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Mount Rushmore with people standing on Theodore Roosevelt's head
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The first week of May, I was supposed to fly to Boston for two of my favorite traditions: celebrating Cinco de Mayo, and climbing Mount Monadnock.

The pandemic cancelled that flight, stranding me in the Midwest — but Cinco de Mayo still came, and there were still mountains to climb. So I spent the holiday hiking to Mount Rushmore.

Ken standing in front of Mount Rushmore
Uh, Teddy — there’s something in your… oh, never mind.

The hiking route wasn’t immediately obvious — I knew I should park at Horsethief Lake, but when I asked Google Maps for walking directions from there to Mount Rushmore, it had me hiking along the highway, which struck me as neither scenic nor safe! But when I zoomed in on the map, only one short hiking trail was visible, terminating miles away from the national monument. So what was the alternative?

I eventually found this route on Horsethief Lake from Mount Rushmore via Blackberry and Centennial Trails, which runs through the Black Elk Wilderness, part of the Black Hills National Forest. But there was still some deciphering to do, so for anyone who wants to retrace my footsteps, this post is your guide for where to go.

Elapsed Time Moving Time Distance Average Speed Max Speed Elevation Gain Calories Burned
Horse Thief to Centennial to Blackberry on Cinco de Mayo

Preparing for your day hike

A couple of notes before you depart: you’ll be out of cell service for most of the hike, so download some offline Google Maps onto your phone. An activity app like Strava can be good for double-checking your current location.

During the pandemic, there may not be services available at Mount Rushmore, so bring water and snacks (or lunch!). Sunscreen, bug spray, and tick spray are good ideas, too; pack enough to reapply, as the roundtrip hike takes close to four hours.

If you need somewhere to stay overnight, I can recommend from experience this “Little Gem in the Black Hills” Airbnb, located in Keystone, the same town as Mount Rushmore. It’s spacious, comfortable, and clean; the hosts will answer any questions you have about the area; and you can see the monument from the front porch!

Getting to the trailhead

Horsethief Lake is a campground, so if you have an RV or want to pitch a tent, you’ll be ready to start your hike first thing in the morning. For the rest of us, there’s an off-street (and free!) parking area about 0.4 miles south of the campground entrance on 244 East.

A parking sign pointing off the road
Free parking!

At the end of this lot is a staircase to a boardwalk that runs along the lake, where you can chat with the day’s fishermen about the weather and what’s biting. You’ll soon hit a paved but unused road with a restroom (closed due to the pandemic) to the right. Continue left until you hit the trailhead.

A trailhead with many signs and maps
“Horsethief Lake: No horses allowed.” Ha, that’ll stop ’em!

I was unfamiliar with the practice of “Wilderness Registration Required” and thought I needed to hike back to a ranger station to pay a fee. But this registration is a free safety measure: right at the trailhead, there are forms to fill out and pencils to fill them out with. Just indicate your date, time, name, party size, and intended points of entry and departure; tear off the receipt to tie to your backpack, and drop the rest in the box. That way, any missing persons can be more readily identified and searched for.

The hike

Once on the trail, you won’t find many markings; the lack of signage may make you wonder if you missed a turn. Fortunately, the intersections are impossible to miss. About 0.7 miles in, the trail branches; go left onto Centennial Trail. (Horse Thief continues to the right for another 4.6 miles.)

Along the Centennial, you’ll be treated to a small stream and plenty of natural cover, with trees surrounding the path — and occasionally lying across it. These downed, branchless trunks are easy to step or climb over, though if you anticipate having trouble with that, a hiking partner who can give you a hand might be a good idea. There are some gentle ups and downs, with the only steep section having steps placed into the hill.

The few branches or limbs that protrude onto the path were being actively removed using handsaws the day I hiked.

A forest ranger sawing at a tree
Hi ho, hi ho…

After 2.3 miles, you’ll turn left again onto Blackberry Trail. Just follow the signs to Mt. Rushmore National Memorial.

This final one-mile leg was the only point in my round-trip hike where I saw another hiker — or any large wildlife. Fortunately, neither was very threatening.

Finally, you’ll emerge from the woods into … a construction zone. Carefully cross Rt 244, and you’ll finally arrive at Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore

As you walk up the promenade to the base of Mount Rushmore, take note of the bust of Gutzon Borglum, the memorial’s sculptor. Admire his unique contribution to American history while acknowledging that we seized lands from the native Lakota Sioux and carved the faces of four dead white men into it.

Finally, behold Mount Rushmore in all its under-construction glory:

During the pandemic, all visitor centers, gift shops, and public restrooms are closed. (There are porta potties at the entrance.) But the First Amendment is still in effect, which I guess means no tear gas or rubber bullets?

Since the monument was unstaffed, I was able to get my national park passport stamped. But this isn’t my first rodeo: all I need to do is send a self-addressed stamped envelope indicating the day I visited, and they’ll send me back a stamp I can stick into my passport. The mailing address:

13000 Highway 244
Building 31, Suite 1
Keystone, SD 57751-0268

Something else I couldn’t do: see Mount Rushmore lit at night. The grounds are open until 11 PM, and a nightly lighting ceremony is performed June 1 – September 30 — but even without the ceremony, the monument is supposed to be “illuminated nightly” year-round. I suppose the pandemic left nobody home to keep the lights on.

The return trip

The hike back is exactly as long as the hike in. Take your time, reflecting on all the wonders your self-powered journey made you witness to today, both natural and human-made.

What are some of your favorite hikes or monuments? Share your memories in the comments!

Ken Gagne

Digital nomad, Apple II geek, vegetarian, teacher, cyclist, feminist, Automattician.

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