Exploring Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills

Oct 8, 2019

Mount Rushmore is one of those iconic American landmarks that seemingly everyone wants to see during their lifetime. It’s a towering symbol of patriotism and the execution of a wide-scale work of art. I’d seen pictures of the monument my entire life but even still, nothing ever photographs as beautifully or majestically  as it looks in person so I wanted to see it for myself. Ever since Kyle and I moved to Denver, it has been on our list of places to visit as it’s now only two states away. I never wished to visit badly enough that I’d consider flying, so a road trip was always a part of the plan. This past month presented the perfect time to go as Kyle’s mom was in town visiting us for the summer, and we were trying to think of fun places to visit that don’t require tons of physical activity or an agonizing drive. We could definitely handle the six-hour drive from Denver, and make a two-day trip out of it, exploring the surrounding Black Hills. I never thought I’d set my sights on South Dakota but here we were, planning our mini excursion.

When looking into overnight accommodations in the small town nearest Mount Rushmore, I had trouble finding anything that looked any nicer than a Motel 6. Since Kyle’s mom, Vivian, and her little Italian Greyhound, Enzo, were with us, we didn’t think it appropriate to tent camp or “rough it” for the night, so I was a bit let down by the underwhelming choices the internet listed. It wasn’t until I landed on the third hotel website of my search that I found Under Canvas. This campground provided the best of both accommodation choices – we were able to both camp and have luxurious touches that made the stay very comfortable. The photos made the place look really fun, well thought out, and high quality. The tents come with features that increase with price – the one I chose including a toilet, sink, and shower. After reading through many reviews, looking at photos, and planning our stay, I almost became more excited about going “glamping” than I was about seeing Mount Rushmore. I truly enjoy camping and was very excited to get to stay in the woods without having to transport any equipment or think through any of the details.

As the morning of our trip fell upon us, the four of us (Enzo included) hopped in the car and headed north out of Denver, toward Wyoming. There is little to mention about the portion of the drive that took us through Wyoming, except that… I’m not a fan of Wyoming. Luckily I had come off a night shift when we took off that morning, so I spent the majority of the drive sleeping. I say ‘luckily’ because had I not been sleeping, I would have been at risk of dying of boredom. Plains on plains on fields of grain on plains. Although I was told by Kyle and Vivian that there were two camels in one of the fields right when they drove out of Cheyenne… if anyone has an explanation for that please let me know. It wasn’t until shortly after we crossed the South Dakota state line that we suddenly fell upon a marvelous sight… trees.

After hitting the change in climate where everything everywhere was beautiful, I was officially up from my series of naps. The trip had finally begun for me, and South Dakota did not disappoint! The forest was quite different than any I had seen before because there were boulders strewn all throughout it – some moss-covered – and it was a denser area than I was expecting. We had decided to stop at the Crazy Horse Memorial that is in progress just a few miles from Mount Rushmore as a short addition to our trip, and I was seeing on the map that we were already pretty close. As we came around the corner, I was surprised that you could see the memorial from the main road, but sorely disappointed  at the price they wanted to see a memorial that wasn’t even finished yet. After we heard the $30 price tag that came along with getting just a few steps closer to the memorial, we decided the view from the road was good enough for us, took our way-too-zoomed-in photos, and continued on.

We were then only about a half hour from Mount Rushmore, and had our eyes wide for when we could catch a glimpse of it. The map was showing us doing a big loop around it, but none of us had caught sight yet. As the map said we were about to pass it we were stopped at a red light and thought it must be hidden behind a bluff or a bunch of trees or something. Then I looked left and happened to scan upward a bit, and proceeded to feel really stupid because it was RIGHT THERE. It had been staring at us as we drove past and we were all amazed at how large the monument was, towering over us and so clearly visible from the road. We were really excited to go and get a closer look (obviously – that’s why we booked the trip) but we were all equally excited to get checked into our glamp and see what that was all about. We decided we would press on, get all set up in our fancy tent, and then venture back out to see the monument closer at night.

We took a dirt road back to Under Canvas, and found the main tent where you check in. The main tent included a rather large common area where you could play games, get food from their little restaurant, get free coffee/tea, buy merchandise, and relax on the big couches. It was much bigger than i was expecting, and the guy that checked us in showed us around, which included discovering that there was a huge outdoor patio from which you could see Mount Rushmore! It was super cool to be able to stand on the edge of the deck and look over the sea of trees to see the monument in the distance.

After exploring the main tent, we made it to our tent which was just as nice as the pictures showed, and had been set up with a separate bed for a third person. We were surprised that though it was a cot-style bed, it was extremely comfortable and Vivian had no problem getting a good night’s sleep in it. The menu for the restaurant was in the tent and I was really pleased with the number of vegan options. We decided to get dinner at the main tent – Kyle & I got Beyond Burgers with fries and Vivian got a kid’s burger. They were cooked well, and though a bit pricey, a good option for not having to leave camp. We ate on the outdoor patio, sat and relaxed while watching the sun set over Mount Rushmore. We went back to the tent and had a highly competitive game (or three) of Skip Bo, and purely enjoyed the low key nature of the night.

We ventured back out after it was well dark because we knew the lighting ceremony occurred around sundown and the monument would be lit up with really bright lights. We were able to see it pretty clearly from the deck by the main tent and Kyle got some good photos of it with our camera.

Once we got two or three… or four more rounds of Skip Bo in, we decided to sleep for the night. It had begun raining and ended up raining extremely hard with thunder echoing through the camp. We were interested to see if any rain was going to make it into the tent as we continued to throw wood into the stove to keep us warm. All of us being from Arizona (originally), we really enjoy a good rainstorm and stayed up way too late commenting on each roll of thunder. Not a drop made it in the tent which made it all the better, and increased our confidence in the construction of the tent enough to sleep soundly.

The next morning, the time came to check out of camp and head on our way to see Mount Rushmore up close and personal. We took the short drive back up the road to the streetlight we had stopped at before, but this time we turned in. There was a multi-story parking garage built underground so tons of people could park without obstructing the view. We took our jaunt up to the viewing area and were greeted with quite the view! Construction equipment.

The “Grand View Terrace” of Mount Rushmore was under construction while we were there, so the closest we could get was the lookout next to the food court. It was still pretty close but I definitely thought we were going to be able to get closer. The photos I’ve seen make it look like you’re standing right in front of it, but we were probably a good half mile or more away. You have to hike to get any closer. It still made for an awesome sight given the magnitude of the artistry it took to create the thing. I still don’t understand how hundreds of people got their consecutive crap together to make giant sculptures that emulate someone’s likeness so accurately. It’s really amazing to think about.

Once we left the site of the monument, we went to grab some lunch. There is a small town that’s formed down the road & has an old charm about it that we really enjoyed. It feels a lot like a historic Main Street with a couple restaurants, bars, gift shops, and a post office. While finding parking for Ruby House Restaurant, we were driving past this building with a giant sign on it, “HOLY TERROR”. This was intriguing enough, but Kyle spotted an arcade in the building which we then obviously had to go in. It was a small joint but we converted a few dollars into quarters & worked those games for all the tickets we could muster. I, an obvious basketball prodigy, beat the all-time record on NBA Hoops. I was very unhappy that my reign lasted all of about two minutes when Kyle came gallivanting in and blew my record away, but I may edit this post later to take that part out.

Ruby House Restaurant had pretty good food, and the main dining area was really interesting. I spent most of the time we were there looking at the walls. There were antiques everywhere – filigree-style frames with black and white photos, old guns, mirrors, trinkets. The wallpaper and general color of the entire restaurant fit the name – red as a ruby. Kyle & I both got black bean burgers which were surprisingly spicy. They were good, and I would come back if we were to be in the area again.

It came time to head home and we decided to take a more scenic route, heading down Iron Mountain Road. This road is known as one of the most scenic in the area and it truly lived up to the hype. I wish we could have had more time to really explore the area & take a hike or two. Though even without hiking, I really enjoyed driving the winding road through the forest riddled with mossy boulders. There are also multiple iconic tunnels you travel through, setting a perfect backdrop for photos, or even just a cool piece of history to admire. Through one of them, you can see Mount Rushmore super clearly which I didn’t even realize until I’d taken a few photos of it. If you do end up visiting the monument, going for a drive down this road HAS to be on your list – you really don’t want to bypass it.

The rest of the drive home was quite boring, but we made the best of it. Again, Wyoming isn’t the jewel in the United States crown, but at least we got to see some animals and uh… some hay. I also missed the camels again on the way back since it was dark out. Bummer. Even so, we enjoyed South Dakota so much that Kyle & I already have plans to go back. We really want to take the time to explore the Black Hills with more diligence & get some good hiking in. Also, as a note to my future self, for the love of God, don’t forget the bug spray.

If you find yourself making the trip up to Mount Rushmore & found any of this post useful, let me know! Comment below or tag me on instagram, @thegoblinden