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Mount Rushmore and More Family Fun in Rapid City, S.D.

Check out the huge sculpture of four iconic U.S. presidents – plus Custer State Park, Bear Country U.S.A. Reptile Gardens and more places kids will love

To celebrate the Fourth of July, there's no better place than the Black Hills – home of Mount Rushmore. Edging the far western side of South Dakota, near the border with Wyoming, Mount Rushmore National Memorial lies in the Black Hills National Forest just outside Rapid City, S.D. In summer, the area becomes a haven for tourists from around the world who come to see the four American presidents etched in granite. But there's much more to do, too!

Visiting with presidents

The first stop in any trek to the Black Hills has to be to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The 60-foot tall mountain sculpture took 14 years (1927-1942) and 400 workers to construct – and bears the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

I recommend visiting as close to the opening time as possible. Mount Rushmore draws nearly 3 million visitors each year, and July is high season. If you get there early, the crowds – and temps – are more manageable.

Now, you might have to explain to your kids, like I did, that you won't be hiking up to Lincoln's nose. While there's a trail under the memorial, visitors aren't allowed to go close to sculptures or hike behind them (despite what you may have watched in the movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets). Instead, the area features hiking trails, an outdoor amphitheater, indoor museums, videos and other exhibits to educate visitors about U.S. history and the memorial's construction.

Mount Rushmore is open 8 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. There's no fee to get in, but you will pay to park. It's $11 for 24 hours, which means you could come back for the evening sculpture lighting ceremony, which puts the spotlight – literally – on the stone faces around 9 p.m. nightly.

Custer State Park

Just south of Mount Rushmore, take time to explore Custer State Park, one of the largest state parks in the country. While you'll find all of the expected park features like canoeing, fishing, camping and hiking, one of the real draws to Custer is the buffalo.

There are three popular scenic drives through the park, including Wildlife Loop Road, where kids can take turns calling out the creatures that they spy – elk, bighorn sheep, antelope, deer and the prehistoric-looking bison. Just be careful not to get too close! Pay $15 per car to get into the park; the pass is good for seven days.

For older kids, I suggest hiking Harney Peak trail. The path begins at Sylvan Lake, a picturesque water oasis, and then winds its way three and a half miles to the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains at 7,242 feet. At the end of the trail, there's a fire tower, which makes for a great backdrop for pictures.

Tourist hot spots

With so many visitors to Black Hills in the summertime, it's not surprising that the area is also dotted with attractions. Bear Country U.S.A. is one of our family favorites. Part wildlife drive and part zoo, it has over 100 bears – and two grizzlies – plus coyotes, wolves, beavers, elk and more. It's $16/adults and $10/ages 5-12.

For another up-close-and-personal encounter, kids who love all things creepy crawly will delight at the collection you can find at Reptile Gardens. Deadly snakes, giant crocodiles, Komodo dragons – they're all here. Costs are $16/adults, $11/ages 5-12 and free/4 and under.

Free family fun!

Try these six smart activities for you and the kids in the Rapid City region that won't cost you a cent:

  1. Storybook Island: Open 9 a.m.-7 p.m. daily, this park is themed around fairy tales. Free kid-friendly shows are shown all day in the park's theater.
  2. Dinosaur Park: Fred Flintstone would feel right at home among the seven imposing concrete dinosaurs that line a ridge above town.
  3. The City of Presidents: Downtown, your kids can spot around 40 presidents. Can you say photo-op?
  4. Canyon Lake Park: This 29-acre park is perfect for picnics and just kicking back. Paddleboat rentals are available.
  5. Main Street Square: This new spot boasts live music, farmers markets and a sweet water fountain area where kids can play and get wet.
  6. Outdoor Campus West: Inside the facility you'll find wildlife education exhibits. Outside, explore the 32 acres of trails and habitats. Plus, various learning programs are available throughout the summer.

To start planning your trip to the Black Hills and to one of America's most famous memorials, visit the websites for the South Dakota Department of Tourism and Rapid City Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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