A First-Timer’s Guide To Rapid City, South Dakota

July 6, 2020

A First-Timer's Guide to Rapid City, South Dakota | Why Rapid City is a great base for exploring western South Dakota, things to do in Rapid City if you're visiting Badlands, Black Hills, or Custer State Park. This cute and patriotic little American city is a perfect weekend getaway or road trip! #rapidcity #southdakota #usa #roadtrip #weekendgetaway

When people are thinking about cool smaller cities in the U.S. to visit, I’m not sure Rapid City is one of the first to come to mind.  And while I don’t know that the city *alone* would be a big enough draw for a visit, it sits at the center of Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, and Custer State Park.

It’s the perfect charming base for exploring all the gorgeous scenery and interesting culture that western South Dakota has to offer.

A First-Timer's Guide to Rapid City, South Dakota | Why Rapid City is a great base for exploring western South Dakota, things to do in Rapid City if you're visiting Badlands, Black Hills, or Custer State Park. This cute and patriotic little American city is a perfect weekend getaway or road trip! #rapidcity #southdakota #usa #roadtrip #weekendgetaway

I’ll be doing deeper posts on the different parks and scenic drives, but wanted to do a separate post on some of the best things to do in Rapid City if you’re planning a visit to the area.

Other info you’ll need for a South Dakota roadtrip:

A Roadtrip Through South Dakota’s Badlands National Park

Walk around the cute downtown area

The town has many cute indie shops, artists’ collectives, craft breweries, local eateries, and more.  It’s not big, but it’s a lovely way to while away some time.

A First-Timer's Guide to Rapid City, South Dakota | Explore the cute downtown area

Check out the “City of Presidents”

Scattered throughout Rapid City’s downtown area are life-size bronze statues of America’s past presidents.  There’s no rhyme or reason to placement, so it’s fun to just happen upon them and see how each is immortalized.

On a side note, if these are life-size, I’m a (5’5″) giant!!

A First-Timer's Guide to Rapid City, South Dakota | Why Rapid City is a great base for exploring western South Dakota, things to do in Rapid City if you're visiting Badlands, Black Hills, or Custer State Park. This cute and patriotic little American city is a perfect weekend getaway or road trip! #rapidcity #southdakota #usa #roadtrip #weekendgetaway

The City of the Presidents in Rapid City

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Take a stroll through Art Alley

Rapid City has a small but cool alley where artists can apply for permits and pain on the surfaces.  It’s by no means the most extensive city street art scene in the country, but it’s a nice few minutes and the art changes occasionally.

The vibrant Art Alley in downtown Rapid City - things to do in Rapid City

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The alley is nearly impossible to miss if you’ve walking around downtown Rapid City, but if you want to know ahead of time it’s located in between 6th and 7th, and Main and Saint Joseph Streets.

A First-Timer's Guide to Rapid City, South Dakota | Explore the cute downtown area and Art Alley

Other things to do in Rapid City

  • Main Street Square – A nice public area right in the heart of downtown that includes water features, flowers, and a chill place to sit for a bit.  There are event like live music and such here as well.
  • Dinosaur Park – It’s cheesy but I’m a little bummed we didn’t get out here for a few minutes on this visit to recreate pics from when I was a kid.  There are only like 5 statues and it would only be worth a few minutes’ time, but kids would enjoy it.
  • Sioux Pottery – The beautiful pottery from the Sioux people is another clear memory of my childhood, as my parents always picked up a new coffee cup or vase when we visited.  I was excited to get a couple of my own on this trip.
  • Reptile Gardens – Gives me the willies to even type that phrase.  Ugh.  This zoo/wildlife center is focused on reptiles, which makes it my nightmare, but if you have kids this can be a fun option.

If you’re in the mood for a run or walk, there’s a nice running path over across Omaha Street, where Memorial Park links up with Founder’s Park.  I barely scratched the surface on my morning jog, but it was pretty and peaceful.

Where to eat (& caffeinate)

This is mostly focused on coffee shops and diners, because I didn’t get a chance to try out the restaurants and breweries I wanted to (but I will note them below).

HANDS DOWN my favorite find for coffee was Harriet & Oak, an adorable coffee shop just a few blocks past the main downtown area on Main Street.  I stopped in here for coffee and a pastry during my first morning’s run and ended up seduced by their Elvis waffles (peanut butter, bananas, honey, what’s not to love??).

I came back each day, trying their breakfast bowl, different coffee drinks (the Caffe Miel is a fave), and more.  Word to the wise, get the apricot pop tart…

Adorable Harriet & Oak coffee shop in Rapid City

Another total winner and repeat visit was Tally’s Silver Spoon.  This cute diner goes way back in Rapid City, in a few different iterations.

I had lunch with my parents here right after getting off the plane (a delish bison burger) and then stopped on my run for pancakes on my last morning.  I’m still mad I didn’t get to try the smoked salmon eggs benedict and the chicken fried steak.  Hard to go wrong here.  One note, true to diner form, they only do regular drip coffee.

Two other coffee shops worth mentioning were Dixon Coffee Company, a tiny little stand over by the hotel I was staying at.  Focus on coffee here but they sure do have a lot of different options.  It’s not as unassuming as the tiny drive/walk-up stand looks.

The other was Essence of Coffee, which I hit on my last morning.  Cute and great menu, and super friendly staff as well.  In general the people in Rapid City (and all the service I received at restaurants) were incredibly warm and friendly.

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In addition to those listed above, here are some other places I wanted to try but wasn’t able to:

  • Firehouse Brewing Company
  • Independent Ale House – one of the top ten beer bars in America
  • Hay Camp Brewing Company
  • Lost Cabin Beer Co
  • Zymurcracy Beer Company
  • Everest Cuisine – supposed to be amazing Indian/Lebanese food, including buffet lunch
  • Jerry’s Cakes and Donuts – named in top 12 in U.S.; I’m still mad about missing this
  • The Colonial House – a local favorite for breakfast, especially for their old-school cinnamon and caramel rolls (a local treat)

I’m especially sad I didn’t get to try the craft breweries here.  If I had the time, I would definitely have hit Zymurcracy, Lost Cabin, Hay Camp, and then Jerry’s for the donuts.

Awesome day trips from Rapid City

As I said at the outset, the big draw for visiting this area isn’t Rapid City itself, but the diverse natural beauty in the surrounding area.  Here are a few of the best day trips to consider.

Custer State Park (and Mount Rushmore)

To the southwest you’ve got Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial (if those are your kind of thing), and then the expanse of Custer State Park.

Even as a kid I found Rushmore a little cheesy (impressive, but just too touristy for my tastes).  My family wanted to make a brief visit here though, so I had to snap a few pics.

Mount Rushmore is a perfect day trip from Rapid City

What I definitely was excited about was driving the famous Needles Highway and exploring other areas around Custer State Park.  One thing I missed due to time was grabbing a bite at Black Hills Burger & Bun Co, voted one of the best in the country and located between Rushmore and the Needles Highway.

The park is $20 to enter, though somehow we never actually had to pay…I think we just didn’t end up in the main area of the park.  The Needles Highway was beautiful, and we took the Iron Mountain Highway drive as well.  Finally we ended at Sylvan Lake, which was beautiful but crowded.

Beautiful Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park - things to do in Rapid City

Our time was limited, but my mom and I stopped for a flight of wines and a flatbread at Prairie Berry Winery (also known as Red Ass Winery).  There are a number of craft breweries and wineries right in this little area, so if you have some time it’s worth hopping around to a few.  Some of the others are Sick-N-Twisted Brewery, Naked Winery, and Miner Brewery Company.

Badlands National Park

Badlands is an easy national park to visit, with one main road winding through the entire park.  It takes about an hour to reach the park, which is southeast of the city.

The topography changes pretty dramatically at different points, which is crazy in such a small area.  While I would have loved blue skies for the entire trip (they peeked out at the end of our drive), the deep grooves and colored stripes of the rock are beautiful regardless.

Had I been alone, I would have meandered a bit more, stopped a bit more (though briefly), and definitely taken the extra dirt loop road at the end before hitting the famous Wall Drug.  We did make a quick stop at Wall Drug though, for some hot dogs, pie, and donuts.  Yes, all at once.

Read more:  A Roadtrip Through South Dakota’s Badlands National Park

Visiting Badlands National Park is a perfect day trip from Rapid City

Spearfish Canyon & the Black Hills

On our last day we drove up into the Black Hills northwest of Rapid City for some scenic driving and waterfalls.  The waterfalls aren’t anything epic, but the drive overall through Spearfish Canyon is gorgeous.  We stopped at Bridal Veil Falls and Roughlock Falls before running out of time and having to head back to Rapid.

Devil’s Tower, Wyoming

There weren’t enough days in my trip so I wasn’t able to cram this in, but some of my family did (as they live on the West Coast so visited on their drive to South Dakota).  It’s a longer day trip but could be great and pairs well with Spearfish Canyon.

Where to stay in Rapid City

I stayed at The Rushmore Hotel & Suites in downtown.  It was fine, clean enough and I got upgraded to a nicer room.  Great location.  They weren’t doing housekeeping service while I was there due to COVID-19 unless you request it, but I requested it once and they never came (must have forgotten).  Overall I’d stay here again if needed, as the pickings were pretty slim.

If you’re staying with friends, a rental house is a great way to go though…there are so many beautiful houses out in the hills that are perfect for experiencing this beautiful area.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that Rapid City and the surrounding area are a must-visit!  Hit me up in the comments with any questions you have as you’re planning your visit.

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A First-Timer's Guide to Rapid City, South Dakota | Why Rapid City is a great base for exploring western South Dakota, things to do in Rapid City if you're visiting Badlands, Black Hills, or Custer State Park. This cute and patriotic little American city is a perfect weekend getaway or road trip! #rapidcity #southdakota #usa #roadtrip #weekendgetaway

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