South Dakota might be one of the least populated states, but it’s full of amazing sights to see. Located in the Black Hills, Rapid City, SD is full of breathtaking natural beauty and so much more.
In addition to being located near Mount Rushmore National Monument, Rapid City is also home to museums, gardens, parks, caverns, hot springs, and more. For outdoor enthusiasts, it doesn’t get any better than Rapid City.
Here are 16 things to do in Rapid City SD that we know you and your crew are going to love.
CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL
“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also.” – Chief Standing Bear to sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski.
As one of Crazy Horse’s cousins, Chief Standing Bear took it upon himself to make sure his relative would be memorialized in a way that would be similar in scope and scale to Mount Rushmore. The Black Hills are important to the Lakota people, which is why sculpting Crazy Horse into the land was so important to Chief Standing Bear. The Crazy Horse Memorial was dedicated in June 1948.
The memorial also stands as “…a reminder of the importance of reconciliation, respecting differences, embracing diversity, striving for unity, and appreciating life’s deeper meaning as it has always been represented in Native American cultural values.” It is also in honor of all Indigenous people of North America.
Visitors can take guided tours around the memorial campus, and stop by The Indian Museum of North America, as well as The Native American Educational and Cultural Center when they visit the memorial as well. The sculpture is not yet complete, and it is going to continue with the plans Ziolkowski left behind before he died.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a sculpture that is known worldwide as a symbol of American history. Visitors can see the memorial throughout the year, with hours changing depending on the season. The park also lights up the memorial at night, so visitors can watch the lighting ceremony, as well as visit the campus’ Sculptor’s Studio.
During the carving, and well after the unveiling of the memorial in 1941, there has been controversy around the Mount Rushmore site. The mountain it was carved into was a sacred site, known as The Six Grandfathers to the Lakota people.
Read More: MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MEMORIAL
CUSTER STATE PARK
A gem within the South Dakota State Parks is Custer State Park. With its sprawling 70,000 plus acres within the Black Hills, this park is a trove of activities, leisure, and wildlife viewing. Visitors can head down one of the many hiking trails, go boating or swimming, or even take up snowshoeing in the winter months.
You might spot some bison, elk, or other South Dakota creatures, but don’t feed them or try to touch them. If you’re curious about the local wildlife, make sure to check out the park’s Bison Center or the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center. You can never know too much about Mother Nature!
BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Likely the most famous of South Dakota’s parks, Badlands National Park is a favorite. It’s expansive, with over 240,000 acres, and the Badlands offer everything from their famous geological formations to prairies. A myriad of animals call this park home, including bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and even black-footed ferrets.
Night sky gazing is a highlighted activity in the Badlands, because of how clearly you can see objects in the sky. The stars will delight you from here.
There are scenic drives throughout the park, opportunities to see wildlife in their natural habitats, a chance to see a stunning sunrise or sunset from the park, and so much more.
What began in 1937 as a small operation for a snake enthusiast has bloomed into the largest reptile zoo in the world! According to the Reptile Gardens’ website, they house more reptile species than any other animal park or zoo anywhere.
Guests can wander into this reptile extravaganza for a good portion of the year, though Reptile Gardens is closed for the winter months.
Their SkyDome is a well-known piece of South Dakota’s tourism industry. The dome is home to tropical animals and plants, including the Fierce Snake, which is the only specimen of its kind on the continent.
Chances are, you’ve seen Dinosaur Park before in photographs. The park’s life-size dinos stand huge against the horizon.
One of the original attractions of the Black Hills region, this free stop has been delighting families since 1936. Why not take a break to snap some pics with one of their seven concrete prehistoric pals? Heck, why not get pictures with all of them?
It’s guaranteed fun for all ages, and one of the best things to do in Rapid City SD.
DOWNTOWN RAPID CITY
Lovingly referred to as Rapid City’s Living Room, Downtown Rapid City is where you will find much of the commerce the city has to offer visitors and residents alike. You can get cozy in one of the hotels in this historic downtown, check out the fountains in Main Street Square, window shop at over 80 shops, or take your pick of over two dozen restaurants.
One of Downtown Rapid City’s most unique features is Art Alley. Since 2003, this public gallery of street art has become a hub. Street musicians gather near the graffiti art to strum a tune, while tourists gaze at the alley walls turned art gallery. You can find Art Alley between 6th and 7th and Main and St. Joseph Streets downtown.
Another iconic piece of downtown charm is Firehouse Brewing Company. More commonly referred to as “The Firehouse,” this brewery made its home in a 1915 firehouse downtown. Throughout the restaurant are pieces of historical firefighting ephemera. The Firehouse was the state’s first brewpub when it opened in 1991.
While you’re downtown, you can even snap a selfie with the presidential bronze sculptures of most of the American presidents so far. (Before you ask, they are not in numerical order.) So if you’ve got a favorite president, take a look at the City of Presidents guide map before trying to find them. Or you could just peruse them all and make a scavenger hunt out of it.
THE JOURNEY MUSEUM
Opened in 1997, The Journey Museum & Learning Center is a space that honors the history of the Native American people who first called the area of the Black Hills home. The original name of the sacred area around Rapid City, South Dakota was the “Paha Sapa,” which means the Black Hills to the Lakota Sioux.
Made up of four sections, the museum covers the history of the land and its people in the categories of geology and paleontology, archaeology, Native American Culture, and pioneer history.
Some of their past temporary exhibits have included the Journey to Mount Rushmore, Lakota Emergence, Paul High Horse, and The Music and Immigrants of the Dakotahs.
BEAR COUNTRY USA
You know how there are drive-through safaris around the world? Did you know that there is one located in the Black Hills? At Bear Country USA, you can stay in your own vehicle to drive around and spot creatures at home in their natural habitat.
From the road, you can see bears, elk, mountain lions, buffalo, and all kinds of critters living among the grasses and hills. Given the nature of this tour, it is only open from spring through late November. Be sure to check their website before embarking!
MUSEUM OF GEOLOGY
Located at the South Dakota School of Mines, the Museum of Geology is right at home. Their main focuses at the museum are on exhibits largely based on paleontology and mineralogy, with a Kid’s Zone area for more hands-on focused learning.
The museum is free for everyone and can be found in the O’Harra Building on the 3rd floor.
SOUTH DAKOTA AIR & SPACE MUSEUM
When it comes to free museums, Rapid City has a fair number. Joining their list is the South Dakota Air and Space Museum, which highlights the wonders of aviation technology. There are two major areas of this museum, its outdoor space and its hangar showcases.
Outside, you can find a range of military aircraft from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and even aircraft that are still in use today. In the hangars, visitors can take in the history of military technology, space tech, and other pieces of military history in their immersive exhibits.
During the months between mid-May and mid-September, the museum also offers bus tours to the Ellsworth Air Force Base for visitors to see the Minuteman II missile training silo. Guests are able to go inside the silo during this tour, which lasts just shy of an hour. Per the museum, this is the only silo of its kind that is open to the public.
CHAPEL IN THE HILLS
A place that has become a picturesque icon in the Black Hills is the Norwegian stave church known as the Chapel in the Hills.
The Chapel in the Hills building is an exact replica of the Borgund stavkirke (stave church) in Laerdal, Norway. It was dedicated in 1969.
Its unique architecture alone is a reason to visit this space nestled among the Black Hills.
COSMOS MYSTERY AREA
Cosmos Mystery Area is a family-friendly attraction that your kids will love.
Tour the Mystery House, and try to figure out how you’re able to stand on the walls or see balls roll uphill. Afterwards, kids will love digging up their very own geode in the Geode Mine.
They’ve also got ice cream and a gift shop on the property!
BLACK HILLS CAVERNS
A sightseer favorite since 1939, the Black Hills Caverns have long been a place of wonder and exploration. Although pioneers “discovered” the caverns in 1882, the Lakota people had already been going through the cave systems for centuries. This is where you can find Paha Sapa Limestone, which is a kind of geological formation you can only find in the Black Hills region.
No matter what time of year you visit, the caves are always around 50 degrees.
Tours are offered at the caverns. One is the easier half-hour tour that covers just the first level among the calcite crystals, whereas the other is an hour that covers all three levels of the cave. The second tour is recommended by the cavern for the best sightseeing variety of formations around the cavern.
And in the Kid Zone, little adventurers can go gemstone and fossil panning for an additional fee. Otherwise, they are also welcome to do a free crystal mining activity and keep their three favorite crystals they find on the dig.
DAY TRIP TO WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK
About 50 minutes south of Rapid City is Wind Cave National Park, which makes it an easy day trip. Wind Cave is one of the country’s oldest national parks, as well as one of the most unique ones too. Visitors can admire the wide-open ranges of prairie, or camp out under the stars at the Elk Mountain Campground on the park premises.
Other visitor favorite pastimes revolve around the wildlife that calls the park area home. All year round you can watch the area bison herd on the move, or check out some prairie dog towns with their precocious prairie dog residents. If you visit in the fall, you might even hear some elk bugling to find a mate.
But it’s the park’s namesake, Wind Cave, that makes it particularly exciting for visitors. Per the National Park Service, Wind Cave is one of “the longest and most complex caves in the world” and its “…maze of passages is home to boxwork, a unique formation rarely found elsewhere.”
Several cave area tours are available throughout the day with a range of times, stairs, distances, and accessibility.
Read More: WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK – EPIC GUIDE
DAY TRIP TO HOT SPRINGS
An hour south of Rapid City, Hot Springs, SD is another great spot to take a day trip. Here you’ll find an active paleontological dig site, called The Mammoth Site, which is currently where scientists have found the most mammoth remains anywhere in the world.
You can take a load off at the Evans Plunge or Moccasin Springs mineral waters, or take in more history at the Pioneer Museum.
At Moccasin Springs Natural Mineral Spa, you can soak in their four outdoor hot pools, including two that feel like you’ve got your own personal hot tubs. It’s a great place to unwind and relax.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO SOUTH DAKOTA
- YOUR SOUTH DAKOTA VACATION
- SIOUX FALLS: 17 Best Things To Do In Sioux Falls, South Dakota
- BEST OF SD: 23 Really Amazing Things To Do In South Dakota
WHERE TO STAY IN RAPID CITY SD
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