The southwest corner of South Dakota holds the state’s most visited site – Mount Rushmore. And really, it’s s stunning place to visit. The massive granite heads of four of our nation’s most beloved Presidents, each as tall as a 6 story building, gaze at you through the Avenue of Flags as you approach the Grand View Terrace.
But there is more to Mount Rushmore than the view. In our see-it-snap-a-photo-move-on society, many visitors don’t take the time to explore the trails surrounding the mountain, or the studio space of Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who designed the scale model of Mount Rushmore and oversaw the carving.
The Presidents on Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore was initially going to feature western heroes like Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud, and Buffalo Bill Cody. It was Borglum who decided the sculpture should have a more national focus and chose the Presidents we see today.
“Hence, let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the works of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of me they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.” ~ Gutzon Borglum
George Washington, Revolutionary War Hero, Father of our country, and a founder of American democracy was the first chosen and is the most prominent face on the mountain. Next to Washington is Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and purchaser of the Louisiana Territory. Nestled behind Jefferson is Theodore Roosevelt who linked east and west with the Panama Canal and is credited with influencing our National Parks Service. And, finally, Abraham Lincoln, who held our nation together and preserved the union during the Civil War.
All great men, great leaders, who are still looked up to today – and not just when you’re standing below them, gazing in awe at their massive faces.
Visiting Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore sees most of its visitors during the summer months when South Dakota is warm and inviting. While the line to get in to the parking lot can be long, the Park Rangers are incredibly friendly and helpful. (There is a charge for parking, but admission to the park is free. ) Wear comfortable walking shoes, bring a hat and sunscreen as the clear prairie skies and the altitude can give you a sunburn quickly.
Plan at least two hours to visit Mount Rushmore. Take time to let the kids earn their Junior Ranger Badges. The free booklets serve as a terrific guide to the park and are available in the ranger station just after entering the park.
The first thing every visitor does is stroll through the Avenue of Flags and find their state before standing, in awe, on the Grand View Terrace. If you take the time to examine the flags, you’ll notice that there are 56 flags flying – representing the 50 states, one district, three territories, and two commonwealths. Tip: flags are in alphabetical order.
Begin your tour in the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center below the Grand View Terrace where you’ll see the tools and techniques used to carve Mount Rushmore. My girls loved the ‘hands on’ cranes and the ability to virtually blow things up, while Doug & I devoured the history lining the walls.
You’ll move on to the Sculptor’s Studio where Gutzon Borglum refined his scale model of Mount Rushmore. To stand before the scale model and see the finished carving in the window beyond… It’s almost surreal.
From Burglum’s Studio, walk the Presidential Trail. It’s only half a mile long, but has quite a number of steps if you do the entire trail loop. Follow clockwise from the Grand View Terrace (visiting the Sculptor’s Studio last) if you don’t want to go up the steps. Along this path are informational plaques that really help bring the Presidents and the monument to life.
After you’ve explored the paths and Junior Ranger badges have been earned, take a well deserved break and enjoy ice cream with a magnificent view.
Tip: Many tourists rush to visit when the gates open; if you can, tack it on to the end of your day and stay for the Evening Lighting Ceremony during the summer months.
Where to stay:
Mount Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch sits just around the bend from Mount Rushmore. A fabulous campground with camp sites, deluxe cabins, horseback riding, chuckwagon dinners, and a delicious restaurant, you can not go wrong staying here.
If you love historic hotels, try the Hotel Alex Johnson, in Rapid City. We were impressed with our room – actually two bedrooms connected by a bathroom, perfect for traveling with kids!
Other Black Hills sites you might want to visit:
Wall Drug – though not actually in the Black Hills, many people pass it on the way to the Black Hills