Road tripping in the West? Honor past presidents at these stops.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Medora, North Dakota
The park preserves three areas of rugged badlands in southwestern North Dakota. Honoring the landscape’s influence on Roosevelt — who, as a young man, hunted and ranched in the Little Missouri Badlands — it’s accessed by two scenic loop drives. The nonprofit Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation has launched a major project to build an architecturally significant presidential library on one of several possible sites in the Badlands.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Keystone, South Dakota
“Lincoln’s image on the mountain opens new vistas in thinking about Lincoln as a Westerner, as the father of the Homestead Act, the transcontinental railroads, and the land-grant colleges and universities scattered throughout the West and rest of the country,” says Richard Etulain, former director of the Center for the American West at the University of New Mexico. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the Idaho Territory-born son of Danish immigrants, was responsible for the design and execution of the 60-foot carved heads of presidents Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt — and definitely not “President Rushmore,” whom park rangers are sometimes asked to point out. It turns out the mountain is named after Charles E. Rushmore, a New York City lawyer who went to the Black Hills to check titles for a mining company and later made the largest single donation to the most epic presidential monument ever created.
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
Exhibits housed in the former Texas School Book Depository building — where assassin Lee Harvey Oswald lay in wait for the presidential motorcade on November 22, 1963 — explore the life, death, and legacy of President John F. Kennedy. A short walk one block east of Dealey Plaza is the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza. Designed by famed modern architect Philip Johnson, it’s a contemplative outdoor “roofless room,” a 30-foot-high square open tomb or cenotaph, 50 feet by 50 feet, conceived to symbolize the freedom of JFK’s spirit.
George W. Bush Presidential Center
The Bush Center’s 226,000-square-foot building and 15-acre urban park on the Southern Methodist University campus house the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, which promotes an understanding of the American presidency through exhibits highlighting the Bush presidency. The September 11 exhibit manages to capture the fear and anxiety of that dreadful day and also the sense of collective purpose and unity that the country enjoyed afterward, albeit painfully briefly. Bush Senior’s legacy is honored and preserved at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas.
LBJ Presidential Library and Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park
Austin and Johnson City, Texas
On a 30-acre site located on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, the library and museum include exhibits on civil rights, social justice, the Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963, and the Oval Office. About 63 miles west, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Johnson City comprises numerous sites, including LBJ’s birthplace, boyhood home, ranch, and gravesite.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum
Simi Valley, California
The highlight of the visit for many is stepping inside the Air Force One aircraft that flew President Reagan to 26 foreign countries. But two to three hours are recommended to see all the exhibits recounting Reagan’s presidency, including the permanent display on the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the museum’s highlights.
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
Yorba Linda, California
The road that eventually led to Watergate and the only resignation in presidential history began on January 9, 1913, when Richard Nixon was born on his parents’ citrus farm in Yorba Linda, California. In part because of the scandal that rocked the country, his presidency remains one of the most exhaustively documented administrations in American history. Besides his presidential helicopter and a re-creation of his Oval Office, the Nixon Presidential Materials Collection — including 3,700 hours of recordings known as the White House Tapes and records related to his many significant strides in federal Indian policy — is housed here.
Presidents Who Shaped the American West (2018)
By Glenda Riley and Richard W. Etulain
This detailed analysis by two lifelong Western historians focuses on the 10 presidents who had the greatest impact on the West, but also includes a nifty recap of the legacies of each post-Reagan president through Barack Obama.
Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West (2019)
By H.W. Brands
This rip-roarin’ account of westward expansion by University of Texas professor and bestselling author Brands is a blast of anecdotes covering everything from gunfights and pioneer hardships to changing Native American culture. Brands’ insight into broader themes — such as incessant violence and the push-pull between the rugged individualism and sweeping federal governance needed to forge the American West — makes the book a necessity on any Western history shelf.
As for that towering figure Theodore Roosevelt, we’ll read just about anything, but these are some favorites: Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex, Colonel Roosevelt, and The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt; Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough; T.R.: The Last Romantic by H.W. Brands; and Roosevelt’s Ranches: The Maltese Cross and the Elkhorn by Rolf Sletten.
For more from the presidential package …
Presidents and the West
Presidents and Native Peoples
Legislation That Made the West
Photography: Images courtesy Visit Medora, National Park Service, Wiki Commons, George W. Bush Presidential Library, Wikipedia/Jay Godwin, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
From our July 2020 issue.