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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.
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). The guide-narrated City View Trolley connects tourist attractions with more than a dozen stops Monday through Saturday from June through August (adult fares $2; $1 for 60 years and older).
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
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.