Insider tips on seeing these iconic memorials situated in the Black Hills of South Dakota
I’m of the mind that every American should visit the Black Hills of South Dakota at least once in his or her lifetime. Especially for families, this region holds great treasures, and I’m not talking about the kind in Nicholas Cage’s National Treasure which was set here. A week-long visit should include Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks, and of course, Mount Rushmore National Memorial. (More on whether to include Crazy Horse Memorial to come.)
Arguably, Mount Rushmore is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world and a symbol of American hope and freedom. It may surprise you to learn that sculptor Gutzon Borglum was the one who decided which American presidents would be immortalized in granite. He chose George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln because he felt that they represented the most important events in U.S. history up until the time when he started blasting and carving in 1927: the nation’s birth (Washington), growth (Jefferson), development (Roosevelt), and preservation (Lincoln). Taking time to learn the “how and why” behind the memorial will add greater understanding and appreciation to your visit.
My most valuable advice for you regarding a visit to Mount Rushmore has to do with the best timing for your visit.
Nearly three million people visit Mount Rushmore each year. As you may suspect, the summer months of June, July, and August are the busiest. If you’re able to visit in the shoulder months of May, September or October, you should. If you arrive during the winter, you’ll have the memorial to yourself!
KidTripster Tip: If you decide to visit October through late May, know that the memorial is illuminated at night, but there’s no evening lighting ceremony. As I’ll discuss in the next section, I think the ceremony is worth attending.
Now here’s your insider tip: normally, I advise visiting any national park, monument or memorial early in the morning. Instead, if you’re visiting Mount Rushmore in the summer months, plan to arrive in the late afternoon. See all the exhibits and hike the Presidential Trail first and then have dinner. Finally, find your seat for the evening lighting ceremony. Don’t miss this part. After all, you’ve come all the way to South Dakota, so get the full experience!
What to do at Mount Rushmore?
To give you and your family a greater appreciation for what you’re about to see, stop at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center to check out the exhibits and view a 14-minute movie that details Mount Rushmore’s story.
KidTripster Tip: Make sure to grab your Junior Ranger booklet. At Mount Rushmore, there are programs for ages 3-4, 5-12 and 13 and up. Your child can earn a badge and/or a certificate of completion.
Now set off on the .6-mile Presidential Trail. It’s very walkable; however, it does have 422 stairs and can only accommodate strollers or wheelchairs from the Grand View Terrace to the viewing areas at the base of the mountain. In the first section of the trail, you’ll encounter the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Heritage Village which highlights the customs and traditions of these native people. At the end of the trail, stop in the Sculptor’s Studio to see the plaster models that were used in the sculpting process. (Note: The studio is currently being renovated and will reopen in May 2019.)
KidTripster Tip: This memorial is one of the most photographed in the world. Look for more unique angles to capture your shots. And know that as the light changes, so too does the appearance and coloring of the granite. If good quality photos are important to you, consider timing your walk closer to dusk.
Fun fact: The head of Washington measures 60 feet tall with a nose that’s 21 feet tall. Roosevelt’s head is slightly smaller, while Lincoln’s head is slightly larger.
KidTripster Tip: During the summer season, you can purchase the Mount Rushmore Audio Tour at the Audio Tour Building. This self-guided tour incorporates narration, music, interviews, and historic recordings to further enliven your visit. I think that it’s worth the money. Cost: $5; languages: English, French, German, Spanish, and Lakota.
If you’re visiting late May through the end of September, stay for what I think is the highlight of any Mount Rushmore visit: the lighting ceremony. The presentation starts with a 10-minute park ranger talk followed by a 20-minute screening of Discovery Channel’s Freedom, America’s Lasting Legacy. The memorial is then illuminated to the sounds of stirring, patriotic music. At the end, the park ranger invites all veterans and active duty military personnel on stage to retreat (lower and fold) the U.S. flag. I found the entire program to be quite moving. Depending on the time of year, it starts at either 8 or 9 p.m.; double check the timing when you arrive.
KidTripster Tip: The seats in the amphitheater don’t have backs. You may want to arrive early to nab a spot where you can sit up against a wall.
Where to eat?
You’ll remember that I recommended arriving in the late afternoon, having dinner, and then staying for the evening program. However, The Carver’s Marketplace, the only dining facility in the park, is one of the worst dining experiences that my family has had at any national park. Our food was subpar at best. Instead, I’d highly recommend packing a picnic that you retrieve from your vehicle.
KidTripster Tip: You can get an enormous ice cream cone at the Ice Cream Shop. Here you’ll learn that while Thomas Jefferson didn’t introduce ice cream to the USA, he is credited with the first-known, recorded recipe by an American.
What to do at Crazy Horse?
About 15 miles west of Mount Rushmore, you’ll find the Crazy Horse Memorial. At the invitation of Henry Standing Bear, an Oglala Lakota Chief, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski started creating this memorial to honor all North American tribes in 1947.
Most visitors view Crazy Horse at a distance from the visitors center. On the deck, you can see a model of the planned sculpture of Crazy Horse on his horse with the words, "My lands are where my dead lie buried." The colossal sculpture’s final dimensions are planned to measure 641 feet wide and 563 feet high. The head of Crazy Horse is supposed to measure 87 feet high; again, by comparison, Washington’s head at Mount Rushmore is 60 feet high. Only a fraction of the project is completed.
There are optional tours available. You can take a bus ride to the base of the mountain. Cost: $4/person. Or you can pay a whooping fee to take a trip to the top of the memorial. Cost: Youth (12 & under) Free with paying adult; Adult $125. We passed on both tours, but we did walk through the well-done, on-site Indian Museum of North American.
Crazy Horse gets mixed reviews from my family. My husband and sons were not fans and noted that we could have seen Crazy Horse from a distance without paying the $30 per car fee. On the other hand, I am a sucker for a good story, and the story behind the creation of Crazy Horse is a monumental one. I will say that I left with a profound feeling of sadness, unconvinced that the memorial will ever be completed. Despite the fact that several members of the Ziolkowski family continue to work on it, the project is in constant need of money, as it’s not supported by any federal or state funds.
Where to stay?
There’s no shortage of hotels and campgrounds in the Black Hills. We stayed at Beaver Lake Campground in Custer. The big draw here? The large water slide and separate pool which my sons thoroughly enjoyed. Unfortunately, you do have to pay extra for use of the slide. Cost: 10-ride pass $4; all day $7; after 4pm $5.
The campground is open from mid-March to mid-November. Cost: Tent $32-34; RV $40-48; Cabin $63-148; sites with electric only, electric and water or full hookups are available.
KidTripster Tip: Rates are higher during early August because of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. I’d recommend avoiding this time period.
The Black Hills are located in the southwestern corner of South Dakota. Rapid City Regional Airport is about 30 miles from Mount Rushmore. During the summer, expect heavy traffic in the vicinity of the Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorials.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels to national parks, monuments, and memorials with her husband and two sons. She’s logged thousands of miles behind the wheel of the family’s 38-foot RV.