It was another bright and sunny day and we kept getting excited at glimpses of Mount Rushmore through the trees as we traveled the windy road from Custer State Park to the national park. Parking at Rushmore was $11 — sadly, a “concession fee” not covered by our shiny new America the Beautiful annual pass.
For some reason we had both been keeping our expectations low about visiting Mount Rushmore. It seemed like the kind of attraction that could easily turn cheesy or tourist trap-y. But we were both totally in awe. It felt so surreal to look up at a mountain with the incredibly life-like faces of great Americans carved in the side of it.
We spent the better part of the morning strolling the walkway that runs under Rushmore, exploring the exhibit hall, and enjoying lunch at Carver’s Cafe on a patio overlooking the monument.
Our next stop was the Crazy Horse Memorial about 25 minutes away. This was a destination high on Ryan’s list, but one I didn’t know anything at all about. The Crazy Horse Memorial is a mountain monument still under construction depicting Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota warrior, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. Only his head of the monument is totally finished, standing at 87 feet high (compared to the 60-foot heads on Mount Rushmore). The rest of the statue, which will be 563 feet tall, has been in progress since 1948.
Visiting Crazy Horse was a very different experience from Rushmore. It was much more expensive to get in — $11/person, plus $4/person for the bus ride to the base — but we were interested to learn that Crazy Horse is a privately-operated project that doesn’t accept federal or state funding, and is financed by admissions fees and private contributions. (The foundation also operates the Indian University of North America, as well as a museum, educational, and cultural center.)
We were eager to visit the top of the statue — there’s a road to the top, out to the extended arm — but quickly changed our minds when we heard the per-person cost: $150. The bus driver overheard us discussing our disappointment with some other passengers, and told us that the very next day there was a hiking event that would allow you to walk a 10K path to the top for just $3/person (plus a donation of three cans of food for a local food pantry). We immediately decided to come back the following day.
We took the scenic route back to our campground in Custer State Park along the Needles Highway — 14 miles of sharp turns, low narrow tunnels, and impressive granite spires.
After a quick dinner in the campground, we headed right back out to Mount Rushmore. That morning we’d heard they hold a lighting ceremony each evening and we thought that sounded too cool to pass up. The twisting mountain road that had offered such tremendous views that morning were a little terrifying in the dark, but we made it back to Rushmore in time to grab ice cream from Carver’s Cafe, listen to a presentation from Ranger Carly, and watch the faces on the mountain light up to the sound of the Star Spangled Banner.