Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- 2. Get Up Close with Crazy Horse
- 3. See Buffalos Roaming in Custer State Park
- 4. Experience Dancing at a Native American Powwow (Wacipi)
- 5. Snap a Photo in Badlands National Park
- 6. Take a Black Hills Adventure
- 7. Take a Selfie with a President and Shop Downtown
- 8. Make a Statement at Art Alley
- 9. Fish or Practice Archery at The Outdoor Campus – West
- 10. Seek Peace at Chapel in the Hills
- 11. Roar with a T-Rex at Dinosaur Park
- 12. Get Wet at WaTiki Indoor Waterpark Resort
- 13. Jump Aboard the 1880 Train
- Surrounding Area Museum and Sites
- Day Trips from Rapid City
- Getting There
- Where to Stay
The writer was hosted.
On its way from coast to coast, I-90 cuts directly through Rapid City, South Dakota. From a promotional perspective, this coast-to-coast Interstate is both a great benefit and an obstruction for tourism officials. On one hand, thousands and thousands of tourists veer off I-90 to see Mount Rushmore and check it off their road trip bucket list. On the other hand, I-90 easily allows for a one-day detour, rather than a multi-night stay to explore the area.
Having visited the area for the third time, I suggest you do as Buffalo Bill did and bring your family’s traveling Wild West show to Rapid City to see the Old West, enjoy the outdoors, and stay in the City of Presidents for at least two or three days to explore the fun things to do.
1. Gaze in Wonder at Mount Rushmore
Ranking as one of the nation’s most iconic national sites alongside the Statue of Liberty, the U.S. Capitol, Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a site guaranteed to cause goosebumps. This colossal monument carved into the eastern face of Mount Rushmore features the 60-foot sculptures of the heads of four former United States presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. It is truly a monumental work of sculpture that took 14 years to complete from 1927 to 1941.
Although his works can be seen from Gettysburg to Washington, D.C. to New York, sculptor Gutzon Borglum is known for his leadership in the creation of Mount Rushmore, the brainchild of South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson. Through the depths of the Depression, Borglum alternated exhausting on-site work with world tours to raise money to complete the project.
What to Know Before You Go
More than 2 million visitors each year visit this American monument, the visitor center, and an on-site studio used by Borglum. The first stop upon entering the park is the Avenue of Flags with flags representing 56 states and territories lining the walkway and framing a view of the monument in the distance. A must-stop is Borglum’s studio with a replica of the sculptures to consider inside while viewing the monument out the window. Often overlooked because of its steep decline and rise is the .6-mile Presidential Trail offering unique and close-up views of the monument. Definitely walk clockwise along the trail .2 miles to the first close-up viewing point. It’s a wide walking path that has very little incline or steps.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Looking to make the most of your travel budget while maximizing the fun? With a wide range of deals on local activities, dining, and experiences, Groupon helps you stretch your budget by offering discounted options near you.
The Memorial is free to enter, but there is a fee to park. Shop for Americana items of all sorts at the gift shop or view the sculpture from a seat at the outdoor section of the onsite restaurant.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is open to the public every day of the year, except for December 25th. The visitor center and grounds are open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. from March 12th to September 30th and from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. the rest of the year.
SheBuysTravel Tip: If visiting from May through September, make sure to plan to see the Evening Sculpture Lighting Ceremony. For a private evening tour, click here.
2. Get Up Close with Crazy Horse
Nearby, an even more monumental work in scope and size is the privately-funded Crazy Horse Memorial on Crazy Horse Mountain. It honors Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota leader who took up arms against the U.S. Federal government to fight against encroachments on the territories and way of life of the Lakota people.
Just a year after Mount Rushmore was considered completed, Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder, commissioned sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to begin work to carve out the figure of Crazy Horse on Thunderhead Mountain, land considered sacred by some Oglala Lakota. When it is completed, the sculpture will depict Crazy Horse riding a horse and pointing to his tribal land. As of 2023, the head, face, and outstretched arm have been completed. It’s destined to be the world’s largest monument.
There is an admission fee from $10 to $35 based on number of people and the kind of vehicle, but parking is free. While there, people can visit three museums to learn about Crazy Horse and Native Americans of the West, view an orientation film and see the sculpture from the veranda and the wall of windows, and attend scheduled cultural programming. Be sure to pay the extra $5 per person to take the bus to the base of the sculpture for an altogether different view and narrated tour.
For those looking for a balanced view of American history, Crazy Horse should be on the same bucket list as Mount Rushmore.
SheBuysTravel Tip: It’s well worth a donation to the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation for a “trip-of-the-lifetime” to walk close to the outstretched arm of the sculpture and see Crazy Horse face-to-face. Call the Development Office at (605) 673-4681.
3. See Buffalos Roaming in Custer State Park
What would a trip be to the Wild West without an encounter or two with bison, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, or wild horses? At the 71,000-acre Custer State Park take a self-guided audio-driving tour or, like most visitors, drive along the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop road to see wildlife up close. Once numerous on the Great Plains, buffalo were almost driven to extinction in North America by Western settlers. Fortunately, the park’s buffalo herd is prospering and can usually be seen in the distance or ambling across the Loop road in the southern section. The park offers camping, hiking, biking, swimming and fishing.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Feeding and disturbing park wildlife are against park regulations. Remain in your vehicle or stay at least 100 yards from bison, elk, and other animals.
4. Experience Dancing at a Native American Powwow (Wacipi)
Through the efforts of the South Dakota Native Tourism Alliance, South Dakota has become one of the best states to experience Native American events and cultural traditions from Crazy Horse Memorial to hiking to the Black Elk Peak (considered sacred by Native Americans) near Rapid City.
From June to August each year, each of the nine federally recognized Tribal Nations offers a powwow, a social event where dancers don regalia that includes colorful finery, elaborate featherwork, and intricate beadwork as they perform dances to the beat of native drums. Typically held on weekends, the powwows often include associated carnivals and events as the entire community gathers. The most popular part of the weekend is Saturday Night Life as the dancers compete in a variety of categories. It’s not unusual for the dancing to continue until early Sunday morning. Check the state’s travel site here for a complete list of powwows and plan ahead for this incredible experience.
The culmination of powwow activity in the Great Plains is the Black Hills Powwow held each year on the first weekend in October in conjunction with Indigenous People Day. Ranked as one of the top two powwows in the nation, the Black Hills Powwow takes over the Monument Center in Rapid City with contestants competing for more than $150,000 in prizes. Definitely plan to witness the spectacle of the Grand Entry pageant. At the Black Hills Powwow, the crowning of Miss He Sapa Wacipi follows the Grand Entry.
Everyone is invited. These are social gatherings, not sacred ceremonies limited to Native American Tribes.
SheBuysTravel Tip: For another opportunity to explore Lakota culture, visit the Oglala Lakota Living History Village during weekends in the summer. Make sure to check their website first for an updated events schedule.
5. Snap a Photo in Badlands National Park
Rising out of the Great Plains due east of Rapid City is an otherworldly site that’s full of surprising photographic opportunities. Along a narrow spine of hills, Badlands National Park is a striking series of jagged spires, deep canyons, and colorful rock formations created by millions of years of erosion.
The exposed layers of sedimentary rock have a rich variety of colors from pale yellow to deep red, with shades of brown, purple, and black mixed in. The tall, jagged forms of the Badlands were caused by the erosion of soft layers of rock, which left behind the harder layers shaped like spires, pinnacles, and buttes.
With abundant trails, most unmarked, hiking is encouraged. But use common sense and be careful not to get lost in the twisty crevices of the canyons.
From the north near I-90, there is a per-car fee to enter. However, coming from Route 44 through the ghost town of Scenic, one can enter the park for free, either eventually reaching the popular northern section via the Badlands Loop Road or turning south toward the Stronghold Unit. If heading south, go off-road to the magnificent outlook at Sheep Mountain.
SheBuysTravel Tip: On the way to or from the Badlands, make sure to stop at Wall Drug. There are numerous billboards on I-90 promoting this roadside eatery and attractions. It’s a hoot.
6. Take a Black Hills Adventure
Want to really experience the West hiking and biking off less-traveled trails in the Black Hills National Forest? Or interested in touring the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with Native American guides? Black Hills Adventures is the place to call for planning customized tours from single-day adventures to outdoor activities. Although they will happily organize tours of Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, and Crazy Horse, they specialize in more unique, upscale trips based on their 18 years of experience providing family-friendly sightseeing and adventure tours.
All tours include park entry fees, pick-up and drop-off services at Rapid City area hotels and campgrounds as well as gear and equipment.
7. Take a Selfie with a President and Shop Downtown
It’s not just Mount Rushmore that showcases American leaders. The sidewalks of The City of Presidents are populated with 43 life-size bronze statues of U.S. presidents. See the plaques on each statue to test your knowledge of American history. Six of those presidents – Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan – have stayed downtown at the historic Alex Johnson Hotel that towers over the city.
While downtown, make a point to stop at one of the breweries that serves food and local craft beer, sip a nice Chablis at a wine bar, or top your visit off with ice cream at several creameries. Stop at Main Street Square for a concert in the summer and see skaters on the ice skating rink in the winter.
A short walk from the square is the Museum of Geology and, a few blocks away, the Journey Museum & Learning Center, which takes visitors through the enriching history of the Black Hills and Native American culture by means of four different area collections: Geology and Paleontology, Archaeology, Native American Culture, and Pioneer History
There are plenty of unique shops downtown including Prairie Edge Trading Co. & Galleries (rated No. 1 on Tripadvisor), Dakota Drum Company, and Presidential Pawn with small exhibits at the Pawnseum such as one of Michael Jackson’s gloves.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Ask the Rapid City Visitors Center for a scavenger hunt walking tour of the presidential statues as a fun way for the family to explore and learn. Win a prize by bringing back a completed scavenger quiz to the Visitors Center at Main Street Square.
8. Make a Statement at Art Alley
Not everyone will agree with or admire the work of the artists along Art Alley, but the area is a colorful and unexpected site downtown. Located between 6th and 7th and Main and Saint Joseph Streets, Art Alley has been transformed into a living art gallery with free-form political expression, graffiti, and other forms of street art, large and small.
SheBuysTravel Tip: This is a working alley so pay attention and step aside for delivery vehicles and garbage trucks.
9. Fish or Practice Archery at The Outdoor Campus – West
For those outdoors people looking to sharpen their hunting or fishing, the State of South Dakota welcomes all to The Outdoor Campus, free to everyone. Along with a 4,600-gallon freshwater aquarium, there are indoor exhibits showcasing western habitats and wildlife. Outside, there’s a public fishing pond, a picnic area and a 14-stage walking archery course, and a 14-station practice range with targets.
10. Seek Peace at Chapel in the Hills
Sitting atop a hill overlooking Rapid City is a quiet retreat open to all. The Chapel in the Hills is a replica of the Borgund Stave Church in Norway, a 12th-century church of wooden boards and steep gables. The chapel is open from 8 a.m. until dusk, seven days a week, from May 1st through September 30th. The grounds are open on a limited basis during April and October.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Keep an eye out for brides and grooms and high school seniors seeking a picturesque backdrop for photos.
11. Roar with a T-Rex at Dinosaur Park
Started in the 1930s as a Depression-era work project, Dinosaur Park features five massive concrete dinosaur sculptures: an Apatosaurus (also known as a Brontosaurus), Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus Rex, and Brontosaurus. Over the years, the park has become one of Rapid City’s most popular tourist attractions both for its kitschy painted dinosaurs and the view from Skyline Drive.
SheBuysTravel Tip: For the adventurous, there are trails from Skyline Drive near Dinosaur Park that loop around the mountain or descend easily into the neighborhoods of Rapid City. Note that the trail markers are few and far between.
12. Get Wet at WaTiki Indoor Waterpark Resort
After a long day of driving or seeing the sites, what better place to give the kids a break than at the WaTiki Indoor Waterpark Resort? With over 30,000 square feet of swimming pools and water slides, the waterpark is the largest in the Dakotas and is open year-round. The waterpark connects indoors to five hotels affiliated with the Marriott,
SheBuysTravel Tip: For many northern states with long, cold winters, indoor water parks are a place for regular socialization as children play while adults watch from the water park cafe or at the indoor bar with windows to the water slides.
13. Jump Aboard the 1880 Train
Travel in time back to the era of steam trains in the Black Hills aboard the 1880 Train Tour. Leaving from Hill City and the tourist town of Keystone near the entrance to Mount Rushmore, the steam train embarks on a slow, one-hour uphill ride passing by towering pines, sparkling streams, and magnificent rock formations. The historic passenger cars have been restored to their original Victorian splendor.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Rather than take two and a half hours to ride the train round trip, consider a one-way trip with a “designated driver” skipping the train tour to drive to either Hill City or Keystone to pick up the train enthusiasts.
Surrounding Area Museum and Sites
Not surprisingly for a major tourist destination, there are several popular local attractions devised to lure travelers on their way to Mount Rushmore. They include:
- Storybook Island in Rapid City – a free old-fashioned village where kids can see nursery rhymes come to life.
- Chuckwagon Supper and Music Variety Show at Fort Hays – a western-style dinner theater that includes a South Dakota Movie Museum.
- Reptile Gardens – according to the Guinness Book of World Records, this is the world’s largest reptile zoo open from March through November.
- Bear Country U.S.A. – drive-through wildlife park with bears, wolves, and elk open April through November.
Day Trips from Rapid City
Once you’ve spent a few days in Rapid City on a driving vacation, there are several major tourist destinations a few hours away. Heading out of town on I-90:
- Deadwood for Las Vegas-style gambling.
- Spearfish Canyon for a scenic drive or hiking/biking/fishing.
- Devils Tower National, Wyoming
- For those arriving by car, 1-90 goes right through downtown Rapid City.
- Non-stop direct flights to the Rapid City Regional Airport are offered:
- From Denver on United Airlines
- From Minneapolis on Delta Airlines
- From Dallas on American Airlines
- From Chicago on American Airlines
- From Charlotte on American Airlines
- From Las Vegas on Allegiant Airlines
- From Phoenix on Allegiant Airlines
Where to Stay
I like the convenient location of the Cambria Hotel Rapid City, a Choice Hotels brand. Here’s a review of the property.
A tourism and culture expert, R.C Staab has been quoted in and his photos are featured in numerous publications including the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, and CNN. Click on the title for his latest book, New York City Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for New York City’s Hidden Treasures, which explores Manhattan from Battery Park to Washington Heights with both famous and unexpected sites in all neighborhoods, including Times Square, Or if you are heading to the Jersey Shore, do what TV, film and stage celeb Mario Lopez does and pick up a copy of the book, 100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die. Visit www.100ThingsJerseyShore.com to order your autographed copy.