Countless big adventures await you in and around Rapid City, so we’ve compiled a checklist of our “must-do” parks and monuments to help make your vacation with us, a monumental one.
Take a selfie with presidents George, Thomas, Theodore and Abe at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Head south of downtown Rapid City, and you’ll stumble upon four 60-foot American presidents carved into stone stoically watching over the rolling picturesque landscape. Look up at the timeless “shrine to democracy,” proudly standing as a symbol of our nation’s freedom, liberty and the power of a dream. Hear the stories and learn the history of the notable memorial on the award-winning, self-guided audio tour or multimedia tour as you stroll the scenic route throughout the park. Meander along the Presidential Trail half-mile loop for unexpected views of the iconic faces. Various wildlife roam the grounds; you’re likely to spot mountain goats, chipmunks and mule deer, to name a few! Learn about the tools and techniques used to carve the mountain sculpture at the Sculptor’s Studio, which includes stories from the workers, tool demonstrations and the artist’s working model. During the evenings, travelers come together for the seasonal Lighting Ceremony. A remarkable sense of pride beams from the memorial as sculpture lights up the night sky. Don’t forget to grab a taste of history with a scoop—or two—of Thomas Jefferson’s original 1870 ice-cream recipe at the Carve rs Café.
Learn traditional Native American dance with the locals at Crazy Horse Memorial, located minutes down the road from Mount Rushmore. As one of the most powerful and recognized chiefs in the Lakota tribe, Crazy Horse has been cemented in history as a war leader. His memorial, etched in stone standing more than 64 stories high, has come to represent his legacy and the freedom of the Native American spirit. In the summertime, local Native American dancers perform round-style dances; watch closely, as each dance step tells a story. Additionally, on-site cultural centers offer enriching exhibits and hands-on activities on Native American history and culture through storytelling, songs and dance. While you’re visiting, take a ride to the base of the memorial to witness the world’s largest mountain carving-in-progress. Beginning Memorial Day weekend, watch the mountainside transform into a nightly “Legends in Light” laser-light show, which illuminates the stories of the rich heritage and culture of the Native Americans. Another spectacular ceremonial blast lights up the mountain with fireballs and pyrotechnical features during the traditional Night Blasts. The bi-annual Crazy Horse Volksmarch in the spring and fall welcome travelers to hike through the Black Hills to the top of the memorial, trekking the distance of a 10K.
Explore the depths of the world’s third longest cave at Jewel Cave National Monument. As you continue traveling southwest, you’ll uncover an unbelievable underground world with over 190 miles explored and counting. Dazzling calcite crystals illuminate the passageways of the cave, which coined the name Jewel Cave. Rangers will guide you along moderate to strenuous tours through the cave. The Scenic Tour, the most popular amongst travelers, is a moderately strenuous tour that guides you to various cave formations throughout chambers and passages. If time is of the essence, take the Discovery Talk tour, as it’s the shortest of all the tours offered lasting 20 minutes. Very accessible for children of all ages, learn about the cave’s natural and cultural histories. Follow the flicker of your lantern as you explore the cave as it was decades ago during the Historic Lantern Tour, complete with a 1930’s-dressed ranger. Once you’re suited with a hard hat and headlamp, belly-crawl through passages, and climb ropes up walls amid the underground wilderness during the most strenuous of the tours, the Wild Caving Tour. For those looking to explore above ground, hike diverse trails, such as A Walk on the Roof Trail, Canyons Trail and Hell Canyon Trail, for an incredible view of the forest and canyons.
Join the herd at Custer State Park in a 71,000-acre landscape where wildlife roams freely. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself in a “buffalo jam” while cruising through the park, as these grazing giants make up one of the nation’s largest freely roaming buffalo herds. Head out on an enriching off-road tour into the wild on the most popular excursion in the park, the Buffalo Safari Jeep Ride. It isn’t all about the buffalo, however. The “begging” burros will reach their gentle noses out to say hello. Surrounded by diverse wildlife and stunning scenery, you’ll begin to understand why it was named one of the world’s Top 10 Wildlife Destinations. Historic sites, such as French Creek and the State Game Lodge, which served as the summer home for President Calvin Coolidge, are nestled on-site as well. Plus, abundant adventures along trails and on the water await, such as hiking, biking, kayaking and fishing.
Follow a ranger on a thematic tour through beautiful passageways at Wind Cave National Park. Head south of Custer State Park, and you’ll arrive at one of the longest and most complex caves in the world. Wind Cave National Park uniquely showcases adventure above and below ground. Hike, picnic or camp on the 28,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie and pine forests. Hiking trails, varying from easy to strenuous, span more than 30 miles and reveal an abundance of wildlife, including bison, pronghorn antelope and mountain lions. Underneath the surface, wind through tunnels filled with national treasure. The Garden of Eden Tour gets you up close and personal with the boxwork, cave popcorn and flowstone formations. During the Natural Entrance Tour, see where the cave was discovered and learn what coined the name “Wind Cave.” For those seeking high-level adventure, take the Fairgrounds Tour to explore the depths of the middle and upper levels of the cave.
Check Badlands National Park off your bucket list and discover 244,000 acres of steep spires and buttes formed 70 million years ago across a vast and endlessly beautiful landscape. With a 60-mile stretch of colorful rugged terrain, it is only fitting to boast some of the most distinct and breathtaking backcountry hikes. Eight designated trails consisting of flat stretches and upward climbs await. For a window-seat view of the Badlands, hike Window Trail and lookout over the rugged terrain and down into the orange canyon of sandstone. On Notch Trail, climb a wooden ladder lining the canyon, where a dramatic view of the White River Valley awaits. To take in the sights by car, drive Loop Road and hit the park’s overlooks where topography, formations and wildlife are just around the bend. Yellow Mounds Overlook beams with layers of yellow, orange, pink and beige rock as far as the eyes can see. Insiders’ tip: the vibrant colors are even more enhanced after it rains! At Prairie Wind Overlook, watch as the grassland dances in the wind and wildlife roam the terrain. Keep your eyes peeled for other wildlife including bison, mountain goats and pronghorns. Plan an overnight stay for stargazing with approximately 7,500 stars in sight set against buttes and spires. Stop by the Visitors Center to enhance your experience with exhibits featuring the history, ecology, geology and paleontology, including fossil samples found in the park.