When you think about it, Mount Rushmore is one of the oddest monuments ever: Gigantic chiseled faces of four presidents -- why four? Why those four (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and . . . Theodore Roosevelt?)? And why in the South Dakota badlands, miles away from most U.S. citizens? But crazy as it is, darned if another group didn't raise money to carve another mountain nearby with an even bigger sculpture, depicting American Indian chief Crazy Horse.
Mount Rushmore was the passion of one individual: Gutzon Borglum, a Danish-American sculptor from Idaho, who was hired by South Dakota to make a memorial to draw visitors to the Black Hills. Borglum -- who had previously been hired to carve Stone Mountain in Georgia, until negotiations broke down -- chose this peak because it was hard granite, the highest in the area, and it faced southeast, where it would catch good daytime light. He also picked which presidents to portray: Teddy Roosevelt made the cut because he'd lived in South Dakota and was a conservationist (also because Borglum had already done a bust of T.R. for the U.S. Capitol). The project was conceived in 1923; sculpting began in 1927 and puttered along through the Depression. Washington was unveiled in 1934, Jefferson in 1936, Lincoln in 1937, and Roosevelt in 1939. Borglum died in 1941, and though his son Lincoln continued for 7 months, the work halted for good when the U.S. entered World War II.
Visit the museum under the amphitheater to learn about Borglum's innovative engineering. A 1-mile Presidential Trail leads to viewing terraces at the base of the mountain; take a guided tour so the kids can learn all the curious history. It's great to catch Mount Rushmore by the dawn's early light, or at least as soon as the park opens at 8am. In summer, a nightly lighting ceremony at 9pm (8pm mid-Aug to Sept) makes another splendid viewing op.
To many Native Americans, Mount Rushmore is a sacrilege, an intrusion on sacred landscapes, so the Lakota tribe initiated their own project 17 miles away, hiring sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who'd briefly worked with Borglum on Mount Rushmore. He began to hew the image of Chief Crazy Horse astride a thundering stallion in 1948; 50 years later -- 16 years after Ziolkowski himself had died -- only the chief's nine-story-high face was completed. While the sculpture is still a work in progress, millions of tons of rock have been blasted from the mountain face, and even kids should be able to trace the form emerging from the granite; nightly laser shows in summer project the finished design onto the rough-hewn rock. When finished, Crazy Horse will be so big that all four heads on Mount Rushmore can fit inside it -- 641 feet long and 563 feet high. At the base of the mountain, the Indian Museum of North America focuses on the tribal history of numerous Native American cultures.
Nearest Airport: Rapid City Regional, 35 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Hotel Alex Johnson, 523 6th St., Rapid City (tel. 800/888-2539 or 605/342-1210; www.alexjohnson.com). $$ Sylvan Lake Lodge, 24572 SD 87 (at SD 89), Custer (tel. 888/875-0001 or 605/574-2561; www.custerresorts.com).