Somewhere in the black mining hills of South Dakota there lives Mount Rushmore – the quintessential American monument. It took over fourteen years for workers to carve the faces of four presidents into a mountain. It’s a work of art, unmatched in its scale and beauty.
But, this national monument lies in the heart of sacred land of the Lakota. To the Lakota, Mount Rushmore is a symbol of invasion. Down the road from the presidents, about sixteen miles away, you’ll find another monument – this one dedicated to Crazy Horse.
When we traveled to South Dakota, we were struck by the power of the Black Hills and the stories etched into the earth. One monument is a memorial to American presidents and another is dedicated to an Oglala Sioux Indian chief. Let’s take a closer look at the two monuments and the stories that surround these national treasures.
WHO MADE MOUNT RUSHMORE?
Gutzon Borglum devoted most of his later life to Rushmore. Before his work on Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum was a well-known sculptor on both sides of the Atlantic. He had experience in carving mountains with his work on Stone Mountain – a Confederate monument in Georgia.
Borglum passed away in 1941, before the project’s completion. It was Gutzon’s son, Lincoln, who saw the project to completion.
HOW DID RUSHMORE GET ITS NAME?
In 1885, long before Borglum carved his masterpiece, a New York attorney named Charles Rushmore traveled to the Black Hills for a mining company. According to a popular account, while out on horseback, Rushmore asked his guide the name of the tall peak. His guide replied that it had no name. The guide called it Rushmore, and the name stuck.
WHY THESE PRESIDENTS?
The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, had the final say in who would appear on Mount Rushmore. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln were obvious choices, but Roosevelt drew some criticism. TR’s inclusion on the monument might have been helped by the fact that Borglum and Roosevelt were friends.
“The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.” – Gutzon Borglum
GEORGE WASHINGTON: FOUNDING
Washington led the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and became the first president of the United States.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: EXPANSION
Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and doubled the size of the U.S. with the Louisiana Purchase.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: PRESERVATION
As president during the Civil War, Lincoln preserved the Union through a time of upheaval. His work led to slavery’s end.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT: UNIFICATION
Roosevelt took on corporate monopolies to ensure the rights of the working man. TR also gets credit for the Panama Canal.
Our Periodic Table of the Presidents features a mountain icon in each Mount Rushmore president’s cell.
THOUGHTS ON VISITING RUSHMORE
Nearly three million people visit Mount Rushmore each year. We visited in the summer, during the heart of the tourist season. It was crowded, but not too crowded to enjoy the site. Entry to Rushmore is free, but you’ll have to pay $10 to park in the garage.
Be sure to take the Presidential Trail to get a closer view of Rushmore. It’s a steep walk with 422 stairs, but it’s paved and shaded most of the way. The kids needed some breaks along the way, but they made it to the end. It would probably be a good idea to bring some bottles of water for the journey.
While walking the Presidential Trail, make a stop in the Sculpture’s Studio to see the place where Gutzon Borglum worked from 1939 to 1941. Inside you’ll find a detailed 1/12 scale model of Rushmore.
The Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center is a bit hard to find amid the crowd. It’s located below the Grand View Terrace (the place where everyone takes their photo of Mount Rushmore). The visitor center has decent exhibits, a 15-minute video, restrooms, and a gift shop.
Overall, Mount Rushmore was worth the drive, a bucket-list presidential site worth all the hype. The chiseled beauty of the sculpture is breath-taking upon first sight. Let’s jump in the car and head down the road to the Crazy Horse Memorial.
WHO WAS CRAZY HORSE?
Crazy Horse was a Lakota leader who fought to protect his land from American settlement. He is riding on a horse and pointing southeast to the land where many of his ancestors are buried. Crazy Horse’s face is 87 1/2 feet tall, and his arm stretches out 263 feet.
“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also.” – Chief Henry Standing Bear
WHO IS MAKING THE CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL?
The Crazy Horse Memorial is a work in progress and much larger than Mount Rushmore. In fact, the presidents’ four heads could fit on Crazy Horse’s outstretched arm.
In 1947 Oglala Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear invited the sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to carve a monument for all Native American people. Korczak began his work in 1948 and continued until his death in 1982. Today, Korczak’s family continues the work of the project.
THOUGHTS ON VISITING CRAZY HORSE
If you’re heading to Rushmore, be sure to include time for a visit to Crazy Horse. Parking is a bit pricey, $30 per vehicle. But, it’s worth it. The museum is a bit out-dated, but it’s full of a lot of interesting artifacts.
Rustic bus rides to the bottom of the mountain are available for $4 per person, if you’d like to take a closer look at the Crazy Horse sculpture.
To see a monument in progress is a significant experience. To think that one day, tourists will wonder at completed Crazy Horse is an exciting prospect. Korczak began his work some seventy years ago, and today, the 563-foot-tall sculpture is slowly emerging from the granite of the Black Hills.
One final point: Don’t forget to take a free chunk of Crazy Horse granite to remember the site and your visit to this wonderful memorial. You’ll find the granite pieces in a bin outside of the museum.
BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
If you’re heading to South Dakota, check out Badlands National Park and its otherworldly terrain. Badlands is about 80 miles away from Rushmore, but is on the way if you’re heading from the east into South Dakota.
If you’re up for venturing into Wyoming, Devils Tower is about a two-hour drive from Mount Rushmore. In 1906, Devils Tower was established as America’s first national monument. Thanks, TR!
The 1.3 mile Tower Trail encircles Devils Tower. The trail is paved and easy to follow. Our kids had no problem walking the trail and appreciated that it was mostly shaded along the way. The only problem was keeping them on the trail and not exploring too far away. We spent the better part of a morning exploring Devils Tower, and the whole family thoroughly enjoyed it.
GET OUT THERE & GO SEE SOME HISTORY!
Mount Rushmore National Memorial, National Park Service
Crazy Horse Memorial
Badlands National Park
Devils Tower National Monument
All photographs by PJ & Jamie Creek, except where noted.