Known as the “Shrine of Democracy”, Mount Rushmore is located in the Black Hills region of South Dakota and attracts over two million visitors each year. The Black Hills are known for the ponderosa pine trees that give the illusion of darkness from a distance.
The concept of an attraction that would drum up business for the economy and bring visitors to South Dakota was the idea of Doane Robinson, the state historian of South Dakota. He originally wanted to honor western heroes, like Lewis and Clarke and Chief Red Cliff. Robinson sought out mountain carvers and found well known sculpture Gutzon Borglum, who was working on a project in Georgia. Borglum changed the scope of the project by switching the location and the profiles to feature American presidents that best represent 150 years of American history. He chose Mount Rushmore, named for New York attorney Charles Rushmore who inspected the mountain for mining in the 1880s, because of its location: it was big enough for the scale of the project, it was made of hard rock, and it faced southeast, which provided good daytime light.
Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln were chosen because they “fought for the new birth of Freedom” in various ways; Washington led the Continental Army, Jefferson expanded the country through the Louisiana Purchase, Roosevelt defended Americans’ right and freedoms and was a champion of land preservation, and Lincoln held the country together during the Civil War.
Work began in 1927 and, with a budget of one million dollars and an active work crew of 400, finished in 1941. Washington’s portrait was finished first and unveiled on July 4th, 1930, followed by Jefferson, Roosevelt, and finally Lincoln. Almost 90% of the monument, about 450,000 tons of rock, was carved with dynamite. Each nose is about 20 feet long and mouths are about 18 feet wide. Borglum died, post-surgery, in 1941 a few months before the memorial was completed. His son, Lincoln, took over and saw the project to completion. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the carving, the memorial had an extensive expansion in the 1990s, adding an amphitheater, Avenue of Flags, restaurant and gift shop, and parking garage. Helpful maps of the Memorial and nearby areas can be found here.
10 Tips for Visiting Mount Rushmore:
1. Parking: There is a $10 fee to park a car. The pass is valid for 365 days, so be sure to save the ticket. There are many kiosks throughout the park for payment and guests must scan their ticket for exit and reentry. The underground parking garage is quite large, with many sections and sets of stairs (and elevators) to get to the main level. Note: The America the Beautiful passes cannot be applied at Mount Rushmore.
2. Restrooms are located throughout the park, including the main entrance, across from the Information Center, inside the Visitor Center, on the path to the Sculptor Studio, and inside the Sculpture Studio.
3. Souvenirs: There are plenty of places to purchase gifts, books, and food. The Information Center at the entrance to the memorial sells books and a few souvenirs. Across from the promenade is the main gift shop, which has an extensive collection of gifts, apparel, housewares, and small snack. The Visitor Center bookstore and Sculpture Studio bookstore sell books related to Mount Rushmore, American history, and the history of Black Hills National Forest. The main gift shop is open the latest, until 10:30pm during the summer.
4. Food: The main spot to get food is in the Carvers’ Cafe. It sells breakfast, lunch, and dinner items from 9am-5pm. The Cafe also sells ice cream through the nighttime lighting of the memorial.
5. Exhibition Hall showcases videos, photographs, and the prototypes of the faces. The lengthy historical timeline tracks the advancements of the presidents and history of country. Plan to spend one hour exploring the exhibits.
5. Guests can rent self-guided tour devices in the building across from the Information Center at entrance to the Avenue of the Flags. The audio guide incorporates narration, music, historic recordings, and interviews. Kids will enjoy the Junior Ranger Quest game that has 16 challenges at various spots throughout the park. Kids can earn a Junior Ranger badge for completing the quest. The quest is available on the Apple Store and Google Play.
7. Make time to attend the daily nighttime lighting during the summer. During the summer, the ceremony starts at 9pm each night in the amphitheater (which holds over 2,000 people). The ceremony begins with patriotic music, followed by a brief ranger talk, and then a 20-minute video showcasing the presidents memorialized. The memorial is lit and the ceremony culminates with veterans and active military in attendance being welcomed to the stage to be honored. “Off season”, the memorial is illuminated at sunset.
8. Videos: There are several videos shown each day in the Visitor Center with topics ranging from the history of the Black Hills mountain range to the life of Gutzon Borglum to the expansion of Mount Rushmore, and most videos are under 20 minutes. Viewing a video or two is a great way to cool off (or warm up) and rest wary feet.
8. Ranger talks: Various ranger led programs are held throughout the day. One of the most popular presentations is given in the Sculpture Studio, which explains how the memorial was made, and showcasing many of the tools the sculptures used. The Studio is also home to the 9th scale model of the memorial. Note: The Sculpture’s Studio is closed during the winter. We also enjoyed the Youth Exploration Area with interactive programs for children, offered during summer months.
10. Walk the Presidential Trail. The .6-mile trail begins at the Grand View Terrace and includes 422 stairs. We recommend starting at the left side of the Terrace and ending towards the Sculpture’s Studio, which will have more stairs down than up. There are several viewing points along the trail and there are several benches and areas to sit and rest.
Lodging nearby: Mount Rushmore is located between the towns of Keystone and Hill City. Both areas have plenty of dining and lodging options and plenty of other activities the whole family will enjoy. Find more information of Keystone here and more information about Hill City here. We stayed at the Lodge at Palmer Gulch, which is a KOA resort, in Hill City. The complex includes the main lodge with 61 rooms, several private cabins, and over 600 campsites. There are dozens of activities and plenty of dining options, including a dinner show, Tap Room, Turtle Town, and lodge dining. The Lodge at Palmer Gulch was less than 10 minutes to Mount Rushmore and we enjoyed our stay. We only wish we could have stayed longer and explored more of the resort amenities.
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Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina
Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah