Perched high above the Black Hills of South Dakota, four of the United States’ most distinguished presidents look westward to the horizon. What began in 1925 as a tourist attraction grew into the most visited national monument outside of Washington, D. C. and New York City. As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial, Mount Rushmore has its own celebration–October 2016 marks the memorial’s 75th anniversary.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Black Hills, South Dakota,

Mount Rushmore National Memorial draws over two million visitors a year to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Photo Credit: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Carved into the hardest and finest-grained granite found in the Black Hills of South Dakota, presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln survey the land towards the westward horizon. What began as an idea to attract more visitors to the Black Hills of South Dakota grew into a symbol of the American spirit. Mount Rushmore National Memorial became an American icon and the most visited national monument outside of Washington, D.C and New York City.

History of Mount Rushmore National Memorial

A local historian, Doane Robinson, heard of Gutzon Borglum’s mountain sculpting and invited him to South Dakota in 1925 to scout the Black Hills for a possible monument. Borglum and his teenage son, Lincoln, rode by horseback through the mountains looking for the right combination of fine-gauge granite with a southerly-facing exposure for maximum sunlight for the possible monument.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota, Black Hills,

Mount Rushmore National Memorial glows in the late afternoon sun. Photo Credit: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Mount Rushmore, named after a New York attorney before work began on the monument, provided both and the local community supported the idea. Borglum started work on the memorial in August 1927 with funding from private citizens and school children.

The project got President Calvin Coolidge’s attention and the U.S. Government funded the remainder of the project. In all, Mount Rushmore National Memorial took 14 years for 400 men to remove 400,000 tons of granite to carve four presidents into the mountainside.

How they carved Mount Rushmore National Memorial

In his on-site studio, Gutzon Borglum created detailed plaster models 1/12th scaled of the finished sculpture. Using detailed measurements and a plumb bob, workers hung from ropes and harnesses to recreate Borglum’s sculpture on the side of the mountain.

The workmen climbed scaffolding and ladders at first; later a cable car carried the men to the top of Mount Rushmore. Air compressors located at the bottom of the mountain powered the jackhammers used for drilling.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Black Hills, South Dakota,

In this original photo by Charles D’Emery, workers carve an eye while harnessed into seats that Gutzon Borglum created for this project. Remarkably, no one was seriously injured on the job. Photo Credit: National Park Service

Dynamite removed 90% of the rock, with blasting occurring twice a day. With the majority of the rock removed, a driller used a jackhammer to drill holes close together making the granite resemble honeycomb.

A carver would remove the remaining honeycombed granite with hand tools under the direction supervision of Gutzon Borglum. The last step required an air-driven hammer to finish the faces to their smooth appearance.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Black Hills, South Dakota,

I had the special honor to meet Nick Clifford, the last surviving Mount Rushmore worker. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

Work began on George Washington with Thomas Jefferson next, then Abraham Lincoln and finally Theodore Roosevelt. The original plan called for larger sculptures. But with the death of Gutzon Borglum in 1941, his son Lincoln Borglum finished up the monument, and it was never fully finished as planned.

Your First Visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial

The Mount Rushmore Information Center and Bookstore is the first building when entering the memorial from the parking area. I recommend this as the first stop. Across from the Information Center is the Audio Tour Building; audio recordings are available in several languages ($5 rental).

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Black Hills, South Dakota,

No trip to South Dakota’s Black Hills is complete without a visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

Walk up the Avenue of Flags to the Grand View Terrace; this area offers the best view and occasional ranger programs. I found the amphitheater below the Grand View Terrace, where the nightly lighting ceremony is held.

If You have More Time

The Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center is directly underneath the Grand View Terrace. It offers a short interpretive film and displays on the carving of the memorial.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota, Black Hills,

For a unique viewpoint of George Washington, stop at the parking lot off South Dakota Highway 244. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

After touring the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, I visited the Sculptor’s Studio (open seasonally) to see the 1/12th scale model of Mount Rushmore as Gutzon Borglum had originally envisioned the monument. Borglum used this studio from 1939 until his death in 1941.

Hikes at Mount Rushmore National Memorial

The Presidential Trail offers visitors a closer look at the memorial to examine the details of the carvings. The 0.6-mile trail has 422 steps and meanders through the trees to get very close to the rock pile at the base of the monument. I recommend this trail since it offers different vantage points.

Kids at Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Mount Rushmore National Monument offers a Junior Ranger Program for all ages. I found several different activity books from the smallest rangers (4 to 5 years old) to adults.

My kids, ages 8, 12 and 13, enjoyed racing along the Presidential Trail. With an active group of kids, short hikes are a must for us. Afterwards, we celebrated with Thomas Jefferson ice cream.

The Carver’s Café

The go-to item on the menu is Thomas Jefferson’s ice cream. After sampling ice cream in Europe, Thomas Jefferson returned home and developed his own recipe for vanilla ice cream, the first in America.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial’s restaurant, the Carver’s Café, is the only certified three-star green restaurant in South Dakota. To earn this designation, it grows its own produce at a nearby farm and implemented energy-saving enhancements.

Along with ice cream, Carver’s Café serves locally-sourced bison burgers, buffalo stew, and Teddy’s bison chili. Indoor and outdoor seating is available.

Lodging Near Mount Rushmore National Monument

Mount Rushmore is a day-use park and doesn’t offer camping or lodging. During my last visit I stayed at one of the closest hotels to Mount Rushmore.

With views of Mount Rushmore, the K-Bar-S Lodge offers a complimentary deluxe breakfast and free Wi-Fi. Located at 434 Old Hill City Rd, K-Bar-S Lodge is approximately five minutes away from the memorial.

Getting to Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Mount Rushmore is located at 13000 SD-244, Keystone, South Dakota, and is 32 miles from the Rapid City Regional Airport. Public transportation is not available but private tour operators do offer tours of the Black Hills.

Getting Around Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is open every day from 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. from mid-May to mid-August daily, closing at 9:30 p.m. the rest of the year. The nightly lighting ceremony begins at 9 p.m. during the summer. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is free to enter; the garage parking fee is $11.

The Information Center is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. during the summer and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the rest of the year. The Sculptor’s Studio is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day, closing earlier for the rest of the season. The Sculptor’s Studio closes for the season in mid-October and reopens in mid-May.

Tips from a Traveling Mom:

  • Be sure to see Mount Rushmore nightly illumination ceremony; it’s a moving experience.
  • The busiest days for Mount Rushmore are during the first week of July.
  • Drive to Mount Rushmore via Iron Mountain Road from Custer State Park for unique view.