Mount Rushmore National Monument At Dusk: Lighting Ceremony

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I thought I’d start off this page with a picture of a scene that stirs patriotism and pride in America: Mount Rushmore, illuminated at night.  No matter what I say from here on, keep in mind, that seeing this, is worth it all.

Now… to explain how I ended up here.

After driving around the Black Hills and exploring Wind Cave and Custer State Park, I made my way back to Mount Rushmore.  It was a little after 7 p.m. when I arrived, and it was raining.  I had heard that the “lighting ceremony” began at 8 p.m., and while I thought about heading into Keystone for dinner, I decided I’d rather walk around the park, check out the gift shop, then settle in for the lighting.

The first frustration came at the parking garage.  I already knew that my annual National Parks Pass wouldn’t work here.  The park, you see, is free, but to park your car at the park is $10.  It’s a “concessionaire fee”.  Never mind that there’s nowhere else to park, so you have no choice but to pay.  And never mind that $10 is an outrageously high price.

The parking fee has now increased to $11 per car, as of 2011.  According to the NPS website, credit cards (Visa and Mastercard) are now accepted. So, to do the math: if nearly 3 million people visit Mount Rushmore every year (according to the NPS website), assuming 4 people per car and $11 per car, the garage will collect $8.25 million dollars each year.  According to TravelSD.com, the parking building cost $17 million to build in 1997.  That building should have been paid off, not long after the millennium!  It’s long overdue for the park service to discontinue its deal with the concessionaire, and drop the parking fee to $1 a car, to pay for maintenance (it’s just my opinion — feel free to tell me how stupid I am, using the comments section below).

Enough about parking.  Let’s get on to the monument itself.

The visitor complex has changed a lot since I was here as a kid in the mid-1980’s, on one of my family’s cross-country road trips (coincidentally, it was raining during that visit, too).  From the underground parking building, you climb some stairs, and are greeted with a granite passageway…

… which leads to a path flanked with all of America’s state flags.  The cafeteria, gift shop, and visitor’s center are all along the side of the path, as well.  I checked them all out, anxiously awaiting the lighting ceremony.  By 7:45, I decided to stake out a seat, set up a tripod, and prepare for the dazzling light show, which would begin at 8 p.m.  I had a raincoat to keep myself dry, but not warm.  Unfortunately, I had to sacrifice one layer of clothing to use as a cover for my camera.  Did I mention I was coming down with a cold?  How about the fact that it was about 40 degrees?  Yes, 8 p.m. couldn’t come soon enough.

At eight, the mountain remained dark, but the stage in the amphitheater below me lit up.  A park ranger walked onto the stage, as a giant screen appeared behind her.

“We’re going to begin with a 20 minute video from the Discovery Channel.”

I’m sick, and I’ve already sat in the cold, damp air for 15 minutes, and now we’re going to watch a movie?   A 20 minute movie?

I laughed as I shivered.  It was, indeed, a very nice video.  But I have the Discovery Channel at home.  And, I already know quite a bit about the four presidents depicted on the mountain.  I was quite ready for the lights, thank you.

As the video wrapped up, the ranger once again took the stage, to explain what we would expect, during the rest of the lighting ceremony.  That’s right, there was more, much more.

The ranger delivered a ten minute long monologue, that seemed to cover just about every patriotic topic you could imagine: the Constitution, wars, the civil rights struggle, it went on and on.

Then she started singing.  I swear to you, she broke out into God Bless America.  I’m pretty sure it was about the middle of the song when I developed pneumonia.

As the song ended, the lights finally began to fade up.  The mountain, which for the past half hour had been invisible in the darkness, finally appeared.  At long last!  It was not a “light show”, just a steady beam of light illuminating the four faces.  I uncovered the camera and started snapping away, oblivious that the ceremony had continued without my attention.

“We would like to welcome any veterans and current service men and women who are with us tonight.  Please come down to the stage.” Okay, that’s a nice gesture. “Please continue to applaud as they walk on stage.”  Now you’re telling us, after a 20 minute movie, a 10 minute speech, and a solo musical performance, we have to applaud non-stop for five minutes?   I guess it served a purpose.  Blood had stopped flowing to my hands somewhere around 8:15.

In all fairness, the ceremony was quite nice.  The ranger’s singing was quite good.  Her story was interesting.  The tribute to the military men and women was honorable.  But I think you should know that the lighting ceremony is a much bigger ordeal than advertised.  If all you want to do is see the lighted mountain, then go back to your motel and enjoy a warm bowl of soup (which is exactly what I did, by the way), you should arrive a half hour after the lighting ceremony begins.  Heck, arrive an hour later — that way the crowds will be gone.  The lights stay on for at least a couple of hours.  Or how about this: why don’t they start the ceremony 30 minutes before dark?  That way, you could actually see the mountain during the show, rather than staring into the darkness.

As I left, I found another great picture of the mountain, with the corridor of state flags in the foreground.  Remember to bring a tripod for your camera for these shots!

Instead of making a left, as you leave the parking area (which will take you back to Keystone and Rapid City), make a right, and head to the “profile view” parking area.  George Washington’s face is stunning, as it glows in the otherwise dark night.

Since I felt lousy, I failed to seek out one more great viewpoint of Mount Rushmore.  On US Highway Alt-16, south of Keystone, there are several tunnels, and at one of them, you can view the presidential faces through the tunnel. 

The quickest way back to Rapid City from Keystone is to take Alt-16 to US 16, which takes you all the way to Interstate 90.  There’s also a bypass that takes you around downtown, and connects with the interstate on the east side of town. Don’t worry, it only feels like you’re driving in the wrong direction, endlessly, through the middle of nowhere — you will end up in the right place.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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