inside the Mount Rushmore National Memorial park, a walkway lined with flags from every state made us all feel extra patriotic. The vantage point of the monument was much better from here, and there was a shared enthusiasm from all of the visitors that I hadn’t expected, a kind of awe at the scope of this undertaking—transforming a mountain to honor foundational leaders of our country. It’s hard to explain, but it felt transformative just being there.
After spending the day at Mount Rushmore, we headed to camp at the Mount Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch. My sister loves camping and had been looking forward to this part of the trip more than anything else. I was less enthusiastic, worrying that the kids would get bored and that “roughing it” would be too rough. I was happy to be wrong on all counts!
The KOA was like being at a resort, complete with two pools, sand volleyball, a big inflatable bouncing place, games, horseback riding, UTV and bike rentals, stores, and outdoor restaurants where you might hear a singing cowboy. There were also cool activities like a climbing wall, gold-pan mining, and mini golf. It was a kid’s paradise, and I just got to kick back with my sis and enjoy the fresh air, happy to know my family wasn’t glued to a screen. My sister made sleeping in a tent easy and comfortable by bringing the right gear, but I was happy to see there were cabins you could rent if you were less camping-savvy.
America the beautiful
We learned that there was a nighttime lighting ceremony of Mount Rushmore that a bus from the KOA would take us to, so on our second night, we went. We were so glad that we did! The moving ceremony honored our country’s veterans, and it included a flag-folding ceremony. The lighted monument was so striking that it was like seeing it for the first time all over again.
The next day, after packing up our tent, we went to see Crazy Horse Memorial, another impressive monument very close to Mount Rushmore. This one is not yet finished, though, and it made me feel how the visitors to Mount Rushmore in the 30s must have felt before it was completed in 1941. We were seeing something immensely impressive in the making, something that would continue to inspire later generations. As sculptors eked presidential profiles out of stone over decades, the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation continues to work painstakingly on releasing the Lakota figure’s horse and pointing arm from the mountainside. All four of us left the Black Hills with a much stronger sense of American history—and of South Dakota—than we’d had when we moseyed into town.