Surrounded by protected lands and iconic landmarks, Rapid City in South Dakota is an underrated destination. Whether you’re traveling solo, or with your partner, friends or family, there’s something in this charming and friendly city for you.
In the foothills of the Black Hills, Rapid City is rich in prehistoric history. Some of the things to do in Rapid City provide the chance to journey back to the age of dinosaurs with fossils dotted throughout. It’s a city of culture and learning; an opportunity to get to know Lakota and Sioux Native Americans, and also the rugged yet beautiful landscapes they call home.
In the heart of Rapid City is a vibrant downtown where you’ll find family-friendly museums, art, and parks among great local restaurants.
In this post, we'll cover:
14. Journey Museum
Celebrating the Black Hills, the Journey Museum helps to preserve thousands of years’ worth of history within the area. The Black Hills are far more than a mountain range strewn across the Great Plains. It’s a place of heritage, Native American, and pioneer culture.
The exhibits are laid out in order, beginning with the formation of the mountain range. The range received its name from the Lakota, who called it Paha Sapa or the “hills that are black”. Visitors will then get to know the area’s prehistoric past, including fossils.
Afterwards, you’ll learn all about Native American history, including that of the Lakota and Sioux Native Americans. You can also explore the Minnilusa Pioneer Museum.
13. Black Hills Caverns
In the 1880s, Black Hill Caverns were discovered for the first time in the contemporary era. Searching for gold, a group of miners came upon the cave. However, the Lakota Native Americans had been using the cave’s various calcite crystals that are known to enhance mental clarity for hundreds of years.
Today, the caverns are not just a wonderful place to explore local geography, but also history. The main cave journeys into the earth for 3,400 feet that are laden with stalactites, popcorn rocks, and helictites. Your knowledgeable guide will take you on one of two tours. The first, venturing into the cave’s first level. While the other explores all three with around a mile of walking.
12. Watiki Water Park
There are some wonderful rainy day activities on this list of things to do in Rapid City, but if the sun is blazing, there’s only one place to go. Watiki Water Park is the answer to cool off on a hot summer’s day with a sprawling mix of thrilling water slides and swimming pools.
Importantly, the park is open year round, so even if the snow is tumbling down, you can still get your thrill on. The water park is a popular attraction, surrounded by several hotels, bars, and restaurants. It’s a great place to meet with friends or hang as a family.
Highlights include a lazy river, the Maui’s Body Slide, and a place to play basketball in the water.
11. Dinosaur Park
South Dakota has lots of connections to the age of dinosaurs. It’s a part of state culture and something you can experience here in Rapid City. Dinosaur Park was created in the 1930s and is perched on a hill that grants excellent views of downtown.
Dinosaur Park is home to seven replicas of various dinosaurs, each designed by Emmet Sullivan. The park makes for the perfect photo op, especially for younger kids who can get their photo taken with a T-Rex, a triceratops, or an apatosaurus, among others.
Alongside each dinosaur is an information board that explores how much they weighed, what they lived off of, and where they were discovered in and around South Dakota.
10. Badlands National Park
One of the most popular reasons people visit Rapid City is its proximity to the Badlands National Park. It’s the perfect base to explore, being only an hour east of the park.
Badlands National Park may just be one of the most underrated national parks in the United States. Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon are rightfully at the top, but the prismatic buttes and sandstone pinnacles help to create some of the most spectacular scenery you’ll ever have the pleasure of seeing.
Among the rock spires is a mixed-grass prairie ecosystem that is home to magical sunrises and sunsets. You can hike, four-wheel-drive, and venture out into the backcountry for a memorable wilderness experience.
9. Museum of Geology
Rapid City has an abundance of free attractions that make it a great place for budget travelers and families to visit. One of the best examples is the Museum of Geology. Great for all ages, visitors can learn about regional geology through exhibits that focus on minerals and paleontology.
The museum is an important part of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. As you explore, you’ll learn all about life below the surface. The major highlight is the museum’s stunning collection of reptiles. These include land-going mammals and reptiles from the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras, plus prehistoric marine life.
You can join guided tours for further insight and the young ones can even enjoy hands-on fun in the Kid’s Zone.
8. Art Alley
While enjoying the sights of Downtown Rapid City, including Main Street Square, leave plenty of time on the itinerary for Art Alley. This free, open exhibition features an entire alley covered in murals and captivating graffiti.
Graffiti alleys are growing more and more common, while becoming a great way to liven up an area and allow residents to express themselves. The colorful works of art span all genres, with some harboring mythical creatures, pop culture, and social messages.
You’ll find the alley between 6th and 7th street. Such is the temporary nature of each creation that if you get a chance to visit twice, it won’t be the same experience.
7. Bear Country USA
A short trip south of Rapid City, Bear Country USA is your chance to view some of the most intimidating (and cute) animals in the United States. As the name suggests, there is no shortage of bears here who play among the gigantic pines and wander through the lush meadows.
The experience begins with an interesting drive-thru experience. However, burgers aren’t on the menu. From the comfort of your car, you’ll drive three miles through a wildlife park past several enclosures. These not only feature black and brown bears, but also wolves, elk, cougars, and the notorious bobcat.
The animals are often just as curious and may approach and check out visitors as they drive by. Afterwards, put the car in park and get about on foot as you make your way through the Wildlife Walk.
6. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
With two millions visitors annually, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial is one of the most popular landmarks in the United States. The good news for travelers is that it’s only 30 minutes south of Rapid City.
The carved rock, which features the faces of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson, took over a dozen years to complete. Upon opening in 1941, it immediately became an iconic site, one with few international peers.
Visiting Mount Rushmore is free, and you can enjoy some amazing views from the park’s grounds. For further insight, join a ranger guided tour or make your way along the Presidential Trail. Afterwards, check out the Old West town of Keystone.
5. Storybook Island
For more than 60 years, Storybook Island has been entertaining families using a memorable mix of fairy tales and nursery rhymes to create an immersive experience. So if you’ve got young kids and are thinking about a park day, then put this on your itinerary.
Storybook Island is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year and is only a brief drive from Downtown Rapid City. The park itself is free to visit, but Storybook also has a train ride and carousel that you can enjoy for just $3.
As you ride the train or walk around the expansive park, you’ll stumble upon over 100 fairytale settings from many books and movies you and your kids adore. There are also regular theater productions.
4. South Dakota Air and Space Museum
Home to iconic planes, fighter jets, and artifacts from throughout history, the South Dakota Air and Space Museum will take you on a journey through the 20th century. Featuring a mix of galleries, exhibits and real aircraft, there are multiple ways to learn about the South Dakota’s and indeed the country’s rich aviation history.
Highlights of your visit will no doubt be the 30 military planes that flew in the Second World War. These are complemented by missiles and weapons that formed a key part in the success of the Allies.
Beyond wartime, you can get to know the pioneers of aviation history and just how far technology, science, and engineering have come. From when the Wright brothers first touched down, to the present day.
3. Chapel in the Hills
Arguably the most striking piece of architecture in Rapid City is the Chapel in the Hills. In the 1100s, the Borgund Stave Church was built in Norway before becoming a famous Nordic structure. Inspired by this and Rapid City’s own Norwegian heritage, Reverend Harry Gregerson set about recreating the chapel.
It was completed in 1969, and for six years hosted a Lutheran radio network. It was later moved to its current location among the lush green forests, the perfect setting for such a magical chapel.
As soon as you arrive, you’ll begin to admire the intricate woodwork that includes gilded designs, Norse dragonheads, and plenty of symbolic additions. To learn more about this chapel and the original, make your way over to the onsite museum and visitor center.
2. Reptile Gardens
Here, you’ll have the chance to get up close and personal with an incredible range of reptiles from around the world. The city’s Reptile Gardens boasts every reptile you can think of, from Komodo dragons, to lizards, snakes, and crocodiles. It’s enough to make a reptile fan out of anyone!
Many of these amazing species are featured in a number of captivating shows. Crowds gather for the gardens’ live entertainment, which includes the Snake Show and the Gator Show. But despite its name, there’s much more to the Reptile Gardens than just reptilians.
Visitors can explore the park’s prismatic floral gardens that feature exotic and rare plants from around the world. A highlight of this is the Sky Dome that harbors a tropical rainforest complete with lizards and frogs.
1. Downtown Rapid City
Between Omaha and Columbus street is where you’ll find the vibrant Downtown Rapid City. It’s the perfect spot to begin your travels here, with plenty of things to do for all kinds of people, young and old.
In the heart of downtown is Main Street Square. This is a popular communal gathering space where you’ll find playgrounds and open spaces for the kids, a stage that has summer music concerts along with shopping and plenty to eat.
However, one of the most unique parts of Downtown Rapid City is its public art display showcasing 43 presidents. Set across dozens of street corners, you’ll discover life-sized replicas of past leaders which complement the city’s amazing range of public art.