Mount Rushmore Tips & Travel Review: For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to see 4 Giant Heads carved into a mountain. You can ask my Mum and Dad. Every year they’d sit me down and say “What do you want for Christmas?” and I’d say the same thing every time. “4 Giants Heads carved into a mountain please“. They’d chuckle. Shoot each other a look and a wry smile. Sometimes pat me on the head before replying, “If that’s what you want son” before walking away with a grin on their faces.
When Christmas arrived I’d inevitably get a bike or a new pair of shoes. Something different every year. No matter what I did, I never got those giant heads. I can only assume my parents thought I was joking. The alternative being that they actually knew I wanted 4 Giant Heads carved into a mountain and willingly chose not to get them for me. And that’s a thought that’s just too painful to consider.
As the years ticked by and I got older I realised my chances of seeing 4 Giant Heads carved into a mountain were getting worse and worse. It seems I’d simply set the bar too high. One giant head. That was possible. Two, maybe. Three, a stretch. But four?! No. I’d flown too close to the sun. And like any dream of mine that didn’t immediately come to fruition. I gave up on it. It was time to move on and just grow up. Truth be told my life was full of twists and turns after that anyway.
Ups and downs you might say.
I won ‘Most Improved‘ playing under 14’s soccer for my local team. That was an up. Even if an award like that is code for ‘You were the worst on the team at the start of the year’. I also got Leukemia at 20. Bit of a downer if I’m honest. But I came out the other side with life in my legs and hope in my heart. And as part of my post-cancer quest to feel alive by traveling the world I found myself in the United States of America, road tripping with three of my best mates.
We didn’t have an open top convertible with the wind blowing in our hair. But we had each other, a Frisbee, and a copy of Playboy that had quickly become our unofficial mascot. And to me that was living!
Sure it wasn’t for everyone. But we were driving on the wrong side of the road and that made me feel unquestionably alive! Of course at the time I hadn’t been told that Americans actually do drive on the opposite side of the road and we weren’t crossing the dotted line to spike our adrenaline, but just to obey the law. And once that was explained for the 6th time it did remove some of the excitement of the road trip. But we had nowhere to be and everywhere to go and that was just fine by me.
I suppose that’s how we found ourselves deep in the Black Hills of South Dakota. By this time I’d long since shelved my childhood dream of seeing 4 Giant Heads carved into a mountain. But I had never truly forgotten it. You can’t forget something meaningful like that. Speaking of which, my Dad has this great expression about how important memory is but for the life of me I can’t remember it right now. In any case, we turned a corner on a particularly long and winding road, both figuratively and literally, and there they were. 4 Giant Heads carved into a mountain.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Was I seeing double? Was there really only two giant heads carved into this mountain? I put down the copy of Playboy and rubbed my eyes. They were real. A childhood dream come true. But this story isn’t about me. Well, it is. But it can be about you too. Because if you’re thinking of visiting Mount Rushmore there’s a few things you’ll need to know.
You don’t want to arrive and ask loudly whose faces they are, or what happened to their bodies, or why the Black Hills aren’t actually black. I made those mistakes already and trust me, a heavy set German man with a fanny pack will sigh loudly in disappointment if you do. But let’s not waste any more time. Let’s raise our eyes to the giant heads in the sky and dive deep into the black hills of South Dakota.
You want the latest Mount Rushmore tips? You got it.
Mount Rushmore Tips – The Origins of a National Monument
Back before white people renamed everything, Mount Rushmore was known to have two names, both given by the local Lakota Sioux tribe. The first of these names was Tunkasila Sakpe, or ‘The Six Grandfathers’. While other historical sources also referred to the mountain as Igmu Tanka Paha, or ‘Cougar Mountain’. Which I think is a really fun name. Cougar Mountain sounds like a theme park for sexy older women and if no one’s trademarked that I’ve got a right mind to do it myself. Still, despite these perfectly fine names, the mountain was renamed once and for all in 1885 after Charles. E. Rushmore, a prominent New York lawyer who was surveying gold claims in the area at the time.
The next big step for the newly named Mount Rushmore was to be a big one. In 1923 Historian Doane Robinson came up with a cracker of an idea. With the goal of increasing tourism to the Black Hills region of South Dakota, his idea was to carve something sweet into the mountain side.
That must have been an interesting meeting.
“Hey so, I’m thinking to boost tourism we maybe do like happy hour at the local pub, or maybe one of those fun mini golf bars, any thoughts?”
“Yeah it’s good. But is it great. I think we take this baby from 0 to 100 and carve 4 huge faces into a mountain”
“Ahhh wow. You’ve hit me for six mate. OK let me just get my bearings here. There’s no bad ideas in a brainstorm but I’m just trying to picture this. Which mountain are you talking about?”
“Isn’t that a theme park for sexy older women?”
You get the idea. All I’m saying is it takes a maverick to make changes in this world and that’s something to be admired.
A year later Robinson had convinced Gutzon Borglum, a Danish-American sculptor with a weird name, to come to the Black Hills and see if a carving there was possible. Borglum bloody loved the idea and chose Mount Rushmore as it faced southeast and received the most exposure to the sun. (Both important prerequisites. When asked to attend social gatherings I always make sure both of these boxes are ticked).
After a period of extended negotiation (see above paraphrasing) to secure federal funding, the project received Congressional approval.
Initially, Robinson had pictured the monumental sculpture as a parade of Native American leaders and American explorers who had shaped the frontier. But Borglum was like “naaaaaah mate” and instead landed on a monumental carving of four American Presidents instead. When you think about it it’s pretty ironic. Despite the carvings representing and celebrating democracy, Borglum made an executive decision, ditched Robinson’s idea quicker than the ticket sales on Cougar Mountain and went with his own idea.
With the wheels of progress in motion, Borglum decided on the four Presidents he’d carve. The US Presidents picked – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, were chosen to represent the first 130 years of American history. Among all the previous Presidents, the roles they played in preserving the American republic and expanding its territory were top notch. In short, they got the nod for being absolute top blokes.
George Washington (served 1789-1797) – Legend of a guy. Chopped down a cherry tree. Got his mug on a dollar bill. First President of the United States.
Thomas Jefferson (served 1801-1809) – Absolute character. Knocked up the Declaration of Independence on his lunch break. Organised the Louisiana Purchase to expand the nation.
Abraham Lincoln (served 1861-1865) – Had an unbeatable poker face. Loved spending his weekends at the cinema. Preserved the nation by steering the United States through the Civil War.
Theodore Roosevelt (served 1901-1909) – Had a moustache for the ages. Played by Robin Williams in a movie. Helped to develop the United States by promoting construction of the Panama Canal.
Alongside the four Presidents Borglum hoped to add a Hall of Records that would preserve national documents and artifacts, and end up in a Nicholas Cage film if time permitted. Being a man of ambition, he also wanted to add a huge panel in the shape of the Louisiana Purchase with a range of American achievements commemorated in giant gilded letters. With his vision laid out he scouted out a broad wall of exposed granite on the 5,725 foot above sea level Mount Rushmore and was good to go.
Upon seeing Mount Rushmore, Borglum was said to have remarked “America will march along that skyline“. Which is an absolutely killer line. Let me tell you right now it is really hard to come up with a memorable line on the spot like that.
As a young teenager I went to see David Beckham play a football match in Sydney. Because I was such a fan of his I’d styled my hair like him and was wearing my replica Beckham shirt. With a massive contingent of media around the stadium I’d been spotted by the sports reporting team of a major local news channel. They waved me over and asked if I wanted to appear in a live cross. Naturally I said sure and backed myself to thrive on cue with all the confidence of an idiot.
“We’re here with Alex who is a huge David Beckham fan. Are you excited to see your idol play tonight?”
“And what’s your favourite thing about David Beckham?”
“I think he’s a really good footballer”.
“OK. And would you like to be like David Beckham one day?”
“Yes. And I’d like to have Posh Spice as a wife”.
I never saw the aired footage and I feel comfortable about that. I’d managed to exude all the charm of a wet shirt that fell out of the laundry basket while simultaneously telling everyone that all I was really thinking about was whether Posh Spice might end up working at Cougar Mountain some day. But not Gutzon Borglum. He was quick on the draw and the only thing sharper than his one liners were his carving tools. Which he duly used to launch into the project on October 4th, 1927.
Mount Rushmore Tips – Construction of an Icon
Between October 4th, 1927 and October 31st, 1941, Gutzon Borglum and 400 mates who owed him a favour, got stuck into work. Through smoldering summers and wintery winters (A terrible choice of adjective) they went to work a casual 500 feet up the side of a mountain. Each day they trekked up 700 stairs to the top to clock in. From there, 3/8 inch thick steel cables lowered them down the face of the mountain in a ‘bosun chair’ to put in some hard yakka. Despite the challenging working conditions, between them all they sculpted four massive carvings, each 60 feet high (that’s 18 metres high for all you metric measurement fans out there, you know who you are).
To facilitate a carving of such magnitude, Borglum created models which his workmen could use as helpful guides. The models were built at a 1:12 ratio – one inch on the model would represent one foot on the mountain. While the image of the presidents was also mapped onto the mountain using an intricate ‘pointing machine’ designed by Borglum which helped his workers identify how much rock to remove, and from where.
Across the entire period of construction, more than 90% of the mountain was carved using dynamite (which is also how I do my carving, fishing, washing, flirting and personal hair care). With just three to six inches of rock left following the dynamite usage, a process known as ‘honeycombing’ occured to take care of the remaining 10%. This involved drilling holes very close together, which weakened the granite and allowed for removal by hand. After honeycombing, the newly carved faces were then smoothed with a hand facer or bumper tool to even up the granite and leave the faces as smooth and stylish as we see today.
By the projects completion some 450,000 tons of rock were blasted off the mountainside. Even more impressive, not a single fatality was recorded among the workers. But there’s more to this story than just Borglum. While Gutzon Borglum was the designer and chief engineer, he needed some extra help.
Chief Carver of the mountain was one Luigi Del Bianco, who really missed a trick by not calling himself ‘Dynamite’ Del Bianco. Old mate Del Bianco was an artisan and headstone carver from Port Chester, New York. Which feels like a huge step up. One day he’s carving names into a headstone, the next he’s directing a team of 400 blokes who probably didn’t have the longest safety training using dynamite.
That’s like me getting my first aid certificate and being called up to perform open heart surgery the next day. I mean, I’d give it a red hot crack because I don’t back down. But the poor bloke who’s going under the knife is a dead-set goner. On the plus side I know this bloke Del Bianco who carves a great headstone…
But back to the story. Del Bianco had emigrated to the States from Fruili in Italy and was picked to lead the project based on his exceptional skill capturing emotions and personality in his carved portraits. With everyone working towards a shared vision as the years ticked by, Mount Rushmore came together a real treat.
Mount Rushmore Tips – Timeline of a National Treasure
- December 28th, 1923: State historian Doane Robinson suggests carving giant statues in South Dakota’s Black Hills.
- October 1st, 1925: Mount Rushmore, while not yet started, is dedicated as a National Monument.
- August 10th: First ceremonial drilling occurs at Mount Rushmore.
- October 4th, 1927: First actual drilling begins.
- July 4th, 1930: George Washington’s carving is dedicated.
- June 10th, 1933: An executive order is issued by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to place Mount Rushmore under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. They improve the surrounding infrastructure and upgrade the onsite tram to be able to reach the top, assisting the workers considerably.
- August 30th, 1936: Thomas Jefferson’s carving is dedicated. (To coincide with a visit from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt).
- September 17th, 1937: Abraham Lincoln’s carving is dedicated (in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the adoption of the constitution).
- July 2nd, 1939: Theodore Roosevelt’s carving is dedicated.
- March 6th, 1941: Gutzon Borglum dies.
Despite Borglum’s death in 1941, his son Lincoln Borglum continued the project.
“Dad I think I’d like to head to Broadway and try my hand on stage. I just love to sing and dance and I’m going to be a star!”
“What an amazing goal son. I support you 100% little Lincoln. Just dynamite 450,000 tones of stone for your old man first would you”.
The final day of drilling on the mountain occurred October 31st, 1941. While the figures were meant to be carved from head to waist, insufficient funding as America entered World War Two meant the project was completed with just the 4 giant faces carved into the mountain at a total cost of $989,992.32. With the end of federal funding several of Borglum’s other plans fell by the wayside. His gilded inscription celebrating American history had been tossed out, as no one could read the letters anyway. And there is a canyon behind the carved faces housing a roughly cut 70 foot (21 metre) chamber that exists as a reminder of Borglum’s ambition.
Borglum had began to construct this chamber on the down low, as part of his magnificent planned Hall of Records. But he got a right telling off from Congress who said that federal funds should only go towards the carving of the faces. Although Borglum did not live to see his Hall of Records completed, the idea was completed in part in 1998 when a repository of records was placed in the floor of the unfinished Hall entry – which was as far as he managed to build during his life. These records include 16 porcelain enamel panels depicting the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, biographies of the four presidents and Borglum, as well as the history of the US.
Can you imagine how confused aliens will be when they crack into that vault a thousand years from now and try to make sense of it all? That Borglum, a practical joker to the end.
Mount Rushmore Tips – Getting There
To get to Mount Rushmore you’ll first have to be on Earth. That’s a non-negotiable. From there you’ll have to head on over to the United States of America. Which isn’t always easy. Once there you’ll need to head to South Dakota (which is just south of North Dakota if you need a reference point).
If you’re looking at flying in the nearest commercial airport to Mount Rushmore is Rapid City Regional Airport.
If you’re heading to Mount Rushmore by car on the I-90 you’ll need to exit the at Rapid City and follow US Highway 16 southwest to Keystone. From there it’s a jaunt down Highway 244 to Mount Rushmore. Or, if you’re visiting by car from the South you’ll need to follow Highway 385 north to Highway 244 which is the road leading to Mount Rushmore.
Entrance to the memorial itself is free. However, there is a fee to park. This fee is not covered by the National Park Pass, Golden Age, or Golden Access Passport Cards as the parking facilities at Mount Rushmore are privately owned. Parking is $11 for private vehicles.
There are no public transport options available.
Mount Rushmore Tips – Hours of Operation
The Mount Rushmore National Memorial is open all year, seven days a week.
Mount Rushmore grounds:
5:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m. (mid-March to early October)
5:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m. (early October to mid-March)
Sunset – 11:00 p.m. (mid-March to late May)
9:30 – 11:00 p.m. (late May to mid-August)
8:30 – 11:00 p.m. (mid-August to early October)
Sunset – 9:00 p.m. (early October to mid-March)
Evening Lighting Ceremony:
Nightly at 9:00 p.m. (late May to mid-August)
Nightly at 8:00 p.m. (mid-August to early October)
These times are subject to change so check out the latest operating hours here.
Mount Rushmore Tips – What To Do When You Get There
If you go to Mount Rushmore, you can expect to see Mount Rushmore.
Head in from the car park and start your Mount Rushmore experience by walking beneath 56 bright and colourful flags, representing all US states and territories. Walking down this thoroughfare you’ll have the option of visiting the nearby gift shop and ice cream shop or heading towards the Grand View Terrace.
The onsite Lincoln Borglum Visitor Centre houses a range of exhibits taken from the time of construction and plays a nice little 14 minute film detailing the reasons for and methods used in carving Mount Rushmore.
With these stops out of the way you can head to the Grand View Terrace and raise your eyes to the sky. This is your chance to snap some iconic pictures of a truly incredible place.
Once you’re done snapping pics, the newly added Presidents Trail is a must see. Consisting of 422 steps and a leisurely wooden walking path spread around the 0.6 mile trail, the winding path takes you closer to the sculptures than was previously possible. In just a few minutes you can escape the hordes of tourists and selfie sticks and find yourself among the flora and fauna of the Black Hills with rich green pines your only company. It’s much quieter on the trail and you get an appreciation for what the area must have been like before it exploded into popularity.
Wandering through the pine trees you’ll get a unique perspective on the huge pile of blast rubble that sits quietly at the base of the sculptures following their completion over 75 years ago. At various junctures along the trail you can also read about each President with informative plaques. Providing heaps of interesting vantage points along the way there’s plenty of opportunities for creative photos. Whether you stand in the shadow of these granite giants or just wander quietly through the trees and feel the power of the place, Mount Rushmore offers so much for so little cost.
Mount Rushmore Tips – Did you know…
- Each year around 3 million people visit Mount Rushmore. That’s around 3 million more than came to my 21st birthday party.
- Each face is 60 feet high, or the same size as a six story building.
- Thomas Jefferson’s face was originally planned to be carved on the left side of George Washington. But, 18 months into the carving it became clear the granite was too weak so they dynamited him to oblivion and chucked him on the right instead.
- The current rate of erosion for the heads stands at 1 inch per every 10,000 years. So they should be sweet for a while. In fact, with each nose 240 inches long, they’ll be around for roughly 2.4 million years!
As America’s shrine to democracy, Mount Rushmore is simply a must-see. Featuring the 60-foot faces of four Presidents who represent the birth, growth, development, and preservation of the United States, you don’t need to be invested as an American to feel the awe of this National Monument. Knowing that these faces will be standing in granite for what is as close to eternity as my brain can imagine, a part of my feels connected to a future that I’ll never see.
Centuries from now, when my light and the light of everyone I know has been extinguished, someone else will stand and look up at these monumental faces. Maybe in the exact same spot. Maybe having overcome a life threatening illness of their own. They’ll never know about me, and I’ll never know about them. But in that moment when the breath catches in their throat as they see these figures loom into view for the very first time, we’ll be connected in some small way. And that’s pretty cool to me.
“…Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away”.
– Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore Sculptor, 1930.