Less than a three-hour drive apart lie two of the country’s most impressive national parks: Mount Rushmore National Memorial near Keystone, South Dakota, and Devils Tower National Monument near Sundance, Wyoming. The majestic sculpted portraits of Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln loom high over the trails and terraces from which they are best viewed, gleaming in the shifting light as the sun drifts across the sky.
The sculptor who carved these heads from granite, Gutzon Borglum, was a Danish-American who wanted to memorialize his country’s greatness in monumental art and chose these four presidents to represent moments of significance in our history. George Washington presided over the birth of the nation; Thomas Jefferson personified expansion and exploration with the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition; Theodore Roosevelt is best known for development: the construction of the Panama Canal, the title of “Trust Buster,” and the establishment of the National Parks system; and Abraham Lincoln, who preserved the nation by saving the union during the Civil War. The monument was carved between 1927 and 1941, which helps to explain the omission of Franklin D. Roosevelt from this pantheon of significant presidents.
When we walked from the parking garage up the wide, simple walkway toward the sculpture, we were struck by the atmosphere surrounding the entire memorial. Voices were hushed, and everyone moved forward quietly and almost reverently as they approached the Grand View Terrace and an unobstructed view of this most famous carving in America. The air was bright and cool, and we felt a sense of awe in the presence of such magnificent and monumental art. Borglum achieved his goal, and did it flawlessly.
It would be unthinkable to drive from Deadwood across the Northwest on Interstate 90 without making the short detour to Devil’s Tower in the northeast corner of Wyoming. One writer described its impact on those who see it for the first time: “A dark mist lay over the Black Hills, and the land was like iron. At the top of the ridge I caught sight of Devil’s Tower upthrust against the gray sky as if in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through its crust and the motion of the world was begun. There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devil’s Tower is one of them.” A column of stone rises 867 feet from its base and 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River, its sides fractured into what look like marble columns and its flat oval top measuring an acre and a half in area. Devil’s Tower is one of the natural landmarks revered by American Indians as sacred places, and signs along the trail at the tower’s base ask visitors to refrain from disturbing “prayer bundles and prayer cloths” placed there by local tribes.
In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed Devil’s Tower the first national monument, thus protecting it from commercial development and exploitation. The hiking trails that loop around the base of the tower and its surrounding parkland are testimony to how well that protection has worked over the past century. Hikers and walkers can experience the impact of the monument without intrusion from souvenir shops, snack bars, or sellers of wearable advertising.
The drive into the park winds through one of the most appealing and yes, adorable tourist attractions ever created by nature: a large prairie dog town, home to a colony of black-tailed prairie dogs.
Like congenial condo dwellers, these photogenic creatures pop in and out of their holes, appear to chat with each other in dirt-rimmed doorways, and regard all of us two-legged animals and our clicking and flashing and buzzing cameras with fearless interest.
The majesty of the monument is breathtaking, especially because its beauty and symmetry owe nothing to human intervention. Its formation began 50 million years ago when molten magma was forced into rocks above it and fractured into columns as it cooled. It stands in solitary splendor among the low, gently rolling Little Missouri Buttes, magnificent and forbidding and beautiful beyond description.
Both these sites are famous for their appearances in popular films: Mount Rushmore in the climactic scenes of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint scrambled down the stone faces to escape certain death at the hands of James Mason; and Devil’s Tower at the center of Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), compelling a handful of people touched by the presence of intraterrestrial beings to journey to Devils Tower for reasons they don’t understand. It’s impossible to imagine either of these iconic films without their signature monuments.
For additional photos of Mount Rushmore and Devil’s Tower, click here.