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The great state of South Dakota is overlooked by travelers far too often. There is a ton of stunning scenery, fascinating history, and quirky fun to be had in the Mount Rushmore State, making it more than a simple flyover state.
Rapid City is one of its major population centers, located in its west, at the foot of the Black Hills mountain range and surrounded by lush green forests of ponderosa pines. This little frontier town is known as the gateway to Mount Rushmore. In reality, it’s a gateway to much more than that – some very beautiful state and national parks, monuments, and forests are at Rapid City’s doorstep, too.
Don’t forget about the numerous Rapid City attractions right there in town, either. It’s known as the City of Presidents for its 43 bronze, life-sized statues of them around downtown. Dining, shopping, and entertainment create a lively atmosphere ripe for exploring, too.
If you’re visiting Rapid City, make note of the many things to do – you may need more time here than you think. Follow our guide below to decide what you don’t want to miss in this scenic part of America.
Experience the best of the Black Hills with this full-day tour from Rapid City. Visit iconic landmarks like Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial, plus Custer State Park and the Iron Mountain Road. You'll see some of the most beautiful scenery in the country and learn about the history and culture of the area.
Looking to explore Badlands National Park in a unique and private way? Then look no further than our Badlands National Park Private Tour. This tour is the perfect way to see the rare geological formations of the park up close, while also getting the chance to hike through the Badlands and see wildlife in their natural habitat.
Don't miss out on one of America's most iconic landmarks- Mount Rushmore! This tour from Rapid City will take you to the monument and provide you with plenty of information about its history from a professional guide. You'll also get to see other Black Hills sights including the Crazy Horse Monument, Iron Mountain Road, Sylvan Lake, and more.
- Things to Do in Rapid City, South Dakota
- 1. Downtown Rapid City & Main Street Square
- 2. Reptile Gardens
- 3. The Journey Museum & Learning Center
- 4. Bear Country USA
- 5. Black Hills Caverns
- 6. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
- 7. Badlands National Park
- 8. Crazy Horse Memorial
- 9. Cosmos Mystery Area
- 10. Prairie Edge Trading Co. & Galleries
- 11. South Dakota Air and Space Museum
- 12. WaTiki Indoor Water Park
- 13. Custer State Park
- 14. Wind Cave National Park
- 15. Jewel Cave National Monument
- 16. Dinosaur Park
- 17. Black Hills Central Railroad – 1880 Train
- 18. Old MacDonald’s Farm
- 19. Storybook Island
- 20. Chapel in the Hills
- Is it possible to visit Mount Rushmore for a day trip from Rapid City?
- What are some fun activities for families with children in Rapid City?
- What are the best attractions to visit in Rapid City, South Dakota?
- Are there any historical landmarks or sites to visit in Rapid City?
- Most significant landmark – Crazy Horse Memorial
- Best park – Badlands National Park
- Free activity – South Dakota Air and Space Museum
- Activity for kids – Reptile Gardens
- Activity for adults – Mount Rushmore
- Best food – Murphy’s Pub and Grill
- Best nightlife – Downtown Rapid City
- Place to stay – The Rushmore Hotel & Suites, BW Premier Collection
Things to Do in Rapid City, South Dakota
1. Downtown Rapid City & Main Street Square
Let’s start with the central part of the city where everything happens, which deserves at least an afternoon visit during your trip. Main Street Square is lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants, and even more can be found throughout the streets of downtown.
Murphy’s Pub & Grill is a local favorite for its tasty casual food and its outdoor fire pit seating. Others include Firehouse Brewing Company and Independent Ale House, both of which offer live music.
The square’s centerpiece alternates between a dancing water fountain in the summer and an ice skating rink in the winter. Events around the year take place here, including the annual pumpkin festival and farmer’s markets. Summer music concerts bring the whole town together to enjoy the warm air.
Don’t forget to look out for the dozens of statues of presidents on the street corners. If you’re in search of more art, you can check out the street art on Art Alley or see what’s on display at the Dahl Arts Center, too.
Downtown is a very popular place to stay when visiting the Rapid City area, thanks to the ease of finding food, drink, and fun. The Rushmore Hotel & Suites, part of the BW Premier Collection, is located in the heart of this historic destination and is one of the city’s best hotels.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Sioux Falls, South Dakota
2. Reptile Gardens
Address: 8955 US-16, Rapid City, SD 57702
Reptile Gardens is a must-see for animal lovers of all ages, making it a great attraction for families and adult travelers alike. It’s located in the southern part of Rapid City, and you’ll probably want to get here by car.
This reptile-focused zoo has hundreds of animals, including snakes, crocodiles, lizards, and Komodo dragons. It’s fascinating to see giant, decades-old tortoises and other dinosaur descendants up close. While many of these exotic residents come from far beyond South Dakota, there’s also a bald eagle exhibit where visitors can meet Cheyenne, a beautiful example of the United States National Bird.
In addition to the many animals, visitors can also enjoy the colorful botanical gardens. These feature vibrant blossoms, well-manicured lawns, and lush vegetation. The SkyDome harbors a tropical rainforest in a beautiful climate-controlled greenhouse with free-roaming animals like frogs and lizards.
A favorite for children is Prairie Dog Town – a maze of underground tunnels that have transparent bubbles to pop up into, allowing you to see the adorable little creatures up close. Before leaving the area, consider checking out the Dinosaur Museum just next door, where you can learn about the ancestors of many of the zoo’s reptiles.
3. The Journey Museum & Learning Center
Address: 222 New York St, Rapid City, SD 57701
The Journey Museum & Learning Center is one of the best places to learn about the history of the Black Hills in terms of geology, archaeology, culture, and more. As you enter, you’ll be transported back to life in the Black Hills as the Native Americans first experienced it.
Natural history exhibits here detail the composition of the earth’s crust and the various rock layers beneath the surface. You can touch and feel the gems and rocks that have existed since the Black Hills’ geologic beginnings.
You can touch dinosaur bones and view the fossil lab in the museum’s paleontology area. Kids love dusting off bones and going on discovery expeditions in the dinosaur exhibits, as well as spending time at the rotating planetarium.
Fast-forwarding a few million years, you’ll find some fascinating exhibits on the history and civilizations of the Lakota indigenous people who originally inhabited the region – check out examples of their beautiful beadwork and tipi structures. The pioneers came next, and it is very cool to read about their way of life and settlement in the Dakotas, too.
See Related: Best Small Towns in South Dakota
4. Bear Country USA
Address: 13820 US-16, Rapid City, SD 57702
Bears are very prevalent in the western wilderness of the US – and while you might want to see one up close, they aren’t the best creatures to run into on a hike. Instead, you can admire these iconic giants at Bear Country USA, a drive-through wildlife park where you can see these animals and more in a more natural environment.
Bear Country USA is home to grizzly, black, and polar bears. You can see them roaming around their fields and forests or swimming in the ponds – all just beside your car! There are also safari drives and walking tours if you aren’t driving. Other animal residents include reindeer, elk, pronghorn, cougars, and Rocky Mountain goats, among others.
The park is a seasonal attraction open from spring to late fall, much like others in the area. It’s south of downtown and very close to the Reptile Gardens and Old MacDonald’s Farm (more on that last one later). Therefore, this quieter part of town could be a great choice to stay in – the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Rapid City Rushmore South is an affordable nearby option with free breakfast.
5. Black Hills Caverns
Address: 2600 Cavern Rd, Rapid City, SD 57702
The Black Hills Caverns is one of the best things to do if you’re looking for an adventure. This exciting attraction is a perfect place to take the family on a hot summer day, providing an excellent way to learn about the history and science of the caves in the area.
The caverns are man-made caves that were created by mining operations in the late 1800s. They’re now a popular tourist destination known for their interesting history and beautiful rock formations. Black Hills Caverns offers two tour options: the Adventure Tour, which is the most comprehensive and takes about an hour, and the Crystal Tour, taking about half the time and visiting a smaller selection of caverns.
The temperature inside the cave is a cool 50 degrees Fahrenheit, so bring a jacket even in the summer. Kids will also enjoy a visit to the caverns – they can even participate in gemstone panning and get to keep whatever treasures they discover.
See Related: Free South Dakota Travel Guide
6. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Address: 2255 Fort Hayes Dr., Rapid City, SD 57702
Mount Rushmore is one of South Dakota’s most recognizable claims to fame, and Rapid City is the place to see it from. The massive mountain is just 30 minutes southwest of the city in the Black Hills National Forest and is a National Park Service-administered site.
Just a short drive into the scenic hills reveals the giant profiles of presidents Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Theodore Roosevelt. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum carved their faces into the granite between 1927 and 1941 with the help of his son, choosing them because he thought they represented some of the most important pieces of American history.
Today, more than 2 million visitors come to Mount Rushmore each year. A visitor center can teach you much more about this special site, and you can take home a souvenir from the gift shop. There are a few great spots for photographing the mountain, including the Presidential Trail, a quick hike at the base of the cliff.
If you aren’t driving during your time in Rapid City, it’s easy to find a tour of Mount Rushmore from downtown, and they often include stops at more sites within the Black Hills. This day trip combines a morning of the monument and Black Hills outdoor fun with dinner at Fort Hays Chuckwagon Supper & Show – an iconic western evening activity.
7. Badlands National Park
Address: 25216 SD-240, Interior, SD 57750
Badlands National Park is one of the most special and most beautiful in the entire country, in my opinion, and it’s just an hour away from Rapid City. This makes it well within reach of a day trip, although you probably won’t see all 244,000 acres of it.
The Badlands are made up of a mixed grass prairie ecosystem alongside rugged pinnacles, canyons, and vertical mountain peaks. This makes for unbelievably scenic driving, hiking, and photography. Fossils of ancient horses and rhinos are still found hidden around its unique geological formations, and every corner presents something spectacular.
Wildlife is another major draw of Badlands National Park. Bison and bighorn sheep are the two iconic species, but there are many more local residents, like pronghorns, prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, and more.
Driving yourself is the best way to see this park, and the Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) will take you through some of the best scenery in the park. You can also hit the famous Wall Drug on the way out. If you want to be guided to the best spots and not worry about the logistics, private tours are available to take you from Rapid City.
See Related: Things to Do in Yankton, South Dakota
8. Crazy Horse Memorial
Address: 12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, SD 57730
Mount Rushmore isn’t the only massive mountain sculpture in the Black Hills – at least it won’t be once the Crazy Horse Memorial is complete. This carving-in-progress is about an hour southwest of Rapid City and about 30 minutes from Mount Rushmore, making the two easily combined.
Crazy Horse was an 1800s Lakota native warrior who fought for the tribe’s rights and land. One of the tribe’s chiefs, Henry Standing Bear, and his brother Luther wrote in the 1930s to the same sculptor who carved Mount Rushmore in hopes of having a similar project for Crazy Horse, but never heard back. They then contracted Polish sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski in 1948, when carving began on this sacred tribal land.
The sculpture is still in the process of being completed and is currently the world’s largest mountain carving in progress. Upon its completion, the memorial will become the world’s second-tallest statue if its plans are followed. While incomplete, Crazy Horse’s face is clearly visible in the mountain, and it is quite breathtaking to see.
9. Cosmos Mystery Area
Address: 24040 Cosmos Rd, Rapid City, SD 57702
The Cosmos Mystery Area is a fun and mysterious place in Rapid City full of strange optical illusions that will leave you baffled. Once you enter the mystery area, the laws of physics and nature will no longer seem to apply.
On your short tour, you will find that water can flow uphill, your tall friends will appear shorter, and what appears flat and level at first will stop being flat and level. As you go deeper into the Cosmos Mystery Area, you will enjoy the thrills of being able to walk up a wall and feel a mysterious force pulling you sideways while hanging straight.
The mystery area is an excellent place to take pictures and have fun with friends and family. Buy your ticket in advance to avoid sold-out days and lines. This attraction is on the way to Mount Rushmore and other places in the Black Hills, and it’s definitely worth a quick stop.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Custer State Park, South Dakota
10. Prairie Edge Trading Co. & Galleries
Address: 606 Main St, Rapid City, SD 57701
While we’ve already covered downtown Rapid City and Main Street Square, Prairie Edge Trading Co. & Galleries deserved a special mention. This Native American art gallery is dedicated to the preservation of tradition through contemporary and traditional art, adding to the ways you can learn about and appreciate the original residents of the Dakotas.
The gallery has a vast collection of paintings, pottery, sculptures, jewelry, and more. On the free gallery tour, the knowledgeable staff will share their insights about the items on display. You may also have the chance to see some of the artists working in their studios.
The Prairie Edge Trading Co. & Galleries is more than just an art gallery – if you’re looking for a unique souvenir, you can buy one of the store’s handcrafted pieces. The store sells various arts and crafts, including dreamcatchers, pottery, and jewelry, supporting the native artists who made them and providing visitors with a special handicraft.
11. South Dakota Air and Space Museum
Address: 2890 Davis Dr., Ellsworth AFB, SD 57706
If you’re an AvGeek like me, then you aren’t going to Rapid City without visiting the South Dakota Air and Space Museum. It’s located at Ellsworth Air Force Base in northeastern Rapid City, and it’s totally free to visit!
The South Dakota Air and Space Museum has over 30 aircraft on display, including the B-1 Lancer, the B-36 Peacemaker, and the B-52 Stratofortress. It’s one of the best places to learn about aviation history and space exploration in the region and hosts some old airplanes that are getting rarer and rarer to see in real life.
It also offers tours of an intact Minuteman missile silo used to train maintenance personnel between the 1960s and 1990s. Touring the silo will give you a rare opportunity to get a feel for military preparation during the Cold War. This short bus excursion does require an inexpensive admission ticket.
See Related: Things to Do in Deadwood, South Dakota
12. WaTiki Indoor Water Park
Address: 1314 North Elk Vale Road, Rapid City, SD 57703
If you want to enjoy all the fun of a fantastic water park without worrying about sunburn (or snow), Rapid City has the indoor WaTiki Water Park. This wet and wild experience not only offers a variety of water-based attractions but also features an arcade and restaurants.
The park’s 30,000 square feet of space are packed with hours of fun with its many themed water rides and attractions. These include swimming pools, a lazy river, the Oasis Hot Tub, Maui’s Body Slide, Parrots Plunge, and Koko’s Kingdom. There is also an activity pool and several attractions suitable for younger swimmers.
The dry parts offer 50 arcade and video games that range from popular classics to modern favorites. The variety ensures that both kids and adults will enjoy hours of play.
The WaTiki Water Park is not just a water park and arcade, it’s a full resort village, and many families are happy to make this their spot in Rapid City for a few days. Several restaurants and hotels are on site for anyone wishing to spend more than just one day enjoying everything WaTiki offers. The Fairfield Inn & Suites and the La Quinta are two favorite accommodations here that sit as close as can be to the park.
13. Custer State Park
Custer State Park is another of South Dakota’s natural claims to fame that ranks right up there with the national parks and monuments. Its 71,000 acres of preserve space are located south of Rapid City in the Black Hills. The landscapes here are made up of granite peaks, rolling plains, and clear mountain waters.
Stockade Lake, Legion Lake, and Sylvan Lake are places to get out on a paddleboard or boat or to cast a line. Countless campgrounds make it easy to spend a night or more under the stars, while you can stop for a picnic virtually anywhere. Scenic driving is just as great for those who don’t want to get out of the car – the best routes are Iron Mountain Road and Wildlife Loop Road, where you’ll probably spot the wildlife so common throughout the park.
Custer State Park can be a great place to stay if your South Dakota trip is totally geared toward outdoor fun. You can find beautiful vacation rental houses and cabins throughout, leaving a ton of space for the whole family.
See Related: Things to do in Pierre, South Dakota
14. Wind Cave National Park
South Dakota’s other full national park is Wind Cave, one of the country’s oldest – President Theodore Roosevelt established it as the sixth in America in 1903. It’s also the world’s first cave to be a designated national park. At less than an hour from Rapid City, it’s most definitely worth a day trip.
Wind Cave National Park is home to the densest cave system in the world, and the cave is the seventh-longest in the world, with more than 150 miles explored. It’s full of fascinating geological formations, such as boxwork, frostwork, and cave popcorn, which you’ve probably never heard of but can learn all about. Exploring the cave is only possible by NPS guided tours that leave from the visitor center frequently, and reservations are recommended.
The cave’s name comes from the fact that it “breathes.” Openings to the surface allow the constant entry and exit of fresh air into its passageways as the air pressure equalizes to match the outside weather conditions. This rush of air can create “windy” conditions that are interesting to experience.
15. Jewel Cave National Monument
Address: 11149 US-16 B-12, Custer, SD 57730
While we’re on the subject of caves, there’s another very famous one near Rapid City – Jewel Cave. In fact, this cavern just west of Custer holds the title of fourth-longest in the world, with more than 215 miles explored.
The cave was discovered by two brothers in 1900 when they felt air flowing out of a hole in the ground. They expanded the opening and descended into the hole to find calcite crystals lining the walls, leading them to the name of Jewel Cave. They tried to develop it into a tourist site but weren’t successful; however, President Roosevelt heard about it and designated it Jewel Cave National Monument.
The National Park Service has developed a small portion of it with an elevator, walls, and railings to allow for easy access, but most of the cave remains untouched and some of it uncharted. A few guided tours of various portions are offered year-round, including some guided by candlelight or on off-path routes. Make a reservation to avoid disappointment.
See Related: Things to Do in Sioux Falls, South Dakota
16. Dinosaur Park
Address: 940 Skyline Dr, Rapid City, SD 57701
One of the oldest attractions in Rapid City is all about creatures that are millions of years old. Dinosaur Park sits on a hill high above downtown but is just minutes from its center and is known for its life-sized replicas of Jurassic creatures.
This sandstone ridge extends around a large portion of the Black Hills and has been found to contain fossils from the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous periods. Nearby, dinosaur footprints have even been discovered in the rock. More of these relic remains have been found north and west of the area, while the Badlands are too young to contain any.
Because of this special attribute, giant dinosaur statues were constructed here in the 1930s. Besides checking them out, the park provides sweeping views for miles across the prairies and Badlands, making for an excellent place to enjoy a picnic or the colors of golden hour.
17. Black Hills Central Railroad – 1880 Train
This part of America was able to develop thanks to railroads, and even if they are less vital to the region today, trains are still an important part of a frontier city. Train enthusiasts, nature lovers, and history fans alike might all appreciate a train ride on the 1880 Train of the Black Hills.
The line runs between Hill City and Keystone, two very small towns in the hills that have a long history. It’s an 1880s-style train with steam engines – locomotives that are very hard to find nowadays, and that’s exactly why the company preserves them. Along the way, passengers see old mining encampments, enjoy views of Harney Peak, and have good, classic train fun.
The trip is just 20 miles but has some of the steepest inclines and curves in the country, making the round-trip journey about 2 hours long. You can board the train at either terminus. A narrator will tell you all about the history of the line and the area along the way.
See Related: Wall Drug of South Dakota: What to See and Do
18. Old MacDonald’s Farm
Address: 23691 Busted Five Ct, Rapid City, SD 57702
After seeing wildlife like bison, sheep, elk, and more, kids on a South Dakota trip might be eager to get a bit closer. Lucky for them, Old MacDonald really does have a farm, and it’s in Rapid City!
Old MacDonald’s Farm is a petting zoo on the road between downtown and Mount Rushmore, making it a fun stop along the way. It’s also minutes from Bear Country USA and the Reptile Gardens, which could be great attractions to combine for an animal-oriented day.
There are over 100 popular farm animals here, like cows, goats, pigs, lambs, and more, and visitors of all ages can say hello up close. Animal feed is available from dispensers, while bottle feeding is available for younger furry friends. Pony rides can be added on, too.
19. Storybook Island
Address: 1301 Sheridan Lake Rd, Rapid City, SD 57702
If you’re still looking for fun for young kids, Storybook Island could be a great stop. This children’s park is just minutes from downtown Rapid City and is operated by a non-profit organization that doesn’t charge an entry fee.
The fairytale-themed land is full of character statues, castles, cabins, and other mystical things from some of your favorite stories. Take pictures next to your favorites and climb on the many playground structures, too. A little train and a carousel are also available for a small charge.
While there is no entry fee, a $1 donation is recommended to enter. Outside food and drink aren’t allowed in the park, so make this a quick stop outside of meal times.
See Related: Best Restaurants in Fargo, North Dakota
20. Chapel in the Hills
Address: 3788 Chapel Ln, Rapid City, SD 57702
Finally, you might not expect to find a little piece of Scandinavia in Rapid City, but that’s exactly what the Chapel in the Hills is. In the southern outskirts of town, the South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) maintains this peaceful place for locals and visitors alike who want to give thanks.
The church is an exact replica of the Borgund Stave Church in Laerdal, Norway. It was the idea of a radio preacher in the 1960s who wanted to build a place that connected with the many settlers of the Dakotas of Scandinavian heritage, and he selected the Borgund Stave Church because of its excellent state of preservation.
An authentic grass-roofed storehouse serves as a visitor center and gift shop. Anyone is welcome to come to learn about the site’s history and heritage, wander the peaceful grounds, appreciate the interesting architecture, or get in touch with God.
Is it possible to visit Mount Rushmore for a day trip from Rapid City?
Yes, a day trip to Mount Rushmore is one of the most popular things to do in Rapid City, as it’s just 30 minutes away. This makes for a scenic drive into the Black Hills if you rent a car or drive here. There are also numerous tours that can take you from Rapid City to Mount Rushmore if you won’t be driving.
What are some fun activities for families with children in Rapid City?
In fact, there are a ton of Rapid City attractions that are very kid-friendly. Mount Rushmore and the Badlands are very cool to see, no matter your age, and kids love exploring the grottos of Wind Cave and Jewel Cave. You can also take them to family fun centers like Storybook Island, Old MacDonald’s Farm, Dinosaur Park, and WaTiki Waterpark.
What are the best attractions to visit in Rapid City, South Dakota?
You might be surprised by the number of awesome things to do around this little city. Be sure to dine, shop, and explore downtown Rapid City, especially around Main Street Square. Of course, Mount Rushmore is one of the most iconic attractions; Badlands National Park is absolutely stunning, while Wind Cave National Park is very cool and one of the country’s less-visited.
Are there any historical landmarks or sites to visit in Rapid City?
There are a bunch, including 43 bronze statues of US presidents scattered around downtown that give the city its nickname, the City of Presidents. There’s also the Journey Museum & Learning Center, which showcases the Black Hills’ history from long before its statehood, and the Black Hills Caverns, where you can explore relics from its American frontier days.
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- About the Author
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Woodrow is a travel writer who wants to do and see just about everything. He’s been to 40+ countries, all 50 US states plus Puerto Rico and the USVI, and is currently living in France and exploring Europe. Woodrow is an expert in travel hacking, finding bargain flights, and coined the term “upgrade engineering” referring to his talent to upgrade simple hotel room bookings into suite stays. Woodrow loves SCUBA diving, fishing, and all things aviation.