Mount Rushmore: Four heads are better than one

July 30, 2011


There are two places in this country that everyone should experience before they exit. One is the Grand Canyon, and the other has to be Mount Rushmore.

Rushmore has drawn millions of visitors from around the world, all of us fascinated by the dream of one man and the labor of hundreds who toiled to shape a mountain into a monument to four truly great U.S. Presidents.

The Mount Rushmore National Memorial is nestled in the historic Black Hills of South Dakota, near the Wyoming border, about 18 miles south of Rapid City. The area is rich in history. The Crazy Horse Memorial is less than 30 minutes away. The nearby Western towns of Custer and Deadwood pack the tourists in.

But Rushmore remains the main draw for the region. Some visitors stay in Rapid City. Others prefer the tiny village of Keystone, just outside the monument, overflowing with chain motels and ice cream shops.

Two million people come annually. During the summer, the monument remains open until 10 p.m. Evenings are special at Rushmore, not just because of the cooler temperatures. The public is invited into the open-air amphitheater nightly to hear the ranger presentation on the history of Rushmore. At the conclusion, bright lights flip on, dramatically illuminating Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Each head is approximately 60 feet in length.

If you visit during the daytime, try and be there as soon after the 8 a.m. opening time as possible — the summer heat sizzles by about 11 a.m., hot enough to fry an egg on old George’s forehead.

There is certainly plenty to do at Rushmore, starting with the alpine loop that winds closer to the four presidents and also takes visitors near the Artist Studio where they can see the original designs for the project. Allow time to visit the multiple movie theaters showing the history of Mount Rushmore, an elaborate gift shop, bookstore, and museum.

Of course, all of this is because of one persistent man named Gutzon Borglun who agreed to build a project that would help build tourism in South Dakota. Borglum pitched the idea of four presidential faces and received initial federal funding in 1925—supposedly President Calvin Coolidge insisted that, in addition to George Washington, the proposed monument had to include two Republicans and at least one Democrat.

Borglum and approximately 400 workers begin the project on October 4, 1927. Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt were chosen because they represented the best of the first 150 years of American history.

Borglum died in 1941 and the project ended a few years later after running out of money. Lincoln, for example, has no left ear. We see Washington down to the his waist, but not Honest Abe.

It remains a wonder to behold, standing there in the plaza, looking up at the familiar faces, trying to figure out exactly how they did it–and how they did it without a single loss of life. And some of us of a certain age can’t help but squint our eyes a bit to see if we can’t find Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint dashing madly across Thomas Jefferson’s hair.

Admission is $11 a carload. Make your plans for next summer. It’s worth the drive.

Photos by Charlotte Alexander






  1. r0y says:

    I visited Mt. Rushmore and Devil’s Tower National Monument and both were quite something. However, I was most blown away at the scope and scale of the Crazy Horse Memorial (also, it was not receiving any government money back then, not sure if that is still true today).

    Very impressive area for big stone monuments.

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  2. Typoqueen says:

    We took sort of the same route as you did Dave a few years ago but didn’t get as far as Mr. Rushmore. Yellowstone was wonderful. I remember walking on those move-able sidewalks being scared to death that one of my kids would jump in that scalding water, I held them tight, they thought that I was paranoid. Loved Yellowstone. Read on FB that you went through Salt Lake. We wasted time going to the actual lake,, yuk. Didn’t care for the city or the lake. I enjoyed your story here as well as listening about your adventure on the radio.

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  3. rogerfreberg says:

    It would be interesting to see what people would rank as their top 10 places to visit… but I agree, national monuments and natural wonders are inspiring.

    Sturgis is a landmark for some as well.

    Enjoy your vacation.

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  4. Disgusted says:

    Nice expose on Rushmore, Dave! My biggest surprise when visiting was the beauty of the surrounding area, and the charm of Deadwood…..well, maybe minus all of the little casinos. As for Crazy Horse, what a huge project. It will be magnificant too. I bet you’ve convinced readers to visit these sites, if they haven’t already.

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  5. Shawn says:

    I visited Rushmore in 2005 while moving cross-country from Illinois to California. It’s spectacular. I wish I had known about some of the things you mentioned here, like the bus loop. Though, we were there kinda late so they may have finished with the loops by the time we we got there.

    We stayed in Keystone. The place is a tourist trap. But our hotel rate was reasonable and it’s a short drive from Rushmore.

    We also visited Crazy Horse. I found it underwhelming and overpriced. Perhaps things have improved over the last six years but based on my experience, I wouldn’t recommend it.

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