Towering over the tall pine trees of Keystone, SD, Mount Rushmore National Memorial is one of the most easily recognizable (and impressive) landmarks in America.
Our road trip has been something like 40% planned and 60% spontaneous. We know our approximate route and the big things we want to do, but our timeline is uncertain at best. Generally, we haven’t thought more than a week in advance.
Mount Rushmore falls squarely in the 40% planned portion. It’s a major American landmark that sat near our projected Massachusetts-to-Alaska route, so it was a no-brainer stop that we’ve had planned for months.
We didn’t know exactly when we’d get there, but we did know it would be right after Monowi, Nebraska.
I was worried we’d drive all the way there, look at the mountain for 10 minutes, and that would be the end of it.
That wasn’t the case. You could easily spend an hour or two at Mount Rushmore–maybe longer if you eat at the cafe on site–but the real draw is the whole Keystone area. It’s a playground for outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs alike.
Thinking of visiting Mount Rushmore? This guide has just about everything you need. Got a question I didn’t answer? Comment at the bottom!
Let’s start with the basics.
Where is Mount Rushmore?
Mount Rushmore is located in western South Dakota in the tourist town of Keystone, SD near Rapid City.
Keystone is a small town of just 337 that’s over 4,300 feet above sea level. We’ve driven through a lot of small towns comprised of a few rundown buildings with a barren, broken-looking landscape, but that isn’t Keystone. It’s a really cute town!
There isn’t much activity in that photo but trust me, there’s a lot going on during the summer. Shopping, restaurants, hotels–you name it.
Unsurprisingly, Mount Rushmore isn’t here because of Keystone. In fact, it’s sort of the other way around. Keystone was established as a gold-mining boomtown in the late 1800s, but the construction of Mount Rushmore in the 1920s-1940s ensured the town wouldn’t become deserted like many other gold rush boomtowns of that period.
This site was chosen for Mount Rushmore because of the Black Hills, a small, isolated mountain range that was formed 65-70 million years ago by an uplifting event, where magma below the surface pushed rock upward to form the mountains. The tallest peak is Black Elk Peak at 7,242 feet.
The Black Hills are awesome
The Black Hills are fascinating and geologically unique. I’m a science nerd, so the geology of this region is particularly interesting to me, and I encourage you to read more about it.
Things to do in the Black Hills
Geology aside, what makes the Black Hills so awesome? There’s so much to do!
After the mining and timber industries began to decline, the region embraced tourism and has created a great collection of sites and activities.
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial (duh, that’s why you’re here)
- Wind Cave National Park
- Jewel Cave National Monument
- Crazy Horse Memorial
- Black Hills Caverns
- Custer State Park
- Bear Country USA
- Dinosaur Park
- Four Mile Old West Town
And there’s still more.
Despite the name, the Black Hills aren’t black
To the contrary, they were chosen as the site of the presidential sculpture largely because of the bold, bright granite!
So, why the name? It came from the Lakota people, who conquered the Cheyenne in 1776 and named the region Paha Sapa. This name means “black hills emerging from the earth” but as shown above, the rock itself isn’t black. Instead, the Lakota people were referring to the dark Ponderosa Pine that covers the hills.
I love the Black Hills area, so that’s my quick plug for it. Come visit this region! OK, back to Mount Rushmore.
Who built Mount Rushmore?
Mount Rushmore was designed and sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, an American sculptor from Bear Lake, Idaho.
Actually, that isn’t entirely fair to the hundreds of workers who participated in the carving of Mount Rushmore from 1927-1941.
But Borglum was the man in charge, chosen by the official South Dakota state historian, Doane Robinson. Robinson came up with the idea for Mount Rushmore in 1923 as a way to drive tourism to the state.
Spoiler Alert: It worked.
Robinson is the one who initially chose the Black Hills, but it was Borglum who selected Mount Rushmore as the location for three reasons:
- The mountain face was easily exposed
- The rock was very stable
- The southern-facing sculpture would get plenty of sunlight
Borglum died in 1941 before his final vision was completed. His son took over but didn’t accomplish much more as government funding ran out. The end result is the memorial you see today.
Did you know Mount Rushmore was never completed?
I didn’t, at least not until I visited Mount Rushmore National Memorial and toured the Sculptor’s Studio. Here, you’ll find a scale version of what the sculpture was supposed to look like.
The original design was ambitious to say the least. I mean, the sculpture we do have took 14 years to make, and each head measures 60 feet tall!
In a way, I sort of like the uncompleted version that three million people visit every year.
Map of Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Background, geology, and history lesson over. Let’s get down to brass tacks and talk about your upcoming visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
I always find it helpful to start with a map, so here it is.
The entrance to the park is in the bottom-left corner, where you’ll find the information center and gift shop.
Take your time to study the Avenue of Flags
Once inside the park, you keep walking straight until you reach the Avenue of Flags.
It’s tempting to zoom down the Avenue of Flags to get up close with the sculpture, but make sure you look at each flag on the way out.
It’s sad how little Americans (like myself!) know about our own country. For example, do you know which state’s flag is shown below?
If you guessed Texas, South Carolina, Ohio, or any of the other 46 states not named Tennessee, then you’re wrong.
Don’t be ashamed, I didn’t know this was Tenneessee’s flag either until we visited Nashville and kept seeing the tri-star design all over the city’s street art.
The flags are great but you’re here for the sculpture
Once you reach the end of the Avenue of Flags, you’ll see Mount Rushmore front and center. This is called the Grand View Terrace. It’s a great place to get pictures like this one.
Get a closer look by taking the Presidential Trail
But that’s not the only vantage point to snap pictures. To the left and right of where the above picture was taken, there are entrances to the Presidential Trail.
The Presidential Trail is a relatively easy walking trail that takes you up close to the sculpture. It’s 0.6 mile long and has 422 steps, but the steps aren’t all vertical like the infamous Koko Head Trail that we used to punish ourselves with in Hawaii.
Instead, you’ll meander up and down slowly on the well-maintained wooden walkway.
The next picture is about as bad as the stair-climbing gets.
I think it’s something that people of all fitness levels can do. You’re rewarded with some new vantage points, though it feels like you’re sitting in the front row of a movie theater.
Keep walking the Presidential Trail to learn how the sculpture was made
As you weave through the back half of the Presidential Trail, away from Mount Rushmore, you’ll come across this huge machine. It’s an air compressor, which powered the jackhammers used to remove over 450,000 tons of rock. That’s as much as nine Titanics!
If you can read that education board above, you probably read the following:
[Julian Spotts, a National Parks Service engineer] also tried to discover the reason for a large power loss suffered at Rushmore every Monday morning. “Well, I found,” said Spotts, “that just about every woman in Keystone washed clothes on Monday, and a lot of them had electric washing machines.” Instead of trying to rearrange Keystone’s laundry schedule, Spotts asked the Mount Rushmore Commission to buy a gasoline-powered auxilary compressor. “And after that,” according to Spotts, “we had no more power problems.”
The air compressor system at Mount Rushmore could power up to 22 jackhammers at once.
Make sure you stop in the Sculptor’s Studio
Earlier in this article, I showed you what Mount Rushmore was supposed to look like. That picture came from the Sculptor’s Studio.
It’s a small building that gives you a little background on how the presidential sculptures were created. There’s a gift shop in there, too.
Once you’re finished with the Sculptor’s Studio, it’s time to walk the stairs up to the Grand View Terrace where it all started.
Parking and Fees
There’s no entry fee to get into Mount Rushmore National Memorial, but there are parking fees.
It’s $10 for each car, motorcycle, or RV, but the park does offer a $5 senior citizen rate. They accept cash, check, traveler’s checks, Visa, or Mastercard.
Be Aware: The National Park’s America the Beautiful Pass will not cover your parking fee at Mount Rushmore.
We hauled our fifth wheel all the way up, and let me tell you: It’s a steep climb. As long as you aren’t overloaded you shouldn’t have problems getting up there, but my transmission definitely got hot with the repeated climbing and descending as we entered the Keystone and Mount Rushmore areas on an 80°F day.
Mount Rushmore photography tips
Mount Rushmore faces southeast, which means mornings are the optimal time to photograph the sculpture.
If you get there for sunrise, the faces will be cast in a warm orange glow, which makes for some inspiring photography.
From late-morning until the end of the day, the shadows grow progressively longer, which I don’t particularly like when photographing this memorial.
The most direct shots come head-on from the Grand View Terrace above the amphitheater, but those shots are a dime a dozen. That’s where everyone takes pictures!
From the Presidential Trail there are a few openings where you can take photos looking up at the sculpture, which makes it feel more immense and impressive.
Teddy Roosevelt is the hardest to photograph because he’s nestled in between Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, but the east side of the Presidential Trail near the Sculptor’s Studio gives you a good angle for Roosevelt.
One of my favorite photography tricks is to use a zoom lens to compress the foreground and background in an image. Doing this, you can make it appear like you’re right in front of Mount Rushmore. Undoubtedly you’ve seen me do this with images like this one.
It looks obviously different from the next image, which was taken with the same camera but a much wider 18mm focal length.
There are over three million visitors to Mount Rushmore every year, so try new things to get unique photographs. Experiment with angles and framing, use the landscape, and get creative!
12 more things to do in Keystone, SD
Keystone, SD is a fun little town that comes to life during the summer tourist season. Mount Rushmore is the main attraction, but there are other things to do in Keystone, SD.
Big Thunder Gold Mine // As a former mining town, gold is a huge part of Keystone’s history. Try your hand gold panning, walk the museum, and take a guided tour of a gold mine from 1890. (604 Blair St, Keystone, SD 57751)
Keystone Historical Museum // A small museum with old photos and artifacts from Keystone’s history, it also functions as the starting point of the 19-stop self-guided Keystone walking tour. (410 3rd St, Keystone, SD 57751)
Black Hills Aerial Adventures // Departing from the helipad to the east of Mount Rushmore (you can see it in the satellite map above) this tour will ensure you get a view few people see. (313 Speck Center Rd, Keystone, SD 57751)
Rushmore Tramway Adventures // Ziplines, tubing, scenic chairlifts, and an alpine slide–Rushmore Tramway Adventures has something for the adrenaline junky in you. (313 Speck Center Rd, Keystone, SD 57751)
The National Presidential Wax Museum // Keeping with Rushmore’s presidential theme, the National Presidential Wax Museum has full-sized wax replicas of every president arranged in important historical scenes. Some people find them fascinating, others creepy. I’m more the latter but to each their own! (609 Hwy 16A, Keystone, SD 57751)
Rushmore Cave // Located at Rush Mountain Adventure Park, Rushmore Cave is a guided tour of a Black Hills cave with some impressive stalactites and stalagmites. (13622 SD-40, Keystone, SD 57751)
1880 Train // Twenty minutes away in Hill City, SD is 1880 Train, a functioning train pulled by a diesel engine made in 1956. The train goes back and forth from Keystone and Hill City, with about a one hour ride each way, and offers great chances of seeing animals in the wild. The train runs all day so you can plan whatever day you want, but here are some fun sample itineraries. (222 Railroad Ave, Hill City, SD 57745)
Cosmos Mystery Area // This is on my shortlist of things to do in Keystone, SD next time I visit. Basically, it’s an interactive tour of optical illusions. It’s geared towards kids and families, but I found myself playing with bubbles at the Anchorage Museum’s Discovery Center the other day. Seems up my alley. (24040 Cosmos Rd, Rapid City, SD 57702)
Reptile Gardens // Nearby Rapid City is home to the world’s largest reptile museum. (Seriously, whodathunk?) It’s just 20 minutes from Keystone and goes beyond just reptiles. The zoo houses a 16-foot saltwater crocodile, giant tortoises, a prairie dog town, snake shows, and more. (8955 US-16, Rapid City, SD 57702)
Custer State Park // Thirty minutes away in Custer, SD is Custer State Park, named for General George Custer who’s best known for Custer’s Last Stand. (I just said “Custer” four times in one sentence!) This park spans 71,000 acres and provides great opportunities to see wildlife while hiking, swimming, paddle boarding, fishing, camping, or whatever else you like to do when enjoying Mother Nature. (13400 US, US-16A, Custer, SD 57730)
Crazy Horse Memorial // Thirty-five minutes from Keystone is another famous mountain sculpture, this one for Lakota chief Crazy Horse. He’s famous for rising up against the US government as his lands were encroached upon, and he even opposed General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn. (12151 Ave of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, SD 57730)
Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary // Just over an hour from Keystone, this probably doesn’t qualify as something to do in Keystone, but I love animals and let’s be honest–how often do you come across wild horses? (12165 Highland Rd, Hot Springs, SD 57747)
Best places to eat in Keystone, SD
Dawn and I haven’t truly visited a town until we’ve eaten there. Here are the best places to eat in Keystone, SD.
Jane’s Boardwalk Pizza // Delicious counter service pizza and beer for an affordable price. ‘Nuff said. (160 Winter St, Keystone, SD 57751)
Ruby House Restaurant // An Old West-style restaurant with early 20th-century decor and attitude, Ruby House is a must-stop if you want to eat Keystone’s history. (124 Winter St, Keystone, SD 57751)
Palomino’s // Sandwiches and quick eats in a no-frills environment. Palomino’s makes for a nice, quick lunch. (236 Winter St, Keystone, SD 57751)
Where to stay in Keystone, SD
As a tourist town, there’s no shortage of places to stay in Keystone, SD. Here are some of the best.
K Bar S Lodge // Just outside of Keystone, this hotel is quiet, peaceful, and clean. Some rooms have balcony views of Mount Rushmore. (434 Old Hill City Rd, Keystone, SD 57751)
Under Canvas // Glamping at its finest. This is not your typical lodging. Instead, you’ll stay in an upscale tent, but calling it a tent doesn’t do it justice. It has a king bed and all the usual hotel furnishings, except it’s outside in a big canvas tent. They even have a stargazer tent, which gives you a star viewing portal above the bed! (24342 Ranch Rd, Keystone, SD 57751)
Keystone Boardwalk Inn & Suites // If you want to stay in Keystone’s downtown area within walking distance of all shops and restaurants without breaking the bank, this is your best bet. (250 Winter St, Keystone, SD 57751)
Rockerville Lodge and Cabins // Another affordable option without being a chain like Holiday Inn, Rockerville Lodge and Cabins is simple, rustic, and clean. However, it is 10-15 minutes outside Keystone. (13525 Main St, Rockerville, SD 57702)
Final thoughts before you visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Mount Rushmore is a little out of the way for most travelers, but it’s a powerful place to visit, especially for those who love American history. It’s definitely crowded during the summer tourism season, but the park is big enough for everyone.
Take your time to walk all of the trails, read all of the educational signs, and talk to the park employees.
The entire western South Dakota region is packed with activities and attractions to round out a fantastic vacation. It’s RV-friendly, so take at least a week to see the area. Really, there’s something for everyone in the Black Hills.
Dawn and I only had a few days in the Rapid City area, and we barely scratched the surface of things we wanted to do. We’ll certainly be back in the next couple years to experience one of the country’s most naturally beautiful and unique landscapes.