Rapid City post title

Eight terrific places to visit around Rapid City

From Rapid City to Mt. Rushmore and beyond

When you say South Dakota, what comes to mind as the state’s most famous attraction? Mt. Rushmore, of course. The Four Faces are even displayed on South Dakota’s license plates. But South Dakota’s most famous attraction is only the start of the numerous terrific attractions surrounding Rapid City.

We like a hub-and-spoke travel experience. That means we want to stay in the same place at night and drive to attractions in the area. If your preferences are like ours, this is how we enjoy the Black Hills and Badlands region of South Dakota.

Related: Learn more about the Northern Black Hills.

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How to get to Rapid City

Rapid City is easy to reach. If you’re driving, it’s along Interstate 90. Several airlines serve Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP) with connections from Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, and Phoenix.

1) Hang out with the Presidents in Rapid City, “The City of Presidents”

Harry S Truman in Rapid City
Harry Truman grins in triumph as he holds up the mistaken headline on the Chicago Tribune. Despite what the newspaper’s headline read, Truman had defeated Charles E. Dewey for President.

Have you ever wanted to ask George Washington what Valley Forge was like? Or ask Abraham Lincoln to recite the Gettysburg Address? I can’t resist the triumphant grin on Harry Truman’s face as he holds up the Chicago Tribunes mistaken headline, which was one of the bloopers of the century.

With a little imagination, you can talk with all of the ex-Presidents face to face in Downtown Rapid City. Every ex-President, including Barack Obama, is available for a visit 24/7/365. The Presidents are arranged for coherence and to “eliminate any sense of favoritism or political gain.” For example, George H.W. Bush is standing across the street from John Adams because they are the only two Presidents whose sons followed them into the Oval Office.

Since we collect Presidential sites, we visited each President. We enjoyed it.

How to find the Presidents

To find the Presidents, pick up a map at the downtown visitors centers, download a printable guide (PDF), or use the interactive guide. Read the interactive guide’s links to learn about each President and the sculptor’s interpretation of each President. The printable guide also includes the Presidential Scavenger Hunt. If you find the 10 sculptural details and identify their Presidential sculpture, bring your guide to the Presidents Information Center for a free Presidential Soda. The limit is one per family. Best of all, the Presidential tour is free.

Eric with Theodore Roosevelt in Rapid City
Eric stands with his fellow birthday boy, Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt.

In between your Presidential visits, support the local merchants. Mitzi’s Books in Main Street Square is a must-stop. Browse the store’s regional titles for a deeper travel experience. Plus, Mitzi’s offers a great children’s section.

Take some time to curl up with a good book, then take it home.

Where to eat in Rapid City

Try the ice cream flavor of the day and eat a Cuban sandwich at Armadillo’s Ice Cream Shoppe.

Wobbly Bobby sign in Rapid City
Who can resist a sign and a name like this? The Wobbly Bobby does not disappoint

Instantly transport yourself to England when you enter the Wobbly Bobby, an Old World pub behind Main Street Square. Try the fish n’ chips and ask about their impressive range of beers on tap.

Raise a glass to firefighters at Firehouse Brewing Company in Rapid City’s original firehouse. Try the Smokin’ Betty smoked beer and the Rancher’s Pie. Browse their extensive firefighter memorabilia collection while you wait for your order.

Where to park in Rapid City

Five hundred metered and leased parking spaces are waiting at Main Street Square. Downtown offers free off-street parking with a two-hour limit from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays to Fridays.

Experience the Peter Norbeck Byway southwest of Rapid City

The Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway is one of the world’s greatest scenic drives. Take your time. Savor every inch of this 70-mile double-loop route.

Mt. Rushmore at night, 30 minutes southwest of Rapid City
Mt. Rushmore in the evening when the memorial illuminates the faces.

2) Visit the Four Faces at Mt. Rushmore

Washington on the Presidential Trail near Rapid City
George Washington’s head from a crack in a cave along the Presidential Trail.

Mt. Rushmore will be your first stop. The drive from Rapid City takes about half an hour. For a special experience, arrive before sunrise because the Faces look eastward. The morning sunshine beaming on them offers the most glamorous cover shots. Just don’t expect Washington & Co. to smile.

Pop machine at Mt. Rushmore near Rapid City
When you buy a Coke from the Mt. Rushmore pop machine, I can’t promise that the Faces will send you a thank-you note.

Major disadvantage: Nothing else opens until 8 a.m.

Those who prefer evenings should plan to stay after sunset because the park turns on the spotlights. They illuminate the Faces from sunset until 11 p.m. when the park closes. The evening ceremony takes about 20 minutes, weather permitting.

Mt. Rushmore offers more than just the standard view that everyone knows. Walk the Presidential Trail to see different views and to visit the Sculptor’s Studio (open seasonally). Be prepared for the 422 stairs along the way.

You’re in luck if the Sculptor’s Studio is open. You’ll learn the details of how sculptor Gutzon Borglum accurately transferred the giant faces from his model to the mountain and the changes he had to make along the way.

Things to know about Mt. Rushmore

  • To understand more about Mt. Rushmore’s carving process, visit the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center below Grandview Terrace. “Mount Rushmore, the Shrine” runs every 20 minutes in two theaters.
  • Watch for the Mt. Rushmore-themed pop machine. It’s been moved around over the years to places like the men’s room and the visitors center.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Construction is everywhere evident on the giant Crazy Horse mountain carving.

3) Visit Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse model and mountain southwest of Rapid City
Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski created this model to show what Thunderhead Mountain would eventually become.

Driving from one giant mountain carving to another requires about 22 minutes. Reach Crazy Horse Memorial by taking Highways 244 and 385. Crazy Horse Memorial was the dream of two men, Brule Lakota leader Henry Standing Bear and sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski.

The memorial’s development has been a long time coming.

Ziolkowski set off the mountain’s first blast on June 3, 1948. Work still continues on the very ambitious project, which is entirely financed by admissions and contributions. The memorial accepts no government funding. The level of grit and determination that the Ziolkowski family has demonstrated is praiseworthy. Besides the mountain carving’s artistry, the family’s determination is the greatest reason to visit and support the memorial.

Having a blast at Crazy Horse Memorial

Mt. Rushmore is relatively serene; its carving is done. In contrast, Crazy Horse Memorial is filled with more activities than its neighbor. Native American students may attend summer university sessions. Visitors may explore the museums and gift shop, eat at the restaurant, and watch the mountain carving in real time. Make sure to examine The Nature Gates, decorated with 219 animals indigenous to South Dakota.

If you hear a siren, head to the patio adjoining Laughing Water Restaurant. The siren is a warning that a blast will soon occur. After a series of countdowns, you’ll hear the welcome cry, “Fire in the hole!” Then blasting will begin. Twice a year, on June 26 and Sept. 6, the memorial holds a night blast. The events are extremely popular, so come early. After 7 p.m., admission is free to those who bring three cans of food per person.

The memorial also offers the Legends in Light Laser Show on evenings from Memorial Day Weekend through the end of September. The schedule depends on the time of nightfall.

The blasts and light shows are subject to cancellation due to weather, so please check before making plans.

Buy snacks at the Snack Shop.

Come closer to the carving

Gene Lockwood at the base of Crazy Horse Memorial
My dad, Gene Lockwood, at the base of Crazy Horse Memorial on Thunderhead Mountain. This is the last picture we have of him.

Make sure to enjoy a Rustic Bus Ride to the bottom of the mountain. You’ll ride a school bus for a 25-minute round trip, stopping at the mountain’s base. The bus leaves approximately every half hour. The driver will tell you about the mountain carving along the way. The ride costs $4 per person. You’ll have a greater appreciation of the difficulties, patience, and precision involved in mountain carving.

Donate to the memorial and receive a face-to-face meeting with Crazy Horse.

Things to know about Crazy Horse Memorial

  • Learn more about admission pricing, pet policies, and equal access.
  • The hours vary seasonally.
  • The memorial provides picnic tables for those who wish to bring their own food. If you’d rather not picnic, try the Tatanka Stew at the Laughing Water Restaurant.
  • Check conditions at Crazy Horse on the attraction’s webcam. The camera shoots stills from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. daily with the most recent images at the top of the page.

 

4) Explore three spectacular roads

Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, and the Wildlife Loop connect to form part of Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway. Find a road map here. Both Needles and Iron Mountain were considered to be impossible to build.

Time is elastic on the byway. It’s best to relax and enjoy instead of following a strict timetable.

Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road

Iron Mountain Road is a highway turned art form. The road squeezes through three stone tunnels, twirls around three pigtail bridges, and continues winding around 314 curves and 14 hairpin tunnels until you reach a parking area on top of a 5,445-foot summit. Enjoy the panorama before you.

Needles Highway gets its name from the needle-like granite formations that gnash at the sky along the highway. Watch for Sylvan Lake and the Needle’s Eye. On one of our Black Hills visits, the Needles Highway was closed to motor vehicles. Because of the closure, we were blessed and enjoyed the chance to explore the tunnels and rock formations in ways that most people never are privileged to do.

Things to know about Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road
  • The roads are not RV-friendly. The tunnels are very narrow and the curves are very tight.
  • If you are prone to motion sickness, Iron Mountain may not be the route for you.
  • Both roads close to motor vehicles at the first snowfall and do not reopen until snow season has passed.
Bighorn sheep in Custer State Park
This group of bighorn sheep was spotted near the Blue Bell Entrance Station. The dominant ram in this group is almost eight years old, with the next oldest (white tag 81) being five years old. (Custer State Park)

Wildlife Loop

You just can’t get more South Dakota than Custer State Park, and the Wildlife Loop is the park’s essence distilled. Keep your head on a swivel to look for wildlife. You might see bison, pronghorn, deer, elk, coyotes, burros, on and on. Be prepared for wildlife traffic jams. For your safety and for the animals’ safety, do not get out of your vehicle. Do not open your car windows.

Park admission fees apply.

5) Climb Black Elk Peak

If you want to see four states at once — South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska — and summit a state high point at the same time, look no further than Black Elk Peak. Named for Nicholas Black Elk, who experienced a famous vision on this mountain, the peak stands 7,242 feet above sea level with 2,922 feet of prominence. The top is bald, so the views are uninterrupted. Hiking to the peak requires a 7-mile round trip with 1,142 feet of elevation gain. Find directions from Rapid City here.

Things to know about Black Elk Peak

  • Hikers may climb the peak year-round, but the largest crowds arrive between April and October. Summer weekends see the heaviest use.
  • Check the weather before starting your hike.
  • One of the hiking routes includes Little Devils Tower. The Sylvan Lake trailheads are in Custer State Park, where the park charges access fees.
  • Register when you enter Black Elk Wilderness or risk a large fine. Registration is free, and registration stations are at most trailheads or along the wilderness boundary.
  • Pick up a map of the various trails at one of the Black Hills visitors centers or Forest Service ranger stations.
  • The USGS high-point marker is located on a mound west-northwest of the tower.

6) See 360 degrees at Mt. Coolidge Lookout Tower

After a full-court press of public relations pressure, President Calvin Coolidge spent the summer of 1927 in the Black Hills. His visit drew a bonanza of coverage to the region and a visit to Mt. Rushmore convinced him to pledge $250,000 toward its completion. In 2020 dollars, Coolidge’s decision was worth $3.6 billion. And this from a man who was famous for federal cost-cutting. His decision contributed greatly to Rushmore’s successful construction. South Dakota named Mount Coolidge for the President in 1927. Mt. Coolidge Fire Tower is still actively used today.

Now, people may drive to the top of the 6,023-foot tall mountain. The scenery at the top provides panoramic views that include Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse, the Needles, and on clear days, even the Badlands 60 miles away.

Things to know about Mt. Coolidge

  • The 1.7-mile road is usually open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Memorial Day to late September.
  • When the gate at the base of the gravel road is open, visitors may drive to the top.
  • The road is not friendly to RVs or any other oversize vehicles.
  • The turnoff is on South Dakota 87 where Wildlife Loop joins the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway.
  • The mountain is within Custer State Park and fees apply.

7 and 8) Head underground in Jewel Cave and Wind Cave

Cave bacon in Jewel Cave National Monument an hour southwest of Rapid City
Don’t try to snack on this bacon in Jewel Cave National Monument. If you try, you’ll break your teeth. (National Park Service)

Jewel Cave

Jewel Cave National Monument is the world’s third-longest cave. Its passages are at least 200 miles long. Jewel Cave brings a new meaning to “bringing home the bacon” because the cave is well known for its “cave bacon“. Cave bacon is a type of flowstone. A piece over 10 feet long may be seen on the Scenic Tour, the cave’s most popular tour. Formations include boxwork, cave popcorn, flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites, and draperies, plus the “jewels” of the cave, nailhead spar and calcite spar. The park also offers the accessible Discovery Talk Tour, which is appropriate for disabled people and families with small children. For more strenuous adventures, try the Historic Lantern Tour and the Wild Caving Tour.

Things to know about Jewel Cave
  • Check the cave’s schedule page for updated visitors center and tour schedules. Schedules are subject to change, particularly due to inclement weather.
  • You may purchase Scenic Tour tickets in advance. No reservations are accepted for the Discovery Talk or Lantern Tour. Call the park for information about the Wild Caving Tour.
  • The park offers no refunds. Unless reserved in advance, tickets are first-come, first-served. Arrive in the morning to purchase tickets because tickets often sell out.
  • Bring food because food service is minimal during the summer and non-existent during the winter.

Wind Cave

Two young bison in Wind Cave National Park
Two young bison graze in Wind Cave National Park.

Wind Cave National Park is known both for its 149 miles of cave passages below ground and for its wildlife above ground. Head into the cave to see its fascinating boxwork. It has more boxwork than all other caves combined.

Frostwork on boxwork in Wind Cave National Park west of Rapid City
Frostwork covers boxwork in Wind Cave National Park. Boxwork is rare by itself. Adding frostwork makes it rarer still. (National Park Service)

Above ground, Wind Cave offers good wildlife viewing opportunities. The mountains meet the plains; shortgrass prairie meets tallgrass prairie at Wind Cave. Because of this, the park’s habitats are varied. Varied habitats attract varied animals. The park’s biggest animals are bison, pronghorns, and elk. Of these, the bison is the most visible. Elk is the most difficult of the three to find, but your best chance for an elk sighting is to hike the park’s trail system.

When available, take time to join a ranger-led tour of the Sanson Ranch and Buffalo Jump.

Your GPS or phone will get you lost. Use the park’s directions.

Things to know about touring caves
  • Cave temperatures remain steady and tend to be cool. Wear long sleeves, long pants, and bring a jacket.
  • Wear closed-toe shoes with non-slip soles.
  • Be prepared to walk up and down stairs, stoop, and bend.
  • If you are claustrophobic, have heart or respiratory issues, recent surgeries or illnesses, knee or back problems, consider your abilities before taking a tour.
  • Caves don’t offer restrooms.
  • Keep your hands off the formations.
  • Because of bat-killing White Nose Syndrome, do not wear any clothing, shoes, or gear that you wore in one cave into any other mine or cave anywhere around the world.

Related: The Minuteman Missile National HIstoric Site is only an hour southeast of Rapid City.

Where to stay in Rapid City

Hotels

Campgrounds

Don’t just take our word that Lake Park Campground and Cottages west of Rapid City is a good place to stay. South Dakota Department of Tourism awarded them its Great Service Award for more than 25 years. They offer a playground, biking trails and bike rentals, fishing, and hiking/nature trails. Plus, a restaurant, golf, outdoor pool, canoeing and kayaking opportunities are nearby. The management allows pets, except in their rental units. Lake Park is open year-round.

Rapid City Black Hills KOA is east of Rapid City and is open from April to October. The campground is pet friendly, but some restrictions apply. They offer a dog park, a heated outdoor pool and hot tub, plus fun touches such as pancake breakfasts, s’mores parties, watermelon feeds, and a giant checkers/chess set.

If you’ve experienced any of these attractions, please tell us about your adventures in the comments. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Your Adventure is Waiting!

How to travel more

Read more about travel in the Midwest and South Dakota, visiting Presidential sites and national parks.

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