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Mount Rushmore National Memorial: A complete guide

The following is a guest post written by Stephanie Rytting of The Unknown Enthusiast.

Nestled in the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota, a gorgeous, underrated part of the country filled with rugged mountain ranges and wild peaks, sits the impressive and inspiring Mount Rushmore. This popular destination sees almost three million visitors a year, and is often included in a trip out to the beautiful Black Hills. 

View of the whole image of 4 presidents on Mount Rushmore.

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Here’s everything you need to know about visiting this popular monument: a guide to Mount Rushmore.

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What is Mount Rushmore?

Mount Rushmore is a National Memorial where the 60-foot-tall faces (18 meters) of four U.S. presidents have been carved into the side of a mountain. It is not a national park, but it is a part of the National Park System. The presidents whose faces appear are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.  

South Dakota historian Doane Robinson first came up with the idea for the monument, and the sculpture was designed by Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln Borglum. The mountain, by the way, is named after Charles E. Rushmore, a businessman who gave a large donation toward building the sculpture. The memorial eventually received federal funding to get it finished, but it still took 14 years to complete it – construction started in 1927 and was completed in 1941. 

View of the image of 4 presidents, lit up at night. The view sights down the Avenue of Flags, so the brightly colored flags lining the path seem to point to the image.

Controversy around Mount Rushmore

There is some controversy surrounding Mount Rushmore. In 1868, the US government signed a treaty promising the Native Americans “undisturbed use and occupation” of an area that included the Black Hills region of South Dakota where Mount Rushmore is. 

However, with the discovery of gold, white settlers came pouring into the region and the Native Americans began getting pushed out, and eventually were conquered in brutal battles over the region. Since then, Native Americans, particularly the Lakota Sioux, have demanded their lands back, which are considered sacred ground to the tribe. 

Text: Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo). Image: a view of the Presidents' heads on Mount Rushmore
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Things to do at Mount Rushmore

There are several things you shouldn’t miss during your visit to Mount Rushmore:

1. Stop by the Information Center

If you’re with kids, stop by the Information Center to pick up a free Junior Ranger packet. These packets are full of well-designed, educational activities about Mount Rushmore that kids can complete as they walk around the park. After they’ve finished a certain number of pages, they can redeem their completed book for a Junior Ranger badge. The Junior Ranger program is designed for kids between 5 and 12 years old. Kids 13 or older can pick up the Rushmore Ranger Activity Booklet, a similar workbook designed for older kids. 

There are a few displays here as well, and you can pick up a map of the grounds too. 

2. Walk up the Avenue of Flags

Avenue of the Flags is the main pathway up to Mount Rushmore. This thoroughfare is wide and paved, and lined with 56 flags: from the fifty states, plus one district, three territories, and two commonwealths. The flags are arranged in alphabetical order and each has a plaque with the name of the state on it. This flag-lined walkway creates a rather grand entrance to Mount Rushmore.

The Avenue of Flags: flags lining the path that leads straight to the image of the presidents on the mountain.

3. Admire the view at the Grand View Terrace

The Grand Terrace is the main viewing platform directly in front of Mount Rushmore. Here, you’ll get a fantastic, unobstructed view of the presidents’ faces on the mountain. However, this spot can get pretty busy, so you may need to be patient to grab a spot for a photo-op. 

4. Stop by the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center

The visitor center at Mount Rushmore is located directly below the Grand View Terrace – take the stairs or the elevators at the sides of the terrace down to the lower level. The visitor center has many well-designed exhibits about the history of Mount Rushmore. You can also watch a short film about its construction. The visitor center also houses a gift shop and restrooms.

5. Walk the Presidential Trail

The Presidential Trail is a paved path that starts and ends at the Grand View Terrace. This 0.5-mile (0.8 km) path takes you in a circle around the park, between the Terrace and the base of the mountain. There are multiple viewpoints of the mountain, where you get a different perspective of Mount Rushmore (and fewer crowds). There are also a lot of informational signs set up along the path, with information about the different presidents and their lives. It’s particularly fun to go right under Mount Rushmore and see it from below.

This is an easy path, but it does have 422 stairs on many staircases that you will need to climb. While this means that part of the path is not wheelchair accessible, it is still easy enough for children to do. 

The trail is a wide wooden boardwalk - at least in the section shown - with railings along both sides and a park bench. On either side are large rocks and pine trees.
The Presidential Trail.

6. Watch the presentation at the Sculptor’s Studio

The Presidential Trail goes right by the Sculptor’s Studio, which is on the right side as you face Mount Rushmore. The Sculptor’s Studio is an interesting stop, particularly if you have children, because every half an hour one of the park rangers gives a presentation about the history of Mount Rushmore, and how it came to be.

The presentation lasts for 15 minutes, and the ranger tells about the conception of the project, who were the main architects and leaders, the different techniques and mechanisms used to carve out the stone on the mountain, and different mishaps that occurred.

A park ranger stands in front of a small (ceiling high) version of the Mount Rushmore image of the Presidents. She is speaking to an off-camera audience.
Inside the Sculptor’s Studio.

There are a lot of demonstrations during the presentation, including getting to hold some of the tools used in the construction of the memorial. This is an interesting and engaging educational opportunity at Mount Rushmore, particularly for children.

The studio is open from 8am-8pm.

7. Visit the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Heritage Village and the Youth Exploration Area

This relatively new area of the park is just off the Presidential Trail on the left side of Mount Rushmore and is dedicated to highlighting the customs and traditions of the local Native Americans. Lakota storytellers, musicians, and interpreters share their stories and customs with visitors on selected days of the week – check daily times with a park ranger at the Information Center. 

In the same area as the Heritage Village is the Youth Exploration Area, which has interactive programs for children that highlight the cultural and historical aspects of Mount Rushmore. It is open 9-10:30 every morning from early June to early August. 

Seen from below: George Washington's face and a bit of Thomas Jefferson's as well.

8. Watch the evening lighting ceremony at the Amphitheater 

Every night during the months of May-September, right at dusk (check with an employee for the exact time for the season that you’re visiting), there is a show in the large Amphitheater right under Mount Rushmore.

This show focuses on patriotism and the lives of the presidents. The program starts with a ranger talk, then a patriotic video is shown, and the evening culminates with the lighting of Mount Rushmore and honoring veterans and active military. It’s a nice little show and worth the time to stay for it. 

An outdoor amphitheater with lots of people sitting, backs to the camera, facing the darkening Mount Rushmore. A small building on the stage is lit up.
The Amphitheater just before the lighting ceremony.

Where is Mount Rushmore located?

Mount Rushmore is located in Keystone, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is about 20 minutes outside of Rapid City, South Dakota, on the western edge of the state. It is only 34 minutes from the beautiful Custer State Park, and 1 hour 15 minutes from Badlands National Park. Wind Cave National Park is only 45 minutes away, and Mount Rushmore is also not far from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota (about 4 hours away). Many people choose to visit a combination of these sites on one trip to the Dakotas.

There is no public transportation to Mount Rushmore. You need to either rent a car or take a tour from Rapid City. This private tour covers Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Custer State Park in a day.

How much time does it take to visit Mount Rushmore?

Two or three hours is plenty of time to visit Mount Rushmore and do essentially all of the items on this list. When we visited during the summertime, we arrived at 7pm and had more than enough time to do every activity listed above (except the Heritage Village which is open earlier in the day), and watch the Lighting Ceremony at 9pm. In total, we spent about 3 hours at Mount Rushmore. 

Unfortunately, the Lighting Ceremony and the Village are open at such different times, it is tough to do both unless you do part of your visit in the morning, leave to do another activity, and come back again for the evening.

Two suggested Dakota itineraries: take a road trip that includes Mount Rushmore 

Option 1

  • Day 1 & 2: Badlands.
    Spend 1-2 full days at Badlands National Park.
  • Day 3: Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore.
    Spend the first part of day 3 at Custer State Park. You can go hiking in the mountains or visit the beautiful and peaceful Sylvan Lake. In the evening of the third day, visit Mount Rushmore. 
  • Day 4 & 5: Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
    Head north into North Dakota and visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Option 2

  • Day 1-2: Badlands and Mount Rushmore.
    Visit Badlands National Park during the day. In the evening, head over to Mount Rushmore. It’s about 1 hour and 15 minutes from the Badlands. You can either spend 1 or 2 days at Badlands. 
  • Day 3: Wind Caves, Mount Rushmore and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
    Visit Wind Caves National Park, which is about 45 minutes south of Mount Rushmore, then drive to Theodore Roosevelt National Park
  • Day 4: Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

You could also make a stop at Crazy Horse Memorial, only 17 miles (27 km) away from Mount Rushmore. Like Mount Rushmore, it is a monumental statue carved out of a mountain, in this case depicting Crazy Horse, a great Lakota leader. However, unlike Mount Rushmore, it is still a work in progress, though the face is complete.

Use the map below to find accommodations. It is centered on Mount Rushmore, but you can zoom out to see other accommodations further away. The Badlands are straight east of Mount Rushmore.

When is the best time to visit Mount Rushmore?

While Mount Rushmore is open all year long, the best time to visit is during the summer months. Late spring and early fall are also good times to visit. The weather is best in summertime (winter can see lots of snow and dangerous blizzards), and all of the programs are running, so you can make the most out of your visit during these months.

However, the off-season definitely sees fewer visitors, so if solitude is what you value the most, then late fall-early spring may be a better time for you to visit. 

Practical information about visiting Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Amenities at Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore has quite a few amenities. You can find food service on site: several restaurants, cafes and ice cream shacks. (For those of you who enjoy trying new types of meat, the Carver’s Cafe serves a good bison burger.) There are plenty of bathrooms, and a couple of gift shops. 

Hours

Mount Rushmore is open year-round, and hours for the memorial are 5am-9pm, or 5am-11pm, depending on the season. The Visitors Center, Information Center, and other areas in the park close earlier – hours depend on the facility and the season. On Christmas Day, the memorial is open but all buildings and facilities are closed. 

Admission

There is no entrance fee, but there is a $10 parking fee per vehicle in the on-site parking garage. The fee is good for an entire year.

Visiting Mount Rushmore 

Mount Rushmore is a great add-on to any South Dakota itinerary, particularly since you can see the whole site within just a few hours. There are quite a few interesting things to do at Mount Rushmore besides just looking at it from the main terrace, so take advantage of the other activities around the grounds. Have a wonderful time at this impressive national memorial. 

About the author: Stephanie is the author of the travel blog The Unknown Enthusiast, where she writes about exciting travel destinations around the globe. 

Have you been to Mount Rushmore? If you have additional advice about visiting there, feel free to leave a comment below!

Mount Rushmore FAQs

What is Mount Rushmore?
Mount Rushmore is a National Memorial where the 60-foot-tall faces of four U.S. presidents have been carved into the side of a mountain: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt.

What are the things to do at Mount Rushmore?
There are several things to do at Mount Rushmore, such as stopping by the Information Center, walking up the Avenue of Flags, admiring the view at the Grand View Terrace, visiting the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, walking the Presidential Trail, watching the presentation at the Sculptor’s Studio, and visiting the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Heritage Village and the Youth Exploration Area.

Is Mount Rushmore a national park?
No, Mount Rushmore is not a national park, but it is a part of the National Park System.

How long does it take to visit Mount Rushmore?
It depends on how much time you want to spend at Mount Rushmore. You can see the faces from the parking lot or spend several hours walking around the park and visiting the different exhibits and trails.

Is Mount Rushmore wheelchair accessible?
Only the section of the Presidential Trail between the Grand View Terrace and the viewing areas below the mountain is accessible to wheelchairs. The rest is not wheelchair accessible due to all the steps. However, the rest of the park is wheelchair accessible. There are also designated accessible parking spots and a special drop-off zone.

Is there an admission fee to visit Mount Rushmore?
No, there is no admission fee to visit Mount Rushmore, but there is a parking fee of $10 per vehicle, which is valid for one year from the date of purchase.

When is the best time to visit Mount Rushmore?
The best time to visit Mount Rushmore is during the summer months when the weather is warmer and the park is more accessible. However, this is also the busiest time of year, so expect crowds. If you prefer fewer crowds, consider visiting during the spring or fall. The park is open year-round, but some facilities and programs may be closed in the off-season, and the park closes when the weather is particularly bad.

My travel recommendations

Planning travel

  • Skyscanner is where I always start my flight searches.
  • Booking.com is the company I use most for finding accommodations. If you prefer, Expedia offers more or less the same.
  • Discover Cars offers an easy way to compare prices from all of the major car-rental companies in one place.
  • Use Viator or GetYourGuide to find walking tours, day tours, airport pickups, city cards, tickets and whatever else you need at your destination.
  • Bookmundi is great when you’re looking for a longer tour of a few days to a few weeks, private or with a group, pretty much anywhere in the world. Lots of different tour companies list their tours here, so you can comparison shop.
  • GetTransfer is the place to book your airport-to-hotel transfers (and vice-versa). It’s so reassuring to have this all set up and paid for ahead of time, rather than having to make decisions after a long, tiring flight!
  • Buy a GoCity Pass when you’re planning to do a lot of sightseeing on a city trip. It can save you a lot on admissions to museums and other attractions in big cities like New York and Amsterdam.
  • I’m a fan of SCOTTeVEST’s jackets and vests because when I wear one, I don’t have to carry a handbag. I feel like all my stuff is safer when I travel because it’s in inside pockets close to my body.
  • Airalo is an e-sim card. You buy it through an app and activate it when you need it. I tried it on my trip to Thailand and it worked just like any other sim card, but without my having to fuss with physical cards.
  • I use ExpressVPN on my phone and laptop when I travel. It keeps me safe from hackers when I use public or hotel wifi.

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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments!  Read more…
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