Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.
Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
Rapid City, South Dakota, is best known for its proximity to Mt. Rushmore but that’s hardly the only reason it’s been voted the most patriotic city in the United States. Nestled between Black Hills National Forest and Bad Lands National Park with a handful of monuments and additional national parks within an hour’s drive, the city’s charming downtown is home to the country’s most presidential sculpture installation, and the family-friendly atmosphere of area attractions set the scene for one of the most all-American weekends you’ll find outside of the capital.
The route from Denver to Rapid City is a solid six-hour drive, so you’ll likely want to take the quickest possible path to maximize your time there, and that’s via I-25 N from Denver. Halfway through Wyoming, make your first turn onto US-18 E before veering off into South Dakota and making a second turn on SD-79 N.
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Arrive in Rapid City around 2 p.m. Friday afternoon and check into a downtown hotel for a convenient home base. Drop your bags, freshen up, and walk a few minutes to (kōl) for a late lunch from the restaurant’s massive coal-fired oven. Try one of more than a dozen specialty pizzas like Sausage Pistachio or Figgy, Piggy, Parm with some Kōl-Fired Wings for a quick pick-me-up before exploring the downtown area.
Step outside and meander the surrounding blocks, where life-size bronzes of all former presidents, through Obama, are randomly scattered to honor the legacy of each American leader in the City of Presidents installation. Pop in and out of shops at will as you acquaint yourself with the downtown area, but be sure not to miss Prairie Edge Trading Co. & Galleries for a sprawling showcase of Northern Plains Indian arts and heritage in a block-wide facility that serves as both a gallery and shopping venue offering authentic Native American jewelry, books, music, art, and more. If you’re craving more creativity, head to the free galleries at The Dahl Arts Center to explore contemporary works or, if you’re more in the mood to dig into the past, check out the Museum of Geology for some free exploration of South Dakota mineralogy and paleontology, dinosaur fossils included.
Chow down on Rapid City flavors with dinner at Murphy’s Pub & Grill where local ingredients produce hearty regional favorites like buffalo stew and buffalo meatloaf. Be sure to start with the restaurant’s famous Dakota Pulled Pork Chips, hand-cut and topped with slow-roasted, red-wine pork and cheese. Feel free to pair a couple of pints with your meal—you can walk back to your hotel.
Start your day early at local favorite breakfast spot Black Hills Bagels, where more than 20 varieties of bagels range from cinnamon raisin to white chocolate chip and can be enhanced with an array of veggies, proteins, and cheeses on the build-your-own sandwich menu (or just choose from the five signature sandwiches if endless options aren’t your thing). Take your breakfast sandwich to-go (consider grabbing something extra for the long morning ahead) and drive 30 minutes to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The best photo ops here are in the morning hours before the sun begins to add plenty of shadows to the massive presidential faces around noon, and crowds tend to be lighter the earlier you arrive. Aim to arrive by 8 a.m. and spend an hour walking the trails and snapping pics before hitting the road again by 9 a.m.
From here, it’s just under an hour to Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop, where you’ll enjoy some spectacular natural scenery. Bighorn sheep, elk, prairie dogs, and more can be found along the 18-mile loop, but never leave your vehicle when you spot impressive creatures. The drive should take about an hour and a half, barring buffalo traffic jams (yes, that’s real). The animals are most active in the morning and in late evening, so feel free to begin your day even earlier if you’d rather to arrive before 10 a.m.
Drive 30 minutes to Crazy Horse Memorial to spend an hour in the museum and checking out the impressive sculpture itself. You don’t need to spend the extra cash or time on the optional bus ride to get a closer view; you’ll get the picture with a standard visit and will be getting hungry for lunch, so hop back in the car and head 10 minutes north to Alpine Inn. This is one of the region’s best restaurants, and the lunch menu presents German favorites traditional to the area’s early immigration. Start with the Black Forest Meat and Cheese Board before moving on to schnitzel, spaetzle, or The German Plate (bratwurst, potato salad, sauerkraut, red cabbage, and German bread).
The South Dakota Air and Space Museum is a 45-minute drive from here, giving you just enough time for about an hour-and-a-half of exploring the free indoor exhibits and outdoor collection of aircraft before it closes at 4:30 p.m. in the off-peak season, or 6 p.m if you visit in summer. Downtown Rapid City is just 20 minutes from here, and you’ll want to head back to your hotel to shower and change before dinner.
Recharge from your busy day in style with an elegant steak dinner at Delmonico Grill. The Delmonico for two is the signature splurge here, but there are plenty of other more sensibly-sized rib-eye options available, along with a smattering of additional entrées, upscale burgers, and even vegetarian options. If you’re somehow not starving, consider the honey bourbon steak tips with peppers and cornbread for a (somewhat) lighter taste of the house’s specialty.
Depending on your early morning energy level, walk or drive to The Millstone Family Restaurant for a satisfying country breakfast before starting your final day in Rapid City. Breakfast is so loved here that it’s served all day and includes an extensive array of omelets, waffles, pancakes, and more, but the skillets menu is most worth your attention. Simple tastes will appreciate the straightforward Corned Beef Hash Skillet while more decadent desires will lean toward the Rushmore Skillet, featuring ham and bacon over hash browns, eggs, and toast slathered in a creamy hollandaise sauce.
Plan to hit the road by 9 a.m. for the one-hour drive to Badlands National Park, where stunning geological formations are home to an array of ancient fossils and plenty of impressive creatures still roam the nearly quarter million acres of protected land. Spend a half hour at the visitor center checking out exhibits and the worthwhile film, then feel free to hit some of the moderate trails just beyond the center or head straight for the park’s famous 30-mile Badlands Loop. This scenic drive includes 16 fabulous lookout spots, otherworldly rock formations, and plenty of opportunity for wildlife spotting, including the endangered and adorable black-footed ferret. Plan to spend about four hours in the park before heading back to downtown Rapid City, packing up, and hopping back on the road to head home by 4 p.m.
WHERE TO STAY
The Foothills Inn provides cozy rooms with a standard business-travel atmosphere that comfortably offers all the necessities without much fuss in downtown Rapid City. Free continental breakfast, an exchange library, and a heated pool are added perks (as is the Cheers Lounge next door, with karaoke six nights per week).
Hotel Alex Johnson offers a well-appointed, modern stay in a historic 1920s property just one block from Main Street and comes complete salon, spa, pub, shopping, and a rooftop bar. The Germanic Tudor-style architecture and Native American interior design of common spaces inspire quick immersion into the region’s two largest ethnic influences.
WHEN TO GO
Unsurprisingly, summer is peak tourism season in Rapid City, where parks and wildlife are the star attractions, but the spring and fall shoulder seasons are equally beautiful and see a slight reduction in prices. Don’t sleep on winter visits, though, when already-low rates are even further reduced, and there’s still plenty to see and do.