Mount Rushmore: A Day at an Iconic American Landmark

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

Fortunately, Adam and I are morning people. Being morning people has provided some clear advantages to us during our vacations over the years, and on more than one occasion it changed our opinions of a new place for the better. In 2018, a day before New Year’s Eve, we arrived in Bruges to find it bursting at the seams with tourists. Roads were so clogged with people I wondered if cars had any place on them, and the lines for everything—food, drink, souvenirs—were so long we couldn’t bear to wait in them. At our hotel, a friendly staff member gave us some hope: wait until morning, when the tourists are sleeping or have gone back to Brussels, and then get to know the city. Sure enough, our sunrise walk the next morning showed us a city full of beauty and peace that launched our visit to our personal list of favorites. Now, morning visits to popular places are nonnegotiable for us—and that was a good thing when we visited Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the USA. More than three million people visit annually, and as more and more vacations have taken a domestic turn in the past years many people have been checking it off their bucket lists as an essential stop on road trips. We first visited Mount Rushmore during a cross-country road trip in 2008, and when we planned our 2021 summer road trip, we knew we couldn’t drive all the way to Rapid City, South Dakota without another stop. Whether you are a presidential history fan or are curious about what the experience of standing before the sculptures of four significant leaders is like, here are some of our tips for making the most of your visit to Mount Rushmore!

What Is Mount Rushmore?

Mount Rushmore before construction circa 1905. Source: Wikipedia
Mount Rushmore before construction circa 1905. Source: Wikipedia
Although we know it as Mount Rushmore, local Lakota Sioux tribe members knew the mountain as Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe, or the Six Grandfathers. Through military campaigns, the US took the land in 1868. Charles E. Rushmore, a prospector, joked that he wanted to rename the mountain after himself, and in 1930 that wish came true when the United States Board of Geographic Names officially recognized its new name.

Commissioned as a tourist attraction to encourage visitors to South Dakota’s Black Hills, Mount Rushmore was the brainchild of historian Doane Robinson. He wanted to feature a larger-than-life sculpture that represented accomplishment as well as triumph over the harsh lands in the region. Robinson urged sculptor Gutzon Borglum to take on the project. Borglum had gained some fame (and some notoriety) for projects ranging from sculptures on university campuses (including one in Charlottesville, Virginia) to the controversial Stone Mountain in Georgia. Congress approved the project on March 3, 1925, and carving officially began two years later.

Why Were the Mount Rushmore Presidents Chosen?

Borglum intentionally selected the four presidents of the United States whose faces would adorn the mountainside. Each leader was meant to represent an important event or time in US history. George Washington, the nation’s first president, was selected because of his importance and his role in establishing the country. Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the USA’s Declaration of Independence, was responsible for a significant amount of the country’s early expansion through the Louisiana Purchase, and his likeness was chosen to represent growth. Abraham Lincoln, the USA’s 16th president, was chosen to represent the preservation of the country due to his words and actions connected to the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery. Theodore Roosevelt represents development, largely due to his economic efforts and the construction of the Panama Canal. Although it is easy to see Mount Rushmore as a tribute to four individual leaders, collectively they represent much more: they are intended to represent the beginning of the nation, its growth, its preservation, and its prosperity.

How Was Mount Rushmore Built?

Mount Rushmore construction circa 1932. Source: Wikipedia
Mount Rushmore construction circa 1932. Source: Wikipedia
It took 14 years and 400 men to carve Mount Rushmore, with work starting on October 4, 1927. More than 410,000 tons of rock were blasted from the mountain using both dynamite and a technique called honeycombing, during which small holes were drilled close together to break away very small pieces of rock.

In 1933, the National Park Service took the project under its wing, and each of the presidential faces were completed in quick succession, with George Washington’s face completed and dedicated in 1934, Thomas Jefferson’s in 1936, Abraham Lincoln’s in 1937, and Theodore Roosevelt’s in 1939. During that time, a bill was introduced to Congress to add a fifth face to the lineup: that of Susan B. Anthony, a civil rights leader. However, funding was allocated only to finish those sculptures already in progress, and her image was not approved.

In some ways, the mountain itself determined how the faces on Mount Rushmore were shaped. Initially, Borglum wanted Jefferson’s face to be to the right of Washington’s, but after carving began, he found that that rock to be unsuitable for Jefferson’s likeness. He moved Jefferson to Washington’s left, and the work that was started was dynamited to remove it from the mountain.

Visiting Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore is the kind of destination that can take as much time as you have to offer it. Whether you have a tight itinerary that allows only an hour or two or an entire day available to you, there are many options for spending your time well.

Experience the sculpture

The main attraction is, without question, the 60-foot-tall busts of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt gazing out over the Black Hills, and for most people that will be the very first spot they visit. Walk down the Avenue of Flags, which features the flags of all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia and the five US territories to approach the Grand View Terrace. Once there, take some time to walk the length of the terrace to see the monument from multiple angles. You’ll have a better view of each face from various spots, and the shadows will change depending on the angle you have to view them.

Take a hike

Hiking trail around Mount Rushmore
Hiking trail around Mount Rushmore
The Presidential Trail is a beautiful (and fairly easy!) hike that takes you much closer to the sculpture than the Grand View Terrace will allow. The trail is only 0.6 miles long and is well-marked with plenty of spots to pause and read informational placards or take photos. Some of the best spots for pictures are along the Presidential Trail.

When starting the walk, it’s important to know there are more than 400 steps; starting the trail to the left of Mount Rushmore and walking it in a clockwise direction will keep you moving downhill for the most part. You’ll still have quite a few stairs at the end of the trail to bring you back to the Grand View Terrace, so there is no way to fully avoid uphill climbs. The trail is not a good choice for those who require wheelchairs, and all visitors should remember to take breaks and take it slow, especially in hot or inclement weather.

Visit the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center

Visitor centers are often a good place to ground yourself in the history and significance of a place, and the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center is no exception. You’ll have the opportunity to watch a brief, informative film and learn more about Mount Rushmore and how it came into existence.

Take water

Because we arrived before the gift shop opened, we were glad to have brought water with us, especially on our hike. Warmer months will require some extra hydration, so don’t leave your water bottle in the car!

Explore the Sculptor’s Studio

Mount Rushmore full body model
Mount Rushmore full body model
If you are curious about how Mount Rushmore was carved, visiting the Sculptor’s Studio is a great way to learn more about the techniques and processes that brought Doane Robinson’s vision to life through Gutzon Borglum’s talents. Ranger talks provide a great overview of how workers both lived and carved during their 14 years at Mount Rushmore.

Parking isn’t free

There is no cost to enter Mount Rushmore, but the parking garage is ticketed and requires you to pay to park. A validated parking pass is good for re-entry for up to one year, so if you plan to visit again it can be a bit of a better value.

Consider time of day

We visited Mount Rushmore just after it opened at 6:00 AM, and we were among the only people there which gave incredible access to both photo opportunities and silence to appreciate the carvings without the sounds of other people. We were almost completely alone when we walked along the Presidential Trail, which was wonderful for both photo taking and for putting our cameras down to appreciate Mount Rushmore with our own eyes. By the time our visit wrapped up around 7:30 AM, it was appreciably more crowded, and we were glad once again to be early risers. That said, our early arrival prevented us from seeing the Sculptor’s Studio or the Visitor Center, so a more complete experience might require a later start, a flexible itinerary, or a little patience if there is a gap between when you arrive and when some of the attractions open.

Check Out a Different View of Mount Rushmore

If your visit to Mount Rushmore ends with only the experience provided at the monument, you will not be disappointed. With a little extra time, you can stop at a few other viewpoints to see Mount Rushmore from another angle.

Mount Rushmore view from Iron Mountain Road. Source: Flickr
Mount Rushmore view from Iron Mountain Road. Source: Flickr
The George Washington Profile View is just outside the memorial. When leaving the park, head north; the spot is about a mile down Highway 244 West as you leave the Mount Rushmore parking lot. Look for signs for the “Profile View” turnoff.

Iron Mountain Road is another great option that can be rewarding if you have some additional time. It is a winding, scenic roadway that provides some unbelievable views of Mount Rushmore in the distance. It’s also not for the faint of heart; it’s 17 miles long and has 247 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 pigtail loops, and 3 one-way traffic tunnels. If you don’t have time for the full drive, the Norbeck Overlook and Scovel Johnson Tunnel at the south end of the highway are great options. Driving south to north will put the mountain in view; if you drive north to south Mount Rushmore will be visible in your rearview mirror. There are pull-off spots where you can park for photos along the way.

As a bonus, many of the roads around Mount Rushmore wind through Custer State Park, which can lead to an entirely different adventure: we found a herd of bison blocking the route, and they ultimately prevented us from driving Iron Mountain Road. The photos and experience of watching them was worth missing out on the drive for us, although it was a little scary—they run fast and will charge if they feel threatened, so if you encounter them drive slowly or stop entirely and give them plenty of space.


Don’t Miss Crazy Horse!

Just 30 minutes away, the Crazy Horse Memorial is well worth a stop and can round out your visit to Mount Rushmore. Still very much in progress, it will be significantly bigger than Mount Rushmore when it is complete, and it celebrates the very powerful legacy of a very respected Lakota leader. Check out our article about visiting Crazy Horse to learn more!

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

Where to Stay Near Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore is close to Rapid City, South Dakota, and during our previous visits we have selected hotels in Rapid City as an easy jumping off point. We picked a hotel from after comparing a few properties to find one that met our needs. Take a look at the hotels available during your travel dates on to see if there is a great hotel for you!

Enjoy Mount Rushmore!

Like the Crazy Horse Memorial, Mount Rushmore is not without its controversy. It was carved into a mountain with great meaning to the Lakota tribe, and despite the Treaty of Fort Laramie that gave the Black Hills to the Lakota it was taken from them once gold was discovered there. Since then, it has served as a beacon of patriotism, a call to explore what it means to be American. A visit to Mount Rushmore can be as uncomplicated as simply basking in the shadows of some of our most symbolic leaders, and it can be as complex as a call to consider the history of all of the people who participated in its development—and, again, what it means to be American. We have always enjoyed visiting Mount Rushmore and appreciate its call to learn and explore. If you are looking for introspection and an experience at one of the USA’s most iconic spots, don’t miss the chance to add this to your next road trip itinerary!

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Mount Rushmore: A Day at an Iconic American Landmark