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An iconic landmark with the United States of America set in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota

After breakfast, we head on out. Our first plan for the day was to visit Mount Rushmore – the main reason for heading out this way. We are told to take the scenic route that takes you up through the rugged mountains of Dakota’s Black Hills. On this crisp (a euphemism for cold) morning, it was beautiful, with tunnels carved into the mountain through which you get framed glimpses of Mount Rushmore. It is truly beautiful, and the winding switchback roads take you through rough craggy granite peaks and lush forests of Ponderosa pines. The Black Hills rise out and high above the Great Plains, formed by the primordial effects of ancient volcanic action as the continental tectonic plates brushed together. They get their name from the Ponderosa pines which look black as you approach them from the plains. This road has a number of switchbacks which are amazing feats of construction, curling back on and under themselves, hence the naming of one called “Pigs Tail”.

About Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore is a relatively recent creation and started as a concept by state historian Doane Robinson in 1923. The choice of artist was Gutzon Borglum, a radical sculptor with a sense of scale and outlandish ambition. Work started on Washington’s head in 1927 with the final 60-foot head, Teddy Roosevelt, being dedicated in 1939. The visitor centre gives a fascinating insight into the fantastic achievement and skills that went into sculpting the heads of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. 90% of the sculpting was actually done by using explosives, with the rest being done with jackhammers, chisels and assorted other tools. The bottom of the mountain lays testament to the amount of material that was literally blown away over a 13 year period. The design itself changed several times through the work to take into consideration the imperfections in the rock.

I was in two minds when it came to visiting the Mount Rushmore National Monument. It is iconic and symbolic of the United States – and I had seen it in so many films and in photographs. On the other hand, it has a controversial history, being built on Native American Lands without any permission and sculpted by a man with ties to the Ku Klux Klan. So, I thought just one visit – but I have been back 3 times now with different family members … probably and hopefully my last trip there!

Getting to Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore is located in a fairly remote location, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Most of the 3 million people who visit each year arrive by private vehicle or as part of a coach tour. The nearest city of any size is Rapid City which is 35 miles away. Rapid City does have a regional airport.

Location:Keystone, SD 57751. The memorial is 3 miles from Keystone, SD but is well signposted
Website:https://www.nps.gov/moru/index.htm
Hours:The grounds are open from 5 am to 11 pm. Most of the facilities open from 8 am until 9 or 10 pm. 
Fees:There is no fee to enter the park but there is a parking fee as this is subcontracted out. These are: $10 per vehicle, $5 for seniors (62+) and free to active military
Parking:
There is a huge parking structure at the Park, but don’t be fooled it can be very busy, especially in the summer months. If you are there in the busy season try to arrive before 9 am or after 3.30 pm
The main entrance at Mount Rushmore, National Monument

Weather and climate

Mount Rushmore is located in the Blackhills of South Dakota. In the winter months, it can be very cold and snowy so you’ll need to wrap up warm. Conversely in the summer months, it can be hot and sticky. 

Keystone
Saturday
90°
few clouds
Clouds20%
Humidity69%
Wind7mph
Sun
Min83°
Max90°
Mon
Min82°
Max90°
Tue
Min82°
Max89°
Wed
Min79°
Max87°

What to see at Mount Rushmore?

1. Promenade along the Avenue of Flags

The Avenue of the flags is the main pathway from the entrance to the Memorial and celebrates the 50 State of the Union. Each of the States is represented by its flag in alphabetical order as you pass down the Avenue.

All the pomp and glory is overlooked by the heads of the Monument, with the flags politely waving back at them.

The loop road through Badlands National Park
Pinnacles Overlook from Badlands National Park Loop Road

2. Enjoy the Monument from the Grand View Terrace

At the end of the Avenue of the Flags, you will arrive at the Grand View Terrance which has uninterrupted views of the Monuments and the heads of the four presidents of the United States; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

This is the iconic view you will have seen in the millions of tourist photographs from Mount Rushmore, which is what makes this a little spine-tingling … although you do get that nagging feeling it looked bigger in the photos!

The Grand View Terrace at Mount Rushmore soon gets busy with folks

3. The Presidents Trail – Get up close and personal to the Monument

The half-mile long paved Presidents Trail leads down from the Grand View Terrace to the base of the Mount Rushmore monument.  You’ll have the opportunity to spot some local flora and flora along the way.

The trail ends up at the base of the monument where you can literally look up the noses of the presidential sculptures. 

You can also see the enormous piles of rocks that accrued from the blasting and sculpting of the faces above. Not the prettiest of leftovers.

The view of the statues of the Presidents from the base along the President's Trail
The Presidents Trail is only a half-mile and is fully paved

4. Visit the Lincoln Borglum visitor centre to understand more about the Monument’s creation

The Lincoln Borglum visitor centre, the Museum and the bookstore are located directly below the Grand View Terrace.

The visitor centre has interactive exhibits and there is a 14-minute film that explains the history and construction of the Mount Rushmore Monument.

5. Visit the Lincoln Borglum visitor centre to understand more about the Monument’s creation

By far, the most spectacular program at Mount Rushmore National Memorial is the Evening Lighting Ceremony, held in the Amphitheater at 9 p.m. sharp during the summer season. A ranger will introduce a 20-minute movie about Mount Rushmore. Then, with the tune of the “Star-Spangled Banner” in the background, huge banks of floodlights will dramatically reveal the four presidential faces, stark white against the black, starry South Dakota sky. The whole programme lasts for about 45-minutes, and like everything else but the parking is free.

Mount Rushmore illumated at night

Other places close by worth visiting

1. Wind Cave National Park (37 miles)

Regarded as sacred by American Indians, exploration of the the area known a Wind Cave did not begin until 1881, when the entrance was noticed by two brothers, Jesse and Tom Bingham. They heard a loud whistling noise, which led them to a small hole in the ground, the cave’s only natural opening.

Today, you can visit the caves and the beautiful plains on the surface above. See my complete blog post on Wind Cave National Park

2. Custer State Park (20 miles)

Custer State Park is famous for its bison herds, other wildlife, scenic drives, historic sites, visitor centres, fishing lakes, resorts, campgrounds and interpretive programs. In fact, it was named as one of the World’s Top Ten Wildlife Destinations for the array of wildlife within the park’s borders and for the unbelievable access visitors have to them.

You can find out more about the incredible wildlife and stunning scenery in my full blog post on Custer State Park

A large bison crosses the plains

3. The Mammoth Site (57 miles) 

The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs

The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, SD is a truly incredible place to visit. We call in every time we are in the area as it is always changing.

Accidently, discovered during a construction project, The dig site is uncommon as the mammoth bones that the excavation has exposed have been left in situ and can be viewed by visitors from raised walkways. It is a most unusual exhibit.

For more information and pictures check out my complete blog post on the Mammoth Site.

4. Crazy Horse Memorial (17.5 miles)

Brule Lakota Henry Standing Bear was born near Pierre, South Dakota, along the Missouri River around 1874. In 1933 he heard that there were plans to build a monument to his cousin Crazy Horse at Fort Robinson where he had met his end. Standing Bear and the Lakota Sioux were determined that any such monument should be built in the Black Hill mountains of South Dakota which had a spiritual significance to his Nation.

The monument is being carved out of Thunderhead Mountain, on land considered sacred by some Oglala Lakota, roughly 17 miles (27 km) from Mount Rushmore. When, and if, it gets finished it will dwarf Mount Rushmore. There is more information in my Crazy Horse Memorial blog post.

5. South Dakota Air and Space Museum, Ellsworth Airforce Base (35 miles)

South Dakota Air & Space Museum on Ellsworth Airforce Base

I still get excited when I get the chance to visit a new museum dedicated to air and space, so when I discovered on our journey through South Dakota the South Dakota Air & Space Museum at Ellsworth Airforce Base I jumped at the chance to visit. Like many such aerospace museums, there was plenty of interesting aircraft on display. There are over 30 vintage military aircraft ranging from World War II bombers to the modern-day B-1.

Find out more of what to expect at m blog post on the South Dakota Air and Space Museum.

6. Minuteman missile historic site (97 miles)

If you are looking for another opportunity to catch up on cold-war history and nuclear proliferation then check out the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

The Minuteman Missile field covered the far western portion of South Dakota from 1963 through the early 1990s. There were 15 Launch Control Facilities that commanded and controlled 150 Launch Facilities (Missile Silos) holding Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. The missile field was operational, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for thirty years.

You can visit the new visitor centre and take tours of the sites themselves. Find out more from my blog post on the Minuteman Missile Historic Site.

Minuteman National Historic Site

7. Wall Drug Store (77 miles)

Wall Drug Store, Wall, SD

As you travel around America, especially the mid-west you’ll come across billboards advertising the Wall Drug Store. These billboards are located, in some cases, hundreds of miles from the store itself mostly along a 650 mile stretch of I-90. Apparently, there are more than 300 paid for billboards, some located internationally, and a whole load more unofficial billboards.

The store itself has become a popular stop-off point for people travelling through South Dakota or visiting the local attractions such as Badlands National Park or en route to Mount Rushmore.

8. Badlands National Park (85 miles)

The Lakota gave this land its name, “Mako Sica,” meaning “land bad.” Extreme temperatures, lack of water, and the exposed rugged terrain led to this name. In the early 1900s, French-Canadian fur trappers called it “les mauvais terres pour traverse,” or “bad lands to travel through.”

Located in southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park consists of 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires blended with the largest protected mixed-grass prairie in the United States

Find out more from my blog post on the Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park

Where to stay?

There is no overnight accommodation in the park so below are some ideas of places to stay.

Located in Rapid City in the Black Hills region, 18 mi from Mount Rushmore National Monument, Summer Creek Inn & Spa features a spa centre and hot tub. The bed and breakfast has a sun terrace and views of a waterfall and a garden, and guests can enjoy a drink at the bar. Free private parking is available on site.

Certain rooms feature a seating area where you can relax. A terrace or balcony are featured in certain rooms. Superior rooms include a spa bath or a hot tub. 

Check out the listing on Booking.com for more information.

Located in Rapid City, Sweetgrass Inn Bed & Breakfast offers accommodations with a restaurant, free private parking, a bar and a garden. This 3-star inn offers a shared kitchen, room service and free WiFi. The accommodations provides evening entertainment and an ATM.

Journey Museum is 8.1 mi from Sweetgrass Inn Bed & Breakfast, while Rushmore Mall is 9.9 mi from the property. The nearest airport is Rapid City Regional Airport, 11 mi from the inn.

Check out the listing on Booking.com for more information.

If you are looking for something more adventurous than the typical hotel experience then you might want to consider Under Canvas Mount Rushmore.

Fancy a glamping experience in safari-style tents then this may be the place for you. Canvas Mount Rushmore is tucked within Ponderosa Pines and Common Juniper, located on an original gold mining settlement less than 4 miles from Mount Rushmore National Monument. Offering upscale accommodations and majestic views of Mount Rushmore and the surrounding Black Hills

For more information check out Booking.com

In summary …

  • Mount Rushmore is on most American’s bucket list of things to do once in their lifetime. It is also a big draw for international tourists.
  • Whilst I had personal qualms about going to Mount Rushmore I am glad I did. I think it is a place you just need to visit once
  • It is free to go in but you have to pay for parking (its not pricey!)
  • The Monument is located in the middle of nowhere and the biggest close-by city is Rapid City. So, its not easy to reach – its a destination rather than somewhere you pass.
  • You can easily see everything comfortably in a couple of hours – but you might want to visit in the day and come back at night for the lighting ceremony.

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