President’s Day: 46 Surprising Facts about 46 Presidents

Below are 46 strange and fascinating facts about all of America’s Presidents

Today is President’s Day! In addition to indicating a day off work or school for many, President’s Day is among the oldest federal holidays and it was the first to celebrate the life of an individual American. It was originally signed into law in 1879 in honor of George Washington’s birthday (February 22) but eventually moved to the third Monday of the month in a bid to create more three-day weekends for workers. Today, the holiday also recognizes the presidents past and present who have served since Washington.

From a 19th-century president who killed a man in a duel to a 20th-century leader who once worked as a lifeguard, learn surprising facts about each U.S. president. In some ways, all 46 U.S. presidents have been very much alike. Not lacking in ambition or charisma, each had a certain knack for self-promotion and networking.

At the same time, each commander in chief is unique. Read facts about every president in order of their service from a 19th-century hotshot with a taste for dueling to a 20th-century veteran who nearly died after being hit by anti-aircraft fire in World War II.

George Washington carved in stone at Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. George Washington (1789-1797): The first U.S. president and Revolutionary War hero was an enthusiastic dog breeder, particularly of hunting hounds to which he gave names like Sweet Lips and Drunkard.

2. John Adams (1797-1801): Adams and his wife, Abigail, exchanged more than 1,100 letters throughout their lengthy relationship.

3. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809): Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, died on July 4, in 1826 within hours of John Adams. 

4. James Madison (1809-1817): Madison was the shortest president at 5 feet 4 inches and weighed barely over 100 pounds. James Madison and his wife, Dolley, helped popularize ice cream in America. Tastes in the treat, however, would be considered questionable today: chestnut, asparagus, and parmesan were all on the menu. Dolley’s favorite flavor was oyster.

5. James Monroe (1817-1825): Other than Washington, Monroe was the only president to ever run essentially unopposed, coasting to re-election in the 1820 race.

6. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829): Years after leaving the White House, Quincy Adams argued a famous Supreme Court case that freed the captive Africans who had rebelled aboard the Amistad slave ship. The election of 1824 saw four viable candidates, none of whom won an outright majority of electoral votes. Andrew Jackson nabbed 99, John Quincy Adams won 84, William H. Crawford earned 41, and Henry Clay claimed 37. Despite having neither the highest number of electoral or total popular votes, Adams was chosen as President by the U.S. House of Representatives.

7. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837): Jackson once killed a man in a duel. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841): Van Buren was the first president to be born an American. All previous presidents were originally British subjects, having been born prior to 1776. 

9. William Henry Harrison (1841): Harrison died just 31 days after his inauguration in 1841, the shortest presidency in United States history.

10. John Tyler (1841-1845): Tyler fathered 15 children, the most of any president.

11. James K. Polk (1845-1849): During his term, Polk secretly purchased a number of enslaved children for his Mississippi cotton plantation.

12. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850): Old Rough and Ready never voted in an election prior to being on the ballot himself. 

13. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853): Fillmore was the last Whig president; the party imploded soon after he left office. 

14. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857): The only president from New Hampshire also attended college in New England—Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. 

15. James Buchanan (1857-1861): In 1853, while serving as minister to Great Britain, Buchanan helped draft the 1854 Ostend Manifesto which advocated for an American invasion of Cuba.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865): Honest Abe, the tallest president at 6 feet 4 inches may have had Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes people to be very tall, thin, and long limbed. 

17. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869): Though one of the few presidents without a pet, Johnson apparently cared for a family of White House mice which he called the little fellows.

18. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877): Civil War General Grant was invited to join Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on the fateful evening of April 14, 1865 but was forced to decline after he and his wife made plans to visit their children in New Jersey. 

19. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881): Hayes was the first president to have a telephone in the White House. 

20. James A. Garfield (1881): Garfield (who was the first known left-handed president) was elected to the U.S. Senate but never served as Ohio senator because he then won the Republican nomination for president. In 1880, Garfield attended the Republican National Convention with no intention of running for President. But when the convention stalled, a delegate nominated Garfield as a compromise candidate, and a stream of unexpected votes flooded in. “This honor comes to me unsought,” Garfield said. “I have never had the presidential fever, not even for a day … I have no feeling of elation given the position I am called upon to fill.”

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885): Arthur was named in honor of Chester Abell, the doctor who delivered him.

22. and 24. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897): No president except Cleveland has ever served non-consecutive terms: He defeated James G. Blaine in 1884, lost to Benjamin Harrison in 1888 (despite winning the popular vote), and then came back to defeat Harrison in 1892.

23. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893): Harrison was the first president to hire a female White House staffer. Under Harrison’s watch, electricity was installed at the White House in 1891. The newfangled invention utterly terrified him. Harrison and his wife, Caroline, refused to operate the light switches. He was so afraid of pressing the knobs that, sometimes, he’d sleep with the lights on.

25. William McKinley (1897-1901): McKinley’s likeness appears on the $500 bill which was discontinued in 1969. 

26. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909): Roosevelt was the youngest president, taking office at age 42.

27. William Howard Taft (1909-1913): Famous for his corpulence, Taft was the first president to hurl the ceremonial first pitch at a Major League Baseball game. 

28. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921): In a 1914 proclamation, Wilson officially established the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

29. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923): Prior to taking office, Harding wrote a series of lurid love letters to his mistress, the wife of one of his best friends. 

30. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929): A quiet man, Coolidge purportedly replied, “You lose,” to a visitor who bet she could get at least three words out of him. 

31. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933): An Iowa native who spent part of his boyhood in Oregon, Hoover was the first president to hail from west of the Mississippi River. Despite humble origins, Hoover was a self-made multimillionaire. He was orphaned at the age of 9 and was raised by various relatives, eventually graduating from Stanford’s inaugural class with a degree in geology. Working for a British mine, he traveled the world looking for pricey mineral deposits and made millions doing 

32. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945): The longest-serving commander-in-chief claimed to be distantly related to 11 other presidents including his fifth cousin Theodore Roosevelt.

33. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953): The “S” in Harry S. Truman was just an initial; it didn’t stand for any name. (The “S” in Ulysses S. Grant didn’t stand for anything either.) 

34. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961): World War II hero Ike was the first president to ride in a helicopter. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

35. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963): After being injured and honorably discharged in World War II, Kennedy was briefly employed as a journalist during the waning weeks of the war. 

36. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969): Johnson’s first career was as a teacher. He worked at a school near the U.S.-Mexico border for four years before launching a career in politics.

37. Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974): Nixon became such a skillful poker player while stationed in the Solomon Islands during World War II that his winnings helped launch his political career upon his return to the U.S.

38: Gerald Ford (1974-1977): A star football player at the University of Michigan, Ford turned down offers from both the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers. 

39. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981): When his father died in 1953, Carter gave up his successful military career to move back to Georgia and work on their family’s peanut farm.

George Washington carved in stone at Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

40. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989): Reagan worked as a lifeguard and sportscaster before becoming an actor and, later, a politician. 

41. George H. Bush (1989-1993): As a student at Yale, Bush was captain of the baseball team and a member of Skull and Bones, an elite secret student society.

42. Bill Clinton (1993-2001): Clinton played the saxophone and performed on the Arsenio Hall Show when he was a candidate for president. 

43. George W. Bush (2001-2009): Post-presidency, Bush took up oil painting, exhibiting his work at the Museum of the Southwest in Texas. 

44. Barack Obama (2009-2017): Prior to becoming the first African American president, Obama won two Grammy Awards for Best Spoken Word Album.

45. Donald J. Trump (2017-2021): Before becoming president, Trump was a real estate developer, entrepreneur, and host of the NBC reality show, The Apprentice.

46: Joe Biden (2021-present): Biden overcame a debilitating childhood stutter after enduring bullying over the condition in grade school. 

Worth Pondering…

Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.

—John F. Kennedy

Creation of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Began 96 Years Ago TODAY

American landmark took 14 years to complete, meant to commemorate the nation ‘until the end of time’

A monument’s dimensions should be determined by the importance to civilization of the events commemorated.

— Gutzon Borglum

The creation of Mount Rushmore which set the images of four American presidents in towering monumental relief in the Black Hills of South Dakota began on this day in history, October 4, 1927. 

“Mount Rushmore is a project of colossal proportion, colossal ambition and colossal achievement,” writes the National Park Service (NPS) which assumed management of the landmark by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.  

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The monument immortalizes presidents George Washington (1789-97), Thomas Jefferson (1801-09), Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09), and Abraham Lincoln (1861-65). 

Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum led the effort which employed about 400 men and women before it was completed on October 31, 1941.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is open year-round, seven days a week, and is located 23 miles from Rapid City. The memorial offers a variety of activities so plan to spend at least four to five hours there. Visitors can leave and return to the memorial the same day for the evening lighting ceremony. Mount Rushmore also features a gift shop, an information center, and an award-winning audio tour. 

“A monument’s dimensions should be determined by the importance to civilization of the events commemorated,” Borghlum said of his majestic relief in which the face of each president stands about 60 feet in height. 

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what matter of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.”

When Texas Sen. Tom Connolly questioned the project, Borglum responded fiercely, “Mount Rushmore is eternal. It will stand until the end of time.”

The artist never saw his vision to completion. 

He died of a heart attack in March 1941. His son Lincoln Borglum oversaw the project in its final months. 

The face of each president was slowly revealed over years of work: first Washington (1930), then Jefferson (1936), then Lincoln (1937), and finally Roosevelt (1939). 

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Washington’s faith in the new republic in its darkest hours earned him the title Father of His Country.

Jefferson gave humanity the belief that “all men are created equal.” 

Roosevelt was one of the world’s leading reformers and environmentalists and won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize.

And Lincoln emancipated from slavery nearly 4 million Americans and inspired the nation through the tragedy of the Civil War. 

Yet those achievements are not good enough for some Americans today—as Mount Rushmore has come under attack in recent years by “woke” pundits.

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Can we retire using Mount Rushmore? That should be offensive to all of us especially Native Americans—indigenous people who were the first people here before Christopher Columbus,” former NBA star and basketball analyst Jalen Rose said in a video tweet. “That land was stolen from them when it was discovered that it contained gold,” he also said. 

Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., responded days later by introducing the Mount Rushmore Protection Act.

The act prohibits the use of federal funds “to alter, change, destroy, or remove the likeness, the name of or any of the faces on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial,” Johnson’s office said in a press release. 

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The process for carving the monument from a mountain face of granite and sandstone was ambitious, daring, and dangerous.

Rock was first blown off the mountain with the use of targeted explosives before the process got increasingly more precise.

“Dynamite was used until only three to six inches of rock was left to remove to get to the final carving surface,” writes the NPS. 

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At this point, the drillers and assistant carvers would drill holes into the granite very close together. This was called honeycombing. The closely drilled holes would weaken the granite so it could be removed often by hand.”

NPS also said, “After the honeycombing, the workers smoothed the surface of the faces with a hand facer or bumper tool. In this final step, the bumper tool would even up the granite, creating a surface as smooth as a sidewalk.”

The work “was exciting, but dangerous”—yet not one person died in the 14 years of construction despite the explosives, heights and daunting conditions, the NPS reports.

Worth Pondering…

The noble countenances emerge from Rushmore as though the spirit of the mountain heard a human plan and itself became a human countenance.

—Frank Lloyd Wright

The Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

Discover Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Sioux Falls, and more on a road trip through South Dakota

South Dakota was made for road trips: There are scenic, paved roads that lead to national treasures, natural anomalies, perfectly preserved Wild West towns, and quirky attractions. Whether you’re a history buff, foodie, or nature lover, this Midwest state delivers. Read on for the ultimate South Dakota road trip itinerary including where to stop, what to do, and more.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mitchell Corn Palace

Any drive through the Midwest will bring you face-to-face with cornstalks taller than you can imagine. The Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota celebrates all things corn—starting with this prairie town in the middle of nowhere. A pair of rounded turrets and two massive domes thrust into the sky capping off walls adorned in six different types of native grass and multi-story murals depicting famous South Dakota sights. A marquee reading “South Dakota Home Grown” stands over the main entrance. All of it is made from multi-colored ears of corn.

Wall Drug Store © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wall Drug Store

Nestled in the town of Wall in the western part of the state, Wall Drug has grown from its humble beginnings in 1931 to a thriving oasis. Wall Drug offers dining, activities, gifts and souvenirs, visitor information and, of course, free ice water. Many road-worn travelers stop at Wall Drug and leave awake and refreshed just like they did more than 80 years ago. 

Wall Drug Store © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But it wasn’t always a thriving business attracting 2 million visitors each year to the small town of Wall. Ted and Dorothy Hustead struggled to make Wall Drug successful in the early days. But the story of Wall Drug was a story of success because one simple idea took root: Offering travelers free ice water. Soon travelers would make a point to stop at Wall Drug to enjoy a refreshing break and they haven’t stopped coming to Wall Drug since. Stop at Wall Drug and see what the excitement is all about.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

At first blush, it doesn’t sound like the best place to go. After all, it’s called Badlands! But it’s gorgeous with towering, striated red-and-gray rock formations. Not to mention all the wildlife visitors can see here—big-horned sheep, bison, pronghorns, burrowing owls, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs. Native Lakota people named this 400-square-mile maze of buttes, canyons, pinnacles, and spires “Mako Sica” or “Bad Land.” Nowadays, it is usually tagged as “surreal” or “otherworldly.” State Route 240—also known as the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway—leads visitors on a 38-mile odyssey through the center of the park. The route features 16 scenic overlooks and eight trails, ranging from handicapped-accessible quarter-mile boardwalks to a 10-mile-long trek.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park

Nearly 1,300 magnificent bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres which they share with the swift pronghorn, shy elk, sure-footed mountain goats, and a band of curious burros. Visitors often enjoy close encounters with these permanent residents along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road that winds around the southern edge of the park. Slender granite formations nicknamed “the needles” dominate the skyline, and grassy meadows fill the valleys. Visitors can explore the park via trail rides, scenic drives, mountain bikes, paddle-boats, hay rides, and even safari tours.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway

The Needles Highway is more than a 14-mile road—it’s a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains. The road’s name comes from the needlelike granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway. Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing, and thawing.

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Midway along this route, a turnout called The Cathedral Spires offers stunning views of the rocky outcroppings juxtaposed with Harney Peak, the highest point between the Rockies and the Alps.

Mount Rushmore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore

It’s finally time to see the Founding Fathers’ faces carved into the mountain—the enormity of the sculpture is truly a sight to see. Each year, approximately three million tourists from all over the world visit Mount Rushmore to experience this patriotic site. Today, the wonder of the mountain reverberates through every visitor. The four “great faces” of the Presidents tower 5,725 feet above sea level and are scaled to men who would stand 465 feet tall. The park includes a half-mile walking trail, museum, gift shop and dining room. 

Worth Pondering…

Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.

—Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore Sculptor, 1930

Your Next Adventure Is Set In Stone

There is more than gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Above dense forests and pristine streams, Mount Rushmore National Memorial represents a national treasure. Symbolizing the ideals of freedom and democracy, it is a tribute to four presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln and their invaluable contributions to the United States.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore National Memorial represents not only the past, but also a promise for the future. It is a place surrounded by American history where the names of Gutzon Borglum and Crazy Horse are still heard, buffalo once again run free in Custer State Park, and the vision of the Keystone miners still cast a shadow on long deserted claims.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Freedom, justice, hope—South Dakota‘s beloved national memorial, Mount Rushmore, is a testament to these deeply cherished American values. The quartet of presidential busts carved into a granite peak in the Black Hills is one of the most iconic symbols of the United States.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In fact, the colossal, 60-foot profiles of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt are so instantly recognizable, they’ve been spoofed in commercials, used as film backdrops, and reproduced in all sizes and forms including a 3 million-piece construction at Legoland. But for all of Mount Rushmore’s widespread fame (and 3 million annual visitors), it’s also a place with a deep history and plenty of little-known facts.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, 30 minutes from Rapid City, this colossal monument was the brainchild of state historian Doane Robinson, who conceived of the mountain carving in 1924 as a way to draw people from all over America to his state.

Whether a lifelong destination or a stop on a road trip, your visit to Mount Rushmore will be one you will tuck in your memory book forever.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is located in Keystone, South Dakota. It is surrounded by the lands of the Black Hills National Forest. It offers a unique experience year-round for outdoor adventures, sightseeing, and opportunities to soak up the history that surrounds the area.

Get there early for the best lighting conditions, or exercise your low-light skills with photos of the nightly lighting ceremony. Regardless of your timing, make sure to explore the many photo opportunities from different vantage points along the half-mile-long Presidential Trail.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chad Coppess, staff photographer for Travel South Dakota, recommends a spot right off the trail, which takes you down a little spur between two giant boulders. Look through a big crack between them to frame the Presidential faces from a vantage point often overlooked by most visitors.

Enjoy the works of genius by touring the various exhibits at the Sculptor’s Studio or Lincoln Borglum Museum. Both self- and ranger-guided tours are available.

Stroll the Avenue of Flags with flags representing 56 states and territories lining the walkway. View the memorial against the evening sky each night at the amphitheater (May through September) during the Evening Sculpture Lighting Ceremony. A sense of awe will come over you as the Memorial lights up the sky.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A short stroll along the Presidential Trail will provide close access to the sculpture. More intimate views of the artwork are available along the way as either a self- guided or ranger-guided walk.

Two other trails lead to Borglum View Terrace and the Sculptor’s Studio: One is a nature trail that starts from the main entryway; the other is a steep trail with uneven steps that starts from Grandview Terrace.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here’s the thing, visit South Dakota once and the place SELLS ITSELF. Much more than just the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, and the Badlands, SoDak is the most scenic places you knew nothing about. Until now.

You don’t carve the faces of presidents into a mountain unless you’re doing something right.

If you’re using Google Maps to locate this national landmark, be very, very specific. Apparently, general searches for Mount Rushmore often send travelers astray. If you find yourself at a Methodist campground called Storm Mountain Center, you’re about 12 miles away from the memorial.

Worth Pondering…

Great Faces, Great Places. Find your great place.

Explore the Black Hills

If you’re into camping, hiking, wildlife, or big adventure, the Black Hills is the place for you

The Black Hills of western South Dakota have long been a favorite of RVers. We came to this area to explore the natural side of the Black Hills—the plants and animals, geology, and natural history that existed before the trappers, miners, and homesteaders came—and we weren’t disappointed.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving an RV in the Black Hills is challenging. Most roads are curvy two laners with plenty of up-and-down elevation changes. Those driving larger rigs should plan routes carefully or better yet, locate yourself in a nearby campground or RV park and drive your toad. Also be aware of restrictions caused by tunnels on several roads.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving through the Black Hills takes you through some of the most rugged, distinctive, and beautiful land in America. It’s hard to stick to the main road in South Dakota’s rugged land of canyons, cliffs, and caves.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills are home to some of the most majestic scenery you can imagine, from the winding Spearfish Canyon to the mountain lakes that surround Rushmore—rivers, mountains, caves, and more make it ideal for hikers and climbers and everybody in between.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those in-betweeners include the bikers who throng the otherwise placid Sturgis every year, and gamblers who flock to Deadwood, a living museum of gold mining days. Small towns like Spearfish and Belle Fourche give you a chance for a little culture.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills is basically a gigantic, serene cluster of small towns amid enough crazy geographical features to populate an entire planet, all scattered within an hour or two of one another. Not bad for a place most often associated with having a gigantic wall of presidential heads looking over it.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills are home to the giant stone faces of Mount Rushmore National Monument and the Crazy Horse Memorial. This is the land of Deadwood and the final resting place of Wild Bill Hickok and hundreds of American Indians killed at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. It’s also steeped in a rich gold-mining history.

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting in the northwest, State Route 14A takes you through gorgeous Spearfish Canyon, a deep, narrow gorge carved by Spearfish Creek. The canyon has its own ecosystem of lush waterfalls, giant limestone cliffs, dozens of caves and, in the fall, a beautiful palette of colors.

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several scenic drives wind through the area, thanks to the efforts of Peter Norbeck, a conservationist who was South Dakota’s governor and a U.S. senator many decades ago. He helped establish Custer State Park and oversaw a tremendous undertaking in road construction. Norbeck explored the park on foot and on horseback, savoring the beauty of the Black Hills. His first road was completed in 1922 and named Needles Highway, for the spiky granite formations that stud the horizon.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway boasts more than 600 rock-climbing routes up granite spires that rise up out of the limestone. Harney Peak, the highest point east of the Rockies at 7,242 feet above sea level, stands in the distance. A leisurely hike to the top takes about two hours one way and is well worth the time.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iron Mountain Road was Norbeck’s next road project, connecting the park with Mount Rushmore to the north. The drive takes visitors along a series of pigtail bridges, so named for a corkscrew configuration that allows for sudden changes in elevation without disturbing the natural landscape. The road is designed to make you slow down and enjoy the scenery.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the world’s largest known caves, Wind Cave National Parks has many unusual formations and a variety of minerals are found in the cave. The cave is best known for its outstanding display of boxwork, an unusual cave formation composed of thin calcite fins resembling honeycombs.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Northwest of Wind Cave, the even larger Jewel Cave National Monument ranks as the second longest cave in the U. S. and the third longest in the world, with 173 miles of explored passageways. Jewel Cave is distinctive for its sparkling crystals, and particularly for a long ribbon of crystal called cave bacon that hangs from the ceiling.

The Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

This mountain, the arched back of the earth risen before us, it made me feel humble, like a beggar, just lucky to be here at all, even briefly.

—Bridget Asher

American History Alive In Stone: Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Majestic figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota, tell the story of the birth, growth, development, and preservation of America

“If you build it, he will come.” That oft-quoted line from the film Field of Dreams has equal resonance as the motivating force behind the formation of America’s Shrine to Democracy—the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, this colossal monument was the brainchild of state historian Doane Robinson, who conceived of the mountain carving in 1924 as a way to draw people from all over America to his state.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mount Rushmore symbolizes the ideals of freedom, democracy, and the American dream in the four 60-foot granite faces. This mountain carving of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln draws over two million visitors a year (2,431,231 in 2016). It is both a spectacular site and a man-made wonder.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The first blast on the mountain occurred in 1927. Under the direction of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, 400 men and women worked through hot summers and cold winters to create the 60-foot faces, nearly 500 feet up the side of the mountain.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Over 90 percent of the mountain was carved using dynamite. The fine details of the faces were achieved, using jackhammers and hand chisels. Operators hung from the top of the mountain in bosun chairs held by steel cables. Despite the dangerous work, in the 14 years it took to carve the mountain, not a single person died. The memorial was officially declared complete on October 31, 1941.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is open year-round, seven days a week and is located 23 miles from Rapid City. The memorial offers a variety of activities so plan to spend at least four to five hours there. Visitors can leave and return to the memorial the same day for the evening lighting ceremony. Mount Rushmore also features a gift shop, information center, and an award-winning audio tour. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Begin at the information center where staff and displays will help you plan your visit to the memorial and the Black Hills region. From here, go up on the walkway toward the sculpture and other facilities. The Lincoln Borgham Visitor Center has exhibits on the carving of Mount Rushmore, a 14-minute film, “Mount Rushmore—The Shrine,” an information desk, restrooms, and a bookstore. The Sculpture’s Studio displays models and tools used in the carving process.

The Presidential Trail is a half-mile loop that provides various views of the iconic Mount Rushmore National Memorial that can’t be missed. This easy trail meanders through the pines and near the blasting rubble left from workers carved the mountain decades ago. Along the trail, each president is highlighted with history provided by plaques found along the way.

Follow the crowds, and you’ll end up at the Grand View Terrace, just beyond the Avenue of the Flags. True, the head-on views are spectacular and unobstructed. But you can do better. Walk the often-bypassed loop around the base of the mountain. Climbing up the steps though ponderosa pines, you can get a closer view of the faces at various twists and turns (and maybe catch a glimpse of a Rocky Mountain goat or a mule deer, too).

Just outside Mount Rushmore, the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway offers stunning views of the Presidential faces framed by the local landscape.

Heading southeast from the memorial, follow Highway 16A, a twisting route down Iron Mountain Road. You’ll find tunnels that were specifically carved to frame the faces, yet predate the monument itself. They knew the mountain was going to be carved, so they constructed the tunnels to show off the faces before they were ever there.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Keystone is the closest city in the Black Hills to Mount Rushmore, which is located only three miles away. Rich in gold mining history, the quaint town of Keystone was once a boomtown after the discovery of placer gold two miles east of its current location. Placer gold is still thought to exist in abundance but the great depth of the deposits makes it difficult and impractical to reach.

Worth Pondering…

The noble countenances emerge from Rushmore, as though the spirit of the mountain heard a human plan and itself became a human countenance.

—Frank Lloyd Wright