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Travel on a Shoestring: Mount Rushmore and Jewel Cave

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Travel on a Shoestring: Mount Rushmore and Jewel Cave

Mount Rushmore 1

In honor of Presidents’ Day, we’re taking a virtual field trip to one of our favorite destinations out west–Mount Rushmore!

Mount Rushmore was one of the highlights of my family’s month-long road trip out west!  When the kids celebrate Presidents’ Day at school, they see so many pictures of Mount Rushmore, and they’re always excited to tell their classmates that they’ve seen it in person!  It’s a great family destination, but it’s also great for anyone with an appreciation for history, and art.

Mount Rushmore fits into the idea of a Shoestring Budget, because admission is FREE (you just pay to park in the parking garage, currently $11 per vehicle).  There’s so much to learn, both about the presidents themselves, and about the construction of this amazing monument carved from a mountain.

Mount Rushmore is located in the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota.  Construction began in October of 1924, and was completed in October of 1941.  The monument was designed by sculptor Gutzon Borglum.  He created a 1/12 scale model whose dimensions were transferred to the mountain–1 inch on the model equaled 1 foot on the mountain.  90% of the sculpting was done by dynamite, with only the details done with smaller tools.

When visitors arrive, they are welcomed by the Avenue of Flags, which features the flags of all the nation’s states.  The Avenue leads to a viewing platform, with a fantastic museum underneath that tells all about the presidents and the creation of the monument.  When we visited, we arrived in the middle of a hailstorm, so we waited until the hail had passed, then dodged raindrops to pick up the kids’ Junior Ranger packets in the gift shop at the beginning of the Avenue of Flags.  When the rain picked back up, we found a comfortable spot to work on their Junior Ranger activities until it cleared up enough to walk outside and take in the view.

junior rangerWorking together on their Junior Ranger booklets while wondering if we should have brought our Ark…

Once the sun came back out, we headed through the Avenue of Flags to the Grand View Terrace, the main viewing area.  Elevators and staircases take visitors down to a museum and visitor center, which has some great interactive exhibits.  We learned about the presidents on the monument, and found out all about how the sculpture was created.  We saw the tools, practiced using the dynamite plunger, and learned about the workers.  The kids also received their Junior Ranger badges after completing their activity books (and they were kind enough to give one to my youngest one too, which was really exciting for him!).

From the visitor center, you can walk along the Presidential Trail, which takes you right to the base of the mountain.  You really get some cool views of the mountain, different from the ones we’re all seeing in pictures in books.  You can also really get a feel for the magnitude of the sculpture–it’s impressive from far away, but when you’re right down at the base looking up, it’s just amazing, especially considering it was all done without the aid of computers or modern equipment!

presidential trailOn the Presidential Trail

At the far end of the Presidential Trail is the Sculptor’s Studio, which houses the 1/12 model sculpture, and features huge windows overlooking the mountain, where Gutzon Borglum supervised his masterpiece (bottom middle picture in the top collage).  Looking from the model to the actual mountain was pretty amazing, seeing how the artist’s vision became reality.

After finishing our visit and heading back toward our campground (south on Rt. 244), we came around a bend and got to see another unique view of the monument: George Washington’s profile, visible from the road through a gap in the rock.  Definitely worth a look if you go (there’s a scenic pull-off on the side of the road so you can pull off and check it out).

Washington ProfileNice profile, George!

There are plenty of other things to do in the area.  For us, it made a great stop between Yellowstone National Park and De Smet, South Dakota.  We spent the morning of our visit exploring one of the two popular nearby caves.  Jewel Cave (located just west of Custer, SD), is the third-largest mapped cave in the world.  There are a variety of tour options provided, but our family took the 1 hour 20 minute Scenic Cave tour.  It is led by a ranger and features paved trails within the cage, along with plenty of metal stairs and platforms.

Jewel Cave

My kids (ages 2 1/2 to 8 at the time) absolutely loved this tour.  We took turns carrying the little one for most of the tour, but the older three held their own for most of the trip (the 4 1/2-year-old got a little help when he needed it, but he did great!).  The other cave in the area is called Wind Cave, and it’s also a popular destination.

If you go:

  • Plan for a good half-day exploring Mount Rushmore.  If you’re able to stay for the light show in the evening, it sounds like it’s spectacular (being the middle of summer, it took place way past bedtime, and we had a full day of driving planned for the following day, so we had to pass!).  Get more Mount Rushmore information HERE.
  • Both Jewel Cave and Wind Cave offer tours.  The tours have fees, but we felt that they were well worth it ($8 adults, $4 kids, ages 5 & under Free for the tour we took).  Our National Parks annual pass did not cover the fees for the tour, but it got us a discount.
  • Crazy Horse Memorial is located between the town of Custer, SD, and Mount Rushmore.  It is a work in progress, and construction is privately funded, therefore admission is a bit higher ($10 adults, or $27 per carload, whichever is better).  We drove by, but did not stop to visit due to time constraints.
  • Custer State Park is home to a huge herd of bison, and tons of beautiful scenery.  If you’re not heading all the way to Yellowstone, this is definitely worth a stop, both for hiking and wildlife viewing.
  • Other features within driving distance include Badlands National Park, Sturgis (home of a huge annual motorcycle rally), and Devil’s Tower National Monument in South Dakota, and the beautiful Bighorn Mountains in neighboring Wyoming.

Planning a trip?  Be sure to Pin this post to save it for future reference!

Have you checked out our other Travel on a Shoestring posts?

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