Travel dates: June 9-11, 2017
It’s impossible to see Mount Rushmore for the first time. It’s one of the most iconic images in the world, and most of us have had it burned into our brains for as long as we can remember.
But if you make the trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota to see the sculpture up close, you can make up for the lack of novelty by gazing at it from countless perspectives.
Take Iron Mountain Road to get there and watch the monument get closer and closer, often deliberately and dramatically framed by the road’s narrow tunnels:
(Not in this photo. I didn’t get any pictures of the tunnels dramatically framing the monument. Sorry).
Once you arrive, you’ll get the standard postcard view (you and throngs of other tourists):
….and then you can take the short trail at the base for a closer look and many different points of view:
Or how about a stop by the Sculptor’s Studio to see the scale models of the presidents with the finished monument in the background?
There’s something appropriately American about the story of Mount Rushmore. South Dakota historian Doane Robinson came up with the idea of carving famous figures into the mountains specifically to bring tourists to the Black Hills. So this grand monument to Democracy was born out commercialism and yet, somehow, it still works.. on a level bigger than even the most tearjerking, nostalgic Coca-Cola ad. After seeing it, I’d like to buy the world some liberty and justice for all. And, of course, it also works for its original purpose, drawing around 2.5 million visitors a year (I think maybe most them were there the same day we were).
Mount Rushmore is, like America, not without its controversies and complications. It’s carved into a mountain that was granted to the Lakota in perpetuity by 1868’s Treaty of Fort Laramie. Conservationists opposed it on the grounds that the carving would destroy the natural beauty of the mountain. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum is a mass of contradictions; before coming to South Dakota, he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and was known for working on the sculpture of giant Confederate figures on the still controversial Stone Mountain in Georgia….yet he named his son Lincoln in honor of his favorite president.
And yet there it is, a monument in granite, eroding at a rate of one inch every 10,000 years. It’s likely to be there, reminding us of both our demons and the better angels of our nature, for a very long time to come (to quote the Mount Rushmore resident who is also my favorite president and after whom I also named a kid).
Tips for Visiting
*There’s no admission fee, but there is a $10 per vehicle parking fee, good for one year from date of purchase
*It’s very crowded. We were there on a Friday in early June, and….I’d hate to see it during July.
*The first thing you’ll come to after parking is the Information Center on one side of the walkway and the Audio Tour rental and restrooms on the other side. We didn’t do the Audio Tour, but we stopped by the Information Center for a Junior Ranger book for Abe, which gave him something to work on as we walked around the monument.
*A little further along is the gift shop and cafe. We were a kind of disappointed in the gift shop. It was very typical of what you’d find at any big, cheesy tourist attraction rather than like the best of National Park gift shops. Across from the gift shop, the cafe offers food court style dining and an ice cream shop that serves (among other flavors) vanilla ice cream using Thomas Jefferson’s recipe.
*Past the cafe is the Avenue of Flags and then the viewing platform for some of the best views of the monument. This is also where there’s seating for the evening lighting ceremony (which we didn’t get to see).
*We walked the .6 mile Presidential Trail for some different views of the monument. The trail is short, but there are a lot of steps on it, so be aware if anyone in your group has mobility issues. There’s an educational area for kids next to the trail at one point (with teepees and, while we were there, a couple of park rangers on hand to answer questions and show off a few artifacts) and some other fun stuff for kids like rocks to climb on and a small cave-like opening in the rocks at one point.
*You can follow the Presidential Trail to the Sculptor’s Studio (open seasonally) with exhibits about the carving of sculpture, including some examples of tools used. There’s a small gift shop/bookstore in here as well. We got there just as a ranger program was getting started, and Ranger Reid gave an enthusiastic and entertaining account of the sculpture’s history and we all voted him one of our favorite rangers of all time.
*Our last stop was the Visitors’ Center, located under the viewing platform (you could also go here before starting the Presidential Trail, which loops around and starts and ends near the visitors’ center. Here we watched the film, which has some really cool aerial footage of the sculpture, checked out the museum, and turned in Abe’s Junior Ranger book. Ranger Reid again: he’s everywhere!
*Best time for Mount Rushmore photography is in the morning. We were there in the afternoon (see: photos of squinting children (and me and Dave)). Fortunately, there are already plenty of great Mount Rushmore photos out there in the world, so I didn’t feel a great responsibility to add more.
*Judging by the crowds at Mount Rushmore vs. other Black Hills attractions, a whole lot of people come to this part of South Dakota, look at Mount Rushmore, and leave. Don’t do that, if there’s any way you can help it. There is SO MUCH more to see in the Black Hills. So thanks to Doane Robinson for figuring out a great way to get people here!
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