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AARP’s City Guide to Rapid City, South Dakota

Discover a vibrant downtown with exciting art, culture and culinary innovation before exploring the Badlands and other natural wonders

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Rapid City makes a convenient base for exploring Badlands National Park, as well as the city itself.
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Located between the Black Hills and the Badlands, Rapid City fast-tracks access to South Dakota’s most stunning landscapes. Surrounded by 10 marquee national and state parks, monuments and forests, the recreational hub offers access to desert-like preserves, dense cave systems, granite peaks, ponderosa pine forests and grassy prairies abundant with wildlife. History and culture lovers can step back into the frontier West at the gold rush town of Deadwood or encounter contemporary Lakota, Dakota and Nakota cultures. Many attractions will draw you out of town, but centrally located Rapid City holds its own with a vibrant downtown filled with public art (don’t miss the ever-changing corner-to-corner murals in Art Alley), intriguing museums that provide context to regional sights and locavore restaurants that celebrate South Dakota agriculture. 

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​When to go

Summer is high season in the Rapid City region when crowds grow, prices climb and — particularly in the arid Badlands — temperatures soar. Spring rains and fall frosts tend to temper the crowds but offer their own highlights, from wildflower blooms in nearby preserves — ecologically speaking, this is where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains, and the area supports over 1,500 plant species including spring-through-fall blossoms — to changing leaves in town. Winters are quiet, as many businesses in or near the big parks close.

​Before you go 

If summer is your target, make plans in winter, roughly December through March, before hotel prices surge. Pack layers for the mountain weather, which tends to be cooler in the mornings and evenings but warm during the day. While the region around Rapid City is rugged, many of the parks have accessible trails. Scenic drives outside of town offer easy access to dramatic desert-like and mountain areas.

​Get here 

Nonstop flights from major hubs such as Chicago, Dallas and New York land at Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP). You’ll need a car to get outside the city, and many visitors take the road trip from places like Minneapolis (580 miles east of Rapid City) and Denver (390 miles south). For an overview of the city in summer, take the 90-minute City View Trolley tour offered Thursdays through Mondays (adult fares $15).

Where to Stay 

Rapid City makes a convenient base for exploring the Badlands and Black Hills as well as the city itself, with a range of accommodations — from historic to rustic — for a variety of budgets.

​The affordable to moderately priced 1928-vintage classic Hotel Alex Johnson downtown has undergone a stylish upgrade. Its namesake, Alex Carlton Johnson, a former railroad executive, built the hotel just as Mount Rushmore was breaking ground and envisioned his “showplace of the West” as an homage to Native Americans and the Black Hills. German Tudor architecture meets Native American art throughout the lavish interiors. Amenities include a full-service spa, a panoramic rooftop bar and an Irish saloon serving meals all day. In the mood for some company? Ghosts are said to haunt a few of the 143 rooms, which the daring can request.

​For a big dose of nature without straying too far from downtown, Lake Park Campground & Cottages on Canyon Lake, about 4 miles west of downtown, offers vacation homes and cottages. Multigenerational-friendly houses offer up to four bedrooms, and one includes a bunkhouse that sleeps nine. More modestly priced cottages run from studios to three bedrooms. The grounds feature horseshoe pits and a children’s playground. Rent a bike from the office and ride the nearby 10-mile paved bike path, which is relatively flat.

​On the same lake, the budget-friendly Canyon Lake Resort offers motel-style rooms and four cabins as well as access to the lake, trout fishing, a heated outdoor pool (seasonal) and central firepit. Connecting motel rooms make this a popular spot for families, and kitchenettes including a microwave, refrigerator, small stove and coffee pot allow you to eat some meals in.

If you can think of a chain hotel, it’s here. Among newer brands, Tru by Hilton keeps prices low with smaller guest rooms while keeping the vibe upbeat in generous shared spaces with multifunctional lobbies. Tru by Hilton Rapid City Rushmore just off Interstate 90 near downtown offers a breakfast bar, grab-and-go market, indoor swimming pool with a two-story waterslide, well-equipped gym, pool table and board games in the lobby and, on the outdoor patio, gas firepits and banquette seating. 

​Channel your frontier fantasies by staying at the covered wagon accommodations at the Deadwood/Black Hills KOA Holiday just outside of Deadwood, about 40 miles northwest of Rapid City. Family friendly, the four-person wagons include a set of bunk beds as well as modern conveniences including Wi-Fi, a glider bench on the porch and access to a nearby swimming pool. Note: The wagons are an upgrade compared to other no-frills, budget cabins on the property.

What to Do

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Art Alley is a pedestrian lane filled with street murals by local artists.

Main Street Square: Start your city tour in the downtown hub for events with a concert stage, lawn and interactive play fountains (expect a skating rink in winter). From here, explore the City of Presidents, a series of life-size bronze sculptures of American presidents from George Washington through Barack Obama that occupy the corners of 12 intersections. Download a free self-guided walking tour to play a scavenger hunt identifying a series of sculptural details. En route, between Sixth and Seventh and Main and Saint Joseph streets, look for Art Alley, a pedestrian lane filled with street murals.

​The Journey Museum & Learning Center: North of Rapid Creek in downtown, the Journey Museum & Learning Center explores the history, cultures and geology of the Black Hills region, where dinosaurs, Native American tribes and gold rush settlers have all left their marks. Immersive exhibits examine paleontology, including a working fossil lab with dinosaur bones; Native American culture, including a tipi visitors can walk in; archaeology, with an arrowhead-filled dig pit; frontier history via a boardwalk and general store; and the science and lore of the cosmos beyond in the Star Room.

Chapel in the Hills: About 5 miles southwest of downtown, Chapel in the Hills replicates Borgund Stavkirke, a 12th-century Norwegian wooden church. Like the original, the 1969 version contains wooden dowels rather than nails, with beams and staves, or wooden pillars, to support the structure. Though the chapel continues to offer services, it is very much a tourist site, including an antique-filled museum, a “stabbur” or grass-roofed storehouse built in Norway and serving as a gift shop, and a forest trail for quiet prayer and meditation.

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Wall Drug: You can’t visit the area without making a pilgrimage to Wall Drug, the drugstore on Interstate 90, 55 miles east of Rapid City, that built a following, beginning in 1936, by establishing a string of billboards along nearby highways promising early motorists “free ice water.” Today, more than 2 million visitors annually heed the call, arriving for water (still free) and so much more in a sprawling complex that now includes a restaurant (homemade doughnuts are a must with a 5-cent cup of coffee), shops (this is the place to pick up cowboy boots or a mounted “jackalope”) and Wall Drug Backyard, an amusement area with splash fountains, an arcade and mines where children can hunt for treasures.

Black Hills: About 40 miles west of Rapid City, the Black Hills got their name from the Indigenous Lakota people, who called them Paha Sapa, or “hills that are black” as the dark pine-covered mountains appear, rising from the surrounding prairies. In the heart of the forest, the 109-mile-long George S. Mickelson Trail offers cycling and hiking access along a former rail route making for good access for those with limited mobility or in a wheelchair — including more than 100 restored railroad bridges and four tunnels. Visitors can rent bikes or take a shuttle to the trail from several area companies including Black Hills Tour Company in Rapid City. In summer, trail managers periodically offer four-hour trolley tours of the trail for people holding handicapped parking permits (call 605-584-3896 for a schedule and reservations).

Where to Eat in Rapid City 

After exploring the region, dining — highlighted by a reverence for South Dakota-grown and -raised food — is a chief reason to return.

Chef and owner Benjamin Klinkel of Tally’s Silver Spoon calls the all-day restaurant a “finer diner,” combining the familiarity and affordability of a diner with lighter, more modern dishes and an emphasis on locally raised ingredients, from lettuce to bison. Menus mix standards (blueberry pancakes) and originals (duck confit and foie gras with an egg and gooseberries). You can get a buffalo burger at dinner or go more daring with bison or elk tenderloin. Lots of veggie and gluten-free options ensure something for every diet. For a strictly steakhouse experience, check out the chef’s nearby Delmonico Grill.

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Firehouse Brewing Co. in downtown Rapid City is South Dakota’s original brewpub.

​Grab a microbrew, an order of barbecued ribs and an architectural eyeful at South Dakota’s original brewpub, Firehouse Brewing Co., housed in a handsome brick-and-sandstone fire station built in 1915. Brews run the gamut from easy-drinking lagers to sturdy stouts and nonalcoholic root beer. Beyond barbecue, the family-friendly restaurant serves shareable nachos and wings, as well as salads, beer cheese soup, fish and chips, and gumbo. If you’re out and about in the Black Hills, check out Firehouse’s new seasonal location, Smokejumper Station, in Hill City.

​The Bashful Bison Market, a deli and specialty grocer, champions local ingredients in creative sandwiches. In keeping with the name, many feature the marquee meat, including bison pastrami with cheddar, as well as locally raised beef sandwiches, pulled pork sourced from nearby ranches, pizza made with organic ancient grain crusts, and Indian tacos, a take on Native American fry bread topped with bison and peppers. Breakfast highlights include biscuits and gravy made with pasture-raised-pork sausage.

​For a glass of wine and global bites, stop into bb’s Natural downtown, a wine bar from partners Brooke Sweeten and Justin Warner, a former winner of Food Network Star. Guests can pair red, white, rosé and even orange natural wines — free of pesticides and additives — with lighter dishes like truffle-butter popcorn and “goth” hummus (made with black tahini) and more substantial ones like steak tartare. For a wine bar, the prices are reasonable. The pair also run the neighboring Bokujo Ramen, which uses local meats and veggies in its Japanese soups.

While you’re out exploring the mountains, stop at the town of Custer for, arguably, the region’s best burger at Black Hills Burger & Bun Co. From grinding the meat — beef and buffalo — to baking the bun, cooks do it all at this family-owned favorite (there is a black bean burger for non-meat eaters). Twenty-four-ounce shakes are the way to go for dessert.

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Drive the buttes

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A young bison bull roams Badlands National Park.

Take a drive back in time at Badlands National Park, a 244,000-acre preserve of striated rocks dating back 75 million years and eroded over the eons by the forces of wind and water to expose bands of red, orange, yellow and purple. The Native Lakota called the rugged, arid region “mako sica” or “bad lands.” In addition to geology, the site is teeming in fossils — especially the 50-foot-long marine lizard known as a mosasaur — and wildlife, including bighorn sheep, pronghorn and prairie dogs. The roughly 40-mile Badlands Loop road takes it all in with lots of turnouts for photography.

​Ways to save: Badlands Ranger Programs, offered primarily in summer, are free and include activities such as geology walks (on Door Trail, which is ADA accessible), fossil talks (also on an accessible trail), stargazing using telescopes and evening talks on nature in the park.

​​Mingle with presidents

The Black Hills need little embellishment, but it’s hard to deny the power of the 60-foot-tall faces carved into Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Framed by pines, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln emerge from the granite about 23 miles southwest of Rapid City. From the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, which offers excellent views, take the short Presidential Trail to get closest to the sculptures (the trail requires climbing 422 stairs). Come late or come back to catch the evening lighting ceremony that takes place May through September.

Ways to save: Ranger walks and talks, regularly scheduled in summer, are free. So is the talk that takes place in the Sculptor’s Studio covering carving techniques, tools and workers, and the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Heritage Village, exploring the customs and traditions of the Indigenous people of the area.

​Thread the needle

Needles Highway seems to defy engineering. Built in 1922, the 14-mile drive takes motorists on a twisting, turning route through Custer State Park around granite spires and soaring pines and through narrow Needles Eye tunnels. This is a blacktop built for Sunday driving in a 71,000-acre park that preserves some of the most scenic parts of the Black Hills. Get out and stretch your legs at nearby Sylvan Lake, where a 1-mile trail, which is relatively level, rings the lake, passing massive granite boulders.

Ways to save: If you’ve always wanted to go on safari but feared the price tag, Custer State Park offers a DIY American version along the Wildlife Loop Road, an 18-mile route through a southern section of the park where you’re likely to see bison, burros, pronghorn and prairie dogs.

​​Explore Indigenous culture

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The interior of the visitor complex at the still-unfinished Crazy Horse Memorial.

The Native American response to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, less than 20 miles to the west, pays stunning homage to the Oglala Lakota warrior in what is expected to be a massive 641-foot-long, 563-foot-tall carving into a mountain. A bus ride gets you up close to the still-under-construction monument. Its Indian Museum of North America is filled with art and cultural exhibits including the log home where the late sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski lived. Its Laughing Water Restaurant serves dishes like buffalo stew and tacos made with Indian fry bread.

Ways to save: Roughly 37 miles north of Rapid City, Bear Butte, now part of Bear Butte State Park, is sacred to the Lakota, Cheyenne and other tribes of the Northern Plains (admission $8 per car). Along hiking trails, visitors might see pieces of cloth or offerings hanging from trees left by American Indian worshipers who still use the park for religious practices.

​​Relive the Old West

When gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, it set off a rush, drawing chancers from hither and yon to Deadwood. Established in 1876, and popularized by the HBO series in 2004, Deadwood radiates 19th-century grit, now gussied up for tourists who come to see the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was murdered holding the “dead man’s hand” (aces and eights), Calamity Jane helped residents survive the smallpox epidemic and Sheriff Seth Bullock tried to bring order to the town. Come for public reenactments of those colorful times, plus history museums, casinos and a tour of an old brothel.

​Ways to save: Self-guided tours of Mount Moriah Cemetery, where many of the famous residents are buried, are free. Stop by the Visitor’s Center for a map or download before you go. When commercial Deadwood starts to feel like it’s fleecing you, drive north and west about 15 miles on Highway 85 and I-90 to reach the start of Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, a 22-mile route winding past waterfalls that tumble over 1,000-foot-high limestone walls.

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