Mount Rushmore National Monument

Day 18 – Travel as I Have Envisioned It Could Be

In addition to Devils Tower, I also insisted that we include Mount Rushmore in our return itinerary—another place I had never been.

Getting There

I had done some research, mostly on when and how it was created, and not on admissions and costs. So, armed with our Senior Pass, we headed toward the mountain. Mount Rushmore is located about 25 miles from Custer—an easy drive. We followed US 16 north out of Custer and followed signs. Soon we were in a short line for parking. Unlike the National Parks, there is no daily use admission fee, but rather a parking fee, and the Senior Pass is not good for parking. Parking costs $10.00; $5.00 for seniors. One benefit is that the parking permit is good for one year.

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The Entrance added in the 1990s

Parking was in a multi-level garage typical of city parking. There were plenty of parking spaces.  Elevators and stairs provide access to the park entrance. A long avenue connects the entrance to the Grand View Terrace. Along the avenue there is an Information Center, Gift Shop, Café, the Avenue of Flags, ending at the Grand View Terrace with the Visitor Center, a theater, and an amphitheater. The day that we were there, youth singing groups were performing at the amphitheater.

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The View from the Grand Viewing Terrace

Brief History

Mount Rushmore was named for a New York Attorney who had gone to the Black Hills to inspect mining claims, well before the sculpture was proposed. John Gutzon del la Mothe Borglum was born to Mormon Danish immigrant parents in 1867 in Idaho. He eventually studied art in Paris and New York and became an accomplished and well know portrait sculptor. He was working on the sculpture on Stone Mountain, Georgia, when he was recruited to work on yet undefined sculptures in the Black Hills.

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The View from the Grand Viewing Terrace (with Telephoto Lens)

Borglum selected the site for the carving based on of its orientation to morning and midday light, and for the quality of the granite that was ideal for sculpture. Borglum selected the presidents whose likenesses would be carved into the face of the mountain based on specific contributions each had made in the creation and growth of the United States.

The Grand View Terrace, at the end of the Avenue of State Flags, is the main viewing area for the sculpture, and the first stop for most visitors. Everything from the parking garages to the amphitheater were completed in 1998. Prior to that, the main viewing area was the Borglum View Terrace, accessible by a trail and stairway from the Grand View Terrace.


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Borglum’s 1/12th Scale Model in the Sculptor’s Studio. Note Washington’s coat, Lincoln’s and Jefferson’s hands that were never finished.

First, allow at least four hours to take in all the site has to offer. When visiting the site, take advantage of the museum and theater in the Visitor Center. The story of the workmen at the site is quite interesting. Most of the carving work was done by workers slung over the mountain face in bosun chairs, either setting dynamite charges or using jackhammers to complete the details of each sculpture. Despite the apparent hazards, no one died during the work that began in 1929, and there were very few injuries. There is a movie that includes interviews with the men who worked on the sculpture.

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Detail of Washington

I also suggest you take the trail to the Borglum view terrace—the original terrace used before the new Visitor Center complex was completed. The sculpture is nicely framed by trees and is the view that was most commonly seen on pre-1990 postcards, etc.

Perhaps, one of the most interesting aspects of the site is the Sculptor’s studio where Borglum had created a 1/12th scale model of the complete sculpture. Using a very simple pointing system, the scale measurements could be transferred to the full-size sculpture on the mountain with amazing accuracy, allowing the work crews to replicate the details of the scale model. Park rangers also present programs on various topics during the day.

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Detail of Jefferson and Roosevelt

The sculpture of Roosevelt’s head, the last to be completed, was dedicated on July 2, 1939, and the memorial was officially transferred to the National Park Service. Borglum had planned to have more detail of Washington’s uniform in the sculpture, and work continued until October 1941. Further work ceased at the outbreak of World War II.

The same trail continues on a circular route up to the base of the mountain below the sculptures and back to the Grand View Terrace. This is a moderately strenuous hike, including some 422 steps to the rocky slope below the sculpture.

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Detail of Lincoln

The facilities have several well stocked shops, with an excellent selection of books on the history of the site and other relevant topics. The gift shop has almost every conceivable item imaginable. Prices are comparable to other National Park gift shops. The café serves full meals and also has an ice cream counter.

On the access road, there is a turnout with parking at a point where Washington’s profile is clearly visible. We had missed this on the way in.

Previous: Devils Tower

Next: A Trip through the Badlands



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