Hacking Mount Rushmore with (or without) Kids

If you are planning a visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, here’s a tip for an improved experience.  Do it in reverse!

Here’s why.  Once you’ve seen the faces on the mountain, the rest of the attraction is much less impressive.  Sure, there are some exhibits and a food court, but the view of the former presidents in relief is the big payoff of the visit.  If you are going with kids, it can be a little hard to hold their attention after the big reveal, but doing the attraction from the end to the beginning builds the anticipation and makes those exhibits a little more interesting.  Plus, they won’t be asking you for ice cream until the end!

Consider planning your visit to Mount Rushmore, this way…

Almost everyone has seen the iconic image of US presidents carved into the side of Mount Rushmore.  You may have also seen the long walkway lined with flags that leads up to the viewing platform.  That is the path that most visitors will take into the memorial and they will likely be perfectly happy with their visit.  However, I think it can be improved upon.  My “hack” is to start at the end of the Presidential Trail and work your way up toward the mountain peak.  This allows the excitement to build as you follow the trail catching glimpses of the carvings until the big reveal at the end!

Details:  All staircases from the parking area are designed to guide you to the monument.  Instead of following the crowd, walk to the right, across the top level of the parking garage, in the direction of the yellow arrow below.

Parking Directions at Mt. Rushmore

If you walk all the way to the right, you’ll reach the last parking lot exit (in under a minute) which looks like this.


Walk through the opening, watching for traffic, and you’ll see this at the exit.


Continue to walk straight across the road and up the dirt path through the grass.  When you get to the top of the grass area, look right for Presidential Path exit to the right.  Again, watch out for traffic; those tour buses can’t stop quickly.

Cross the street to the path.

You’ve made it!  Your journey begins, free of tourists!


Once you get on the trail, it’s OK to let the kids go on ahead.  Just say, “meet us at the bottom and stay on this path.”  They will race down the trail and burn off some steam.  If they look up, they may catch some glimpses of the carvings but they likely won’t notice them.

At the bottom of the hill, you will start up again, toward the top of the mountain.  The first thing you’ll pass is the Sculptor’s Studio.

Here you’ll see the original design for the memorial and some other exhibits that I’ll leave for you to discover on your own.  Now the kids will be wondering what’s up ahead.  Be sure to keep to the right as shown on the map, or you’ll find yourself back at the visitor’s center before you walk the whole trail.

The anticipation builds as you climb the trail and the carvings are slowly revealed through views that you’ve likely not seen on a postcard.

In my opinion, the views from the Presidential Trail are very impressive and you get a better sensation of the sheer size of the carvings!  Plus, it’s a wonderful, paved trail that most people will be able to negotiate without any trouble.

After about a 15 min walk you will find your way to the bottom of the monument where the cast off from the blasting is piled high.  (No, you can’t climb it without special permission…)

Be sure to take some of the turnoffs on the trail because they offer some very unique views and photo opportunities. Here, giant boulders form a natural frame for the face.

My eldest son is a big fan of Lincoln and I was able to get this shot of his mug, framed by the pines.

When you reach the end of the trail you will ascend to the viewing platform, turn the kids around and “bam” the Payoff!  Everything will be more interesting because, “hey, we were just UP there”!

Now you’ve all earned a snack, so visit the Memorial Ice Cream Shop for some yummy ice cream, mixed with Thomas Jefferson’s original recipe!

After you poke around the exhibits and gift shop, walk toward the exit but be sure to turn around and see how everyone else entered the memorial.  I hope you’ll agree that my way is more interesting.

You might find that the kiddos will want to make another lap of the trail, so let them go.  They’ll be safe and you can have some “Mom and Dad time,” which as we know, is essential to a good family trip!  At this point, consider visiting the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial.  You can do both memorials in one day and return back in the evening for the laser and light shows (be sure to get your ticket validated at the Crazy Horse Memorial).

There are also a number of hiking trails between the two memorials and you could probably spend a few days just exploring the immediate area around Rushmore, along Route 244.  However, if you are only spending one day here, I’d suggest a schedule that looks like this:

9:00 am to 11:00 am–Mount Rushmore

11:30 am to 1:00 pm–Hike one of the many trails along Rt. 244

1:30 pm to 3:30 pm–Crazy Horse Memorial (pay for the bus tour, it’s worth it)

4:00 pm to 6:00 pm–Early dinner at one of the eateries in Custer, SD.  I suggest The Purple Pie Place or Blackhills Burger and Bun Co. (or both!!)

Dusk–Return to Crazy Horse or Mount Rushmore for the evening shows.

I last visited after Labor Day, so if you are attending during a busy time of the year, allow extra time in your schedule.

There are many campgrounds in the area, and the rustic ones feel more in line with the ambiance of the Black Hills.  However, if you are staying near Mount Rushmore, I suggest you check out the KOA at Palmer Gulch.  This is an outstanding resort with clean and modern showers, horseback riding, a pub and steakhouse, coffee shop, pizza joint, and other places to spend money!

Odyssey Camper in site 104 at Palmer Gulch. Although there are RVs across the road behind my van, there are no sites on either side nor in front.  If you are in a short enough rig, try for this spot.

I stayed at Palmer Gulch and although the RV spots are essentially in a big field, there are great views of the surrounding hills.

One of the views at the Palmer Gulch KOA, the backside of Rushmore

While you are in the area, be sure to visit the nearby town of Custer, SD where you can visit some fantastic eateries!  Be sure to read my review of The Purple Pie Place and my review of the Black Hills Burger Company.

Mount Rushmore Memorial is an essential stop for any family trip, but also fun if you travel alone.  There is so much to do in the surrounding area, I’ll be sure to return!  I hope you find my hack interesting and give it a try!

If you are looking to save some real money on campgrounds (like $100s),  check out my reviews of discount camping clubs, here.  These discount campsite programs are well worth the money, but you have to pick the right ones.

–Odyssey Camper

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