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I just got back from a trip to South and North Dakota with my Dad to finish my #50stateschallenge and was super impressed with the Rapid City area! It had SO much to do. I can’t think of another place in the US that has national parks, state parks, tons of restaurants and shops, activities for families, AND history. Visiting this part of South Dakota is a classic all-American trip and is now one I would recommend to any history buff or adventure-loving family. Without further ado, here are the best 20+ things to do in Rapid City, South Dakota and beyond!
Best Things To Do In Rapid City, SD
1. Walk through the “City of Presidents” in Rapid City, SD
As soon as you enter Rapid City, you’ll quickly notice all the statues of men on the street corners. Dotting 3 main roads throughout downtown Rapid City, are 50+ sculptures of the United States’ Presidents. Each statue has a plaque with name and date information on it. These statues are commonly used as landmarks in the city; I overheard a local tell someone to meet her at the “Jefferson statue”. See as many as you can… it’s one of the top things to do in Rapid City!
2. Enjoy Main Street Square
Main Street in Rapid City has a few little shops, breweries, and restaurants. The largest intersection in the city is also home to Main Street Square. This square has a giant grass space for kids to play, along with a stage for families to enjoy live music at. Surrounding the lawn are a handful of restaurants and shops, including an ice cream parlor and the Visit Rapid City tourism office.
3. Try the bison pasta at Tally’s Silver Spoon
This restaurant was recommended to me by a few people, and now I’m recommending it to you all as one of the best things to do in Rapid City, South Dakota! Tally’s Silver Spoon is a renovated, swanky diner with a full bar. They offer brunch, lunch, and dinner. I’m sure breakfast here is fantastic, but I would visit for dinner to try their bison blue cheese mushroom pasta. It’s so unique, and a great way to sample some local flavors.
4. Visit the Hotel Alex Johnson + Rooftop
Located across the street from Tally’s is the historic Hotel Alex Johnson. This old hotel was once the tallest in the city and is one of the few boutique hotels located downtown. If you’re not a guest at the hotel, you’ll have to pay $25 for a day pass to the rooftop, but it’s worth it! The 360 views up here are stunning. Plus, they have a full cocktail list, local but elevated menu, and fire pits. It’s a good vibe, and is surely one of the best things to do in Rapid City, South Dakota in the evening.
5. Try a bison burger at Thirsty’s
Another bison entrée to try! When in South Dakota, right? Head to Thirsty’s Sports Bar for the best burgers in town. They have 10+ options to choose from, and any beef patty ca be substituted for a juicy bison burger. It didn’t taste too gamey, in my opinion. This spot was also recommended to us by a local as one of the best things to do in Rapid City, SD.
6. Journey to the top of Dinosaur Park
My dad and I actually didn’t do this since we had limited time, but if you’re traveling with your family, consider seeing Dinosaur Park. This park has some of the best views of the city, is only a few miles from downtown, and has some fascinating, life-size sculptures of dinosaurs on top. It’s recommended as one of the best things to do around Rapid City, South Dakota for families.
7. Drive through Bear Country USA
Bear Country USA is only 7 miles south of Rapid City and was one of my favorite stops near the city. Bear Country is a “drive thru, reverse” zoo, meaning the animals here roam freely and the humans must stay enclosed in their vehicles. This is how all zoos should be! You can’t feed the animals, but they get super close to your windows as you drive by. Although they are known for their fleet of black bears (and cubs!), you can expect to see bison, wolves, reindeer, rams, and more!
Pro-tip: The 3-mile driving loop here is one-way, and with all the families stopping for photos, it can definitely get backed up. They open at 8 am so I would plan on visiting early in the morning before it gets too crowded.
Best Things To Do Near Rapid City, South Dakota
8. Drive the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park
Custer State Park is the best area in greater Rapid City for authentic wildlife viewing. Although both Badlands and Wind Cave National Park have animals like prairie dogs and bison, Custer had the most. This loop is also a smaller road that passes right through the park, meaning you can see the animals from a closer viewpoint. So close, in fact, that you may hit some traffic on this road… from bison on the move!
9. Do a tour in Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park is known for its… cave! Although there is wildlife viewing above the surface and a few trails, the main treasure lies underground. Wind Cave is 150+ miles long and the end has yet to be discovered. There are 3 tours offered, with the Natural Entrance Tour being the most popular.
All visitors must enter the cave via a guided, ranger-led tour, so be sure to secure tickets online and advance. Also note that the cave has an elevator and has tight chambers, so avoid the tour if you are claustrophobic. The elevator shaft was actually being repaired after an emergency during our tour slot so we weren’t able to see the cave. Apparently this is a common occurrence, but hopefully you’re luckier than we were since I have heard Wind Cave is one of the best things to do around Rapid City, South Dakota.
10. Do a short hike in Wind Cave National Park
As mentioned above, Wind Cave is by far the main feature of this national park, but the grounds are also beautiful. There are quite a few short trails near the Visitor’s Center, but I recommend driving 20 minutes past the center on the scenic road to hike Rankin Ridge. It’s a short, 1 mile loop that will bring you to a scenic overlook with a fire tower. For such a short trail, it packs the punch with the views. Plus, you can see bison down below (if you’re lucky!).
11. Hike in Badlands National Park
Hiking in Badlands National Park has to be the best thing to do around Rapid City. This section totally deserves its own post, but here are highlights: Start your visit at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to pick up a map, talk to a ranger, and see the fossils on display. Plus, you should learn about the formation of the structures within the park. Similar to Wind Cave, the majority of the park is comprised of mostly smaller trails and overlooks, so I would pick a few of them. My dad and I LOVED the Notch Trail which is only 1.5 miles round trip and has a fun ladder climbing component. I would also recommend Saddle Pass for an adventurous 0.5 mile climb, although it’s very steep and strenuous.
Pro-tip: Looking for a longer hike? Castle Trail is the longest trail in the park and is 10 miles long.
12. Visit Wall Drug
This recommendation could also be its own post, as Wall Drug is one of the best things to do around Rapid City. You literally can’t NOT visit Wall Drug — there are 300 signs all around South Dakota advertising it (actually, Google it.). Wall Drug started as a humble drug store in Wall, South Dakota in the early 1900s. One day the wife of the owner came up with the idea to offer free iced water to travelers passing through. This doesn’t seem like a big deal today, but in the 1930s when travelers were driving cross-country without A/C, this was genius!
Ever since then, Wall Drug has been bringing millions of tourists to Wall, SD annually. They still offer free iced water today, in addition to $0.05 coffee, famous pie and maple donuts, and home-cooked meals in their cafeteria. Be sure to visit the backyard here and shop around the western-themed souvenir stores before leaving.
13. Spend time in Keystone, SD
Keystone is quite touristy, but it’s the jumping off point to Mount Rushmore, located about 40 minutes from Rapid City. This western town has a few saloons, ice cream shops, gift shops, and hotels. There’s also TONS of activities for kids in this area including a climbing course, giant slide, mini golf, and historic train. We just ate lunch here after visiting Mt. Rushmore, but check it out if you’re looking for more things to do around Rapid City, South Dakota!
14. Take in the sights at Mount Rushmore
Visiting Mount Rushmore is a MUST for the Greater Rapid City area! Mount Rushmore has an interesting past. From left to right, George Washington was sculpted first to signify the struggle for independence and birth of the republic. Next came Thomas Jefferson for his territorial expansion of the US. Abraham Lincoln was added next on the far right for his contribution to the permanent union of the States, followed by Theodore Roosevelt last, for his 20thcentury role in US world affairs and equal rights.
Start your visit at the Visitor’s Center with the 14-minute introductory film to learn about the building process and the sculptor’s life. There’s also a museum here with tools on display. After the Visitor’s Center, walk the 0.75 mile “Presidential Trail”. This paved path is an easy walk, although there are quite a few stairs along the loop. The loop will bring you down close to the monument for incredible views, and past the sculptor’s studio. Park rangers are based along the way for demonstrations and to answer any questions. We spent about 2 hours here.
Pro-tip: Admission is free to visit Mount Rushmore, but parking is $10 per vehicle.
15. Witness the construction of the Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial is a 35-minute drive from Mt. Rushmore and should absolutely be visited as well. Unlike Mt. Rushmore, the memorial is privately funded by donors and the public, so admission here does cost $15 per person. The memorial is of Crazy Horse, a local Native American warrior who claimed he would one day “return in stone”. The memorial is also meant to represent Native culture of the past, present, and future in the Black Hills region. Crazy Horse has been under construction for about 75 years and still has quite a way to go. Once completed, it will be the largest carved monument in the world, surpassing the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Washington Monument in DC. We also spent about 2 hours here.
16. See Sylvan Lake (at sunrise!)
Sylvan Lake isn’t too far from the Crazy Horse Memorial and is absolutely one of the best things to do around Rapid City, especially for adventurous families. This lake is most picturesque at sunrise, but is stunning year-round. There are a few walking trails in the area and different recreation activities for families.
17. Hike Black Hawk Peak (from Sylvan Lake)
My dad and I also didn’t have time to do this during our trip to Rapid City, but it was recommended by a few! Black Hawk Peak is the tallest peak in South Dakota and on a clear day offers sweeping views of North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska! The hike from the lake is 7 miles round trip and is rated easy-moderate. There is an elevation gain, so some parts are steep, but this is a fun option for families if you like hiking!
18. Explore northwest of Rapid City: Deadwood, Sturgis, & Lead, SD
Rapid City is by far the largest city in this area, but there are numerous smaller downtowns to explore. One common day trip option includes visits to the gold mining town of Lead, the authentic western town of Deadwood, and the biker fan-favorite, Sturgis. If you’re out in this direction, consider crossing the Wyoming border to see Devil’s Tower! We saw this advertised everywhere around Rapid City, but already had a jam-packed road trip schedule.
19. Tour Jewel Cave
If Wind Cave wasn’t enough time underground for you, venture to Jewel Cave! Jewel Cave is a national monument and also has ranger-led tours. This cave is similar to Wind Cave (although it’s not a national park) in that you’ll want to reserve a tour slot ahead of time. There is also an elevator ride involved with this cave, and most tours also last around 1.5 hours.
20. See the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, SD
My last recommendation for the best things to do around Rapid City, South Dakota is to visit the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, SD! This was a sneaky favorite of mine. This was my dad’s pick so I wasn’t too excited about it, but it ended up being SO interesting! To recap, this area was once a hot spring during the Ice Age. In search of warmth and a yummy meal, mammoths would venture into the hot spring, not realizing the walls of the pond were too steep to crawl back out. Unfortunately, they would drown.
This hot spring eventually dried up and turned into a sink hole. Millions of years of sediment preserved the bones of 60+ mammoths in the sinkhole, which were discovered in the 1970s when the area was purchased for the construction of an apartment complex. When workers discovered the first bone, construction was immediately halted and the area became a dig site for scientists around the world. Today, it is still a dig site and a museum. I loved exploring here!
And that brings us to the end of the round up of the best things to do in Rapid City, South Dakota! As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this area truly blew me away. I just can’t believe how much there is to do here. It has to be one of the most underrated areas in the US, especially for families. I hope this guide helps you make the most of Rapid City. Stay tuned for my next post where I cover my 50th state, North Dakota!
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