The Mount Rushmore climbing area is only the 2nd SummitPost.org “climbing” submission for South Dakota. This is not overly surprising due to the state’s remoteness, but is astonishing regarding the quality of granite routes that can be found here. There are two popular climbing areas south of Rapid City, South Dakota in the Black Hills National Forest (1.2 million acres!): the Needles area, which is known for its ethics via trad climbing and limited fixed protection; and the Mount Rushmore climbs which feature many fully bolted sport routes. The climbing at Mount Rushmore, which is located on the back side of the carved out Presidents monument, has a more relaxed ethics for good measure no doubt. I imagine once a whole mountain was carved up for a tourist attraction, there was little argument against climbers placing a few bolts. The climbing itself is not in the Mount Rushmore National Monument or Custer State Park, but rather the Black Hills National Forest.
The rock is a coarse igneous granite called pegmatite or crystalline granite, that is characterized by well-formed crystals. These crystals make for an amazing number of holds, albeit, not all strong ones. The sport routes in the Mount Rushmore area however are much more tested routes, and thus relatively clean compared to the routes in the Needles .
MAP OF THE MOUNT RUSHMORE AREA.
Olton- Olton is directly across from the Mount Rushmore monument. It is a prominent formation. These are some of the easier trad routes in the area, 5.6-5.8. Just hike through the woods to the base of the spire across from the monument.
South Seas- A ton of different granite face routes, both sport and trad. Probably the best moderate class of routes. Drive south past the Mount Rushmore Monument itself to a large parking area on either side of the highway near a monument sign. Hike downhill on the trail that is on the right side of the road. The South Seas spires are visible through the trees from the right side of the road. South Seas contains about 30 different routes on several different spires.
Old Baldy- More of a bouldering site. It is located right behind South Seas, about 20 minutes southeast.
Emancipation Rockphormation (photo)- This is the large wall on the backside of Mount Rushmore that includes Dire Spire, 5.7-5.13a, the prominent trident shaped feature above the road. These routes are more trad than sport. Be careful not to set off the alarms on the Mount Rushmore National Monument. This could ruin your climbing day. The boundaries are well marked. Whitehouse Wall, 5.8-5.10b, makes up the northwest side of Emancipation Rockphormation. Garfield goes to Washington, 5.8, is its most popular route and is made up of three pitches.
Middle Marker- A mixture of some larger formations down from Emancipation Rockphormation, just off of the road. There are a variety of trails leading up to these sport routes. 5.4-5.10c
Stardancer (photo)- Large slabby spire up and to the left of Middle Marker. This spire actually contains three routes side by side that I climbed, Stardancer (photo) which is a sustained 5.8 bolted route with the crux at the end and Jupiter Flyby, 5.10c, (photo) which is a bolted route that has the crux at the beginning and then eases off for the grade after that. Last and least would be Solo System, 5.7, which is a separate piece to the left that is a sport route to solo if that is what you are looking for. It is aesthetic enough and fun.
Chopping Block- These are some of the tougher climbs at Mount Rushmore and are mostly one pitch routes. Todd Skinner is the challenge rated at 5.14a. The Chopping Block itself, a large steep formation on the left as you walk up the main approach trail, sports four routes, 5.10a-5.13d.
The quality of climbing in the Black Hills National Forest and particularly Custer State Park, is nothing short of exceptional. By way of research prior to my own visit, I ran into several on-line blogs reflecting that sentiment from climbers as far away as Boulder and Denver, CO, who were more than willing to make the long drive across Colorado and Wyoming to take advantage of the great climbing terrain and sparse amount of people to compete with for sport (Rushmore) and/or trad routes (Needles). There are still many undeveloped limestone canyons with steep rock and numerous granite formations with no developed routes throughout the southern Black Hills. I had the pleasure of climbing with one of the climbing pioneers of the area during the 1970’s, Bob Archbold (who’s comments regarding the area were featured recently in Alpinist Magazine).
BLACK HILLS CLIMBING COALITION
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is open all year, 24 hours a day. State Highway 244 is maintained year-round.
The most direct route is via I-90: Take exit 57 to Highway 16 (Mount Rushmore Road) and continue on to the memorial entrance. From Rapid City, go southwest on Highway 16 for 23 miles. Most of the sport climbing routes are located on the backside of the monument.
Red TapeThere are no fees to enter the Black Hills National Forest. The Forest is open year-round for a variety of recreational activities and uses. The National Parks Pass and Golden Eagle Pass are not needed for the Black Hills National Forest because these passes are for entrance fees, and the Black Hills National Forest has no entrance fee. You do not need a permit to climb in the Forest either although a fee is charged to hike the Mickelson Trail. Daily parking fees for some picnic sites and trailheads are $5 per day per vehicle. A $20 and $30 seasonal vehicle pass is available starting in April.
Fires are only allowed at designated sites, picnic areas, and established campgrounds in approved fire pits. You will see evidence of serious out of control fires in the past therefore various other restrictions might be in place when you visit.
When to ClimbWe climbed the Needles and Rushmore areas in April. I consider this area more of a late spring, late fall or summer destination. You will definitely avoid the crowds if you are willing to climb in April. We had great conditions.
CampingThere is a free climbers campsite complete with pit toilet. As you pass Mount Rushmore on your right, look for a pullout on the right hand side. There should be a camping sign posted. This site is exclusively reserved for climbers.
The Forest has 32 campgrounds with over 700 individual sites. A majority of the campgrounds are operated by a concessionaire, and about half have on-site hosts. While electric, sewer, and water hook-ups and showers are not available, most campgrounds have potable water and either flush or vault toilets.
Daily fees, which are charged from approximately mid-May through October, range from $6 to $21 a night per site and allow up to six people. Campground reservations may be made at 1-877-444-6777 or online at Camping . Reservations are recommended for holiday weekends.
Setting up your own campsite away from developed fee sites, also known as dispersed camping, is free and is allowed on most of the Forest for a maximum of 14 days in any 60-day period. However, around developed reservoirs and campgrounds, camping is allowed only in designated areas. While building a campfire while dispersed camping is legal on Wyoming portions of the Forest unless a special order prohibiting such is in effect, it is not allowed on South Dakota portions of the Forest.
Black Hills Climbing Coalition
Black Hills National Forest
Sylvan Lake, Middle Earth, the Outlets, Needles Eye Area, Ten Pins, and the Cathedral Spires have traditional ethics. If a new route is to be bolted, this must be done from the ground up on lead with no direct aid. If you want to sport climb, please stick to the Mount Rushmore areas outlined above.