Mount Rushmore National Memorial is easily one of the most iconic sights in America. If you show anyone in the world a picture of the monstrous mountain carving, they can tell you it’s located in the United States – though they may not be able to point out South Dakota (where Mount Rushmore is located) on a map.
If you’ve always wanted to visit Mount Rushmore, you’re not alone. Rushmore is actually on many people’s bucket list, as it seems to encapsulate and radiate patriotism through the stoic faces of the four American presidents carved on it: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.
In this guide, you’ll learn about the history of Mount Rushmore, logistics for visiting (including fees and where to stay), and things to do at Mount Rushmore. By the end, you’ll be able to plan your own trip to visit Mount Rushmore and see this impressive – and controversial – sight for yourself.
History of Mount Rushmore
I’m wearing a shirt that reads “We are the Science Fiction of our Ancestors” by Native artist Johnnie Jae. You can get one here.
Mount Rushmore – like many mountains across the United States – was not originally called that name. There’s a long, and unsurprisingly sordid, history of Mount Rushmore. This includes that it was originally intended to feature entirely different faces on it.
Mount Rushmore is called Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, or “Six Grandfathers Mountain,” by the Indigenous Lakota people of the Black Hills of South Dakota. (There are also many chapters of history in the Black Hills before that. They detail the tribal conflicts and land transfers of Native American peoples for millennia. That’s a separate story!).
The Lakota are a group within the Sioux who were granted land rights in this region through an 1868 treaty with the U.S. government. After gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the Sioux were forced to give up their land. This included the land around Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, which is considered a sacred mountain by the Lakota.
In the 1920s, state historian Doane Robinson wanted to attract tourism to the Black Hills region. He proposed carving “The Needles,” as they were then called, into a tourist sight. Robinson suggested including Sioux Chief Red Cloud on the face of the mountain. Unfortunately, the sculptor – Gutzon Borglum – had ties to the KKK, so we know how he felt about that… Borglum convinced him to change the sculpture to the faces we see today: Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Jefferson.
Tunkasila Sakpe Paha – or Mount Rushmore – should never have been carved in the first place. The Lakota people still demand their rights be honored and the land returned to them. For this reason, you might read headlines about peaceful protests near Rushmore.
Traveling to Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore is located in the Black Hills National Forest of western South Dakota. Most people visit while on a road trip across the Great Plains (or across the whole U.S.). It is also possible to fly to Rapid City, South Dakota, and rent a car there.
It takes 30 minutes to drive from Rapid City to Mount Rushmore, making it a surprisingly accessible national icon.
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Parking & Entry Fees at Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore is an 8-minute drive outside of Keystone, South Dakota. This is where most people stay overnight if they’re planning to visit Mount Rushmore for longer than one day (or are doing a multi-day road trip and need an overnight stop).
Over the years, Mount Rushmore has developed to handle the crowds that come to see this iconic sight. Now there’s a large parking structure with multiple levels. Except for the busiest summer weekends, there’s usually enough parking for everyone.
It costs $10 to park in the lot – but don’t worry: the parking fee is valid for one year from the date of your first visit. So you can visit two or even three days in a row – or come back any time within the next year! Best of all, the parking fee is the only cost to visit; there is no admission fee for Mount Rushmore.
Note: Unfortunately, the America the Beautiful Pass does not cover parking fees at Mount Rushmore.
Mount Rushmore Opening Hours & Seasons
While Mount Rushmore is open year-round, not everything at the National Memorial is offered all year. While everything is open from roughly mid-May to September, some experiences are closed or not available during the winter months:
- The Visitor Center, Gift Shop, Carver’s Café and all outdoor spaces are open year-round.
- The Information Center, Ranger Programs, and Sculptor’s Studio are closed during the winter.
What to Do at Mount Rushmore
Once you arrive and park, you might be curious what there is to do – other than look at Mount Rushmore, of course. Actually, there’s plenty to do at Mount Rushmore, so go beyond a simple photo op and explore the area.
Avenue of Flags
As you enter the Mount Rushmore National Monument, you’ll walk through a stone archway and down a long, landscaped plaza (this was still under construction during my visit in 2020). You’ll pass through another arch and enter the Avenue of Flags, which perfectly frames Mount Rushmore.
Along this walk, you can see all the 56 flags of the 50 states, one district, three territories, and two commonwealths of the United States of America.
Admire the View
As you reach the end of the Avenue of Flags, you can see a more expansive view of Mount Rushmore and the four presidents carved on it. There’s a large plaza here, called the Grand View Terrace, where you can snap photos from every angle. This is definitely the best place for postcard-worthy photos!
Visit the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center
Located under the Grand View Terrace at Mount Rushmore, be sure to stop in the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center. This is the main museum that explains the history of Mount Rushmore – the white version anyway! (You won’t find much in the way of explaining the Native American significance of Tunkasila Sakpe Paha before it was carved into Mount Rushmore.)
Still, the Visitor Center is worth visiting to understand more about the political and engineering feats that made Mount Rushmore possible.
If you have time, plan to attend a Ranger Program or two during your Mount Rushmore visit. Here are the general details about ranger programs offered at Mount Rushmore:
- A number of 30-minute Ranger Programs on a variety of topics occur multiple times daily throughout Mount Rushmore. A schedule is posted at the Information Center daily.
- There’s a 15-minute Ranger Program at The Sculptor’s Studio (mentioned below) that happens several times daily. This explains the tools and techniques used in the carving process.
- Every evening (May to September, weather permitting), there’s a 45-minute program focusing on “presidents, patriotism and the nation’s history”. It ends with a lighting ceremony that illuminates Mount Rushmore once the sun has set.
- On Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer months, there are ranger programs about Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Heritage, including the customs and traditions of local Native American communities.
If you’re able to attend any of these, they’ll add an extra dimension to your experience with expert history and information about Mount Rushmore.
There are also self-guided tour options, if the timing doesn’t work for a Ranger Program (or you want even more info!). There are two options: an audio tour on a device that’s available to rent for $6 and a multimedia tour on a device that’s available to rent for $8.
Walk the Presidential Trail
If you want to stretch your legs, I recommend walking the 0.6-mile Presidential Trail. This takes you on a loop from the Grand View Terrace and has 422 steps as part of the trail. Along the way, you’ll see plaques that introduce the different presidents represented on Mount Rushmore. It also takes you to the Sculptor’s Studio and several other great photo viewpoints.
Visit the Sculptor’s Studio
The Sculptor’s Studio was built in 1939 for the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum, as a second on-site facility. Today, you can learn more about how Mount Rushmore was carved (through a Ranger Program), plus see artifacts from the carving process.
Browse the Gift Shops
Naturally, visiting the gift shop is a must-do! I always love a good National Park Service gift shop to see what unique (and stereotypical) gifts they offer. As usual, I snagged a few postcards and a silver charm for my charm bracelet.
Don’t miss out though – there are multiple gift shops, and the one near the entry/exit is the one where you can get a passport stamp for your Passport to Your National Parks.
Hotels Near Mount Rushmore
If you need overnight accommodation near Mount Rushmore, Keystone the place to stay. Here are some accommodation options in Keystone:
- We stayed at the Roosevelt Inn during our trip; it’s right along the main road and rooms are bare-bones but sufficient. (From $58/night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
- A little outside of Keystone, Under Canvas is a great way to enjoy the great outdoors while glamping near Mount Rushmore. (From $229/night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
- Backroads Inns & Cabins is located just outside Keystone, and has several properties available to rent on VRBO. I love their cozy woodsy cabin, the clean white studio cabin, the old-fashioned couple’s cabin, and the light, airy cabin – all from $125/night.
There are a number of other hotel options as well as plenty of vacation rentals to choose from when staying in Keystone, too. And since you’re visiting Keystone anyway, be sure to check out other things to do in this community beyond just visiting Mount Rushmore.
Do you have other questions about visiting Mount Rushmore? Let us know in the comments!
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