Hill City, SD

Hill City, SD

We spent a week near Hill City primarily to see Mount Rushmore and to visit a few of the nearby towns. As you will soon find out, we didn’t even know about Custer State Park when we did our original planning but we’re sure glad we were tipped off to it when someone found out we were going to be in the area. We were sure glad we didn’t miss it as we took more pictures there than anywhere else. The featured image at the top of this post is of Sylvan Lake within the park and is one of my favorite pictures of all time. The beauty in this part of South Dakota is just unbelievable!

Mount Rushmore

In 1923 Doane Robinson proposed carving Old West heroes in the needles of Cathedral Spires, some of the same ones seen in the pictures along the Needles Highway below. Robinson approached sculptor Gutzon Borglum about the project. Borglum shot down the idea of Old West heroes and instead wanted to place as close to heaven as possible the words of our leaders and their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. He felt that a monument’s dimensions should be determined by the importance to civilization of the events commemorated and he also wanted the monument to endure until the wind and rain alone would wear them down.

In 1925 Federal and state legislation authorized the carving of the memorial and fundraising begins. In 1927 President Calvin Coolidge dedicates the memorial and Borglum begins carving. 90% of the work removing stone from the mountain was done with dynamite with tools being used to finish the sculpture. This work was done by miners, farmers, and others with Borglum supervising the work. In 1941, Gutzon Borglum died and his son Lincoln oversaw completion of the work that same year. The original goal was to complete each statue down to the waist of each president but due to the untimely death of Gutzon, work was completed short of that goal.

Avenue of Flags showing the flags of all 56 flags of the states, districts, commonwealths and territories of the United States
Mount Rushmore from the Grand View Terrace, the primary viewing area of the carving
George Washington close up from the Presidential Trail
George Washington profile view from outside the park
This is the plaster model used to create the sculpture on the mountain. 1″ on this model is equal to 12″ on the actual monument.
Night time lighting ceremony (Note the big dipper above the monument)
Recognizing veterans present at the night time lighting ceremony
The Meaning of Mount Rushmore per the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum

Custer State Park

When we were doing our original planning for visiting the area we mostly focused on Mount Rushmore, Custer and Hill City. We really didn’t know much about Custer State Park until a friend of a friend mentioned it. Wow! Somehow we almost missed one of the best destinations in the area. Some of the can’t miss areas include the Needles Highway, the Wildlife Loop and Iron Mountain Road (which is technically outside the park). For Needles Highway, be careful is you have a large vehicle! The Needles Eye tunnel is only 8 feet wide which is about the same width as our dually pickup.

Custer State Park includes both granite peaks and rolling plains along with some gorgeous lakes fed by clear mountain water. We thought Sylvan Lake was the most beautiful. Encompassing 71,000 acres in the Black Hills, Custer State Park is home to abundant wildlife and adventure; camping, hiking, biking, swimming, fishing, or relaxing, there’s something there for everyone.

Buffalo (bison), elk, and other animals can be found throughout the park. The bison heard of over 1300 head roams the park throughout most of the year but in September an annual roundup is held and the female and their young are herded into a large corral on the southern end of the park. There they are sorted, checked and tested for disease. Some are auctioned off to manage the size of the herd based on the forage available in the park.

Note: The term “buffalo” may be considered a misnomer for this animal, as it is only distantly related to either of the two “true buffalo”, the Asian water buffalo and the African buffalo. However, “bison” is a Greek word meaning ox-like animal, while “buffalo” originated with the French fur trappers who called these massive beasts bœufs, meaning ox or bullock – so both names, “bison” and “buffalo,” have a similar meaning. In reference to this animal, the term “buffalo,” which dates to 1635, has a much longer history than the term “bison,” which was first recorded in 1774.

Morning reflections on Sylvan Lake
Needles Eye Tunnel along Needles Highway
Exiting the Needles Eye Tunnel
Rented convertible for the Needles Highway drive (Our truck is too wide to go through the Needles Eye tunnel)
Fall colors and rock formations along the Needles Highway
Cathedral Spires along the Needles Highway
More rock formations along the Needles Highway
Beautiful fall colors along the Needles Highway
One of the three tunnels along the Needles Highway
Very friendly wild donkeys in the park
Single male watching over the herd in the corral
The Buffalo roundup had occurred just before we came so all the females and young Buffalo are in the corral
Buffalo after the annual round-up in Custer State Park
Fall color in the campground near the Grand Lodge
Sylvan Lake in the evening
Sylvan Lake Trail
Beautiful fall colors along the Sylvan Lake Trail
The Sunday Gulch Trail as it departs from the Sylvan Lake Trail
Hiking through the fall color on the Sylvan Lake Trail
Sylvan Lake Trail
Driving the Needles Highway
Fall color
Fall Colors along our drive

Hill City

Hill City is a small town about 15 miles northwest of Mount Rushmore that has numerous restaurants, shops, grocery stores, wineries and gas stations. It is the closest town on the west side of Rushmore and is a good place to visit when you need a break from outdoor activities.

In 1876, Hill City was the first settlement established in conjunction with the initial discovery of Black Hills gold in French Creek, just 13 miles south of where Hill City sits today. Miners came from far and wide to prospect in and around this small mountain town, now referred to as “The Heart of the Hills.” Although the first settlement in the county, it was the second community to develop in the greater Black Hills area, springing up shortly after the town of Custer.

After the bulk of gold prospecting relocated to the Northern Hills, Hill City reached a state of near abandonment by settlers before tin and the railroad drew the pioneers back in. From the mid-1880s to the turn of the century, the town revived and thrived on the discovery of tin, a malleable and silvery-white metal pulled from the rock in the Hills around the town. However, Hill City’s “tin age” was short-lived. When the tin frenzy subsided, the industrial railroad took over and dominated the first half of the emerging century. By the late 1950s, the Black Hills Central Railroad introduced the first passenger steam train on the line, commonly referred to today as the “1880 Train.”

In recent history, the Hill City community has continued to evolve as an archeological, paleontological, and geological hub for Black Hills exploration and discovery. The most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in paleontological history was discovered in the Hill City area and named “Sue” after the paleontologist who unearthed her.

Smoky the Bear carving in Hill City
Chain Saw Carving for Liberty and Freedom

1880 Train

The 1880 train is a tourist attraction located in Hill City. The train travels several times daily between Hill City and Keystone for a distance of about 20 miles and takes about an hour each way. Not only is it fun to travel by a steam powered train but you’ll see some gorgeous scenery along the way as well as learn a bit about the history of the area.

1880 Train – Engine 108 refilling with water for the return trip from Keystone to Hill City
1880 Train Going around a Curve
Narrow gauge train tracks near the historical town of Oblivion
1880 Train – Rocks close to the line

Iron Mountain Road

Similar to Needles Highway (although the tunnels are wider on Iron Mountain Road) the area includes numerous granite rock formations and spectacular views. Iron Mountain Road is between Mount Rushmore and the northern edge of Custer State Park.

Two of the three tunnels along Iron Mountain Road have views of Mount Rushmore from the tunnel which is a great opportunity for a good picture. One of the most interesting features of this route are the three pigtail bridges. A pigtail or spiral bridge is a road bridge which loops over its own road, allowing the road to climb rapidly. This is useful in steep terrain, or where the approach road to a bridge would terminate too far from the bridge’s end. The shape of the bridge forms a helix, not a spiral. 

Cecil Gideon designed the bridges in 1932 when many felt they could not be built. Riding on Horseback from his home near the Game Lodge in Custer State Park, Gideon and Senator Norbeck spent long hours laying out the Iron Mountain Road including the tunnels that frame Mount Rushmore and the pigtail bridges.

Scovel Johnson Tunnel with Mount Rushmore visible through the tunnel
Mount Rushmore Complex
Unique pigtail bridges


After Hill City, Custer is the next nearest town to Mount Rushmore on the west side. Today the town is home to numerous restaurants and shops as well as several museums that tell the story of early life in the area.

Although there were French fur trappers and traders in the Custer area by 1796, there was no town of Custer until August 10, 1875. On that date General George Crook persuaded the miners illegally in the area to leave until the Black Hills became opened to white settlement. Crook allowed the assembled miners to lay out and name a town and allowed seven men to remain in the area to protect their mining claims. Veterans of the Civil War who had served in the Union Army suggested the name of Custer to honor the general who had made a reputation for himself.

The exodus of miners in August of 1875 was short-lived. Many of them returned to the area before it was officially opened to settlement by the government. They had been lured to the area by reports from the 1874 expedition to the Black Hills and Custer’s report of the finding of gold on French Creek. Custer was followed within four months by the Collins-Witcher-Gordon party of pioneers who settled near Custer’s former “permanent” camp. The Gordon Stockade was built by that party and it was the magnet that drew the miners to the area in 1875. The Gordon party was evicted from their stockade in April of 1875.

Former Courthouse, now the 1880 museum
1880 Museum – 12 mile ranch stagecoach stop
1880 Museum – Early1880’s original stagecoach used on the Cheyenne / Deadwood route
1880 Museum – Dr. Flick Cabin the oldest remaining building in the Black Hills
Crazy Horse Memorial – a work in progress

Park Review Mount Rushmore KOA Resort at Palmer Gulch

Mount Rushmore KOA Resort registration and gift shop
Shops at the Mount Rushmore KOA Resort
Fish pond with tent sites at the Mount Rushmore KOA Resort
Looking north up the road from our site
Black Elk Peak, the highest natural point in South Dakota, from our site
Mount Rushmore KOA Resort at Palmer Gulch (Site 138)

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Site Quality / Amenities: The sites are gravel, many are full hookup with 50A service. We had a deluxe patio site so in addition to having a patio we had a table with chairs, a grill, a swing and a fire pit. We were on an end site so we had a bit of extra room although we were near the office and there was a lot of traffic during the day. This is a KOA Resort and as such it had numerous amenities. Unfortunately for us, after Labor Day many of them close down.
Type: Commercial
Access: On SD244 about 3 miles from US385 and about 6 miles from Mount Rushmore. It’s a bit off the beaten path but roads are good and grades along the roads although steep at times are fairly short.
Staff: All staff we encountered were friendly and helpful; offering tips for the local area. Given that the staff was beginning to leave since our last day here is the end of their season, the ones still there were working long hours. Because of that, we were surprised how energetic and cheerful they were.
Cellular/Wi-Fi: I do not believe the park had Wi-Fi and Verizon was almost non-existent – working at times and not at others. Verizon data was very unreliable. AT&T worked decently although it was prone to be intermittent. Speeds were slow.
Restaurants: Bumpin Buffalo Bar and Grill, Hill City – Standard bar and grill fare, the food was good. Alpine Inn, Hill City – We did not get to eat there but it was recommended for steaks by some folks we met in Elephant Butte. Powder House Restaurant, Keystone – Great steaks. Black Hills Burger and Bun, Custer – Great burgers recommended by a friend.
Nearby parks: Crooked Creek Resort – Pretty nice park but it would likely be a bit tight for us to navigate and many sites would be too short. Crooked Creek is definitely not a resort like the KOA is. Rafter J Bar Ranch – At the junction of US385 and SD244, J Bar Ranch would be a good choice for us. It is less of a Resort but had all the amenities we would need whereas the KOA would be better for folks with kids. Sites were pretty large and most were clear of trees so satellite should be no problem. It closed about a week before the end of September.
What we liked: Friendly staff. Many resort activities during the summer season (most close after Labor Day). Convenient to Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, Custer, the Crazy Horse memorial and Hill City.
What we didn’t like: Our site was at the front of the park and it tended to be a bit busier there with people checking in and out. The sites are short for big rigs forcing everyone to park on the grass. This created a situation where the roads near the sites were crowded and difficult to navigate. Most of the resort amenities including the main restaurant were closed after Labor Day.
If we come to the area again, we’ll shoot for Rafter J Bar Ranch first and the KOA second. Families with kids would be happier with the KOA due to many kids activities. If you come after labor day, expect many amenities, restaurants, and other places to be closed for the season. However, that’s when the gorgeous fall colors are present and things are less crowded.

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