There are five National Park Service Units within an hour of Rapid City, South Dakota, making it the ideal place to cross a few more National Park destinations off your list.
Rapid City is the perfect base for exploring the Black Hills because there are five National Park Service Units within an hour or two hours of the city. That means you could see Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in three or four days (five if you want a more relaxed trip).
If you’re coming from anywhere on the East or West coasts, flights are going to involve at least one stop, so plan this day to travel and explore Rapid City, at the very least for dinner. The city is incredibly walkable and there are some great dining options like Murphy’s Pub & Grill or (kōl) with its almost 10-feet-wide coal-fired oven. After dinner, explore Art Alley, an amazing collection of graffiti murals or the City of Presidents, a collection of life-size bronze statues of U.S. presidents on the city’s street corners.
Start your first day at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which is about an hour southeast of Rapid City on 1-90. Head to the Visitor Center, planning enough time to take in the exhibits and the 30-minute film Beneath the Plains: The Minuteman Missile on Alert, which tells the story of the Minuteman Missile, before heading out on the 30-minute tour. The tour takes in the compound grounds as well as the Launch Control Center 31 feet underground.
INSIDER TIPReservations can be made up to 90 days in advance, but unfortunately, same-day tours are not possible. If you can’t get a reservation for a tour of the Delta-01 compound, don’t despair as visitors can take a self-guided audio tour of the Delta-09 missile silo that’s just fifteen miles west of the visitor center. The site is small, but seeing it and the visitor center will still give you a good idea of what was going on here.
After the missile site, head to Wall Drug (which is conveniently located on your way to Badlands National Park). The billboards that line 1-90 make it hard to miss, and it’s one of those places you just have to see for yourself. The 76,000-square-foot megastore offers everything from free ice water and five-cent coffee to an unbelievable range of souvenirs with your name on it. There’s also a 520-seat restaurant and an outdoor courtyard complete with photo op ready jackalope and musical bears.
Once you’ve visited Wall Drug, it’s time for the Badlands National Park. Believe us when we say that you will be here for the rest of the day—grab snacks at Wall Drug and plan for a late-dinner because the park is open 24 hours a day.
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center (the park’s headquarters) does close, however. Operating hours differ by season so check online ahead of time.
The interactive exhibits highlight the park’s history, ecology, and flora and fauna, and the air-conditioned theater (a huge plus in the summer) shows the 20-minute-film Land of Stone and Light about the park. The 244,000-acre-park is one breathtaking vista after another. There are plenty of pull-over-spots and parking lots that allow you to get out and experience the views firsthand. There are also eight hiking trails, ranging from the easy quarter-mile Fossil Exhibit Trail to the park’s most strenuous trail, the 10-mile Castle Trail that will also show you more of this priceless place.
Be prepared for another hour drive, this one to Jewel Cave National Monument. The world’s third-largest cave is home to unique formations that look like tiny crystal Christmas trees and delicate “cave popcorn.” The 177 miles of mapped passages can be explored with rangers on guided tours. Tickets are first-come, first-served so check the website for the schedule and plan to arrive early, like an hour or so early during summer weekends and holidays.
After Jewel Cave, stop in the town of Custer for a bite to eat. The town’s main street is lined with cute shops and restaurants, but one of the most memorable is Bobkat’s Purple Pie Place. There are sandwiches, paninis, soups, and salads, but the star of the menu is the pie—apple, peach, bumbleberry, raspberry rhubarb jalapeno, or cream pie of the day. Once your belly is full, head out to end your day at Wind Cave National Park. One of the country’s oldest national parks is also one of the world’s longest and most complex caves; it gets its name from the winds that blow through it. The caves are covered in the same delicate “cave popcorn” found at Jewel Cave, as well as box work, a honeycomb-like formation found in only a handful of caves around the world. Tours are required to see Wind Cave and are also sold on a first-come, first-served basis. Once you’re done touring the caves, get out and explore the park. It’s home to bison, prairie dogs, antelope, elk, coyote, and mules.
INSIDER TIPThere are a few, very special cave tours that take reservations if you’re lucky enough to snag them. At Jewel Cave, reservations are only possible during the summer for the 1 hour and 20-minute Scenic Tour. At Wind Cave, you can plan in advance for the Historic Candlelight Tour—yes, you literally see the cave by candlelight—and the Wild Cave Tour, which takes small groups off the trails and involves a lot of crawling.
Since you’ve checked off four of the area’s five national park units, today you can take it a little easier and plan to see Mount Rushmore National Memorial. If you’re a photographer, the best time to be at Mount Rushmore is before 11 a.m. But, if photography isn’t your main game, we suggest planning for the evening Mount Rushmore illumination—Memorial Day through Labor Day at dusk—as there is nothing more awe-inspiring then seeing the dark sky suddenly illuminated with the faces of the four presidents. Plan to be there no later than 6 p.m. to check out the grounds and the museum before finding seats for the program that precedes the illumination; there’s a talk, a short film, and the national anthem is sung and the flag is brought down by military members and veterans.
With that said, there’s plenty of time to explore the 71,000-acre Custer State Park—the park is so big it should be a national park—and see its majestic buffalo before the illumination. While you can do a self-drive through the park, the best way to see it is on a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour, it’s the only way you’ll be able to go off-road (and that’s when the fun begins). The guides are knowledgeable and extremely committed to the park and always seem to know where the buffalo are hiding. If there’s still time, swing by the mind-boggling Crazy Horse Memorial, which has been under construction since 1947. It’s another one of those “isn’t, but should be a National Parks unit” places.
If you’ve got pre-teens, teens, etc. and a few hours to spare when you’re driving to either Mount Rushmore or Custer State Park, check out Rush Mountain Adventure Park, home to South Dakota’s only roller coaster; Bear Country, a drive-thru wildlife park that’s home to black bear, elk, reindeer, cougars, bighorn sheep, and buffalo; or Reptile Gardens, a botanical garden and reptile wonderland.
INSIDER TIPEarly mornings and dusk are the best times be in Custer State Park to see the wildlife roaming about.
If you have an extra day, and really want to check another national park unit off your list, head about two hours northwest to Devil’s Tower National Monument in Devils Tower, Wyoming. The rocky butte literally towers 1,280 feet above the plains. Native American legend has it that the tower’s grooves were formed by a bear trying to claw his way to the top to reach some children hiding there. Prepare to have your breath taken away for the umpteenth time this trip.
WHERE TO STAY
There aren’t a lot of options when it comes to lodging in and around Rapid City and most choices are of the budget variety. It’s about a seven-minute walk into downtown from the Holiday Inn Rapid City-Rushmore Plaza, which is across the street from the Journey Museum. Another budget option is Fairfield Inn & Suites Rapid City especially if you want to be closer to 1-90 (it’s just an 11-minute drive to downtown Rapid City). Plus, it has a waterpark attached to it making it a great stop for families. The Grand Gateway Hotel is eight minutes north of downtown, and it has an indoor pool, with a 130-foot water slide, and it’s pet-friendly.
If historic properties are more your speed, the Hotel Alex Johnson is part of the Curio Collection by Hilton. The rooms were completely overhauled in 2017, but the lobby remains as it was when built in 1928—beautiful wood accents and Native American art.
There are direct flights from Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Phoenix-Mesa, Dallas / Ft. Worth, Minneapolis, and Chicago. Seasonal direct flights include Houston, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Newark. If you’re driving, Rapid City is a five hour drive west of Sioux Falls on I-90 and a six-hour drive northwest of Sioux City, Iowa via I-90 W. If you’re coming from the east, Billings, Montana is five hours southeast of Rapid City via US-212 E and I-90 E; from the south, Denver is six hours via I-25 N and US-85 N.
WHEN TO GO
There are four distinct seasons in Rapid City, with a wide range of weather conditions. Summers have average highs of 90 degrees Fahrenheit and lows near 60 degrees at night, but winter weather can dip below freezing. And, hail storms have been known to appear out of the blue during the summer, so be prepared and be flexible. Many places close from October to April, so it’s always best to call ahead or plan to visit in September or May when places will be open but there will be fewer tourists. And there are some roads in the Custer State Park that are closed during the winter months.