With limited time you will still be able to hit the highlights. Will you have time the day/night you arrive or just 1 full day before heading north?
If you get into town late afternoon/early evening, you could certainly do a visit to Mt Rushmore as it would take a few hours to explore the exhibits and video as well as walking the Presidential Trail to get a closer view of the mountain carving from different angles then just that seen from the main viewing terrace. The evening flag lowering ceremony is very nice and includes a different video presentation and recognition of retired or active duty military service men and women in the audience.
The full day, start at the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park to see the bison and begging burros, as well as prairie dogs and deer, etc. Drive up Mt Coolidge Fire Lookout tower for a view of the hills with Rushmore and Crazy Horse in the distance. Then continue driving the scenic drives such as the Needles Hwy and Iron Mountain Rd (Iron Mtn Rd will take you back towards Keystone as well). Maybe stop at Sylvan Lake for a picnic and some exploring of the path around. A drive by Crazy Horse could also be done before heading north.
Probably no time for a cave tour and definitely no time for the Badlands Natl Park unfortunately which is certainly a must see someday! If you prefer a cave tour, some people say you could cut out the Wildlife Loop possibly if you are traveling on to Yellowstone after Cody?
Spearfish is about an hour north of Keystone area and Devils Tower an hour from there I believe. Spearfish Canyon Scenic Rd has some short hikes to several waterfalls as well, I believe just 1 can be seen from the road without hiking. There are others who know that area better but many people combine Devils Tower and Spearfish Canyon in one day, as well as Deadwood if interested in that history.
Thanks, yes, if we start from Denver in the morning, we shall be in Keystone in the late afternoon, so visiting Mt.Rushmore that day is a great idea. Probably no time for Custer before that. Would it be possible to skip Custer to Badlands or this would be too far?
We have no interest in caves, but should we visit one of the other attractions like Bear Country? or they are more like turist traps?
Goodiowagirl has summed up the most important things to see and I like her idea of seeing Rushmore the day you arrive. Rushmore is open late in the evening in the summer. You can hike the Presidential Trail (short, but the best thing there), eat supper in the cafe (or picnic) and stay for the lighting ceremony.
The next day you will not have time for both Custer and the Badlands. You will have to choose one or the other. If you choose Custer, that will take the entire day. If you choose the Badlands and just do the main loop without a lot of hiking, then yes, you would still have time to see another attraction in the Black Hills later in the day. You could add Bear Country after the Badlands. If it were me, I would choose Custer. Bear Country is nice, but given your limited amount of time, I would skip it. Also, you are closer to Custer than the Badlands, so it also makes sense to see Custer instead. Others may have different opinions on the subject.
If you go with Custer, you will want to do the three scenic drives (Iron Mt, Needles, Wildlife). These drives take longer than people think. A thirty mile drive, for example, might take over an hour. The roads are winding, the speed limits are slow and you will be stopping for lots of pictures. It is a good idea to break up these drives with short hikes, lunch, swimming, etc. Sylvan Lake is a good place to do all three. Legion Lake is not as scenic but is less crowded and has a nice swim beach. If anyone in your group is prone to carsickness, I would recommend taking a Dramamine for the roads in Custer State Park.
You've been given great information already. I am going to give a slightly different response that will probably just give you a little more to think about lol!
Are you going to Yellowstone after seeing Cody? If so, you might consider seeing the Badlands over Custer State Park. People who visit Custer SP AFTER Yellowstone often feel disappointed, as it's much smaller and not as diverse. The main attraction in Custer SP is the wildlife, as is Yellowstone. However, you will typically see many more animals in Yellowstone. The Badlands is a diverse landscape over than Yellowstone and is more "red rock" based. The fascinating landscape seems to pop out of nowhere and changes in varying light (i.e. sunrise/sunset/cloud cover). Also, the Badlands is a national park, and Custer is a state park which many feel should be a national park. Not to say that Custer SP isn't gorgeous, but the Badlands is just different from what you will typically see in Wyoming and SD.
There is really no wrong choice between Custer State Park and the Badlands. Since you are not from the U.S., I just thought you might enjoy seeing something a little more unique. I would suggest googling images of both parks and seeing which one appeals to you more. The Badlands is an easy day trip from Keystone if you are interested in seeing it.
I agree with 3174 that I'd stay both nights in Keystone and then head through Spearfish and Devil's Tower ernoute to Cody. It will be a very full day, but doable.
Also, I agree with your limited time frame on skipping Bear Country. It's nice, but not a must see of the area, IMO.
Whatever you decide, enjoy your trip. Let us know if you have any more questions.
Thanks for additional information, very helpful... but so difficult to decide.
I was thinking - if we only wanted to make a quick drive-through the Custer State Park, is this possible already on our way from Denver? From Custer to Mt Rushmore through Iron road? According to Google maps this would only take half an hour more. I know we will have to stop much more. Due to time lag we will probably wake up early anyway.
I think doing all the scenic drives in Custer State Park on your way in from Denver would be a lot. Since you want to visit Rushmore, you could take Iron Mountain Rd. into Keystone as you mentioned, which would add some time, but not as much as driving the entire Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. If you are willing to leave Denver pretty early in the a.m., I think it's feasible. Some of Custer SP would be better than none, and with Iron Mt. Rd, you will get to experience the Pigtail Bridges and tunnels that frame Mt. Rushmore. It's important to drive Iron Mt. Rd from south to north, as you've probably read on this forum, to get the best views of Rushmore. With Pigtail Bridges, the road is structured like a "pig's curly tail," so they must be driven quite slowly. Also, if anyone in your group is prone to motion sickness, dramamine might be in order.
Thanks, very informative. Would that mean entering into the park in Custer? Any wildlife on the route?
We are doing a similar route this summer, as we are also coming to the area from Denver airport. From Rt. 18 in Wyoming, we will cross over into SD and take Rt. 89N. When you hit Rt. 16, you will be in the town of Custer. Turn right on 16/16A (heading east) and then turn left onto Iron Mt. Rd just after the Game Lodge.
The map in the center of the travelsd.com travel guide is wonderful. If you don't have one yet, I'd highly recommend ordering one.
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