No matter how many times you have seen this photo, it just doesn't do justice to the real thing.

No matter how many times you have seen this photo, it just doesn’t do justice to the real thing.

In the larger-than-life vistas of the western United States, there are two sculptures that stand out as even larger than larger than life: Mount Rushmore’s homage to four U.S. presidents and the still-unfinished Crazy Horse Monument to that Native American leader.

DestinationReviewBoth sculptures carved out of the side of a mountain are worth a visit. See them both in one day to appreciate the grandeur and the differences between them.

Crazy Horse Monument

We stopped at Crazy Horse first and were glad we did. The sculpture is still emerging from the mountain, 65 years after Korczak Ziolkowski  started his massive project. Officials there resolutely refuse to name a target completion date, but Pat Dobbs, the 57-year-old spokesperson for the nonprofit organization that operates the privately-funded tourist attraction, said he fully expects the sculpture to be finished in his lifetime.

This monument to Native American Chief Crazy Horse is a work in progress.

This monument to Native American Chief Crazy Horse is a work in progress.

My 17-year-old daughter, who just finished studying U.S. history during her junior year in high school, found the attraction unsettling. While she (and we) had arrived expecting to learn about the Lakota Chief who fought Custer, we mostly learned about the late Ziolkowski, the man who dedicated his life to carving the mountain. 

We came away knowing how he acquired the land, the challenges he overcame to get the project as far as it has come, the family members who are carrying on his work, and the evolution of the carving process. We even learned about how the sculpture will be different from Ziolkowski’s  model due to the realities of physics and engineering that made the original model unworkable.

But we learned very little about Crazy Horse and left feeling a little empty.

Mount Rushmore

Our next stop was the nearby Mount Rushmore, home of the massive carving honoring U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. There we found the reverent, spiritual, patriotic, rewarding feeling we had expected.

The kids took the challenging path to the foot of the monument--over the rocks.

The kids took the challenging path to the foot of the monument–over the rocks.

At the suggestion of the South Dakota Department of Tourism, we headed to Mount Rushmore at the end of the day to see the lighting ceremony, a moving 45-minute presentation that talks about the contributions of each of the presidents and culminates in a flag-lowering attended by former and current members of the military who are invited to join the ranger on the stage. It ends with each military member announcing his or her name and branch of the service. The Army vet from World War II who rolled onto the stage in his scooter drew the most applause.

(Distressingly, several rows of visitors around us snuck away during the ceremony, apparently hoping to beat the traffic out of the park. Please, if you go, don’t be the guys who leaves early. Waiting a few minutes for traffic to clear is a small price to pay to honor vets who risked their lives for the country.)

By arriving around dinner time, we not only got to see the moving ceremony, we missed the traffic jam going into the national park that is a regular feature of a summer day. When we passed Mount Rushmore on our way to Custer State Park the next morning, cars idled in the hot sun for more than a mile waiting their turn to drive into the park.

It was a bit of wait for dusk and the beginning of the ceremony, but we found plenty to keep ourselves entertained, including the walk up to the base of the monument (hubby and I took the stairs, while the kids climbed the rocks to the top) and strolling through the museum. Exhibits include a movie depicting the carving of the mountain between 1927-1941, information about the artist, Gutzon Borglum, and displays of the equipment used by the workers–all balanced with plenty of information about the men being honored by the mountain.

Disclosure: My family and I received free admission to Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore in return for this review. But the opinions included here are all our own.