This post was produced in partnership with Travel South Dakota.
Planning a trip to South Dakota probably brings to mind gorgeous images of Mount Rushmore or seeing buffalo in Custer State Park. You’re not wrong, but if you want to be in the epicenter of all there is to see in the state, staying in downtown Rapid City is a must.
The trip into Rapid City was about as easy as you could imagine — smooth flight, easy-to-navigate airport and rental car services, and a quick drive into the heart of the darling city center. Rapid City is the prime location for a perfect mix of outdoor adventure, sightseeing, and city-quality eating and drinking.
We flew into Rapid City just after a freak snowstorm the night before, so it was a smidge chillier than expected, but seeing snow-capped bluffs and mountain peaks was pretty incredible. The locals laughed it off, promising that it was truly a freak snowstorm and that it wasn’t usually like that. The short 20-minute drive from the airport to downtown Rapid City was filled with plenty of “oh my’s” and “wow’s” from seeing the mountains on the horizon. The sky here really does go on forever.
Pulling into Rapid City, it’s clear it’s an adorable town with shops, boutiques, cafes, restaurants and so much more. Naturally, we were hungry. We’d heard Tally’s Silver Spoon downtown was a must. It didn’t disappoint. First and foremost, the menu offered to replace butter with ice cream. Um, what? Was this heaven on earth? The breakfast burrito I ordered wasn’t quite the place for ice cream, but I loved the offer. In hindsight, I bet they would have put a scoop in my coffee — maybe next time.
Given the weather, we opted to stick around and get to know downtown Rapid City…and there is a lot to get to know. We stopped in a few quaint boutiques and perused the locally made jewelry. Then we spent an hour or so at Prairie Edge Trading Co. and Gallery. The name alone hints at how you could lose yourself in there. The whole first floor is dedicated to locally made goods, much of which is by Native American tribes in the area.
You can find wooden frogs that “croak” when you run a wooden rod down its back. There are also handmade moccasins, custom prints, tea sets and so much more. The back area has local herbs, blankets, quilts and tons of Native American ceremonial items. It’s truly incredible to see these works, particularly when you’re from an area where you don’t get to see this beauty. The upstairs is an art gallery, featuring primarily Native American works of art for purchase.
Something you can’t miss when you drive into the city are the statues of presidents on every corner. The project started in 2000, and each sculpture is privately funded and placed as not to show any favoritism to political party. These bronze statues are really incredible to see, and they’re a pleasant thing to see as you leave your hotel or restaurant.
And speaking of hotels, the Hotel Alex Johnson in downtown Rapid City has hosted numerous presidents and is a historic & beautiful spot to relax, have a drink or a meal, and lay your head at night (or for a nap between hikes). I cannot imagine staying anywhere else. The people were so nice and helpful, the rooms clean and spacious, and the rooftop restaurant and bar offered views you can’t beat (that is until you get to the Badlands, Mount Rushmore or Custer State Park, but you get the point).
After checking out the views and purchasing some shoes better equipped for a muddy hike than my little sneakers, it was time to head to a wonderful downtown dinner at a steakhouse called Delmonico Grill. The upscale restaurant had a small upstairs for group settings and an open-concept kitchen. We tried the scallops, and they were so beautifully seared on both sides. For dessert, we opted for the bread pudding. Wow! As pretty as the photo is, it tasted even better.
We capped off the night with a drink on the hotel’s rooftop. From the indoor restaurant and bar, we walked out to a gorgeous, expansive patio with fire pits and wrought iron tables. It was a lovely place to have a drink and just look out on the city and see the mountains in the distance.
The next day was Mount Rushmore! The drive up was a steady, easy incline of about 30 minutes. Driving around the curve that finally lets you get a glimpse of the stunning Mt. Rushmore is breathtaking. To enter the park, located in the Black Hills, you park in a parking garage and head up to the main area, where you’ll walk through the Avenue of Flags.
Each square column is engraved with a state’s name and year it became part of the union and features the state flag flying above it. It was just as much fun for us to find our home state as it was for the kids running around looking for theirs. The extensive observation deck is a perfect spot for your photo op, and it is nearly impossible not to get a perfect shot of this man-made marvel.
Due to that aforementioned freak snow storm, the trails around the memorial were closed, so we perused the museum exhibit located inside the visitor’s center and learned about how architect Gutzon Borglum and his son/right-hand man created this incredible work. It makes you wonder if anything like this could be created today in the same way. Next time, we’re planning a short hike on the memorial's Blackberry Trail. This one-mile gravel hike is moderately strenuous and would have perfectly rounded out our Mount Rushmore trip. Next time, Blackberry Trail. Next time.
Then we headed to Custer State Park, about a 30-minute drive from where we were and still in the Black Hills. A quick stop in to the visitor center told us a lot of trails—including Little Devil’s Tower, a 3.6-mile moderate hike—were closed, but the real gem for us was still open — Wildlife Loop Road. Bring on the animals!
The 18-mile, roughly 1.5-hour drive is so spectacular, it’s hard to do it justice. Throughout the drive and as the day warmed, we went from buffalo nudging snow-covered grounds with their fuzzy snouts to buffalo sunning themselves. We saw deer, buffalo and their babies (yes, it’s just as precious as you think), a turkey, and toward the end of the drive, donkeys.
We pulled into the small parking area to see the donkeys only to see a woman walking up to them with a banana. That piqued my curiosity. Then more cars parked, and other folks did the same. The donkeys are so friendly that people bring them little snacks (which I assume is in return for being so adorable). They’re quite socialized, as they’ll literally follow you to your car if they think you’re withholding snacks.
That is not the case for buffalo! I kept seeing signs that said “Buffalo are dangerous. Do not approach.” That isn’t a suggestion. They are gorgeous animals, but incredibly powerful and protective, so photograph them from your car.
By the time my drive was over, it was time for lunch. We headed into Alpine Inn in Hill City, about a 30-minute drive from Custer State Park. The German fine-dining restaurant was ornately decorated, so much so you feel like you stepped back a few hundred years in Europe.
The menu was extensive, with numerous traditional German dishes like German potato salad and schnitzel. It was all delicious — we got a brie, bacon and avocado sandwich with German potato salad. Of course, we had to try dessert. The bread pudding there, topped with ice cream, naturally, was melt-in-your-mouth good. Our waitress mentioned that it is one of the best things on the menu. We second that. Do note that this is a cash-only (or check) restaurant, but they do have an ATM.
A 30-minute drive back to the hotel later, and it was time to freshen up for dinner. We hit up (kōl), a new, casual spot in downtown Rapid City. We got an appetizer of scallops (I’m sure you’re seeing a trend here) and a goat cheese & arugula salad. It was all paired with a wonderful pomegranate martini. There’s plenty of space in here and tons of dinner options, so it’s absolutely a spot we’d hit up again.
After day two, I was pretty amazed at all the things we’d fit into just a few days in South Dakota. Rapid City’s prime location really allows for full days of exploring while never being too far away from home base.
Day three was dedicated to the Badlands. The Badlands are about an hour drive from downtown Rapid City, but it doesn’t feel nearly that long given the beautiful views. The whole way there, you’ll see signs directing you to Wall Drug Store, but we’ll get there. First up, a helicopter tour with Black Hills Aerial Adventures and our first-ever helicopter ride!
As they got the helicopter going, we chatted with one of the guys who facilitates the tours. He was from Idaho and just comes in during the spring and summer months to head these up. They not only do tours in the Badlands, but Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, too.
We may be biased, but after being up in the helicopter, we’re sure we chose the best one. It was an extraordinarily windy day, but I was reassured by my guide that we were safe as we flew over the beyond-stunning Badlands. It’s safe to say there is just nothing else like these views. They really made you catch your breath. As we were flying, my guide was rattling off history and fun facts about the area. The entire experience was incredible and well worth the money. They offer various rides ofdifferent lengths, so you can really find anything that suits your needs and wallet.
After a few tips on where to head next, we were on our way — by car, not helicopter — to enjoy more of the Badlands, albeit from a lower vantage point. We spent hours in Badlands National Park. It was easy to lose track of time just taking in the views. There are plenty of places to pull off and many trailheads, from easy to strenuous. One stop we made was for the Window and Door Trails. They were both short little walks that lead you to gorgeous overlooks of the Badlands. There are plenty of areas to climb a little, as long as you don’t mind a little dirt.
As you keep driving, the overlook and outlook spots are numerous, and you could stay in the park for hours upon hours stopping at each one. On our way out, we got a glimpse of some bighorn sheep and their babies!
Next up, a trip to the famous Wall Drug! Wall Drug, named for the town of Wall, South Dakota, was launched in 1931 and became known for its free ice water following the Dust Bowl and Depression. Their donuts have also become famous! The same family that owned it then still owns it now. You can find anything from art to Native American artifacts to kitschy knicknacks to ice cream served from the adorable ice cream bar. It’s a tourist attraction for good reason.
While it had been a gorgeous trip up until now, our most exciting part was coming up. It had been almost 10 years since I had ridden a horse, but we were going to get back in the saddle. Literally.
Hurley Butte Horseback offered a truly incredible, memorable and comfortable experience. They have a few guides that will take you out, but we linked up with Casie Donald. When we pulled up, we were greeted by the sweetest dog. Then we met Casie and her adorable daughter and saddled up. It was an exhilarating experience and a gorgeous ride through part of the Badlands. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone. Casie was so easy to chat with that it felt like riding with a friend.
We headed back to Rapid City afterward and got ready for a casual dinner at Independent Ale House. We had cream cheese and jalapeño pizza and paired it with a fruit beer. It was a perfect send-off to a wonderful few days in Rapid City.
Rapid City was the perfect spot to stay to maximize your South Dakota exploration. It was a great vantage point to the parks and smaller towns we wanted to explore while still allowing for some city time. Next time, we wouldn’t do a single thing differently except extend our stay to explore even more!