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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

The largest mountain carving in the world is in South Dakota USA

Updated: Oct 15, 2023

The largest mountain carving is not Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, but it is in the same state, at Thunderhead Mountain.

The Crazy Horse Memorial is still being carved, and in my opinion, is much more impressive than the carving of the four presidents. When completed the Crazy Horse carving will be 196m (641ft) long and 171m (563ft) tall. Mt Rushmore is 62m (203ft) long and the heads are 18.3m (60ft) high. The left side of the face, black rock to nose, is where all four presidents of Mt Rushmore would fit.

the mountain is carved into the face of Crazy Horse. People seen working near his face barely reach from his chin to his lower lip, the structure is that large.

The memorial is not a Federal or State funded project. It is solely sustained through admission fees and private charitable gifts.

In 1947 when Korczak Ziolkowski came back to South Dakota, it was a wilderness. He had to chop down trees to build a cabin for himself and establish infrastructure. This took him two years.

On June 3 1948 the dedication blast was the start of this lifetime of dedicated passion. It may take 100 years to complete this, the largest mountain carving in the world. "When will it be done" is the most often asked question from guests. Between 2023 and 2028 it is expected that the arm, left shoulder, hair and horses mane will be finished. It is a slow progress and one of the main events that hampers progress is the need to transport workers down off the mountain and into the visitor centre during inclement weather, and wait for the all clear. Lightening storms are common during summer and there is a lot of iron in the mountain. Plans are underway to build a shelter for workers at the top of the monument which will mean less down time. 18 people work on the carving during summer and 12 in winter, 7am-4pm Monday to Friday.

Ninety percent of Mount Rushmore was created by blasting away the rockface. As technology has progressed, Crazy Horse is being carved differently, which means less chances of cracking. Carvers use diamond edged rope, which is sawed to provide finer detail and a smooth finish. The rock is blowtorched, which softens the granite, allowing it to be shaped before it hardens again.

the outstretched hand on a mountain carving. Workers and their machinery are dwarfed by the outstretched pointed hand carved in granite

I overheard one visitor say that they visited every few years and compared the progress each time they come. In this way, they too become part of the history of this place.

Crazy Horse wore either one or two feathers in his head, from the red tailed hawk. This bird was one of the spiritual helpers that he saw in his visions. The mountain carving will have one single feather atop his head, rather than the full feather headdress that most Indian Chiefs wore. Looking out from the Wall of Windows gives you an impressive view of the mountain carving, ¾ mile away.

a wall of windows looks out into the distance. 3/4 mile away is the mountain with the crazy horse carving. The blue sky is lightly dotted with fluffy white clouds and ponderosa pines grown between the building and the mountain.

In 1946 this mountain was chosen to be carved into the Lakota Warrior – Crazy Horse. This Lakota leader had never signed a treaty or touched the pen. Chief Henry Standing Bear asked sculptor Borglum (who had carved Mount Rushmore) to do the work, but Borglum refused. Korczak had won a New York competition with his exceptionally talented carving. This is when Standing Bear made the fortuitous decision to ask Korczak to be the carver.

Chief Henry Standing Bear stands with Korczak who is sitting. The chief is wearing Indian beaded traditional clothing and a full feathered headdress. They are in a room decorated in 1940s style. A letter under this old photograph tells a story about the two men and how the chief asked the sculptor to carve a mountain.

Korczak Ziolkowski (1908-1982) was born in USA, of Polish descent. He married Ruth Ross (1926-2014). Together they raised ten children. Some of those children and his grandchildren carry on the project today. His catchphrase was Never Forget Your Dreams.

the sculptor of crazy horse mountain stands on a rocky outcrop under the nose, looking up at his creation. the rockface carving shows the smooth and rough texture of the work.

There is a 1/300th scale model carved by Korczak, in Tennessee marble, near the viewing window of what the vision is for the finished carving. These words are inscribed below Crazy Horse Memorial is to be carved not so much as a lineal likeness, but more as a memorial to the spirit of Crazy Horse – to his people. With his left hand thrown out pointing in answer to the derisive question asked by a white man, “Where are your lands now?” He replied, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”

There is a corner of the visitor center that gives more information about Crazy Horse, who lived from 1840 to 1877. No photos or pictures were ever taken of him. Korczak talked to Lakota elders who had known Crazy Horse and listened to their descriptions of him before deciding on what his carving would look like. In the courtyard outside the gift shop is a 1/34th scale model of what is the mountain will look like when finished. A side note, everything in the gift shop is made by local families.

a carving of what the finished crazy horse mountain will look like stands in the courtyard of the visitor centre. In white, Crazy Horse is astride his horse, one hand pointing forward, the other behind him. His long flowing hair cascading behind him.

Sioux is derived from a French word meaning snake. The Sioux call themselves the Oceti Sakowin or Sevin Council Fires. The Lakota are the largest group today. Known as warriors they are mostly remembered for their resistance of European intrusion. Familiar Sioux warriors are Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

A brochure available at the visitors information desk can provide guests with more detail of the museum. It included a timeline of the Lakota and describes their belief that the black hills were sacred. This was not their permanent home, they followed the herds of bison across the Plains and came to the Black Hills for ceremonies, vision quests and burials. Crazy Horse said “My lands are where my dead lie buried”. In 1868 a treaty was signed between the US Government and some of the Native American Nations. It gave them the Black Hills and all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River. Sadly, this treaty was broken just six years later. Gold was discovered at French Creek and miners swarmed to the Black Hills in search of the precious metal. In 1875, three chiefs tried to persuade President Grant to honor the treaty. They wanted the miners stopped from intruding on their land. President Grant offered to buy the Black Hills for six million dollars but the chiefs refused to sell.

In 1877 the US Congress passed the Act of 1877 that took the Black Hills from the Lakota and Dakota. They could no longer hunt on their own lands, and they never saw the money. It was not until 1980 that the Black Hills were deemed to have been illegally taken, by the Supreme Court. Unable to return the land to the Sioux Nation, an offer was made that the original 1877 market value of the land plus interest was to be paid to the Nation. The tribes refused, as they said the Black Hills were not for sale. The money offered by the US Government is now in an interest bearing account, and is valued at over a billion dollars.

For an extra well spent five dollars, visitors can board a bus just outside the visitor center and be taken around the back side of the mountain for a closer up view. This is definitely a highlight, and a guide on the bus gives a lot of stories about the carving and the natural surrounds.

Upon leaving this amazing place, look carefully at the Nature Gates. Korczak asked his ten children to go out and draw the wildlife they saw in the surrounding areas. He then made over 270 brass silhouettes of the animals and created this beautiful piece of practical artwork. Not only is it creative, it also shows the love a father had for both nature and his children.

a set of double gates. Black grid with bronze cut outs. The cut outs are silhouttes of local wild animals and vegetation that live and grow in the area. Birds, and land animals in bronze stand out.

Like other tourists and visitors to this incredible site, it is somewhere I want to come back to in the future. Not just to see the progress of the mountain carving, but to soak up the vibe of the area. The information provided here is educational, interesting and eye-opening. Crazy Horse Memorial is definitely enjoyable.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Between Hill City and Custer SD Hwy 16/385

When in the area, I also recommend visiting:

Wall Drug in the nearby town of Wall

Happy Travels!

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