How A Depression-Era Park Became A Favorite Rapid City Attraction
*Dinosaur Park is currently undergoing enhancements to make the park more accessible. The park is open, but only available by trail access at this time as work continues.
If you’re a Rapid City first timer, it may be hard to understand why Dinosaur Park and all its quirkiness gets so much buzz. Even singer-songwriter Adam Young with Owl City created a song about his love for Rapid and this magical hilltop of beasts. For locals, the green Brontosaurus straddling the skyline feels like a close friend. Our childhoods are filled with cherished memories of this park, something we recreate today by bringing our own families. It’s the experiences that can be created here that we lovingly share with visitors. Add in its interesting history and some stunning panoramic views and we’re pretty sure this park will become a treasured place for you too.
A Historical Timeline
What many don’t know is the crucial role this park played in the development of the area. So don’t shrug it off as a couple of old dinosaur statues on a hill - it holds way more meaning than that.
In 1936, during the Great Depression, work began on the 80-foot-long brontosaurus and four of its neighboring friends. Emmett Sullivan, among many that worked on the carving of Mount Rushmore, were hired to construct the massive beasts after dinosaur bones and footprints were found in the area. It was an idea that served as a strategy to capture traffic drawn to Mount Rushmore and marked the beginning of Rapid City’s transformation from pass-through town to must-stop destination.
During construction an office building that used during the historic Stratobowl hot air balloon launches was relocated to the park and remained there through completion of the adjacent Skyline Drive. Originally, five dinosaur species were selected to represent the giants that roamed the Western United States. Later, the group became seven when two additional, smaller dinosaurs were added near the park’s gift shop. Sullivan constructed the dinosaurs out of metal pipe frame, wire and concrete and chose to paint them gray. It wasn’t until the 1950s, after the sites dedication that they were given the cartoon-ish color scheme you see today – green and white.
Check out our Youtube video from more fascinating history on Dinosaur Park.
Little-known fact: Every city has a dark past. The ridge where Dinosaur Park is located was once known as Hangman’s Hill. You can imagine what happened here. In 1877, three horse thieves, two guilty and one who rode into town with the wrong folks, were captured and brought to the hill. The remnants of the tree can still be seen near the park on Skyline Drive and is now a grim symbol of the past.
Over the years, the most famous of the seven dinos, the brontosaurus, has grown to become a symbol of the city – and rightfully so. He witnessed the preservation of Badlands National Park by Theodore Roosevelt in 1939 – which you can see from the summit of Dinosaur Park if you turn your gaze east. From the west, he likely heard the first blast on Crazy Horse Memorial® as work began in 1948. During a period of the Cold War in the 1960s, he watched as a missile field, containing 150 Missile Silos, was constructed not far from his perch. One of those silos operates as a museum today. Later in 1972, our green friend watched the devastation of a flood – the worst natural disaster in South Dakota history – wipe out our community. And out of that devastation, he saw the birth of a reshaped city. Recreational gems and beautiful parks appeared in remembrance of the flood, including the city bike path, Memorial Park and Founders Park at the base of local favorite, Hanson-Larsen Memorial Park commonly referred to as M Hill. The beloved children’s park, Storybook Island, was also enhanced and reconstructed. And in 1990, Dinosaur Park earned its place on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, Dinosaur Park is the only destination in the area where you’re allowed to climb on the dinosaurs. It makes for fun photo opportunities and lets imaginations (young and old) soar. Rapid City does have a few museums with Dinosaur skeletons, but your kids won’t be able to climb them (my three year old has asked). It’s also quite safe to climb – and not just because they don’t move. While their scale is generally correct, they don’t reflect what we know today about true dinosaur anatomy. Natural elements and aging have also degraded some of the sharper features, like the teeth on the Tyrannosaurus Rex and tail spikes on the Stegosaurus. The park is also free, which makes it easier to say “yes” to persistent family members.
If the dinosaurs are the main draw for the children, the 100-mile views boost the experience for adults. From the top, you gain a great overview to the western region of South Dakota comprised of dense pine forest and rolling plains. Rapid City’s location at the base of the Black Hills gives visitors at Dinosaur Park a visual of these two very different forms of terrain. If you are there for lunch, consider grabbing snacks from the park’s concessions or a meal to-go from one of our local restaurants. There is a patio at the base of the park with picnic tables provided by the gift shop during the warmer months – May through September. Or, on the hill, you’ll find a few benches, grass and a couple of flat rock areas. After all, food tastes better with a great view.
A more romantic setting can be found at sunrise and sunset as the sky comes alive with an array of gorgeous colors. Or catch the creatures under the moonlight, and see if Owl City’s suspicions are true. However, I think the only movement will be the twinkling lights of the city and maybe a few stars. Dinosaur Park and other points along Skyline Drive are great places to glimpse the cityscape after the sun goes down, just respect the parks closing time of 10pm.
Speaking of great views, Dinosaur Park serves as a trailhead for Skyline Wilderness Trail – a 150-acre piece of urban wilderness with excellent hiking and biking.
Don’t Miss The Visitor Center
When I was a child, the gift shop at Dinosaur Park Visitor Center was my favorite place to purchase rocks for my collection from the Dinosaur Gem Mine. Typical kid. Revisiting today, I can assure you the interior of this building is completely unexpected and pretty incredible. Besides the Gem Mine, kids can take home “hatching dinosaurs”, educational books and other dinosaur themed memorabilia. Art pieces, large geodes and local Black Hills apparel also create the perfect souvenir or gift.
Since its beginning, access to these dinosaurs was a long flight of steep, stone stairs and a low railing. For many years, this has been a challenge for some visitors. Enhancements at Dinosaur Park are currently taking place to include accessibility improvements to viewing routes and upgrades to visitor amenities. This multi-phase project is scheduled for completion in December 2023.