Pros: American icon
Cons: crowds, expensive parking, not much to do
When we were planning our cross country trip, one of the items on my husband's must see list was the Mount Rushmore National Memorial just outside of Keystone, South Dakota. There are a few places to stay in Keystone but we chose to overnight in Rapid City which is about half an hour away. As the drive was gorgeous, this was no hardship.
The basic history of Mount Rushmore is that the South Dakota state historian, Doane Robinson, wanted to have more tourists visit South Dakota. To do this, he thought that they should put a gigantic carving of something patriotic in the Black Hills. Robinson contacted Gutzon Borglum who was previously known for creating the carvings on Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta. Why gigantic stone carvings, I don't know. It's a desecration of these beautiful mountains but still oddly compelling. It hasn't stopped others from wanting to make huge stone carvings, as right down the road, there is an ongoing project to blast out Crazy Horse which will dwarf Mount Rushmore when finished.
The choices for the carving were four Presidents: George Washington, Thome Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. They represent the birth, expansion, preservation and development of the United States as a country. The majority of the work was done with dynamite as granite is extremely difficult to carve.
There is no admission fee to enter Mount Rushmore National Memorial but there is a charge of $11 per car to use the parking garages. They are very nice garages and the permit does allow you to return multiple times within one calendar year. The permit has the year (in our case 2012 which means that you do not get a full year's worth of visits if you come in December versus January) and your license plate number on it. It is not transferrable so you must always use the same car. Your National Park Service American the Beautiful Annual Pass does not cover the parking charges. The garages are very nice and the lower levels allow you to park your car out of the sun. I still have a problem with "free" sites with expensive parking. We have one right by our house (the Stephen Udvar-Hazy Center for the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian) and the $15 parking fee per visit means we rarely visit an attraction in our backyard. I do like the fact that you only pay once per calendar year for Mount Rushmore. That said, I'm not sure how many times a person would want to visit Mount Rushmore unless they really loved photography or had many visitors or was doing some type of research.
Once you've parked the car, you work your way past the Information Center & Bookstore, the Carvers Cafe and the Gift Shop in order enter the Avenue of Flags. This area is extremely crowded and you should stay alert so as not to walk into anyone who has stopped in their tracks to see the carvings. Keep moving as there are far better views ahead.
The Avenue of Flags itself is a series of 56 flagpoles with the flags of the states, commonwealths and territories of the United States. They are arranged in alphabetical order and frame the entrance to the Grand View Terrace. The Grand View Terrace is your best place to take those iconic photos of the carvings or have your photo taken with them in the background. It's also crowded but not as much so as the entrance area. We found that people were very respectful of one another, taking turns to take photographs.
A year out from our trip, we realized that we would be in the Black Hills during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally so we changed our reservations in Yellowstone National Park and changed the direction of our circular trip. During the Rally, it can be extremely difficult to get lodging as everything is sold out within a hundred mile radius. I have heard of four hour lines to get into the parking garage at Mount Rushmore. As we exited the garage, there was a line over a mile long to enter and that was about 10:00 in the morning, in the middle of the week, albeit in July. Be prepared for people unless you come in February.
From here, if you are reasonably fit, the Presidential Trail is highly recommended. It's only half a mile but a great deal of it is uphill and you are at a high altitude. We saw many people struggling to climb the stairs at the end. If you have a child in a stroller, please rethink trying anything other than the first quarter mile of the trail traveling clockwise as there are hundreds of steps past that point.
This trail takes you up to visit the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Heritage Village, along the base of the mountain and to the Sculptor's Studio. The ranger working the Heritage Village did not seem to want to be there. It was over 100 degrees in the sun, very early in the morning so I could understand her discomfort but her attitude led us to spend only a few minutes exploring this area.
A great deal was also made about the wildlife you could see at Mount Rushmore. Rocky Mountain Goats! Mule Deer! Chipmunks! We saw a bird. One bird. It looked like a robin. There are too many people about most of the time to see any animals. Don't let the National Park Service advertising fool you.
While it was interesting getting to see the carvings from different perspectives, once you seen the carvings, you've seen the carvings. It doesn't change much. The best photos are from the Grand View Terrace. While the trail takes you to the base of the mountain, you will not be re-creating North by Northwest and getting all close and personal with Washington's nostil. You will still be at quite a distance.
The best part of the Presidential Trail is the Sculptor's Studio where the rangers were very involved with the visitors. I particularly found the model they used intriguing as the carving was supposed to be far more than just heads when it was originally planned. However, the rock quality changed the plans very early on in the process. There is an incredible picture here if the lighting cooperates and you have the correct equipment. You can line up the model of Washington with the actual carving of Washington through a window and get both in the same shot. Unfortunately, it was too bright and I did not have the right lens but this would make a great shot if you want to give it a try.
After hobbling back to the Grand View Terrace, we decided to skip the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center and film as it meant more stairs back down and up again. Once we returned home, my foot went into a walking boot. Otherwise, we would have spent the time there in the main visitor center. You can also return to the monument in the evening in the summer for a film and lighting ceremony. I hear it's very patriotic and I am sure it is much more appropriate than the dancing laser Coca-Cola can at Stone Mountain. However, we decided that the girls would do better with a swim and a good night's sleep.
The Junior Ranger program at Mount Rushmore is not particularly difficult. Children are required to either attend a ranger-led activity or see a film. Do remember to bring a pen or pencil as you will otherwise have to purchase one. Some parks give pencils out but this one does not. The activities included interviewing a park ranger, viewing an exhibit and stating what you learned about it, locating your home state and identifying your travel route to Mount Rushmore, Mount Rushmore Memorial Bingo, matching drawings of tools and artifacts to their descriptions, identifying the Presidents in the carving, a word fill in about nature, a Presidential crossword, matching what certain types of people might say about Mount Rushmore which prompted a long discussion about stereotypes and finally drawing a picture of your visit to Mount Rushmore. While Junior Ranger badges are complimentary, you may also purchase a Junior Ranger patch and they checked to make sure that the program was completed before allowing the purchase.
There are three gift shops where you can purchase all the souvenirs you could ever desire with pictures of the carvings on them. They did not have any Lincoln head grabber toys (or any head grabbers for any of the other presidents). They did however have a Customer Appreciation Day taking place for ONE DAY ONLY which appears to take place every day. They offer $5 t-shirts, baseball caps, mugs and tote bags. The quality of the $5 t-shirts and baseball caps is pretty good and the shirts have held up well through four or five washings so far.
While Mount Rushmore is iconic and worth seeing, once you've seen it, then what? Aside from the actual carvings and the Sculptor's Studio, the rest seemed forced as if the National Park Service had to come up with something to occupy the tourists that the state managed to bring in so they wouldn't disappear down the road to Old MacDonald's Farm to see the goats walking over the bridge or the Flintstones Bedrock City. Let's add some flags! How about a Native American village? Let's light the mountain at night! I'm waiting for Nic Wallenda to walk on his tighrope.
As an aside, you can see Mount Rushmore at a distance for free from the gorgeous Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. If your time is limited and you merely want to see the carvings, this is a great choice.