16 Surprising Things Rapid City, South Dakota Is Known For

Raised in Rapid City and lucky to call it home, this outdoor enthusiast loves to explore the Black Hills with her husband and two dogs. When she’s not at work you’ll find her out hiking, at a local ice cream shop, or perhaps home taking a nap.

January 25, 2023

Rapid is the second largest city in South Dakota, the largest city and airport near Mount Rushmore, and considered the “Gateway to the Black Hills”. We are surrounded by well known locations and national parks, but many recognize Rapid for these surprising things you can explore right in town. 

1.    Bronze Replicas of Past American Presidents

city of presidents statue with veterans mural in background in rapid city, south dakota
City of Presidents

It’s impossible to miss these famous faces in Downtown Rapid City. Called the City of Presidents, which is also Rapid City’s nickname, this free walking tour beats any history book when it comes to learning American Presidents. Each statue was created by a local artist and features something iconic to the president, and all are life-sized except for William Howard Taft who was a little too pricey to fully recreate in bronze. 

2.    Seven Quirky Dinosaurs

visitors standing below the brontosaurus at dinosaur park in rapid city south dakota
Dinosaur Park @Iuliana Cordes

Giant, and a little cartoonish, the residents of Dinosaur Park continue to straddle the city skyline like they have since 1936. It was one of Rapid City’s first tourist attractions and today still holds many special memories to locals and visitors through multiple generations. You can spot the Brontosaurus from different spots around town for a fun game of “I Spy”. 

*Dinosaur Park is currently closed for construction to create accessible pedestrian routes, update safety features, and upgrade visitor amenities including site interpretation. The project is expected to last until approximately May. You can explore more stunning views of Rapid City from Hanson-Larsen Memorial Park or see actual dinosaur fossils at the Museum of Geology.

3.    The World’s Largest Reptile Zoo

drone shot about the dome and gardens of reptile gardens in rapid city south dakota
Reptile Gardens

From its rather unique beginning in 1937, Reptile Gardens has grown into one of our area’s most popular attractions. In fact, it’s recognized as one of the top zoos in America. Home to tortoises, gators, lizards, birds, and over 40,000 flowers in its botanical gardens, Reptile Gardens can be a place for relaxation, learning, or on the edge of your seat excitement.   

4.    A Historic And Haunted Hotel

Hotel Alex Johnson sign in front of the sunsetting over the black hills in rapid city south dakota
Hotel Alex Johnson

The Hotel Alex Johnson has famously hosted presidents, politicians, celebrities and even Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum. It’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is rumored to be haunted by at least two ghosts.

5.    The Most Comprehensive Display Of Black Hills History

Inside a pioneer home on display at the journey museum and learning center in rapid city south dakota
Journey Museum & Learning Center

The exhibits at the Journey Museum & Learning Center span over 2.5 billion years of Black Hills history. For those that love getting the deeper story of where they travel – it walks through the geology, paleontology, and archaeology of the area. Other fascinating exhibits within this museum include the Sioux Indian Museum and the wild, early pioneer days of Rapid City and surrounding communities. 

6.    One Of The Largest Powwows In The Country

Mother and child in regalia dancing at the black hills powwow in Rapid City South Dakota
Black Hills Powwow

Every year in October thousands of singers, dancers, artists and spectators come to town to celebrate The He Sapa Wacipi or The Black Hills Powwow.  From Friday through Sunday this event holds numerous events like a parade, art shows, singing contests, Lakota archery contests, dance contests and more. 

7.    A Norwegian Chapel

visitors walking up the path to the wooden chapel at chapel in the hills in rapid city south dakota
Chapel in the Hills

The Norwegian Department of Antiquities shared the blueprints of the famous Borgund church in Norway so that in 1969 an exact replica could be constructed in Rapid City called the Chapel in the Hills

8.    Trek Worthy Trails In The City

sunrise mountain bikers on the trails overlooking rapid city at skyline wildernes area
Skyline Wilderness Area

While it can take less than 15 minutes to get to an extraordinary trail in the Black Hills, Rapid is also known for having over 20 miles of outstanding hiking and mountain biking trails right in the city. You can explore two slices of urban wilderness called Hanson-Larsen Memorial Park and Skyline Wilderness Area. Both offer a variety of trail systems and beautiful views of the city and beyond. 

9.    The Perfect Place To Go Fishing

man fishing in the water of rapid creek in rapid city south dakota
Rapid Creek

Anglers’ paradise weaves its way throughout Rapid City in the form of Rapid Creek. With multiple access points right in the city it’s a pristine place to pursue brook, brown and rainbow trout. You can find local experts and tour guides, fishing equipment for purchase and waders for rent at Dakota Angler & Outfitter.

10.    South Dakota’s First Brew Pub

couple enjoying evening drinks on the patio of Firehouse Brewing Company in rapid city south dakota
Firehouse Brewing Company

Our city has come alive with hoppin’ flavors from a variety of local breweries, but Rapid City is known for having South Dakota’s very first brew pub and you can still visit it today! Firehouse Brewing Company is located downtown and resides in the city's original fire hall. 

11.    An Ever-Changing Outdoor Street Art Gallery

native american murals on the walls of art alley in downtown rapid city south dakota
Art Alley

The art scene in Rapid is expressive and ever-changing, something you can witness for yourself in our outdoor gallery known as Art Alley. Artists who obtain a permit can leave their mark making the alley a unique mixture of styles and creativity. 

12.    An Opera House Turned Movie Theatre

elks movie theatre sign and entrance lit up at night in downtown rapid city south dakota
Elks Theatre @josuvious_11

Elks Theatre is home to the largest movie screen in the state. The historic charm of the theatre which originally was a lavish opera house is enough reason to catch a film here, but if you need more convincing – they have the best popcorn around. 

13.    An Unwearable Banana Belt

people ice skating on a warm day at main street square in rapid city south dakota
Main Street Square

Our banana belt isn’t a fashion statement, but it is the reason we can often go hiking or ice skating in t-shirts in the dead of winter. Rapid City is known for having mild winter weather in relation to the rest of South Dakota thanks to this large geographic feature. 

14.    A Young Kevin Costner Film Set

dances with wolves film set building at fort hays in rapid city south dakota
Fort Hays

Let’s not deny it, we all love Kevin Costner. Which is why many know our area as one of the filming locations of the famous movie “Dances With Wolves”. You can tour the film set for free with a visit to Fort Hays

15.    A Giant “M”

drone shot above the M on hanson-larsen memorial park for School of Mines in Rapid city south dakota
Hanson-Larsen Memorial Park

A large “M” on Hanson-Larsen Memorial Park (locally referred to as M Hill) represents the local university South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. The M was originally created in 1912 from rocks brought up the hill by horses, taking over 100 wagonloads to create. 

16.    The Birthplace Of The Space Age

looking down at the stratobowl launch site during the stratobowl historic hot air balloon event in rapid city
Stratobowl Historic Hot Air Balloon Launch

Right outside of Rapid City at a location called the Stratobowl is where two piloted ballooned flights launched into the stratosphere to a record 72,395 feet in 1935. Now, this historic event is celebrated every September with ten to twelve hot air balloons launching from this iconic spot, the event is called the Stratobowl Historic Hot Air Balloon Launch.