Mount Rushmore: It's a rush

KEYSTONE, S.D. — Nothing prepares you for the first glimpse of Mount Rushmore

The pine trees that blanket the Black Hills act as sentries along the road as it curves from Rapid City through Keystone toward the national memorial that commemorates the vision of four legendary presidents of the United States.

You could spend all of your time at the memorial in the museum area to learn how the mountain morphed into the mammoth relief.

From the veranda, you could settle in to watch the colors of the granite surfaces change as the days grows shorter. Or you could walk the Presidential Trail.

Park Ranger Katrina Hosking cautioned us about the trail’s steep terrain. She also reminded us to pace ourselves as we were at an elevation of 5,725 feet.


She said the trail is only six-tenths of a mile, but that there are 250 stair steps to the artist’s studio and 130 more to the grand view terrace. It is possible to see the 60-foot faces from the base area, but the opportunity to get even closer was too much to pass up.

A monument of four great leaders

The Presidential Trail is comprised of paved surfaces and wooden walkways. The last two-tenths of the trail is made of stone steps. While it winds its way along the base of the monument, walkers gingerly make their way, realizing with each section how the elevation affects their pace and breathing.

But why these presidents? The National Park Service explains it this way:

George Washington (the first president of the United States) led the early colonists in the American Revolutionary War to win independence from Great Britain. He symbolizes the principles of liberty and freedom on which our country was founded — the struggle for independence and the birth of the republic. Because of his importance, Washington is the most prominent figure on the mountain.

Thomas Jefferson (the third president) was the author of the Declaration of Independence, a document that continues to inspire democracies around the world and was responsible for the territorial expansion of the country. He purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, which doubled the size of our country, adding all or part of 15 present-day states. 

Theodore Roosevelt (the 26th president) provided leadership when America experienced rapid economic growth as it entered the 20th century. He was instrumental in negotiating the construction of the Panama Canal and recognized the role the United States would play in world affairs. His presidency played a key role in ensuring the rights of the common worker.

Abraham Lincoln was our nation’s 16th president. He held the nation together during its greatest trial, the Civil War. Lincoln believed his most sacred duty was the preservation of the Union. It was his firm conviction that slavery must be abolished and there be equality for all citizens.


Views from the trail 

Our first stop was a hollow formed by three boulders. Light from a brilliant sky streamed through an opening at the top; the opening also provided a singular view of Washington's face.

Not 100-feet beyond, a deck stretched over a woodland area. At our feet were huge boulders and pieces of rock that had cascaded from the top and settled into the mossy undergrowth of the forest. Above? An awesome view of the four presidents framed by piney woods.

And so each turn provided another postcard view of the colossal work of American sculptor (John) Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum (1867-1941). Gutzon also carved Stone Mountain near Atlanta. His studio at Mount Rushmore is along the trail and provides a welcome respite from the terrain.

It also houses a wealth of additional information about how he managed to create the sculptures by using dynamite. In all, 450,000 tons of rock was blasted from the mountain to finish his work.

The model for the sculpture is in the studio and, thanks to a huge, arched window, it frames yet another spectacular view of Washington's face. 

The last two-tenths of the trail are the most difficult. It is uphill climbing on stairs carved from slabs of rock. There are plenty of benches along the entire trail. We discovered groups of fellow walkers who were once strangers resting and sharing photos on their phones and cameras of the four men on the mountain.

Some had rented an audio tour wand to hear the story and symbolism of the solid granite, gigantic busts as they followed a route around the park. Others, such as our band of Midwest "flatlanders," were discovering our own stories as we traversed the foothills below the men whose hopes, dreams and determination set the course for our country.


Learn even more about the four men carved on the mountain by exploring The National Park Service’s, American Presidents Travel Online Itinerary . It is an online guide that explores the lives and contributions of 43 past presidents of the United States.


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