Mount Rushmore Evening Lighting Ceremony: My Personal Experience And Helpful Tips

Mount Rushmore lit up in the evening

Mount Rushmore’s nightly lighting ceremony is a breathtakingly patriotic event that takes place all summer long at this national memorial site in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The nightly lighting of Mount Rushmore isn’t just a quick flip of a switch, illuminating the four presidents that sit atop the Mountain.  It’s a presentation and an experience that will move you, as well as educate you, on the history behind the memorial and the presidents that were chosen to sit atop it. 

Mount Rushmore amphitheater and stage

I’ve visited Mount Rushmore on many occasions, and in all seasons, but my favorite trip was undoubtedly the evening I sat and enjoyed the lighting ceremony

So if you are planning a trip to visit Mount Rushmore, let me share my experience with you. I want you to have all the important details you need to know to have the best experience possible.

What is the lighting ceremony?

Close up of Mount Rushmore lit up in the evening

The lighting ceremony is a nightly presentation that ends with the climactic display of lights on the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. The dark sky contrasting the illuminated faces is stunning.

When does the lighting ceremony take place?

Speaker on stage before the carving is lit up

The lighting ceremony takes place nightly beginning the Friday before Memorial Day and runs through September 30th.

*Note: The ceremony is seasonal and does not run year-round BUT the sculpture will still be lit nightly at sunset, during the off-season.

What time does the ceremony happen?

May-Early August 9:00 P.M.

Early August-Sept 30 8:00 P.M.

How long does it last?

The entire ceremony lasts about an hour.  

What time should I arrive?

I suggest arriving 1-2 hours before the ceremony is scheduled to start.  Consider the day of the week and if you are near any holiday weekends, or maybe the 2-week period around the Sturgis Bike Rally, it will be busier than normal.  If it’s a weeknight in the middle of the summer then you probably won’t find it as crowded as say Labor Day weekend or the Fourth of July.

Can I eat dinner there?

Ice Cream Shop

Dakota Kitchen, formerly named Carver’s Café, is an excellent option if you plan to come early and want to get dinner or a snack.  The café is set up more like a cafeteria and there should be plenty of seating inside and out.  If you eat outside you will have a great view of the mountain.  I’ve seen the lines for food get exceptionally long in the summer so bring your patience and arrive early if you plan on eating there as well.

Memorial Ice Cream is a hot commodity at Mount Rushmore and features Thomas Jefferson’s own vanilla ice cream recipe. You have to try it!

*Note: The café will be closed by the time you leave the ceremony so don’t plan on grabbing a bite afterward.

What can I do while I wait?

Mount Rushmore with the Avenue of Flags in the foreground

Arriving early to events like shows or concerts can be boring and time can drag on but at Mount Rushmore, the mountain IS the attraction so you can use the time to take pictures in front of the monument and take in the awesome scenery.

Of course, there are also many other things to do at the Memorial, including the museum, gift shop, Presidential Trail hike, Sculptors Studio, Dakota Kitchen, Memorial Ice Cream, and even two bookstores.  You won’t be bored while you wait!

The experience

Ranger speaking at the Mount Rushmore evening ceremony

The lighting ceremony will begin with a ranger on the stage of the amphitheater giving a detailed talk about America and what it means to be an American, as well as some interesting details about the presidents on the monument.

This part was so interesting to me and I learned a lot of great facts about each president. Some of them I didn’t already know, like, Roosevelt provided federal protection for almost 230 million acres of land. He was a known conservationist and established national parks, forests, and monuments to preserve the nation’s natural resources.

flag ceremony at mount Rushmore in evening

The ranger will then introduce a touching movie that will talk more about our great nation and the history of Mount Rushmore and its sculptor Gutzon Borglum.

The movie wraps up with a beautiful montage of clips while “America The Beautiful” is being played.  The song will crescendo as the lights finally light up the beautiful monument as the crowd erupts in cheers and applause.  Warning: this moment may cause goosebumps and an occasional tear!

flag ceremony at mount Rushmore in evening

Lastly, the ranger will call up all veterans and members of the military to come on stage and share a moment of honor that most will never get at any other time in their life.  They will help with the lowering of the flag, before folding it and being dismissed. 

A beautiful heartfelt experience that will bless you!  I was overcome with emotions and nostalgia.  If you can see Mount Rushmore during the lighting ceremony, then don’t miss it!

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benches in the amphitheater

As with most everything, there can be negative aspects to the things you decide to do on your trip. When participating in the lighting ceremony, you may be faced with the following:

  • Early arrival: you will need to arrive early if you are visiting on a weekend and especially a Holiday weekend. 
  • Uncomfortable seating: the seating doesn’t have any backs, so you might get uncomfortable especially if you’ve arrived early and are waiting a while.  Pro tip: if you are able to sit in the back row you can lean against the wall.
  • Boring for small children: small children may get bored during the presentation and movie. I say this because my cousin’s little girl asked me, “how long IS this movie?” About 10 minutes into the movie. It was quite funny!
  • Traffic: there might be a little bit of extra traffic leaving the Memorial because everyone leaves at the same time.
  • Weather: because the weather can be unpredictable, you may get a storm rolling through or it could be a little bit too warm.  Normally the summers in the Black Hills are pretty nice but like I said our weather can be unpredictable and it isn’t uncommon to get a summer rain or thunderstorm.

That being said, everyone should experience the nightly lighting ceremony if possible. You will not regret it and you will be left with a sense of pride for our country.

What else can I do in the area?

The Black Hills is home to endless activities. Some of them include visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial, riding the 1880 train, going on gorgeous drives, exploring Mt Moriah Cemetery, hiking to Black Elk Peak, and discovering beautiful Spearfish Canyon. For a more comprehensive list, see our Black Hills Trip Planner page.

Is there anything else I should know?

Yes! As you can see, there are many amazing things to do in the Black Hills. The Black Hills can be confusing because it’s a HUGE area and there are so many things to do! 

Most travelers want to visit the most popular sites, yet still avoid crowds. We have a detailed itinerary that gives you a step-by-step game plan so you can get to all the best places at the right times!

But that’s not all! Our itinerary includes a free audio guide to listen to while driving, with over 2 hours of stories about the park!



Matt and Cheryl

We’re Matt and Cheryl, and we’re in the Rockies. :) We are both teachers. Cheryl teaches special ed, and Matt teaches American history. We love the American West and the national parks. We want to help you have a great vacation on your next trip to the Rockies.


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