Mount Rushmore is more than just a grand carving of four presidents. It is representative of some of the most important events in the history of the United States. The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, chose the four men that he did for very specific reasons. In addition to getting some of the best views of the memorial, learning about Borglum’s decisions and how the sculpture was carved are just a few of the many things to do at Mount Rushmore.
What you may not realize is that Mount Rushmore National Memorial is actually one of the 419 units of the National Park Service. That’s right, it’s actually a national park (just not one of the 62 that have National Park in the name). Whether you are a national park fan like us or just want to see Mount Rushmore, it’s well worth a visit.
Additionally, Mount Rushmore is just one of MANY amazing parks and attractions in the Black Hills of South Dakota. If you’re planning a visit to Mount Rushmore, plan to spend several days (or even a week or more) to give yourself time to really enjoy the area and all the great things it has to offer.
We have now visited Mount Rushmore three times together. First was in 2012 on our first visit to the Black Hills. More recently, we visited during our trip to Rapid City in January 2019 and a three-week visit to the Black Hills in the summer of 2020.
Yes, we love the Black Hills! And, Mount Rushmore remains impressive and worth a visit even though we’ve both seen it several times before.
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Mount Rushmore National Memorial Basic Information
Location: Keystone, SD (about 30 minutes southwest of Rapid City)
Fees: Parking is $10/vehicle ($5 for Seniors 62 and older); ticket is valid for one year from entry. This fee is collected by Xanterra and it is NOT covered by the America the Beautiful Annual Pass or other NPS passes. There are no additional entry fees for Mount Rushmore NM.
What to Expect: Many different views of Mount Rushmore and the surrounding Black Hills, information on the history and carving of the sculpture.
Additional Information: There are many winding and scenic roads in the Back Hills. If you are driving or towing an RV or other oversized vehicle, check road warnings carefully. Don’t worry, though, there are several roads that allow all vehicles easy access to the park. Additionally, pets are not allowed in the park, though service dogs are. Plan accordingly, if traveling with a pet.
A Brief History of Mount Rushmore
In 1923, a South Dakota state historian suggested the idea of a mountain carving in the Black Hills. He contacted Borglum, who had been working on a carving at Stone Mountain, Georgia (his work was later blasted off the mountain after he left that job due to conflicts with the organizers).
The Federal and State governments authorized a carving in the Black Hills and created Mount Rushmore National Memorial in 1925. After a couple of years of planning, the drilling actually started in 1927. Final drilling was done in 1941, nearly 8 months after Borglum’s death. His son supervised the final touches of the memorial.
So, just why did Borglum choose George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln? According to the Mount Rushmore NM web site, “Gutzon Borglum selected these four presidents because from his perspective, they represented the most important events in the history of the United States.”
“The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.”Gutzon Borglum
Washington represents the birth of the nation, Jefferson represents the growth of the United States, Roosevelt represents the development of the country and Lincoln represents the preservation of the Union.
Perhaps another artist would have chosen different men (or women). A modern artist might make completely different choices for different reasons. Regardless of why Borglum chose these men, Mount Rushmore continues to stand as a work of art and an American icon.
The Controversy of Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills
At this point, we would be remiss to not acknowledge the history of the land of the Black Hills, including Mount Rushmore. You may be familiar with the protests surrounding President Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore in 2020. In fact, we were in the Black Hills at this time, though we did not attend the Fourth of July event at the monument. Even before the protests, though, we were well aware that for the Lakota Sioux, this is sacred land.
In fact, the Lakota Sioux call this mountain Six Grandfathers Mountain. According to the Native Hope blog, it was named for the six sacred directions: north, south, east, west, above and below. “The directions are said to represent kindness and love, full of years and wisdom, like human grandfathers.”
It is also considered stolen land. I’m not an expert on this topic but an article by PBS provides a succinct description of this history: “In the Treaty of 1868, the U.S. government promised the Sioux territory that included the Black Hills in perpetuity. Perpetuity lasted only until gold was found in the mountains and prospectors migrated there in the 1870s. The federal government then forced the Sioux to relinquish the Black Hills portion of their reservation.”
For many Americans, Mount Rushmore is an iconic sculpture and a must-see destination. For many Native Americans, the Lakota Sioux in particular, it is a reminder of what was taken from them. And the men portrayed at Mount Rushmore were not necessarily friendly to the Native Americans. Indeed, the growth of the United States came at the expense of Native Americans. The “white man” continuously pushed natives off the land they had lived on for years before white settlers.
It’s easy to get excited about seeing Mount Rushmore. I have to admit, artistically it is a masterpiece. But I encourage you to see it for both the good and the bad and to educate yourself about the history of the area.
Things to Do at Mount Rushmore
Depending on which way you approach Mount Rushmore, you’ll get several different views of the carving long before you enter the national memorial. If you really just want to see the sculpture and snap a couple of pictures, you can do that from afar.
That said, the views from inside the park are, obviously, much better. Additionally, you can learn more about the carving process by visiting Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Pro Tip: If you are looking for a unique view of Mount Rushmore, turn right on SD 244 out of the parking lot and come around the side. Look for a turnout so you can park and capture this great profile view of Washington’s head.
Walk the Avenue of Flags & Enjoy the Grand View Terrace
As you enter the main plaza, you can’t help but be drawn in by the 50 state flags lining either side of the walkway as you approach the Grand View Terrace. This site really sets the tone of patriotism that Mount Rushmore NM embodies.
There are many places throughout the park with amazing views of the carving. Still, there is a good reason the park named this the Grand View Terrace. Any trip to the park should include this walk and viewpoint.
*The National Park Service recently renovated the Avenue of Flags. It is now wider and improves the visibility of the sculpture. The park service completed renovations in late June 2020. As of our visit in early July 2020, work was still underway on the Grand View Terrace.
Check out the Visitor Center
A visit to any national park should always include a stop at the Visitor Center so you can learn more about the park and get any pertinent updates. The Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center is located below the Grand View Terrace at Mount Rushmore NM. Here, you can view several exhibits and watch the park film. There is also a small bookstore.
Unfortunately, due to renovations, the visitor center was closed during our visit in June and early July 2020. We really enjoyed the visitor center and all the information it presents on our first visit back in 2012.
Visit the Sculptor’s Studio
Dating back to 1939, this small structure was the on-site studio for Gutzon Borglum. The original model and some of his tools are on display. It really is interesting to view the actual sculpture and the model together. Note in the photo below, the model called for the sculptures to include the entire top half of the body. Limited funds forced Borglum to alter the sculpture and only carve the heads.
Park rangers and volunteers are available to answer questions and generally have a prepared program several times throughout the day in the summer.
Walk the Nature Trail and Presidential Trail
As with any national park, one of our favorite things to do at Mount Rushmore is to get in a hike. While the hiking opportunities are not extensive, there is enough to stretch your legs and get your heart rate up!
The short Nature Trail takes you down to the Sculptor’s Studio. While there is a bit of an incline and a few stairs, most anyone should be able to make the walk down and back up.
While you’ll get great views of Mount Rushmore from the main plaza and Grand View Terrace, walking the Presidential Trail allows for a different perspective. This 0.6-mile trail runs from the Sculptor’s Studio across the front of the Memorial and back up the other side of the Grand View Terrace and main plaza.
Note: There are 422 stairs along the Presidential Trail. Yes, it’s a lot of stairs. There are landings frequently allowing you to take a break as needed. Visitors who are mobility-impaired can access the base of the mountain from the Grand View Terrace.
Attend the Evening Lighting Ceremony
Whether you time your visit for late afternoon/evening or return after a morning or early afternoon visit, the evening program is well worth your time. Remember, the parking fee allows entry for up to a year. With this, you can easily return later in the day or even a different day for the evening ceremony.
In addition to some basic information about the carving and the park, the evening ceremony includes the singing of the National Anthem and a Flag Ceremony. The park invites veterans and active-duty military to participate in the flag ceremony.
The evening program lasts about 20 minutes.
Attend a Ranger Talk
Park rangers present several talks throughout the day in the summer. Check the information center when you enter or ask a ranger at the Visitor Center for more information.
Rent a Self-Guided Audio Tour
If you prefer to listen rather than read exhibits, you can hear the story of Mount Rushmore with a self-guided audio tour. The tour includes music, narration, interviews and historic recordings. With this tour, you can learn about the park as you wander around. Cost is $8.
We have not actually paid for the audio tour, so cannot comment on whether it is worth it. I do like that the tour is available in English, French, German, Lakota and Spanish. This is great for visitors who may have a difficult time reading the exhibits in the Visitor Center.
Grab a Meal or Snack at Carvers’ Cafe
Located in the main plaza is Carver’s Cafe, a large “food court” style cafe. Depending on the time of day, you can get breakfast, lunch or dinner within the Carvers’ Cafe. From bison burgers to wraps and salads, there is a wide variety of food options.
For those with a sweet tooth, check out Memorial Team Ice Cream, where you can get a Monumental Ice Cream cone with Thomas Jefferson’s original vanilla recipe from 1780.
Get a Souvenir at the Gift Shop
No visit to a national park would be complete without a souvenir! For Grant, it’s always a magnet. At Mount Rushmore, you’ll find a large gift shop with t-shirts, stuffed animals, books, jewelry, games and much more.
Getting to Mount Rushmore
Visitors can reach Mount Rushmore from several different highways. Since you’re in the mountains, some of these highways are easier to drive than others. The easiest drives will be on Hwy 16 South, from Rapid City or Hwy 40 West from Hermosa. The most scenic drives are Hwy 244 East from near Hill City or Hwy 16A North from Custer State Park.
Our choice for the best way to get to Mount Rushmore is Hwy 16A, better known as Iron Mountain Road.
Driving Iron Mountain Road
If you’re up for a little adventure, I suggest approaching Mount Rushmore on Iron Mountain Road. This scenic road stretches from Custer State Park on the south end to Mount Rushmore on the north end. The road was built in 1933 and is full of so many curves you’ll need nearly an hour to travel its 17 miles. There are also several turnouts offering amazing views. Plan to stop at several of them to take in the beauty of the area.
Note: There are three one-lane tunnels which restrict access to large vehicles.
Some of the most unique features of Iron Mountain Road are the wooden pigtail bridges and one-lane tunnels that perfectly frame Mount Rushmore when driving towards the monument. Additionally, the landscape here in the Black Hills is simply breathtaking. Iron Mountain Road is just one of many scenic drives in the area.
You CAN access Iron Mountain Road without purchasing a Custer State Park entrance pass. That said, Custer SP is consistently regarded one of the best state parks in the country and is well worth its own visit.
Yes, you can drive Iron Mountain Road starting at Mount Rushmore but you’ll miss the iconic views of the sculpture through the tunnels. If doing this, just be sure to check the rear view mirror and stop at the turnouts if you can.
Again, this road is very windy and twisty, so anyone who is prone to carsickness may want to skip this drive. That said, it’s a great drive and might be worth the nausea.
Essential Information: The smallest tunnel height and width is 10′ 9″ – do NOT attempt this drive if you cannot fit those restrictions.
Things to Do in Keystone
When visiting Mount Rushmore, I hope that you’ll plan several days because there are tons of other great things to do in the area. The small town of Keystone has several museums and adventure parks. Additionally, there are plenty of other state and national parks and other attractions in the surrounding towns.
National Presidential Wax Museum
Since you’re in town visiting Mount Rushmore, you might as well learn a bit more about all of our country’s presidents and have a little fun while you’re at it. The best place to do that is at the National Presidential Wax Museum in Keystone.
The museum includes wax figures of all the US Presidents and many other people. Many of the presidents are depicted in scenes of significant real-life events. You’ll find George Washington and his wife, Martha, admiring the newly created American flag. Grover Cleveland is depicted at his wedding in the Blue Room of the White House. George W. Bush is presented in a 9/11 scene, complete with rubble and an FDNY firefighter.
Included with your admission ticket is an audio tour allowing you to listen to stories about the context of each scene at your own pace. There’s also a short video right at the beginning about the art of wax sculptures and everything that goes into creating the figures.
Tickets: $11 for adults; $9 for Seniors (65+), active military & veterans; $8 for children 6-12. Our visit lasted about an hour but you can move at your own pace.
Other Things to Do Near Mount Rushmore
There are several other attractions in Keystone, including a couple of adventure parks and a museum on Gutzon Borglum. The small downtown area is full of souvenir shops and restaurants.
We had lunch at Palominos, which serves sandwiches, salads and pastys (traditionally found in Michigan, a pasty is basically a hand-held chicken or beef pot pie). Grant got a French Dip and I chose the Philly Cheesesteak. Both sandwiches were good, though a little under-filled with meat and other toppings, especially for the price.
Don’t limit yourself to Keystone, though. There are several other towns within about an hour’s drive that all offer attractions, museums and great places to eat and drink. For the adults, you might want to pick up the Black Hills & Badlands Tasting Trail map, which lists the great wineries, breweries and distilleries in the area.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Not far from Mount Rushmore, between Custer and Hill City, is the Crazy Horse Memorial. Still a work in progress, the Crazy Horse Memorial depicts the Oglala Lakota Warrior, Crazy Horse, riding a horse and pointing. The sculpture is an answer to Mount Rushmore so that everyone will know that the tribes also had great heroes who should be remembered.
This is especially important to the Plains Indian tribes because the Black Hills is considered sacred land that was taken from them after gold was discovered in the Black Hills. Indeed, in several spots throughout the Black Hills, you will find prayer flags.
You can easily spend a couple of hours here, viewing the memorial and touring the exhibits, which cover the life of the Lakota and the history of the memorial.
Admission: $12/person in a vehicle (1 or 2 people); $30 for 3 or more people in a vehicle; $7/person on motorcycle, bicycle or walk-in.
Other Towns & Attractions
Other nearby towns are Rapid City, Custer, Hill City, Spearfish, Deadwood, Lead and Sturgis. Many offer attractions and museums of their own, along with a wide variety of hotels, campgrounds and restaurants. Many of the roads connecting these towns are designated scenic drives, so getting there really is half the fun.
Specific parks in the Black Hills we recommend are Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument. Badlands National Park and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site are about an hour east. Devils Tower National Monument, the country’s first national monument, is about two hours northwest, in Wyoming. There are plenty of hiking trails in those parks and in the surrounding Black Hills National Forest.
Final Thoughts on Things to Do at Mount Rushmore
Of all the things to do at Mount Rushmore, viewing the iconic sculpture is at the top of the list. And, there are many places that you can see the carving from both inside and outside the park. I encourage you to not just run in, snap a few pictures and move on, though.
Taking the time to view the sculpture from the different vantage points and stop at the Visitor Center and Sculptor’s Studio will enhance your visit. Learning about the carving process and everything it took to get this completed will help you appreciate the sculpture that much more.
With all the other great things to do in the Black Hills such as scenic drives, other parks and historical museums, I hope that you’ll schedule a few extra days to enjoy the area and all the great things it has to offer.
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