The next time conversation lags after three hours in the car, ask the kids where they can see a guy with a 20-foot-long nose.
Here's a hint: Conceived as a tourist gimmick and celebrating its 60th birthday, it's recognized around the world as a symbol of the United States and democracy.
Stumped? The answer is Mt. Rushmore.
This will give the kids an in-your-face history lesson they won't soon forget. The giant heads of George Washington--his nose is 20 feet long, his mouth 18 feet wide--Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt took 14 years to carve and blast out of the granite of the South Dakota mountain.
This is also a lesson in perseverance. When sculptor Gutzon Borglum took the assignment in the 1920s, he bore the responsibility of creating something that would attract sightseers to the remote Black Hills. Borglum changed the planned location (Mt. Rushmore gets direct sunlight most of the day) and the concept (to honor national heroes), and lobbied officials for funds.
In 1941, the 57-year-old Borglum died of a heart attack just before the job was finished. His son, Lincoln, finished it.
A $60-million renovation was completed two years ago, and Mt. Rushmore now sports a giant amphitheater, an interactive visitor center and a new "Avenue of Flags" that allows visitors to get much closer to the sculpture.
Be there at 9 p.m. for the lighting ceremony.
Always a winner with kids is the visit to the sculptor's studio, where his tools and models are on view. Rushmore draws 2.6 million visitors a year from around the world. Kids report only one drawback to visiting this national monument: They can't climb on the sculptures.
Still, Mt. Rushmore can serve as either a welcome respite during a cross-country trip or the centerpiece of a family vacation that will give you plenty of bang for your vacation buck.
For more Mt. Rushmore information, visit http://www.nps.gov/moru or call (605) 574-2523.
Other South Dakota sites with kid appeal:
* You can get up close to public buffalo herds at Custer State Park on a Jeep tour, stay in an old-fashioned cabin on a lake (starting at less than $100 a night), go panning for gold or make animal tracks with the kids at hands-on junior naturalist programs. Call (800) 658-3530 or visit http://www.state.sd.us/sdparks.
* Explore fantastic underground rock formations at Wind Cave National Park, one of the world's oldest caves, and at Jewel Cave National Monument, one of the world's longest caves (with more than 120 miles of passageways). Kids 16 and older can take a special spelunking tour. (Reservations are required.) Call Jewel Cave at (605) 673-2288 or visit http://www.nps.gov/jeca. Call Wind Cave at (605) 745-4600 or visit http://www.nps.gov/wica.
* Take home a piece of rock blasted from the mountain where the colossal statue of Chief Crazy Horse is being carved at the Crazy Horse Memorial Museum. When completed, the statue will be 563 feet tall. The recently completed face is just under 90 feet tall, 11/2 times the height of the Mt. Rushmore faces. At the Indian Museum of North America, kids can make Native American beads, grind corn, watch Native dances or check out thousands of Native artifacts. Call (605) 673-4681 or visit http://www.crazyhorse.org.
* Join a "dig" at the Mammoth Site, where paleontologists have been excavating more than 50 mammoths that were trapped in a sinkhole more than 26,000 years ago. Kids as young as 4 can work in the large simulated dig area, using the same tools to "find" bone reproductions that the professionals are using elsewhere at the site. Reservations are recommended for the junior dig. Call (605) 745-6017 or visit http://www.mammothsite.com.
* Buy cowboy hats and souvenirs at historic Wall Drug, a drugstore that stretches 66,000 square feet and includes a life-size animated cowboy orchestra. During the summer, about 20,000 people a day visit this landmark in the tiny town of Wall, S.D. The store got its start during the Depression by advertising free ice water. Call (605) 279-2175 or visit http://www.walldrug.com.
Taking the Kids appears twice a month.