In 1868, various tribes of the Lakota Sioux Nation knew one thing would last forever: The Black Hills in what is now South Dakota would be their land in perpetuity thanks to the Treaty of Fort Laramie, thereby closing the Powder River Country to all whites. Forever. Especially sacred were the Six Grandfathers, a series of exposed granite knobs jutting from the bristled landscape of what they called the Paha Sapa, a combination of the word “paha,” which describes the mountains jutting from the earth, and “sapa,” the darkened Ponderosa Pines that give the range its color.

“Forever” turned out to be just a little shy of 10 years. Gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874 by George Armstrong Custer, and in the game of westward expansion, gold trumps treaties. A gold rush ensued, and as homesteaders streamed into the Black Hills area, the Lakota were pushed onto reservations.

Among American settlers and gold miners, the Six Grandfathers peaks were known variously as Cougar Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, Slaughterhouse Mountain, and Keystone Cliffs. Yet not one name ever stuck.

In 1885 on one of his annual excursions to the Black Hills to check on the mining claims of the Harney Peak Consolidated Tin Company, attorney Charles E. Rushmore asked local guide and prospector William W. Challis what was the name of the mountain near Pine Camp, where they were staying. Challis replied, “Never had any, but it has now. We’ll call the thing Rushmore.” Rushmore visited “his” mountain almost every year until his death in 1931, but by then, Doane Robinson (state historian and lawyer) and Gutzon Borglum (artist) had made a few changes.

At the age of 57, in 1924, Borglum was summoned to South Dakota about the possibility of “doing something big with the Needles.” Once in South Dakota, Borglum was disappointed with the pillars at Needles, which he decided proved to be too brittle, too eroded. Borglum insisted on the southeastern-facing Mount Rushmore instead. He decided the sculpture should have a national focus, and chose the four presidents whose likenesses would be carved into the mountain. Upon seeing Mount Rushmore’s blank canvas, Borglum exclaimed, “America will march along that skyline.”

Congress authorized the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission on March 3, 1925, and President Coolidge insisted that, along with Washington, two Republicans and one Democrat be portrayed. Borglum filled in the names Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln, presidents he chose because they “preserved the country and expanded its territory.” In 1937, a bill went through Congress to add the head of Susan B. Anthony to the mountain, but it failed to pass.

Work began in earnest on October 4, 1927. Over the course of the next 14 years and 27 days, 400 men attacked the mountain with dynamite, jackhammers, and chisels, earning 8 dollars a day.

The workers had to endure conditions that varied from sweltering heat to frigid cold and windy rain. Each day, they climbed 700 stairs to the top of the mountain, and then 3/8-inch-thick steel cables lowered them over the front of the 500-foot face of the mountain in a specially designed boson-style chair. Though dynamite was used to carve away roughly 90 percent of the rock, the remaining 3 to 6 inches were carved by hand. The drillers drove holes into the granite very close together in a process called “honeycombing.” The closely drilled holes weakened the granite, so it could be more easily removed. The final steps smoothed the rough granite until it resembled the concrete of a sidewalk.

By 1933, the National Park Service had control of the carving. The infrastructure was improved: A tram took workers to the top of the mountain, and more safety devices were installed.

Changes were made, consolations given. The granite to the left of Washington’s 60-foot face proved to be unsuitable, so the beginnings of Jefferson was wiped clean with TNT and he soon appeared to Washington’s right. Each president was supposed to be a full bust, in fact, Washington was modeled to show him down to his waist and to the right of Lincoln was to be a massive monolith in the shape of the Louisiana Purchase with the Declaration of Independence emblazoned with 8-foot-tall letters. But budget constraints, the beginning of World War II, and eventually, insufficient funds shuttered the sculpture. Work on Mount Rushmore ended on October 21, 1941, six months after Borglum’s death.

The entire project cost just shy of one million dollars, and although there were numerous injuries, there were no fatalities.

Your Visit

Nowadays, you can visit a Visitor’s Center, the Lincoln Borglum Museum, and the Presidential Trail, the results of a 10-year-long redevelopment project of Mount Rushmore that expanded the facilities and upgraded the amenities. With the exception of Christmas Day, the Visitor’s Center is open seven days a week all year long, 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. during fall and winter and until 11 p.m. during spring and summer. The best time to come is between March and July, as it isn’t too crowded. Avoid August when they hold the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (everything is booked and crowded). During the winter, most of the roads around Custer State Park and Needles Highway are closed. It will cost you $11 to park an RV, but there are no fees to visit.

The President’s Trail is roughly a half-mile-long easy hiking trail that takes you to the base of the mountain, along the way stop at several viewpoints that each display facts about the presidents. There’s plenty of sightseeing and photo opportunities, although Carver’s Café is the only food available at the monument. Enjoy works of art in the exhibits at the Sculptor’s Studio and Lincoln Borglum Museum. Take self- or ranger-guided tours. Stroll the Avenue of Flags: A walkway lined with flags representing 56 states and territories. In the amphitheater at 9 p.m. every night from May through September, drink in the fantastic sight of the memorial against the evening sky during the Evening Sculpture Lighting Ceremony. A sense of awe will come over you as this massive memorial lights up the sky.

Where to Stay

There are dozens of campgrounds within close proximity of Mount Rushmore, but here are some of the closest that were recommended:

Spokane Creek Cabins & Campground
www.spokanecreek.com
A full-service campground for RVs, which also has 19 cabins. Amenities include heated pool, general store and gift shop, laundry facilities, café, playground, free mini golf, and free Wi-Fi.

Kemp’s Kamp
www.kempskamp.com
Features pull-thru RV sites with full hook-ups, shaded creek-side RV sites, showers, laundry, heated pool, and free Wi-Fi.

Happy Holiday RV Resort
www.happyholidayrvresort.com
It’s a full-service resort with heated pools, recreation center, playground, laundry, groceries, gift shop, and free Wi-Fi. Located directly across from Reptile Gardens.

Rushmore Shadows Resort
www.rushmoreshadows.com
Here you’ll find shaded and pull-thru sites, a heated pool, playground, sports courts, bonfire pits, horseshoe pits, clubhouse, store, and laundry. Shuttle and bus service offered

Whispering Winds Cottages & Campsites
www.whisperingwindscottages.com
Found here are 8 RV sites with full hook-ups, 30/50-amp service, up to 50-ft. long pull-through, with awesome views of Harney Peak.

Horse Thief Campground
www.horsethief.com
Located between Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse. Any size RV welcome, 30/50 amp, updated laundry, heated pool, playground, store, and Wi-Fi.

The Flintstones Bedrock City Campground
www.flintstonesbedrockcity.com
Full-service facility accommodates everything from tents to full RV hook-ups to camping cabins, laundry, store, hiking trails, play areas, arcade, heated pool, mini golf, and Wi-Fi.