National Park smackdown! Mount Rushmore vs. Yellowstone

Mount Rushmore National Monument and Yellowstone National Park are separated by a memorable eight-hour drive through the high plains of Wyoming. Yet for many visitors, it might as well be halfway around the world.

That’s because they have to make the difficult decision when they plan their vacations: To either visit Yellowstone with its iconic geyser, Old Faithful – or to see the four presidents carved the granite of South Dakota’s Black Hills.

But having seen both within a week, and having made that unforgettable drive across the Equality State, I had hoped to save you the trouble. I can’t. My family is evenly divided between giant heads carved in rock and geothermic waterworks.

This is probably as good a time as any to take note of the oddness of both of these uniquely American attractions. As one of our guides, who would probably prefer to remain anonymous, noted, at Yellowstone visitors applaud for water squirting from the ground.

Equally absurd: driving though South Dakota’s Badlands to view 60-foot heads of long-dead men carved in a mountainside.

Makes an expensive Disney vacation seem almost sensible.

Why we’d visit the Black Hills

Our oldest son, Aren, says he would have chosen South Dakota. Aren likes the slower pace and has an artist’s eye, so Mount Rushmore really appealed to him. The national park includes the sculptor’s preserved studio, where they explain how men managed to carve up the mountain and turn it into one of America’s favorite tourist attractions.

We were lucky to stay relatively close in a vacation rental in nearby Deadwood, which also put us close to the emerging Crazy Horse memorial. A friend of a friend offered us a tour of the enormous rock carving in progress. Taken together, these enormous art projects offered the perfect field trip for any 10-year-old.

The case for Yellowstone

Iden, our middle son, preferred Yellowstone because large animals and natural disasters are his thing, and this park is full of both. Not only does Yellowstone sit on an active volcano that is due to erupt again sometime soon, but it’s really got it all – extreme weather, enormous wildfires and earthquakes.

We connected with a friend at Greater Yellowstone Guides, who took us on a hike in one of the more remote parts of the park. Fresh bear tracks crossed our path at regular intervals. We saw wolves, elk and bison. You can’t miss the animals, even outside the park, near our rental cabin, which happened to be in a national forest.

And the adults? They loved both parks, of course. How could they not? To say anything else would be … un-American.

But they also enjoyed the slow trek across Wyoming in the GMC Acadia they’d rented for the occasion (the kids listened to satellite radio on their headsets most of the way, making it a very quiet drive). At the risk of stating the obvious, Wyoming is a beautiful state.

But if we had to pick one, where would we go? Our sons couldn’t agree, and their younger sister sided with Yellowstone. Mom and Dad were in the “undecided” category. For us, half the fun was getting there.

Perhaps even most of the fun, come to think of it.