Rapid City is known for many iconic things such as the City of Presidents, a series of life-sized president statues found throughout its downtown district, or being the gateway to Mount Rushmore thanks to its convenient location only 30 minutes away from the memorial. But not everything about Rapid is well known. In fact, the city is full of hidden gems and unique finds if you just dig a little deeper. One of the most unexpected places in Rapid City is the Chapel in the Hills. And even more surprising - it’s free.
Surrounded by ponderosa pines on the west side of town stands an exact replica of the Borgund Stavkirke of Laerdal, Norway. I consider it unexpected for two reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that you wouldn’t expect to find a piece of Norwegian architecture in South Dakota. The second would the unexpected location of this peaceful little treasure.
Let’s start with the location of this hidden gem. The road to Chapel in the Hills actually takes you through a residential neighborhood near one of Rapid's first parks, Canyon Lake Park. At first, you’ll experience the feeling of being utterly lost, until you round a final bend in the road. The neighborhood falls away and you enter a hidden oasis. Once you arrive it’s hard to believe the neighborhood was ever there in the first place. This peaceful patch of land is rolling with green grasses and surrounded by forested hills, and in the center sits a wooden chapel.
So, how exactly did this enchanting structure end up in Rapid City, South Dakota? It all started in 1960 when a Lutheran radio station decided to expand and give their listeners a location to visit. It was clear that the Black Hills would be a perfect location due to the number of visitors that travel to the area. With location decided, they needed to figure out the building itself. In the Dakotas and surrounding states there’s a high population of Norwegian Lutherans, so it made sense for the chapel be built in the style of an original stave church. The chapel was built as an exact replica of the famous Borgund stavkirke, of Laerdal, Norway thanks to blueprints received from the Norwegian Department of Antiquities. You can read a more complete history of the making of Chapel in the Hills and the people behind it on their website!
Experience the rest of the chapel grounds during your visit with a walk on the Meditation Trail which weaves through the forest behind the chapel and offers one of my favorite views at this location. Inside the authentic Stabbur, which is the grass-roofed house near the parking lot, is the visitor center and Scandinavian themed gift shop. Fun fact at about this building: it was built in Norway, shipped to South Dakota, and then assembled on site. Last to explore is the authentic log cabin museum which was built by a Norwegian prospector that came to the Black Hills during the gold rush. Inside are items brought over from Norway or made in the 1800s by Scandinavians in the United States.
Beyond being a beautiful place to explore while visiting, the chapel is a popular destination to hold small wedding ceremonies. Chapel in the Hills is open to tour from May through September (occasionally into October). They are also open during the holiday season when you can tour the grounds with lighting and decorations, shop for presents, and attend Advent Worship inside the chapel.
Take time to tour the unexpected and hidden gems during your visit to Rapid City and the Black Hills. Admiring the intricacy of the woodwork that makes up this charming chapel might just be the highlight of your vacation. Discover more unexpected places to explore in the related content below!