Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands & Devil’s Tower: Wait for Autumn Bargains

Mt. Rushmore. The flags of all 50 states line the main approach (see below), but I couldn’t resist this Texas flag view.

Mt. Rushmore should be on every American’s bucket list, and judging by the crowds and prices every summer, it probably is. If you can wait till fall, though, you’ll find the crowds gone and hotel prices much more reasonable. My husband and I did just that, waiting until the third week in October. Yes, the Flintstone Village was closed as was the faux Independence Hall and some mining-themed amusement parks, but we didn’t miss them at all. The Mt. Rushmore National Memorial was open, as was the Badlands National Park, Custer State Park (including Needles Highway), and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. We stayed at K Bar S Lodge an terrific, rustic-but-lovely hotel just outside of Keystone, South Dakota, 30 minutes from the Rapid City Airport, where we could see Mt. Rushmore in the distance and hike a nearby abandoned mine. Yes, it was chilly at night and, yes, we risked things like Needles Highway being closed for the winter. But, the flight from DFW to Rapid City, SD, is an easy two hour and fifteen minute non-stop flight on American so we could monitor the weather forecast. [Although pricey in dollars, the flight was a cheap award using our British Airways Avios. We use BA Avios for those short hauls since BA is distance-based and charges us less miles for those flights that AA does.]

Mt. Rushmore exceeded my expectations. Not only are the famous statues impressive, but so is the park itself. The buildings and approach are sleek and stylish, the walkways around the base of the mountain pretty and well-maintained. We really enjoyed a free return visit at night to see the carvings illuminated. The main walkway is not lit until you reach the flags, though, so bring a flashlight.

Mt. Rushmore is especially magical at night, and free!

Custer State Park lies a thirty minute drive south of Keystone. Although we missed the September bison roundup at the park we got to see lots of bison up close in their winter habitat. Pronghorn antelope, big horn sheep, elk and whitetail deer also call the park home. Entry is $20/vehicle for a 1-7 day pass.

Bison in Custer State Park
Pronghorn antelope in Custer State Park

Needles Highway (Hwy 87) runs through the Cathedral Spires Area of Custer State Park. Sitting around a campfire at our lodge one night, I mentioned my huge disappointment in being told on check-in that Needles was closed for the season. The mother-daughter pair who’d offered to share their s’mores with us did even more to make my night when they informed me that they’d driven the Highway that day and that it was open and easily drivable despite a sign at the pay booth saying otherwise. Sure enough, the next day proved them right and we enjoyed a spectacular drive.

Spires along Needles Highway

Another day, we drove an hour and twenty minutes west to Badlands National Park. Entering through a vast prairie dog town, we found an otherworldly landscape of painted canyons. We pulled over to hike out to high observation points providing sweeping pastel vistas and explored walkways through the desert where big horn sheep fed nearby. Like Custer, entry is $20/car for a 1-7 day pass. The passes are not combinable as one is a state and one is a national park.

Bighorn sheep in Badlands National Park
The Badlands: immense and otherworldly

We crossed the South Dakota border into Wyoming for our final destination, Devil’s Tower National Monument, a little over two hours’ drive from Keystone. Made famous in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind and wildly popular with motorcyclists and other tourists, we arrived to find only a few cars in one of its two large parking lots.

Devil’s Tower, Wyoming
We found another large prairie dog town near Devil’s Tower. They’re adorable, but be careful getting too close or letting pets near: The prairie dogs have plague!

A ranger assured me that, in summer, the lots were full and the web site warns of difficult parking. She particularly noted the craziness at Devil’s tower when the Sturgis Annual Motorcycle Rally is in swing. A half million motorcycle enthusiasts descend on Sturgis, SD, for the famous summer rally. That group makes an excursion to Devil’s Tower. The Sturgis rally lasts ten days and is set for August 4-13 this year. Check the calendar to avoid this horde unless you’re going to the rally.  On this gorgeous October day, however, we saw more birds, squirrels and rabbits than people as we hiked the perimeter of the tower. Entry to Devil’s Tower is $15/car, $10/motorcycle, $5/person arriving on foot or bicycle.

For a fun, economical, but limited-choice dinner, try the antique-filled Alpine Inn in Hill City, a short drive through wooded hills from Keystone. Dinner entree choices are large steak, small steak or vegetarian. [Dinner menu: 6oz. filet mignon = $11.95, 9oz. filet mignon =$13.95 (both steaks served with baked potato, wedge salad and Texas toast); German dumplings and cheese with vegetables = $11.95] Lunch offers more variety. The Alpine Inn is renowned for its steaks and its house-made desserts. It’s closed Sundays and doesn’t accept credit cards, but it does have an on-site ATM machine. It’s popular, so make reservations.

Finally, if you like to gamble, South Dakota is for you. In addition to casinos, nearly every business establishment from doughnut shops to nail salons has a slot machine or two. Kitschy Deadwood is at or near the top of gaming towns in South Dakota. We’re not gamblers and didn’t get much out of casino-filled Deadwood’s recreated western town brimming with casinos, but we met people who loved it and went every year. So, if that’s your thing, Deadwood awaits. The people are friendly and the hotels offer some pretty great deals to lure in the gamblers. Enjoy!