When sculptor Gutzon Borglum carved four 60-foot-high faces into the hills of Mount Rushmore, he anticipated they would stand as a stone witness "to the great things we accomplished as a nation."
Chiseled into granite so impermeable that it erodes less than one inch every 1,500 years, the famed memorial seems certain to part of the immutable landscape that the Lakota Sioux called Paha Saa, the "Hills of Black," forever. But the plateau 500 feet below the stony gazes of the four chiseled presidents has been abuzz with building plans and blueprints.
A surge in attendance at Mount Rushmore National Memorial prompted construction of a new visitors center, which had its formal dedication last month; it's the first of several structures to be built over the next four years at the memorial.
The original center and terrace were planned for a million visitors a year. But attendance for the past three years has been more than 2 million. In fact, the memorial's 850-seat amphitheater is the busiest in the entire national park system, with more than 2,000 people trying to squeeze in every night for the lighting ceremony.
Why the skyrocketing numbers? "Rushmore is a symbol of America's rekindled interest in the heartland," says Gordon Brownlee, campaign director of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Society. "On a worldwide basis, democracy is on the rise and this is the world's largest monument to freedom."
The new visitors center is part of an ambitious $28 million, privately funded restoration program. More than $15 million has been raised to date; this fall, work starts on a new concession facility; by 1998, a new, 2000-seat amphitheater will be in place, as well as an adjacent interpretive center with a grand terrace that can accommodate another 1,500.
"Everyone wants to see Mount Rushmore, but our surveys show that most people don't know where it is," laments South Dakota's Secretary of Tourism Susan Edwards. The new visitor center addresses a related issue -- What is there to do after seeing Mount Rushmore? -- with information on sites throughout the Black Hills of western South Dakota. Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park, both 30 miles away, are, respectively, the world's fourth and sixth longest caves. Badlands National Park, two hours to the east, gouges into a quarter million acres of the plains with an eerie, eroded landscape that's studded with fossils of miniature camels and saber-toothed cats.
And only 10 miles south of Mount Rushmore sprawls 73,000-acre Custer State Park. As the second-largest of the nation's state parks, Custer is home to the largest publicly owned herd of buffalo in the world. More than 1,400 of the shaggy beasts graze freely, as does a band of wild burros. This summer the park celebrates its 75th anniversary.
The park has had three record-breaking attendance seasons in a row, topping out at about 1.5 million visitors. There's fishing on four stocked lakes and three streams, buffalo safaris by Jeep and hiking. Mountain biking is allowed throughout the park on logging trails and fire roads. At French Creek Horse Camp, people can bring their own horses by reservation and ride on designated trails or blaze their own. The park has seven campgrounds and four lodges.
IF YOU GO . . .
* Rushmore Visitor's Center: (605) 574-2523. Admission is free. Hours are 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Nightly 30-minute amphitheater programs at 9 p.m. end with patriotic songs and lighting of the monument. * Custer State Park: (605) 255-4515
* Wind Cave: (605) 745-4600; no admission to park; fees for five different cave tours start at $3 for a one-hour tour and go to $10 for a reservation-only, four-hour caving tour involving strenuous crawling.
* Jewel Cave: (605) 673-2288; $4, 80-minute tours start every half hour and begin with a 234-foot elevator descent.
* Badlands National Park: (605) 433-5361; $5 vehicle entrance.