When you first approach Rushmore Tramway Adventures in Keystone, the Aerial Adventures Park suspended from the soaring pine trees is reminiscent of The Swiss Family Robinson and the Lost Boys village in Hook.
“People do compare us to [things like] that often,” said assistant general manager Ben Larson, as we looked up into the ropes courses.
The eight courses sprawl over two acres, involving 100 platforms and 11 ziplines. This is one of many additions that have been made in the last 15 years, when Mark and Vivian Fullerton purchased the business in 1999.
“The tramway was built in 1965, and it was just as a sightseeing trail; at the bottom there was a gift shop. It took you to the top of the mountain, and there were gardens,” described their son and operations manager, Cameron Fullerton. “Actually, originally, it was like a sculpture park. You could walk around, and there were heads of presidents and such that an artist did, so you could walk around the park and check those out and see Mount Rushmore across the valley.”
One of the biggest highlights of Rushmore Tramway Adventures is the incredible view of the national monument, which is only two miles away.
Cameron has been working there for 17 years and recalls the rough shape the business was in when ownership changed, including the broken aforementioned sculptures.
“[My parents] would have us all come up after school, and through the course of that winter, we revamped it. It was extremely rundown when we bought it, so we first redid the gift shop and painted the tramway cars,” he said. “Instead of being the continuous running chairlift that it is today, it was a tramway – so to speak – like enclosed cars. There were 16 of them.”
Finding the loading and unloading inefficient, another one of Mark’s first fixes after two years was to add a modern chairlift instead. They also built a restaurant (compared to a “burger shack”) that is surrounded by flower beds, waterfalls, trails, and a deck with a lookout toward Mount Rushmore. Around that time, Mark built his “baby” – the Alpine Slide.
Now widely known as a popular attraction in the Black Hills, the 2,000-foot Alpine Slide has parallel tracks that are compared to bobsledding (“without the snow or cold”). The driver is in control of how fast or slow they ride down, with speeds topping out at 40 miles per hour.
“My dad did everything he could to make it the fastest, and it’s definitely one of the fastest in the country, for sure,” said Cameron. “If you want to go as slow as you can, it has the best safety equipment on it, and if you want to go as fast as you possibly can, he wants to give you that opportunity as well.”
The summit, which used to be able to run with three employees, blew up to needing 22, which “turned things on its head” in a good way. Soon, Mark got the itch to grow again after seeing the impact of the slide, and saw potential of Rushmore Tramway Adventures becoming bigger than he ever imagined.
“On my way out to college, my dad called and said, ‘Hey, I think I want to expand this thing further. Do you want to come back when you’re done?’” he recalled.” I said, ‘Yeah, sure!’ I was going to go be an accountant.”
They launched the Aerial Adventure Park in spring 2013. The park has courses ranging in difficulty levels, which are designated as yellow through black. That took the team to 60 people.
Cameron said, “We started as something that was fun as a family business, and then moved it into more or less the thing that people do in the Black Hills who are looking for something active.”
In 2015, Mark added courses to the Ariel Adventure Park and launched the Jump Tower, which is a 25-foot free-fall drop from a 60-foot-high plank.
“Between the expansions and what we’re doing with the zipline tour right now, we’re given the opportunity to build pretty much whatever we want,” he said.
The zipline tour is the newest addition opening June 1 and will be called the Pinnacle Zip Tour (named for where zipline two and three meet, with an “incredible” view of Mount Rushmore). Professional guides will take participants on a two-hour experience through landscapes of the Black Hills, spanning over a mile of forest with five side-by-side ziplines.
This was a huge step for them, as they had to buy the land that would allow them to build their dream tour. Starting with 16 acres, they had already extended to 25 acres, and now have acquired almost 100 acres.
“We had to jump hoops to get here,” explained Cameron.
Along with the sights, guides will also share historical info at stops. For those who are leery with heights, the “trainer zipline” is shorter, so if customers are uncomfortable, they can change their minds.
Starting with the second zipline, you are 400 feet off the ground, and there’s no turning back. “You’d better be comfortable at that point in time,” laughed Cameron.
As many of the rides and courses involve heights, there are options for those who like to be closer to the ground. While many do so by hiking, or simply enjoying the view with a beer in hand at the restaurant, the Rushmore Tramway Adventures team has witnessed attendees too nervous to get up the summit.
“Even the chairlift pushes some people’s boundaries. I’ll have some people get to the top and say, ‘I can’t do that.’ I’ll ask if they want to take the chairlift back down. ‘No.’ I’ll suggest the slide. ‘No, I don’t want to be scared,’” recalled Cameron. “But the thing with the slide is, you completely dictate your pace, so we can put them in the slow lane, and they can go as slow as they want.”
As the group prepares as best as they can for opening weekend May 6 and 7, they’re really ramping up for the reveal of their zipline tour and tourist season in general.
“It’s so insane here in the summertime. I could lay in the middle of Main Street [in Keystone], because there’s not enough traffic to worry about someone hitting you,” he said. “There are about 10,000 people that come through town in a day, if not more. We’ll sell about 3,500 rides.”
As it’s first come, first serve, make sure to get there early to allot for time. Most attractions can hold from 50 to 250 lbs. (the Pinnacle Zip Tour holds up to 285 lbs.).
With family, friends, or solo, the team is ready for another year of pushing the limits and getting people outside to see the state in a unique way.
“We’re willing to offer the attractions that you can’t get elsewhere, because other people aren’t willing to deal with the risk,” said Cameron. “That’s what we are; a place to come and be active.”
For more information, visit rushmoretramwayadventures.com.
START YOUR ADVENTURE
—Pinnacle Zip Tour—
(Child, $79. Adult, $79.)
Travel through the lush landscapes of the Black Hills surrounding Mount Rushmore. Embark on a two-hour journey of nature and ziplines, spanning over a mile of forest. Professional guides take you all the way and uncover South Dakota’s rich history.
—Aerial Adventure Park—
(Child, $39. Adult, $49.)
Self-paced obstacle course suspended in the trees. One of the most popular attractions in the Black Hills. Follow a safety demonstration, then begin adventure of traversing suspended bridges, climbing log ladders, balancing on cables, and riding ziplines through over two acres with 100 different courses for all ages. Yellow is the easiest and black is the hardest.
—800 ft. Zipline—
(Child 7-12, $15. Ages 13+ $15.)
Two side-by-side ziplines that allow friends and family to race to the bottom. ZipStop does all the work for you.
(Infant and under 2, free. Child ages 2-6, $4. 7+, $12. 5 ride package, sharable, $50. 10 ride package, sharable, $80). Includes chairlift ride to the top. 2-6 years old must be accompanied.
2,000-foot Alpine Slide. Hailed as one of the best maintained Alpine Slides in the country. Imagine bobsledding without the snow and cold. Two parallel tracks on one-of-a-kind wheeled sleds. High-banked turns. Controlled by a hand brake, riders determine speed and thrill level.
(Infant and under 2, free. Ages 2-6, $4. Ages 7+, $9.)
For over 50 years, the scenic chairlift has provided breathtaking views of Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills. Float through the Ponderosa Pines towards the mountain-top summit. Chairlift back down or hike!
(Child, $15. Adult $15. Adrenaline Cost – Child, $25. Adult, $25.)
Adding to arsenal of adrenaline-pumping attractions is the Jump Tower. Ever dreamed of falling? This is it. Towering 60 feet high. Conquer fears. Free fall nearly 25 feet. There is a quick jump device that activates a braking system, which gently lowers you back to earth. Want to just watch? Grab a seat below to watch brave souls.
—Mountain Top Grille—
Over a mile across the valley from Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Escape from reality. Overlooks the vast expanse of Black Hills National Forest, as well as Mount Rushmore. Classic American food, like brats, bison burgers, and chicken sandwiches. Domestic and locally brewed beers available. Walk around flower gardens and trails to refresh and “get zen.”