Sunday, November 27, 2011

One Of America's Least Impressive Destinations: Bring A Telescope To Mount Rushmore!

The Good: Very cool for the artistry
The Bad: Very far away, Almost nothing to do, Parking is proportionally expensive.
The Basics: Yes, the heads of four presidents are carved into a mountain, but visitors to this national park are kept a significant distance from them.

Every now and then I write a review knowing I will probably take some flack for it, even if I do not write it with that intent. It is with that in mind that I consider where I went after leaving Minneapolis and the weird comforts of the Mall Of America (reviewed here! ). Yes, I took a northern route to Las Vegas and as a result, my trip took me from the land of many lakes to Rapid City, South Dakota, home of Mount Rushmore.

As much as it might cheese off sightseers everywhere, the bottom line on Mount Rushmore is: if you can catch a PBS documentary on the monument or even watch North By Northwest, do that. If you've seen it on film or pictures, you've gotten most of the experience of being at Mount Rushmore. Going there is just . . . a long way to travel for very little to do.


Mount Rushmore National Monument is actually located in Keystone, South Dakota. South Dakota, based on my limited experience traveling through it this year (I stayed one night there!) is a mountainous wooded region filled mountain goats, tourists and motorcyclists. Gasoline prices are reasonable, the water is clean and the people are friendly. Keystone and Mount Rushmore are located on the western half of South Dakota, about halfway up the state.

Mount Rushmore and Keystone are easily located using on-line mapping programs, like MapQuest, using "Mount Rushmore" and "Keystone, SD" as the location. Within ten miles of the National Monument, there are fairly adequate signs for the park. From Interstate 90, the traveler needs to find Route 16 and then South Dakota Route 244, but long before one needs that last direction, there are adequate signs to guide even the most inept drivers.

As the name suggests, Mount Rushmore is located in a mountainous area of South Dakota and the actual monument is up several stairs and about a half-mile walk at an incline. There are a few paths around the park which require the ability to walk up and down stairs. This is a good place to have a good pair of walking shoes for, if you insist on going anyway.

Ease Of Local Transport/Parking

There are very few ways into Mount Rushmore so it is both very easy to get to with the right roads and pretty easy to miss if you're on the wrong ones. The thing is, the road that goes to Mount Rushmore (SD-244) is a winding road that goes up mountains and down the other side, without going in a straight line. The only thing one needs to worry about is mountain goats. Seriously. While leaving the park, two were walking by the side of the road and they didn't seem inclined to stop for cars (I have wonderful pictures!).

In general, the roads are devoid of traffic, which is a good thing because the steepness of the angle for the final approach would make stop and go traffic like the old Bill Cosby routine!

There is parking at the Federally recognized national monument and it costs $10.00. Here's the thing, inside the park I met some people who said that the parking lot was a private concern, not government-run and there was free parking somewhere just outside the National Monument site. I did not find that parking on the way out (I headed right to my hotel, so it could have been somewhere I originally passed). If you're up for long walks anyway, I say save the ten bucks (even though the parking pass that is issued will be honored for a full year . . . in case you just can't get enough of Mount Rushmore!) and hoof it from the free parking if you can find it.


Here's where Mount Rushmore National Monument falls down for me. Go to Mount Rushmore (several hours from anything interesting, save mountain goats in the road, though the scenery is nice!), hike half a mile and . . . look up, there are the heads of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt, carved into the side of the mountain.

And they are just like the pictures you've seen . . . except that they are high up and far away. No special I have ever seen has illustrated how high up the mountain these heads were carved, nor how far away from the actual heads people are kept. There is an amphitheater at the end of the walkway to the monument, but there is a gorge that separates the visitor's side from the head side and . . . they are ridiculously high up, so they are pretty small.

Now, I'm not at all knocking the artistry; these are impressive. It's amazing how smooth they look and how accurate the likenesses are. And to think that most of the "carving" was done with dynamite reminds one just how much Man can accomplish. But from the closest vantage point, the detail is pretty much washed out. Unless one has a powerful telescope or even a decent zoom function on their camera (greater than 10X) the trip is a long way to see a couple of very small heads. In other words, the post cards one could pick up in the gift shop provide a better image than the reality of being in the park.

And I'm sure I might come across as a crank, but the truth of it is, Mount Rushmore is a work of art, but it is one visitors are kept at a safe distance from. Imagine, for example, that in order to see the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, one had to descend into a pit about 1/8th of a mile away and then look up. Or if one only were allowed to see the Constitution or the Mona Lisa by standing behind a velvet rope three hundred feet away. Mount Rushmore is big, but it's high up and far away and the heads are pretty small from the closest vantage points.

Of course, one can walk around Mount Rushmore National Park. This allows you to look at the Presidential Heads from different angles. This is the insult to injury, though, as one may descend into the ravine at the foot of the mountain the heads are carved into, getting one closer in one direction to the heads (let's call it "x"), but further away in another (let's say "z").

And the thing is, once you've seen the heads, you've seen them. It's not like there is a ton to do in Keystone, SD or the neighboring (snicker) "cities." Sure, you can go pay $20 to see the Crazy Horse National Monument (it's not even done, yet visitors are shamelessly charged to see the work in progress - you can see it from the road for free!) or find a hotel to watch television in or camp. But as far as the monument goes, it's pretty much over within half an hour.

Yeah, it's a long way to drive for very little.


There is a little cafe in the monument. I did not visit it.


There was a gift shop at the monument as well, featuring various souvenirs of Mount Rushmore and neighboring sites. The only thing they did not have (I mention this because my mother complained because she thinks they would be a big seller if they did) were foam rubber Mount Rushmore souvenirs (like a stress ball of Mt. Rushmore). There was nothing terribly compelling there to buy.


I spent an hour hiking around Mount Rushmore after an eight hour drive. I went from there to my hotel, a nice little Comfort Inn in Rapid City and it was there I began to contemplate the National Monument. As I uploaded my day's pictures, I looked at them and I had a collection of very small pictures of the presidents' heads.

And then I thought about it. What had I spent the day doing? I spent it looking at art from a great distance and frankly, I felt underwhelmed. I understand that this is an impressive accomplishment, but more than seeing the Monument, I was impressed that the rate of erosion was so insignificant. And when I contemplated that the next day I would be going to Dinosaur National Park . . . well, that made me want to go to sleep and put the long, dull day with this national attraction behind me.

This monument is average at best and is being rated liberally. This may be a great accomplishment of Man, but it's much more impressive in almost every depiction, as opposed to reality.

For other destination reviews, please be sure to check out my takes on:
Hoover Dam
The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame
Carlsbad Caverns


For other travel reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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