Our hearts leaped in excitement as we saw the legendary faces carved in stone exactly opposite us from the last tunnel on Iron Mountain Road.
We had been looking forward to this moment since our South Dakota Road Trip started and finally here it was.
As everyone had told us, the tunnel perfectly framed Mount Rushmore and it was a beautiful first look at the holy shrine of American Democracy.
Where Is Mount Rushmore Located?
Located among the Black Hills of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore is the state’s premier tourist attraction.
In fact, South Dakota is popularly called the Mt. Rushmore State and the Memorial is visited by over 2 million visitors every year.
The Memorial is located in the western part of the state near Custer State Park and Rapid City.
The official address for the Memorial is 13000 SD-244, Keystone, South Dakota.
How To Reach Mount Rushmore?
The easiest way to reach Mt. Rushmore National Memorial is to fly to Rapid City and then rent a car.
The Memorial is just half an hour away (about 30 miles) from Rapid City.
However, we recommend driving along the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway which passes through Custer State Park and taking the Iron Mountain Road towards Mt. Rushmore.
Iron Mountain Road (Highway 16A) is an incredibly scenic part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway and has 3 pigtail bridges and 3 tight tunnels along the way.
The road is an engineering marvel and through its last two tunnels offers beautiful views of Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Mt. Rushmore National Memorial located in South Dakota is managed by the National Parks Service (NPS)
When To Visit Mount Rushmore?
The best season to visit Mount Rushmore is from late Spring to early Fall.
Summer is the peak season and the Memorial is visited by many tourists on long weekends and the week of 4th of July.
In fact, the week of 4th July is the busiest time to visit the Memorial.
We recommend skipping summer if possible and visiting in April-May or September for lesser crowds.
An alternative is to go on weekdays during the summer to have the Memorial to yourself.
However, if you are in the area during winter – you can still go and visit the Memorial.
The Memorial and most of its amenities except the Sculptor’s Studio are open throughout the year, though the timings may vary.
Where To Stay Near Mount Rushmore?
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is basically day use only and does not allow any kind of camping, RVing, backpacking, or Lodging.
The nearest city to use as a base for exploring Mt. Rushmore is Rapid City.
There are many hotels, lodgings, and AirBnBs located in or around Rapid City to cater to Mt. Rushmore tourists.
Alternatively, you can also stay in Keystone, a small touristy town with limited accommodation facilities.
Keystone is hardly 10 minutes away from Mt. Rushmore Memorial and makes a perfect base if you want to explore the nearby attractions.
Another option that will appeal to outdoorsy people and RVers is camping at Custer State Park.
You can easily see the Memorial as a day trip while camping at the park’s many campgrounds.
Wherever you decide to stay, don’t forget to drive the Iron Mountain Road and Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, included among America’s Top 10 scenic drives.
To know more about South Dakota’s Scenic Drives read here.
History Of Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore National Memorial has a fascinating history.
It was planned and executed with the specific purpose of boosting tourism in the Black Hills region of South Dakota and the sculpture was originally conceived with faces of popular Wild West heroes.
However, the US Presidents were chosen instead to attract a broader section of visitors and work began on the mountain face in 1927.
Sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln Borglum worked tirelessly on the project till work was deemed complete in 1941.
Each president was originally intended to be carved from head to waist but the project was stopped with the completion of sculpture heads due to lack of funds in 1941.
Which Presidents Are Carved On The Memorial? Why These 4 Presidents?
Visitors are often curious about the Presidents that are carved on Mt. Rushmore.
The 4 Presidents heads which are carved are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln from left to right.
The heads are about 60 feet high and the Presidents were selected based on their role and leadership towards the country’s progress.
These 4 Presidents represent iconic eras in American history and played an instrumental role in creating and preserving the nation and for expanding its territories.
Today, the memorial has become an iconic symbol of democracy and, akin to the Statue of Liberty, symbolizes hope and freedom for people worldwide.
Today along with the National Mall in Washington DC, the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Alamo in San Antonio and Statue of Liberty in New York, Mt. Rushmore National Memorial is one of the popular sites to learn about the nation’s history and celebrate its birth on the 4th of July.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are the 4 US Presidents carved on Mt. Rushmore
How Does It Feel To See Mt. Rushmore In Person?
Seeing the Memorial in person is an inspiring experience.
The Memorial has come to symbolize the American Spirit and rightly so!
The sculptures are gigantic against the vast blue sky and incredibly skilled works of art.
All the President’s eyes are intricately and skillfully carved. Even tiny wrinkles and small marks are perfectly recreated to give the statues a lifelike appearance.
The Memorial itself is beautifully planned with the Avenue of Flags proudly framing the carved heads.
Flags of all the 50 states proudly flutter in the wind and the year in which each state was admitted into the Union is marked below the flags.
Impressive posters provide information about each President, his contributions towards the country’s development and lists his accomplishments.
To get up close to the sculpture and enjoy unique views, visitors can hike the Presidential trail which goes around the base of Mount Rushmore.
Visiting Mount Rushmore is a rewarding experience.
We recommend making the most of it by exploring everything in and around the Memorial.
Things To Do At Mt. Rushmore National Memorial
Mt. Rushmore National Memorial offers several things to do apart from taking a photo with the sculpture.
The Memorial has audio tours in several languages in case you are interested in renting one.
Alternatively, you can just follow our recommendations and do below things to explore the Memorial.
Tourists walking across the Grand View Terrace towards the Avenue of Flags
Walk Around The Avenue Of Flags And Find Your State On It
Located on the Grand View Terrace, a wide plaza located at the center of the Memorial is the Avenue of Flags – pillars with flags of all 50 states, territories, commonwealths, and one district of the United States.
The dates on which each state was admitted to the Union are inscribed on the pillars.
We had fun searching for the first admitted state (Delaware), last admitted state (Hawaii), and our then home state of Illinois.
The flags fluttered proudly in the wind and gave me the thrills!
Hike The Presidential Trail And See Incredible Black Hills Wildlife
If you have wanted to see the carving from up close and examine the details, then the Presidential Trail is for you.
This 0.6 miles long (one way) trail has 422 steps, goes around the base of the monument, and takes you near the carved broken granite pile below the sculptures.
The views from this trail are pretty unique and detailed; the trail also offers opportunities for wildlife encounters including deer, sheep, and goat.
In spite of the steps, the trail is easy n nature and can be done by anyone in decent physical condition.
The Presidential Trail offers unique and close-up views of the Memorial
Participate In The Junior Ranger Program
Mt. Rushmore also has the Junior Rangers program and we saw several activity books for rangers of all ages.
The activity books had a lot of information about the nature, wildlife, and history of the Black Hills and surrounding area.
I can’t wait to take our son on his first-ever South Dakota Road Trip and get him a Junior Rangers book and a badge on completing the activities.
Understand The Work Involved In Creating The Sculpture At Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center & Museum
The Visitor Center area has maps and interactive exhibits on the carving process. There are also many exhibits providing information about the 4 Presidents and the sculptor.
The museum area has two theatres which show about 10-12 mins film about the execution of the project.
The process of sculpture carving is very interesting. The entire process followed Borglum’s 1/12th scale model and workers suspended from harnesses dynamited and drilled the mountainsides under Gutzon’s direct supervision.
The granite was chipped away and removed until the facial resemblance was visible and then further tools were used to fine carve the features and smoothen the appearance.
You will know a lot more about this and other techniques used during the years during the short video.
Visit The Sculptor’s Studio
Open only during the summer hours, the Sculptor’s Studio is where sculptor Gutzon Borglum worked to create Mt. Rushmore.
Today, you can see the 1/12th scale model of the originally envisioned sculpture of Mt. Rushmore.
The Studio also has worker tools and plastic models on display along with a short lecture on the mountain carving process.
Side views of the monument and George Washington’s face
Attend The Evening Sculpture Lighting Ceremony
The Evening Sculpture Lighting Ceremony held during summer at Mt. Rushmore is a patriotic and thrilling experience.
It starts with a brief ranger talk about Mt. Rushmore, which shows a video film on “Freedom: America’s Lasting Legacy” and is followed by the lighting ceremony accompanied by the National Anthem.
The nightly lighting ceremony is held in the Amphitheatre located below the Grand View Terrace.
Understand The Hidden Secrets Of Mt. Rushmore
Mt. Rushmore has many hidden secrets and little know facts.
Some of these facts are hidden in plain sight in exhibits detailing the lives of the 4 Presidents and the sculptor while others are out in the open for all to see.
One of the least known facts is that Mt. Rushmore was initially conceived with Wild West heroes including Lewis & Clark who explored the state in the 1800s.
The sculptor Borglum instead suggested 4 US Presidents for wider appeal.
Also, there’s a hidden chamber behind Lincoln’s head called the Hall of Records which has copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
Eat Delicious Ice Cream At The Carver’s Cafe
While the Carver’s Cafe also serves local bison burgers and bison chili, the most popular item here is the Thomas Jefferson Ice cream.
The story goes that Thomas Jefferson tasted and loved ice cream in Europe and on coming back to America, he developed his own recipe for vanilla ice cream.
He is also credited for popularizing ice cream in America during his presidency.
You can taste the ice cream which is reportedly still made as per his recipe at the Carver’s Cafe.
Don’t you love hearing such interesting anecdotes about famous men? I would say, even as a President, he definitely had his priorities right!
Special: Attend The 4th Of July Celebrations At Mt. Rushmore
The 4th of July weekend is one of the busiest times at Mt. Rushmore.
Several visitors come to attend the Independence Day celebrations at Mt. Rushmore. Many special events are held to celebrate the day including historical reenactments, Junior Ranger ceremonies, band performances, Lakota songs and stories narration, and much more.
While the celebrations do not include fireworks, you can attend the fireworks show in many nearby locations including Rapid City.
HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU NEED TO SEE MT. RUSHMORE NATIONAL MEMORIAL
If you are in a rush, you can see Mt. Rushmore in under an hour but that is no way to see this monument of vast proportions.
You need to take your time at the Memorial, understand its location, and the challenges the workers must have faced during the carving process to truly appreciate the artistry of the Monument.
You must also understand why the 4 Presidents were chosen and their contribution towards the development of the country to realize why the Memorial represents the American Spirit and why it is on par with the Statue of Liberty and Hall of Independence in the annals of history.
That’s why we recommend spending a minimum of 2-4 hrs at the Mt. Rushmore Memorial.
You will easily need that much time to hike the Presidential Trail and watch the film at the Visitor Center.
Mt. Rushmore from a distance while traveling to the Memorial
Facts And Figures About Mt. Rushmore
Memorial Timings – Mount Rushmore National Memorial is open every day from 5 am to 11:30 pm during the peak summer season of mid-May to mid-August.
During the rest of the year, it is open from 5 am to 9:30 pm daily.
The Evening Sculpture Lighting Ceremony is held only during the summer season and begins at 9 pm daily.
Visitor Center and Sculptor’s Studio Timings – Mount Rushmore Information Center is open from 8 am to 10 pm for summer hours and closes at 5 pm in other months.
The Sculptor’s Studio is open from 8 am to 7 pm for summer hours and remains completely closed from mid-October to mid-May.
Entrance Fee – While Mount Rushmore Memorial area is free to enter for all visitors, you will need to use the Memorial garage to park your car which costs about $10.
The parking pass is valid for a year, so further trips are free.
Nearly 400 men and women worked on the Memorial for over 14 years at the rate of $8 per day to complete the monument.
They worked through snow, blizzards, and blistering heat to carve the granite. Not a single construction fatality was recorded in all that time.
Things To Do Around Mt. Rushmore National Memorial
While Mt. Rushmore is the premier tourist attraction in South Dakota, it is not the area’s only thing of interest.
South Dakota has many spectacular tourist attractions, you can easily cover them in a 4 day to week-long South Dakota road trip.
Here are some of our recommendations for other things to do in the area.
Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway
Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway is consistently included among America’s Outstanding Scenic Byways and is a delight to drive.
Best among the South Dakota scenic drives, this byway is a work of engineering marvel and goes through and around the Black Hills of South Dakota in the form of spiraling bridges, continuously looping hairpin turns, tightly cut granite tunnels and winding sections.
This scenic byway is comprised of 3 sections of the Black Hills roads: Iron Mountain Road, Wildlife Loop Road at Custer State Park, and Needles Highway which is highly spectacular.
Custer State Park
Custer State Park located among the Black Hills is a haven for camping, wildlife viewing, and fishing.
We camped at Custer for two nights and enjoyed exploring the area by driving and hiking.
Custer has many campgrounds and 4 large mountain lakes and is perfect for spending lazy summer days.
Read our guide on things to do at Custer State Park for families here.
Crazy Horse Memorial
On your way to Mount Rushmore from Custer State Park, you will come across this Colossal Monument dedicated to the popular Lakota warrior Crazy Horse.
The sculpture is still under completion and if completed it will be the largest sculpture in the world.
The Memorial is open to tourists and is a great place to learn about the Lakota people and their way of life.
Nearby Crazy Horse Memorial is a great way to understand about the Native American heritage and culture
Badlands National Park
Mysterious and remote, the Badlands cast a spell of enchantment on anyone who visits them.
While Mt. Rushmore is South Dakota’s most famous attraction, Badlands is the most beloved one.
Driving the loop road in Badlands National Park is the easiest way to explore this park though we recommend hiking a few trails and camping amidst the mixed-grass prairies to truly understand Badland’s otherworldly beauty and isolation.
Badlands National Park features stunning geological formations and is a must-visit destination in South Dakota
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway
Another scenic byway located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Spearfish Canyon Scenic drive follows the natural contours of the deep but narrow canyon carved by the small, tumbling Spearfish Creek.
The route passes through dense forests and is especially spectacular in fall after the leaves change colors.
We hope you enjoy the time spent at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial and the surrounding area.
This part of the state is truly beautiful and filled with dramatic landscapes.
The open roads provide all the right ingredients for an epic road trip and are the best way to experience Mt. Rushmore.
If you are looking to explore the area at a leisurely pace, then you will surely enjoy our article on planning the perfect South Dakota Road Trip itinerary.
You can also check out our South Dakota Travel Resources page and let us know about your trip in the comments.