Mt. Rushmore, SD
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Mt. Rushmore, SD

Get up close and personal with the men who made American history.

Familiar Faces

Do your kids think CNN is the center of the political universe? If so, turn off the TV and head for South Dakota. Yes, South Dakota. They'll see some familiar faces (but not Larry King), and relive the first 150 years of this country's history -- without the help of media pundits. There's a history museum, tours, and special programs designed specially for kids.

Mt. Rushmore, copyright South
Dakota Tourism/Chad Coppess Photo

Then, for something completely different, drive 90 minutes to Badlands, an eerie, 243,000-acre national park with the greatest number of fossils in North America. Imagine the look on your kid's face, when he or she stumbles over a dinosaur footprint (and there are plenty!)

Rock Stars

Sixty-foot-high stone faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln steal the show at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, designed and built by sculptor Gutzon Borglum to commemorate the birth of the U.S. government.

The best way to see these four great American presidents up close? Walk or hike one of these easy trails:

Mountain goats, copyright
South Dakota Tourism/Chad
Coppess Photo

  • Grandview Terrace. Located directly above the Visitor Center, Grandview Terrace offers the best, unobstructed view of this massive sculpture.
  • Presidential Trail. From the Terrace, take the half-mile trail overlooking the Amphitheater. The path winds through ponderosa pines and ends at a point directly below the sculpture, where you can look up through the nostrils of the presidents. The first quarter mile is fully accessible to visitors with disabilities; the last quarter is strenuous.
  • Avenue of Flags. On the way to Grandview Terrace and the Presidential Trail, you'll pass through this area, lined with the 56 official flags of the U.S., representing the 50 states, the District of Columbia, three U.S. territories, and the two commonwealths.
  • Sculptor's Studio. The Studio was built by Borglum to showcase the process of creating the memorial. Listen to a 15-minute talk about the sculptor's methodology and view his original plaster model and tools.
  • Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center and Museum. Explore the history behind the making of Mt. Rushmore. The Shrine, one of several short films shown in the center's two theaters, recaps the making of the sculpture when Borglum and 400 other workers began drilling in 1927.

Don't miss the Evening Sculpture Lighting each night in summer. The 30-minute program includes a short ranger talk, a film about the four presidents, playing of the National Anthem, and finally, the lighting of the sculpture.

Grab some dinner at the Buffalo Dining Room, which offers down-home cooking and the most commanding view of the memorial.

Take a Hike

In and around Mt. Rushmore, there are hiking trails for all levels of expertise:

  • In the park. Most trails here are marked "easy," except the ones with lots of steps. Be sure to grab a trail map at the main Visitor's Center for a concise description of each trail.
  • Black Hills National Forest. Here you'll find 53 miles of hiking and horseback trails leading to Harney Peak, the highest point in the Black Hills.
  • Centennial Trail. One mile from Mt. Rushmore, visitors can explore this 111-mile, easy-to-moderate trail, commemorating South Dakota's 100th anniversary of statehood. It's accessible from more than 20 spurs off other trails within the park. Tip: You won't find visitor centers, drinking water, or food anywhere along this trail, so plan accordingly.
  • Elk Mountain and Rankin Ridge. These two trails of moderate difficulty lead to nearby Wind Cave National Park. Elk Mountain is a one-mile loop around the park campground and Rankin Ridge is a one-mile loop to the fire tower and back.

Child's Play

  • Mt. Rushmore "Rangers." How would you like to have an official Junior Ranger in the house? Children 5-12 can participate in the one-hour Junior Ranger program at Mt. Rushmore, during which they learn the importance of our national parks and earn Junior Ranger certificates. Official patches may also be purchased.
  • Mammoth Site. If you have a few hours to spare, drive 90 minutes south of Mt. Rushmore to this world-renowned excavation site, where kids 7-15 can dig for fossils, map, and take field notes. It's a fun, interactive way for children to learn about the great mammoth that roamed the region many years ago.


Indian Hero

Crazy Horse Memorial and scale
model (foreground), copyright Robb

White man may have Mt. Rushmore, but Native Americans have Crazy Horse. Boston-born sculptor, Korzczak Ziolkowski began carving the Crazy Horse Memorial 53 years ago in a mountain 17 miles from Mount Rushmore.

His tribute to the great Indian hero, who aided Custer's defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn, is still under construction. Also located at the site: the Indian Museum of North America, with three exhibit halls showcasing thousands of artifacts.



Type of trip: Sightseeing, hiking

Best ages: 5 and up

Ideal trip length: 3-4 days

Distance: Rapid City, SD (25 miles), Sioux Falls (225 miles)

Best time to go: Spring and summer; many visitor facilities are closed in winter.

Weather: 80/69 degrees in summer, 40/20 in winter

Lodging: Advanced reservations are recommended, especially in summer. For B&Bs and camping, contact the Bed & Breakfast Innkeepers Association of South Dakota, 888-500-4667 or South Dakota Campground Guide, 800-732-5682.

Squirm factor: None

If You Go...

Mt. Rushmore National Memorial I-90 to exit 57, Hwy. 16 (Mt. Rushmore Rd.) Phone: 605-574-2523


Norbeck Wildlife Preserve and Black Elk Wilderness Area Black Hills National Forest Phne: 605-673-9200

Centennial Trail Black Hills National Forest Phone: 605-673-9200 (for hiking and mountain biking information)

Elk Mountain and Rankin Ridge Trails Wind Cave National Park Phone: 605-745-4600


Digging for fossils, copyright
Mammoth Site

Mammoth Site 1800 Hwy 18 (truck route), Hot Springs Phone: 605-745-6017


Crazy Horse Memorial and Heritage Village 17 miles SW of Mt. Rushmore on Hwy 16-385, Crazy Horse Phone: 605-673-4681


Deer Mountain Ski Area Off I-90, Deadwood Phone: 605-584-3230; toll-free: 888-410-3337


Terry Peak Ski Area Off I-90, Lead Phone: 605-584-2165

For More Information

  • South Dakota Travel Information
    Phone: 605-773-3301


Side Trips

Badlands National Park

They don't call it Badlands for nothing. This national park, located 90 minutes east of Mt. Rushmore, is an eerie moonscape of deep gorges and jagged ridges created by wind and rain erosion.

Covering 64,000 acres, the Badlands Wilderness Area is a great place for hiking and horseback riding. Favorite walks include the Fossil Exhibit Trail, a quarter-mile loop past replicas of fossils found in nearby formations, and the Door Trail, a short hike through a natural doorway.

At the Stronghold Unit, an area co-managed with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, you can learn about the traditional American Indian Ghost Dances of the 1890s. Exit 109 off I-90 East, Interior, SD. Call 605-433-5361 for more information.


The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spots: Casa Del Rey, 1902 Mt. Rushmore Rd., Rapid City, SD, 605-348-5679, and the very popular Flying T Chuckwagon Supper & Western Music Show, 8971 South Hwy 16, Rapid City, SD. Call 605-342-1905 or 888-256-1905 for more information. Reservations advised.

Local foods: Pot roast, baked fish, and STEAK, STEAK, STEAK.

Best souvenirs: A miniature sandstone replica of Mt. Rushmore (park gift shop), or a build-your-own Ice Age Woolly Mammoth Skeleton kit (Mammoth Site gift shop).

Annual events: For information, contact the Department of Tourism, 711 East Wells Ave., Pierre, SD or call 800-S-DAKOTA.


  • July 4th Celebration, Mt. Rushmore.
  • Black Hills Powwow, Rapid City.

Traffic alert: Gridlock is common at Mt. Rushmore in spring and summer. Plan to park your car and walk to most sites and trails.

Reviewed April 2004.