Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota was a huge detour on our family road trip. However, when something this massive and renowned takes you on a seven-hour detour, you want to make sure it’s worth visiting. Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, attracts approximately 2-million visitors each year. The iconic landmark is as big and touristy as you’d expect, but is it worth it?
Why was Mount Rushmore built?
The story goes, in the 1920s, the official historian of the state, Doane Robinson, had an idea to attract more tourists to visit the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Robinson felt there needed to be something even more spectacular than the scenery to draw visitors to the region. He imagined American West icons like Red Cloud, Lewis & Clark, and Buffalo Bill Cody carved into the granite “needles” near Harney Peak, the state’s tallest mountain.
At the time, sculptor Gutzon Borglum, was busy sculpting an ambitious project in Georgia called, Stone Mountain. When Robinson approached him to carve the new sculpture, the timing was key. Borglum was having working difficulties with the people in Atlanta, so in September of 1924, just five months before he was let go by the project in Georgia, Borglum visited South Dakota.
Harney Peak proved to be inadequate for the project and couldn’t support such a massive sculpture. Thus, a search ensued for another, better-suited location.
It’s said Borglum fell in love with Mount Rushmore, named for New York attorney Charles Rushmore, at “first sight.” He even claimed to the Rapid City Journal, there was “no piece of granite comparable to it in the United States.”
The geologists who inspected the peak concurred and declared the granite suitable for the immense sculpture.
Mount Rushmore Faces
Selecting exactly who would appear on the side of Mount Rushmore wasn’t all that simple. Borglum had a different conception of the project. He thought Robinson’s idea would be too regional and felt it needed to be more national in scope and appeal. Borglum wanted the sculpture to represent the country’s first 150-years. Therefore, he decided to sculpt four presidents on the side of Mount Rushmore.
Our tour guide on the bus tour we took, Ken, (more on the bus tour in a future post) explained the choices as follows;
George Washington was selected because he was the first president and represents the country’s founding. Thomas Jefferson, who appears to be gazing off into the distance, represents the vision for the country with its westward expansion and the Louisiana Purchase for which he is known. Lincoln, who has a worried expression, symbolizes the preservation of the union, the struggles the country has been through, and its darkest hours. While Theodore Roosevelt presents the image of youth, the youngest president at just 42-years old, and the developing country becoming a world power in the 20th century.
Each face carved into the granite tells a story, offers a particular perspective, and represents an era in the American story blending to create a piece of art that has acquired the moniker, “Shrine of Democracy.”
Mount Rushmore Facts
More than just faces on a rock, Mount Rushmore is a font of fascinating facts.
For example, 90% of the granite was removed with dynamite and 450,000 tons of granite were taken out. Construction began in 1927 and was completed in 1941. There were multiple changes to the design – the presidents were initially going to be carved from the waist up, Thomas Jefferson started out to Washington’s right side but had to be moved, and there was to be entablature with a brief history of the U.S. included. That plan was scrapped.
Additionally, there was going to be a Hall of Records in a room behind Abraham Lincoln’s head that would be accessible via a staircase and contain important documents. That idea fell by the wayside in 1939 when funding the project became an impossibility.
The Lakota Sioux
Mount Rushmore is not without its controversy. From the start, the idea was rebuffed by various groups. From Robinson’s first mention of the carving, environmentalists were upset. They couldn’t understand why anyone would want to desecrate the natural scenery and beauty of a mountain.
However, some of the most forthright opponents have been the Native Americans. To the Lakota Sioux, the Black Hills is their homeland and sacred. In fact, the Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed between the Lakota and the U.S. in 1868, declared the Black Hills belonged to the Lakota.
But, that was before gold was struck in the hills in the 1870s and the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877. At the conclusion of the war, the defeated Lakota were forced to surrender the land by an Act of Congress. Nevertheless, to this day the Black Hills of South Dakota, including Mount Rushmore, is seen as sacred Lakota territory.
Updating the narrative
Years of controversy and opposition to the sculpture have been highlighted by a mixture of positions on the subject. In the 1930s, Lakota Chief Standing Bear hired a sculptor to carve a larger and privately-funded carving of Chief Crazy Horse, which is still under construction, 15-miles away from Mount Rushmore (a future post will cover the Crazy Horse Memorial).
Since that time, Mount Rushmore welcomed its first Native American superintendent from 2004-2010, Gerard Baker. Baker approached the debate from a different angle. Under Baker’s direction, park rangers began to integrate the Lakota perspective into the narrative of Mount Rushmore. While the debate over the topic continues, today, Mount Rushmore’s story also chronicles the Lakota history and passes along an appreciation, admiration, and respect for the region and its people.
Visiting Mount Rushmore
Although Mount Rushmore is a one-of-a-kind attraction, there are multiple ways to experience the famous mountain. For our visit, we made Rapid City, South Dakota, our hub. We enlisted Mount Rushmore Tours for a day-long bus tour of Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills (more on that in a future post). And while a bus tour has its pros and cons, it did make getting there easy and we learned a lot along the way.
If you’re not an “organized tour” kind of traveler, fear not. This is an easy site to see all on your own. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a National Park and with that comes a host of features such as hiking trails, virtual tours, self-guided tours, and Jr. Ranger activities.
The first stop you’ll want to make is at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center for the short film about Mount Rushmore and its origins before you head out to see the sculpture.
Once outside, spend some time on the Avenue of Flags finding your home state, and then navigate your way to the viewing area.
What is the best time of day to visit Mount Rushmore?
Keep in mind the busiest months are June, July, and August. If you’re trying to avoid the crowds, consider arriving before 9:00 am or after 3:30 pm. I suggest allocating at least an hour perhaps two at Mount Rushmore and leaving a buffer to wander through the gift shop. It’s massive and usually, there’s a fast-moving line at the checkout.
Mount Rushmore has seasonal hours and is open year-round with the exception of Christmas. The grounds are open from 5 am to 11 pm during the busy season. The visitors center and sculptor’s studio open at 8 am and the restaurant and gift shop open at 9. The Sculpture Illumination is from 9:30 pm to 11:00 pm. Be sure to consult the website before making your plans especially if your visit is during the off-season.
If you or a member of your traveling party has accessibility issues, Mount Rushmore is designed with accessibility in mind from brail brochures to elevators and mobility impairment access to the exhibitions.
Pet parents won’t find a kennel at Mount Rushmore but relief areas are available and Fluffy must remain on a leash that’s no longer than six-foot at all times.
Tips for taking photographs at Mount Rushmore
I resolved before leaving home we were going to take a Christmas Card-worthy family photo at Mount Rushmore. So, with matching hats atop our heads we approached the viewing area. Here are the tips I can pass along.
First, the faces are east-facing and thus the lighting is best in the morning. However, the bright light can be harsh so if you’re an early riser, sunrise provides what is known as the “Golden Hour.” You may even be treated to the early morning pink glow that strikes the faces in the pre-dawn moments creating spectacular photographs.
In the afternoon the sun slips behind the mountain. This can make picture-taking tricky but their faces won’t have the sharp brightness of the daylight shots. This isn’t a place to capture breath-taking sunsets. Once the sun dips behind the mountain, that’s it.
There are several places to take your photographs with the most popular being the viewing terrace near the Sculptor’s Studio. There’s usually a crowd here but people are friendly, wait for their turns, and often offer to snap a group shot for you.
In addition to the viewing terrace, if you’re able to go down to the amphitheater, you can get some wonderful shots from below the faces, or up-the-nose shots. If you’ve got the right camera, the mountain looks amazing awash in light at night time. Likewise, photos can be taken from miles away along the Iron Mountain Road and through several of the mountain tunnels. And since this is a National Park, leave the drone at home unless you’re a professional with advance permission.
Visiting Mount Rushmore, is it worth it?
Is Mount Rushmore worth visiting?
It’s definitely a touristy attraction and during the busy season, it’s bustling and packed with people. However, this part of the country is absolutely gorgeous and to see this magnificent artwork in person is almost surreal.
I recall after my parents’ visit to Mount Rushmore asking my mother what it was like and chuckling to myself at her answer.
“Well, it’s pretty self-explanatory.”
Such a Mom reply, but she was right. It is what it is.
Mount Rushmore has a storied past that’s touched by controversy and conversation. However, it’s more than just a mountain with a massive sculpture on the side of it. Mount Rushmore is significant, iconic, a piece of art, a lesson to be learned, and a “Shrine to Democracy.” That meets my definition of worth visiting any day.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Keystone, South Dakota
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