After a whirlwind 4-day trip through South Dakota’s beautiful and expansive Black Hills (and surrounding areas), I told my husband that I was overwhelmed with all of the things we still didn’t see! Before we took our 5-hour flight from the East Coast to Rapid City, SD I had little understanding or expectations of our destination - I just knew we would get to check out the iconic Mount Rushmore.
Little did I know, we would be trying to soak up every last moment of the bucket list worthy sites that Rapid City has to offer. Literally waking up for sunrise and keeping our 18-month-old daughter awake well past sunset, we crammed our itinerary to bring you the must-see’s of Rapid City, SD!
From a geographic perspective, Rapid City is the central hub to hotspots like Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills and the Badlands. It’s also a surprisingly reasonable drive from another national park wonder - Devil’s Tower in Wyoming! We had the pleasure of staying in one of Rapid City’s finest boutique hotels, The Rushmore Hotel, which anchors the main drag in downtown. Some of the best local cuisine was right at our fingertips and gave us some serious respite from all of the hiking and driving we took on.
Although it rained for a good portion of our trip, we still found tons of adventure for our family in and around Rapid City. Check out our top 7 sites to see below:
1. Custer State Park
We only scraped the surface of the Black Hills, which is situated about 30 miles south of Rapid City. Custer State Park has a fantastic winding wildlife loop, where we had the opportunity to pull over for multiple bison-sightings and explore quick, scenic hiking trails with our toddler in tow. The park is actually comprised of over 71,000 acres and 5 lakes - if you're planning a visit, make sure to dedicate an entire day for hiking and site seeing in this gorgeous park.
2. The Needles
Rain clouded our panoramic view of the mountains once we made it up to the Needles, but nothing could block our sight of those natural eroded granite pillars piercing the sky at 500 feet tall. My husband did some free climbing on one of the spires off the side of Needles Scenic Byway and threaded our SUV through the single-lane mountain-carved tunnels as we made our way to Sylvan Lake. Eery, dense fog blanketed the famously beautiful lake which made hiking around it all the more interesting!
3. Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore - what a surreal experience. After two failed attempts in the rain to see the president’s faces chiseled into the side of a granite mountain, we finally snuck a peek! The park opens at 5am daily and we were the first ones to arrive. The intermittent fogs parted for a solid half hour, just enough time to stand in awe of the national monument and get the shot before other tourists (and more fog) rolled in.
4. The Badlands
We followed up Mount Rushmore with a drive up to Dinosaur Park, which has 360 degree views of downtown Rapid City (a great photo op)! From there, we set our sights on the Badlands and they did not disappoint. Just a 45 minute drive from our hotel, the Badlands stretched for miles. The towering striped clay peaks formed in interesting patterns, each more breathtaking than the next, and provided endless hiking trails to explore. Take the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway and you're guaranteed to find multiple trailheads and amazing hiking opportunities.
5. Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park - By far the coolest experience we had on the trip was our private tour down into dimly lit depths of the 3rd largest cave in the US. Our ranger spent two hours walking us under the intricate boxwork (basically super thin, web-like calcite) and showing us original markings from explorers who traveled through the steep chambers in the early 1900’s. Get there early to secure your admission and read up on the different tour offerings - the Candlelight tour is amazing!
6. Spearfish Canyon
Spearfish Canyon was another quick and natural wonder only 45 minutes from downtown by highway. We wound through the towering thousand-foot high limestone landscapes along the canyon floor and stumbled upon multiple water falls. After a short hike to Roughlock Falls, we had to cut our time short to make sunset at Devil’s Tower.
7. Devils Tower
We ended our trip across the border in Wyoming, hiking the bottom of Devils Tower. Just in time for sunset, we watched brave free climbers descend the steep parallel cracks before park close. The paved loop at the base led us to killer sunset views overlooking both the tower and a deep valley with sprawling hills.
As I look over all of the photos we shot in that short 4-day window, I’m still amazed by the striking landscape and the sheer variety of outdoor recreation in the Black Hills and Rapid City. Not to mention, we really enjoyed all of the Western gold-rush era main streets littered throughout the area like in Hot Springs, Keystone and Deadwood. The dive-y haunts and family attractions really helped round out our trip. If you’re looking to spend a week in nature (but also like modern accommodations), I would give Rapid City a visit. There’s a lot more than Mount Rushmore!