By Forrest Fisher
Mount Rushmore is no ordinary mountain. Visiting this sacred place in the Black Hills of South Dakota has been on our “bucket list” for a long time. As we approached from the north driving down Highway 85, the illusion of darkness rising on the horizon - the Black Hills in the distance, was clear and beautiful. “There they are,” said my excited best friend and wife of 48 years. “They’re so awesome, aren’t they?” Added my granddaughter, Kiley Rose, a college student of environmental science and forestry, and our mentor for all things nature, especially trees and birds.
“They say the Black Hills look dark because of all the tall pine trees that grow here in this part of South Dakota,” Kiley shared. “And this area is rich in birds and animals too.” As we travelled through Rapid City and up Highway 16 (Mount Rushmore Road) on the mountain toward Mount Rushmore, there were large signs on the roadway directing where to turn, park and enjoy the view.
The views from just about anywhere on this National Monument Memorial property are spectacular. The scenes are permanently imprinted to memory, though I also took hundreds of pictures to share with family and friends back home in western New York.
The sculptured faces of four of our former great presidents are carved high above in the granite stone of this majestic mountain. Chosen by sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, visitors have a clear, spectacular image of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln as viewed left to right. For several of the people I spoke with, many simply gazing with a prolonged stare at the figures - the predominant feature of these four American leaders seems to be their eyes.
One man from Texas said, “You know something, I think their eyes offer us understanding and humility.” Another visitor overheard the onset of our discussion and shared, “I agree, their eyes draw my attention almost immediately, as if to invite discussion among each of them.” Another nearby person, a foreign lady visitor from Japan, smiled and leaned our way to say, “I think their eyes create a sense of trust, so I agree with you both, but I also think their noses are predominant.” Instantly, we all smiled at that and I brought up a short story about "smell and scent" to share with this amicable threesome.
I added, “When my family initially came up to visit the monument, we drove past the official entrance and down the hill toward the presidential “side view” of George Washington. My granddaughter and I decided to hike around the parking area access paths and with her knowledge of trees, she went directly to one of the pine trees, put her nose to the tree, smiled, and called me over.” She said, “Can you smell this and tell me what you think this bark smells like, Dziadz?” So I did and said, "It smells like vanilla." “Yes!” She exclaimed. “This is a Ponderosa Pine tree, this odor is their distinguishing element!”
So I returned to the group conversation and said, “Have you visited the Grand View Terrace eating area? Some people we met had been raving about Thomas Jefferson’s homemade ice cream recipe – which they serve here. About the nose, maybe you are right - the ice cream is vanilla flavor. You can smell it just by standing next to someone with a cone or dish of the tasty dessert. It was crowded.” Smiling a bit, I added, “So maybe you are right, the nose is the champion feature of these carved presidential figures!” Everyone returned a happy face grin and we all moved on, satisfied to share a moment of observation with each other.
Though the Ponderosa pines offer the scent of vanilla and the Thomas Jefferson homemade ice cream recipe is vanilla flavor - and it is delicious, our visit to this incredible place was not ordinary vanilla.
Every visitor, there were 1000's, appeared to be in reverent awe of the monument. There was a soft-spoken drone of conversation in the air that hovered above the sound of the breeze, with these flags proudly waffling a soft message of freedom in the wind. Every single state in the country has their flag displayed here. It felt so very good to walk among the cascade of flags aptly named, the “Avenue of Flags.”
Mount Rushmore associate, Jane Zwetzig, had provided us with early advice about making sure we test the delicious ice cream. The vanilla flavor and sweet taste is like the monument, unforgettable.
A stop to the Information Center provided details about current day activities, with informational brochures and details of exhibits, they helped to plan hiking trail and exhibit visits for the day. There are guided walks down the Presidential Trail and tours, Ranger programs, amphitheater programs, the Sculptor’s Studio, the bookstore, the gift shop and also, an audio tour. There is also an audio tour device, a handheld wand, that can be rented for $5 and is available in four languages.
The food court is a great food stop, complete with bison burgers, bison hotdogs and a long list of other, non-meat, healthy foods and beverages.
Toward evening, the sculpture is illuminated for one hour, starting 30 minutes after sunset, and that marks the onset of the “Evening Lighting Ceremony.” The Mount Rushmore National Memorial is open year-round, except on Christmas Day (Dec. 25), from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. in the summer, and through 5 p.m. in the winter. The cost is FREE, except there is an $11 parking fee for cars.
Hotel accommodations are plentiful in Rapid City, Hill City, Keystone and several other small towns nearby, including infamous Deadwood (Wild Bill Hickok – Saloon No. 10), about 45 minutes to the north. We spent the overnight at the Gold Dust hotel in Deadwood (http://golddustdeadwood.com/), recently renovated in this former western outlaw town - such a great place to visit.
For more information about the Black Hills, Badlands, Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse monument and other local sites, visit: http://www.blackhillsbadlands.com/business/black-hills-visitor-information-center.
The busiest day of the year for Mount Rushmore? You might have guessed, is July 4th. According to manager, Lloyd Shelton, Independence Day will usually see a little more than 10,000 visitors per hour. The good news is that the park services can handle that volume and there is plenty of room.
You will find inspiration from the presidential presence with a wonderful sense of opportunity to share and absorb the energy and leadership provided from these mountain-top carvings at the memorial monument. These elements of Mount Rushmore are unchanged, regardless of the number of visitors. We enjoyed every moment of our visit - the people, the property, the outdoor elements of unique grandeur. This is a great summer stop. Upon arrival, the mystique of this special place is clearly apparent.
We drove all the way from New York State (two fun days), a long trip, and we are already planning a return visit!