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"George Washington," I replied when the park ranger asked me which president I would vote for as the greatest. "That's what all the grade school kids answer," he said. "The adults usually say Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt or the current commander-in-chief." Having firmly put me in my place, he went on to show me around, treating me like an adult, anyhow. I was pleased to see some attention paid to the Native American contribution to American history as well as the achievements of the Europeans who came to conquer the continent. It was Chief Black Elk, in this part of the world the Lakota hold sacred, who said "Anywhere is the center of the world." And this held true for the ancient natives, the immigrating tribes, the explorers, fur traders, miners, homesteaders and settlers as each came here in turn, making the Black Hills the center of their lives.

Called "the Shrine to Democracy" in its brochures, Mount Rushmore was created by a brilliant, but flawed, artist who spent 14 years (1927-1941) blasting and carving the rocks into the amazing monument we see today. The original idea was for statues of local heroes nearby, to promote tourism to South Dakota. But Gutzon Borglum, enticed away from work on Stone Mountain in Georgia, had a better idea, to create a national monument. He had previously sculpted some saints for New York City's Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and two Lincolns (in New Jersey and in the nation's Capitol). He decided this new venture would commemorate the "founding, preservation and continental expansion of the United States." Some 400 men helped with the task, 90% of it accomplished by blasts of dynamite, the rest by carving and grinding. Borglum wasn't finished with his Rushmore work in 1941, but he died a few months before World War II put an end to anything but beating the Nazis and the Japanese. In the end, the project cost only $1 million, 85% of it borne by the federal government.

Highlights

You should take the Presidential Trail, a half-mile loop beginning at the Grand View Terrace, past the base of the mountain, then down to the Sculptor's Studio (1939), where you get an idea of the immensity of the work done. There's a Lincoln Borglum Museum & Bookstore in the main visitor center, with two theaters showing a 13-minute film. (Lincoln Borglum was the sculptor's son, and he aided his father throughout the project, finishing up when the old man died.)

Near the Avenue of Flags (of the 50 states, territories, commonwealths and Washington, D.C., arranged in alphabetical order) is an American Indian Tipi (teepee another spelling), where rangers talk of the Lakota history in the Black Hills (paha sapa in the native language), this in summer only. Cultural demonstrations take place near Xanterra's Carvers Cafe & Gift Shop periodically.

You are prohibited from climbing the mountain itself (forget about Cary Grant in North by Northwest), and you have to stay on established trails. Also, there's no camping, hunting, making fires, littering, picking up rocks, collecting plants or feeding wildlife. Other than that, enjoy yourself. And keep an eye out for mountain goats, rabbits and two kinds of deer, about the extent of the wildlife you'll see here.

There are Sculpture Workshops in the summer, more details at www.nps.gov/moru. It is expected that the popular Roots of American Music program from 2007 will be repeated in 2008. In 2007, everything from American Indian music to jazz and the big band sound were represented in eight programs from June through August.

A fine side trip, especially for young people, is to The Mammoth Site, on the spot where several of the behemoths got stuck in a watering hole, their bones now excavated and visible in a building erected over their graves. There are 55 of the beasts, an indoor fossil bed, guided tours, and an excellent gift shop. It's a registered National Natural Landmark (that program also operated by the National Park Service). Mammoth Site, Hot Springs SD, tel. 605/745-6017; www.mammothsite.com.

If you are really interested in the other works of Borglum, you can visit the Borglum Historical Center in Keystone, not far from the park. Included are bronze and marble sculpture, paintings and aviation inventions, literary works and political projects, as well as an old newsreel movie. Borglum Historical Center, Keystone, tel. 605/666-4448; www.rushmoreborglum.com.

Ranger Activities

You can listen to park rangers on their guided tours talking about the Presidential Trail, the Sculptor's Studio, Lakota History & Culture, or the Children's Program or at an Evening Lighting Ceremony (May-Sept.). There are Ranger Programs for kids at three age levels. Get the daily schedules at the Information Center.

New in 2008

The Mount Rushmore Audio Tour: Living Memorial is a recorded wand guide incorporating narration, music, interviews, the voices of the mountain's creators, and more.

Facilities

Xanterra, a park concessionaire, operates the Carvers Cafe, an ice cream counter and a gift shop.

Fees and Hours

In general, buildings are open from 8am-8pm in summer and 8am-5pm in winter, all closed on December 25. You don't pay an admission fee to the park, but you do have to pay a private commercial outfit a parking fee, which is $8, good for the calendar year. That's because the parking facility was constructed with private funds, they say, no federal funds used.

Number of Visitors

In 2006, there were approximately 2,600,000 visitors, making it one of the top attractions in the National Park system.

Contacts

The official website of Mount Rushmore National Memorial is www.nps.gov/moru. Friends of the park, The Mount Rushmore National Memorial Society, and its committee, the Mount Rushmore Historical Association, have a website at www.mountrushmoresociety.com.

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