Crazy Horse Memorial: Visiting (What Will Be) the Largest Sculpture in the World

Crazy Horse Memorial

In the 1930s, Dorothy Hustead lay awake listening to the sounds of cars driving past her husband’s small drug store, wondering how she could get the cars to stop and make a purchase. She knew as time passed, there would be even more cars on that road; after all, the massive Mount Rushmore sculpture was in development, and when it opened thousands of tourists would be guaranteed to visit. There was good news in store for both the Husteads and the monument; Wall Drug became one of the USA’s most popular roadside attractions, and Mount Rushmore became one of them most visited sculptures in the world. But further into the Black Hills, work was just beginning on a sculpture to rival Mount Rushmore’s size and popularity and give travelers one more reason to stop for some free ice water on their drive through South Dakota: the Crazy Horse Memorial aimed to tell its own American story.

Model of Crazy Horse used for the Memorial
Model of Crazy Horse
Although we had visited Wall Drug and Mount Rushmore during a road trip years ago, our visit to the Crazy Horse Memorial was the first for both of us. Nestled into the Black Hills, it’s not especially far from Mount Rushmore, but it is enshrouded in a more mysterious veil than the four presidents that neighbor it to the east. Under construction for more than 70 years, many visitors wonder what’s taking so long. Still others are curious about the man who inspired it, the man who carried the vision forward, and the community that continues to build it. For us, it was each of those reasons, and what we thought would be a quick visit for a few photos morphed into hours spent learning about and appreciating the time, effort, and people who protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of the North American Indians. If you are considering a visit to Crazy Horse, here is what you should know and why we think you, too, will be inspired by the time you spend there.

Who Was Crazy Horse?

Remembered for honor, bravery, and leadership, Crazy Horse was an iconic member of the Lakota tribe. Born in the early 1840s, Crazy Horse earned a reputation as a warrior from the time he was in his mid- to late teens, and he eventually played a big role in the Native Americans’ resistance to westward expansion as more and more settlers began to move into lands that the Lakotas called home.

Crazy Horse was best remembered as a leader during the Battle of Little Bighorn, where the Lakotas joined several other tribes to defeat General George Custer and the US Army in 1876. One year later, he surrendered after another altercation and died of a stab wound when a military guard acted to prevent his escape. Today, Crazy Horse remains an important symbol particularly to Native Americans, and his name has become synonymous with a spirit of defiance.

Celebrating a Legacy with the Crazy Horse Monument

The Crazy Horse Monument is somewhat uniquely integrated with the story of the man commissioned to sculpt it: Korczak Ziolkowski.

Korczak Ziolkowski (Source: Wikipedia)
Korczak Ziolkowski (Source: Wikipedia)
Born in Boston, Korczak Ziolkowski was hired as an assistant sculpture as Mount Rushmore took shape in South Dakota’s Black Hills. His time on the project was short-lived, but his next project was almost literally around the corner. In 1931, Lakota Henry Standing Bear contacted Ziolkowski with a request: he wanted to carve a monument in honor of Crazy Horse into the Black Hills. Watching as the faces of four presidents took form, he told Ziolkowski, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too.” Ziolkowski was glad to take on the role, and after securing a mountain face from the US government in exchange for Standing Bear’s own land, the project was ready to begin. Despite the government’s interest in the project, Standing Bear and Ziolkowski refused to accept any public funding for the project; they didn’t believe the government would finish the project if they were involved.

Constructing the monument has been a painstakingly detailed effort since work began in 1948. It was enormously difficult. From very small crews to hauling necessarily tools up and down the rockface to battling the elements (rock carving is tough in the rain and snow!), there have been plenty of obstacles that have slowed and stopped work as the decades passed. For many years, Ziolkowski was the only person actively working on the monument. Over the years, small groups of trained carving professionals have contributed to the effort, including his own 10 children. His sons helped him on the mountain as they prepared it for carving, and his daughters helped his wife, Ruth, with the development of the monument’s visitor center. When Ziolkowski passed away unexpectedly in 1981, it was Ruth who carried on the work, overseeing each detail to ensure the monument continued as envisioned by Standing Bear and her husband. Ruth passed away in 2014, and today her children and grandchildren continue to further Crazy Horse’s legacy- and the monument’s development.

When Will the Crazy Horse Memorial Be Finished?

Model of the final version of the Crazy Horse Memorial.
Model of the final version of the Crazy Horse Memorial.
In short, there is no expected completion date for the Crazy Horse Monument to reach its finished state. Initially, Ziolkowski expected it would take 30 years to carve Crazy Horse from the rock, but the timeline has since more than doubled and is nowhere close to finished. The project has faced many natural delays, largely weather related, and while they do work toward a five-year plan, they acknowledge that it will be many decades more before the monument is considered done.

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Crazy Horse Memorial Tour

When we first walked through the door of the Crazy Horse Memorial visitor center, we were among the first people to arrive that day. A young woman checked our tickets and suggested we watch the movie before walking through the museum and visiting the monument itself. We decided to take her up on that recommendation; although we often pass on visitor center movies because of our own time constraints, we had the time to spare that morning. We were glad we watched; the movie provides a very complete overview of the memorial’s history, purpose, construction, and the Lakota legacy it celebrates. Interview clips featuring Ziolkowski invited us to learn why he was so passionate about the project, how Ruth came to share that passion, and why generations of his family chose to stay and assume leadership over the project. We laughed as Ziolkowski described some of the most challenging days, when we would start a machine needed for the carving process, climb 700 stairs to his work site, and find the machine had somehow turned off, meaning he had to walk all the way back down the mountain to restart it. The story is funny, especially as Ziolkowski told it for the cameras, but the humor didn’t mask his determination to get the job done.

After the movie, we spent time walking through the huge Indian Museum of North America that is connected to the visitor center. The museum strives to provide an education about the lives and cultures of Native American tribes, and much of the collection has been donated over the years to preserve each artifact. It’s easy to get lost in the stories told by artwork, carvings, and clothing; it provides a nice connection to the people who once made those items part of their everyday lives.

Crazy Horse Volksmarch Hike (Source:
Crazy Horse Volksmarch Hike (Source:
The main reason for visiting, of course, is to see the Crazy Horse memorial in its full glory. From the outside observation deck, we looked out at what the rock carvers have already brought to life. Crazy Horse’s profile is visible; from where we stood, he gazed out over his lands with a quiet but fierce intensity that somehow reflected the anger and sorrow many native tribes felt as strangers arrived and began to take what was theirs. We walked back toward the museum and paused next to a small-scale sculpture of what the finished piece will look like; there is a long way to go, but it’s impressive even before Crazy Horse’s arm can extend a pointed finger or his hair can flow behind him. The model sculpture promises what is to come. The rock carving beyond it continues to take its time.

For a closer look at the monument, we took a quick bus ride to the base of the carving. The ride is available for a nominal extra fee, but it was well worth it. Our guide was almost bubbling over with a mix of joy and pride as he told us about the work being done, pointing out the challenges crews had to overcome to make any progress at all. From where we stood, the workers look like ants scurrying under Crazy Horse’s jaw, and we could hear the machinery echoing through the mountains. Our guide shared how the community is welcomed in to be part of the monument twice a year during their Volksmarch, when thousands of people complete a 10K hike along the paths and work roads to the monument’s chin. On summer nights a laser show lights up the sky. Cultural presentations, workshops, and speakers keep native stories alive and memorable.

Before we left, we stopped by the reception desk for a brochure to take with us. The gentleman we spoke with nodded back to the entrance, to the young woman who had checked our ticket when we first arrived. He mentioned that she was a student at the Indian University of North America, which continues Standing Bear’s dream of providing Native Americans with quality education opportunities. That, too, made us smile; although the university continues to be a work in progress, much like the rest of the area, it offers scholarships and a summer program to benefit young members of the Native American community. It’s not yet what Ziolkowski envisioned when he planned the memorial complex; the goal was to have a robust medical center and a full university in addition to the visitor center and monument, but those are also coming to life at a crawl, not a sprint.

Where to Stay Near the Crazy Horse Memorial

There are plenty of hotel options to choose from if you’re planning to stay in the area. We stayed in Rapid City, which is the largest metropolitan area close to Crazy Horse and about an hour by car. Rapid City is is also about 30 minutes from Mount Rushmore and it’s sure to have the largest selection of hotels in the region. We made the decision to stay in Rapid City after comparing some of our options on, which is our favorite website for researching and selecting hotels. If you are thinking of a trip to see the Crazy Horse Memorial, take a look at to see if they have a hotel that meets your needs as well!

Visit the Crazy Horse Memorial!

Crazy Horse MemorialBefore we boarded the tour bus for a quick ride from the monument to the visitor center, our guide told us to get all the pictures we wanted. “Come back in another 5 or 10 years,” he told us. “It will look a whole lot different than it does now.”

The Crazy Horse Memorial is just as much a tribute to patience and perseverance as it is a tribute to the man who inspired it. When completed, it will dwarf Mount Rushmore; all four presidents would be able to fit inside Crazy Horse’s head if they were to be placed side-by-side. It’s not without its frustrations, some of which come from the Lakota tribe themselves. Some have criticized the Ziolkowski family for making money off a culture and heritage that is not their own. Some grumble about how it should have been done by now, and still others wonder if it might go faster with government investment or oversight. We found ourselves simply hoping it might be done- or closer to completion- the next time we find ourselves close enough to stop in.

The Crazy Horse Monument invites this kind of introspection, and we were glad for the chance to learn about the Lakota tribe and their defiant protection of their people, land, and culture. The history of the United States is as complex as each of the people who is part of it. In South Dakota, that is personified by the profile of one of history’s great leaders looking out over his lands, fulling his own prediction that, “I will return to you in stone.”

One of these days, he’ll find himself pointing toward the lands he called home, too.

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Crazy Horse Memorial: Visiting (What Will Be) the Largest Sculpture in the World