Mount Rushmore is among the most classic and iconic of American attractions. It’s big and bold, built with an entrepreneurial spirit by an American immigrant and a team of brave sculptors at a time when many doubted whether it could even be done. Unsurprisingly, many people consider this a must-see site at some point in their lives. Read on for all our insider tips on visiting Mount Rushmore with children.
Unlike a more traditional National Park, Mount Rushmore (a national memorial operated by the National Park Service) is a one-site experience. There are some hiking trails here, but the bulk of the visit is learning about and admiring the monument itself.
There is one entrance in and out of the property. I recommend taking the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway to arrive. This twisty, narrow road offers spectacular Black Hills scenery, but it was also designed specifically to reward drivers with stunning views of Mount Rushmore. As cars squeeze through a series of narrow tunnels, the carvings are centered straight ahead. It really added to the excitement for my kids — knowing an entire road was built to enhance the view of this structure gave them a sense of importance and anticipation.
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Upon arrival at Mount Rushmore itself, visitors are greeted by staff as they enter the parking garage to pay a $10 parking fee. Bring cash to make this a smoother, quicker transaction. Sometime this fall, the monument is transitioning over to a ticket machine for parking, so look for signs on how to handle that. This is the only entrance fee, but please know that if your family has a National Parks pass or an Every Kid in a Park pass, these do not qualify to waive the parking fee.
Families then walk from the parking garage to the entrance, where there is an information office and bathrooms. The most important feature to note here is a large sign with the day’s schedule of guided tours, talks, videos, etc. Very little of this “real time” info is available online. Take a picture of the schedule so you can refer back to it as you visit.
TIP: While there are food options in this area, a more robust cafeteria and snack shop is found closer to the monument.
The walkway lined with flags is the next stop as families make their way closer to the monument, which leads to the Grand View Terrace (the starting point for many tours and a popular spot for photos and selfies). While people tend to crowd in the middle, walking to the right is actually a better angle for photos because you can more fully see President Roosevelt’s face. Plus, the crowds are thinner.
Once everyone has snapped enough photos, head into the visitors’ center just below the Grand View Terrace. There are interactive exhibits about how the monument was built and a short movie about its construction. My children were more fascinated by the sculpting and caretaking of the monument than actually seeing it. The gift shop in this area is quite large if you’ve promised kids a souvenir. National Park Junior Rangers, this is where you can get your National Parks passport stamped too.
There are other trails that lead around the property, so for families with additional time (like half a day or more), it is easy to extend your visit. But if you only have an hour or two, you can still experience Mt. Rushmore in a quality way with limited time.
A guided tour or ranger talk is a must when visiting Mount Rushmore. If the monument itself doesn’t fascinate your kids, there are a range of topics that rangers focus on during these events. My family listened to a 20-minute ranger discussion about the Lakota tribe that is native to the land where Mount Rushmore now sits. I loved that my children got a fuller account of the monument’s complicated history, not just the glossed-over version that many park visitors experience. It wasn’t specifically geared toward children, but was short enough to hold the attention of my 6- and 9-year-olds and led to a great family discussion after about the controversy of its construction.
The flags that line the walkway leading to the monument aren’t just there to make photos prettier; they’re from each of the 50 states. Challenge your children to find the flags of their home state and any others they’ve visited. They’ll realize pretty quickly that they’re in alphabetical order.
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Devote time to the visitors’ center here. Not only are the exhibits and movie about Mount Rushmore’s design and construction interesting for all ages, but it’s an opportunity to learn in greater detail about each of the four presidential faces and why these four men were chosen.
The parking garage at Mount Rushmore was the single greatest collection of state license plates I’ve ever experienced anywhere in the U.S. It was so fun to make a list and keep track of which ones we spotted as we walked to and from the memorial.
TIP: Get ice cream! The first known recipe for ice cream in America is a handwritten note by Thomas Jefferson (flavor: vanilla). You can purchase it in the ice cream shop at Mount Rushmore, which is a delicious way to treat the kids and taste a little bit of history.
Mount Rushmore is located right in the midst of the Black Hills region of South Dakota. It is easy to make this a destination for a week or more, as there is so much to do and see in this part of the U.S. Unlike other areas anchored by National Parks, like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, the summer crowds here are manageable and don’t feel stifling. (Just avoid visiting during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August.)
A great follow-up to Mount Rushmore is the Crazy Horse Memorial. The Lakota tribe commissioned one of the engineers who worked on Mount Rushmore to design and construct a memorial that honors one of their most celebrated and inspiring leaders, Crazy Horse. The work has progressed slowly and steadily over the past few decades, funded entirely by donations, not public money. It is a great opportunity to teach children about the struggles that Native Americans have experienced since the arrival of European settlers, and our responsibility to end this oppression.
Additional highlights in this region include Custer State Park, known for an amazing variety of family-friendly experiences like horseback riding, chuckwagon dinners, swimming, fishing and wildlife tours. Even the grumpiest of children will be awed by the buffalo herds and the funny prairie dogs that pop up and squeak all over the park. Wind and Jewel Caves are absolutely fascinating for those interested in the geologic formations under our feet. And Badlands National Park is an incredible American treasure — visitors feel like they’ve left the planet completely with the out-of-this-world scenery that can’t be found anywhere else on earth. You can even hunt for dinosaur fossils here and watch real paleontologists work in their lab in the visitors’ center.
Western South Dakota, with Mount Rushmore being a highlight, makes for a great family vacation, consisting of time spent enjoying beautiful, natural scenery, wildlife and manmade structures that continue to impress every generation. As a volunteer at Custer State Park told me, “Kids always remember the summer they came to South Dakota.”
Editor’s Note: Photos by Nicole Wiltrout.
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