Mount Rushmore Puts a Fresh Face on History

The iconic monument is a work of art, a symbol of American freedom and a lesson in our country’s history.


Located in the Black Hills near Rapid City, South DakotaMount Rushmore National Memorial is a designated national monument within the National Park System. The memorial is a magnificently carved granite sculpture as well as an iconic tribute to American leadership, and a visit makes for an impressive introduction to some larger-than-life figures in our nation’s history.

Rushmore History

Rising up nearly 60 feet, the monument was created by Gutzon Borglum and is considered to be the largest stone sculpture in the world. Borglum, the son of a Danish immigrant, had begun a major project involving a stone portrait of Robert E. Lee in Georgia when he was invited to South Dakota to discuss the Mount Rushmore memorial.  

At Borglum’s direction, 400 workmen began working on the project in 1927. They used massive amounts of dynamite to shape the portraits of four important American presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. The workers used a model created by Borglum to carve the details of each face.

Washington, the first portrait begun, took approximately seven years to finish, with construction continuing well into the Great Depression. The likeness of the first president of the United States disproportionately dominates the sculpture, a recognition perhaps befitting a man considered the father of the country. Jefferson was included because of the growth and expansion of America that he oversaw during his presidency, and his portrait was dedicated two years after Washington’s. Lincoln’s carving followed 10 years after the start of the project, his placement owing to his devotion to the nation and his leadership during the Civil War. Theodore Roosevelt had died only eight years before Borglum decided to include him, an honor to Roosevelt’s vision for the United State’s role among world governments. This final section of the monument was dedicated in 1939. 

It took two more years to put the finishing touches on Mount Rushmore. Sadly, Borglum did not live to see the final product—the project was completed a few months after the sculptor’s death in 1941. During the summer months, the Sculptor’s Studio is open for visitors who are interested in learning more about the sculpting of the Memorial. The model used to create it is on display in the Studio.

When to Visit

The Memorial’s museum and Visitor Center are open daily, except Christmas. Mount Rushmore’s scale and location can wow visitors in any season, but summer is probably the best time to visit the Black Hills area with children because this is when the most activities are available. Although the park has shortened visiting hours in the fall and spring, cooler weather and fewer crowds may make a visit during this time more enjoyable, especially for those traveling with older children.

Children’s Programs

If you decide to visit the Memorial during the summer months, allow enough time for your children to participate in the age-appropriate programs arranged by the Park Service. Adults and children can opt to walk the Presidential Trail with a park ranger who will explain the history of each president and the reasons why his portrait is part of the sculpture. Children ages 5 and up also can participate in the interactive, hands-on programs offered in the Sculptor’s Studio during summer months. Ranger Activity Books packed with activities to help children learn about the memorial are available, and those who complete the books are awarded a certificate and may purchase a souvenir patch to commemorate their accomplishment. 

Evening Lighting Ceremony

If your schedule permits, don’t miss the evening lighting of the Memorial, which takes place nightly from mid-May through September. The ceremony is tasteful and moving, guaranteed to evoke a welling of patriotism in the breast of every audience member. It is an especially inspiring experience to share with your family, and one that many miss. Even after several visits to the memorial, I had not known about the evening lighting event until we decided to show our youngest child Mount Rushmore during a drive home to the Midwest from a visit in the western states.

Tired from a long day’s drive when we arrived after dinner at our lodging, we were focused on what we would see the following morning before driving home. Thankfully, the receptionist encouraged us to “hurry on over to the Memorial to get a good seat for the ceremony.” She told us we would be glad we did—and we were. 

The Badlands: Beyond Rushmore

Though Mount Rushmore is the most famous area attraction, there’s much for families to see and do nearby.

“Are the Badlands really bad?” is a question all my children have asked at one time or another. Your children will be able to form their own opinion after visiting Badlands National Park, a little more than an hour’s drive from Mount Rushmore. Children (and grownups) who enjoy Wild West movies will see real cliffs and valleys, mesas and buttes, badlands and bluffs. Spectacular scenery, a moonscape setting, ancient fossil beds, an archaeological dig referred to as “Big Pig Dig,” and hiking trails are more reasons to visit the Badlands. Kid-friendly exhibits in the Park make the visit a wonderful living history and geography lesson for all ages.

Golden History

The Black Hills were once a popular destination with another group of travelers—gold prospectors, and there are plenty of places for visitors to revisit that time. Take a detour to the authentic Big Thunder Gold Mine in nearby Keystone to learn about mining in the 1890s. Kids can test their luck trying to find a genuine piece of gold nugget as they practice the techniques miners used to pan for gold.

Bison Encounters

Most children’s knowledge of the mighty herds of bison that once roamed the plains of the American West comes from picture books. They can get a closer look at this magnificent, once-endangered animal in Custer State Park where one of the world’s largest herds of bison roams free. The park offers more opportunities for gold panning, as well as guided nature walks and workshops in the historic arts of candle-making and wood-working. Young visitors also can take part in a junior naturalist program.

Native American Culture

Up close, the Black Hills are not really black (though they are said to appear so from a distance), but the Native Americans do consider the hills sacred. Families can visit Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to learn about the contributions and legacy of Native American culture. The reservation is the second largest in the United States and offers spectacular scenery. 

Destinations: Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Themes: Family Travel, Historical Vacations

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