Rapid City — South Dakota’s second largest city — is best known as the gateway to Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills. But a trip to the state’s western edge would be incomplete without a larger exploration of the region. From Rapid City, visitors can learn important facts about the Native American experience, roam the prairie with iconic buffalo, and even travel back to the ice age on an active archaeological dig. Here are the top day trips to take from Rapid City, South Dakota.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial: A Bucket List View
You can’t go to South Dakota and skip Mount Rushmore. It’s true that the 60-foot-tall faces of four of America’s most influential presidents carved between 1927 and 1941 on sacred Native American land appear smaller than you’d expect in person. But it’s hard to deny that walking the state-flag-lined promenade towards the “grand view” of the sculpture satisfies a popular bucket list item all the same. The site hosts a half-mile walking trail — the Presidential Trail — at the base of the sculpture, a gift shop, a dining room and an amphitheater where nightly presentations include a ranger talk and a short film leading up to the lighting of the sculpture.
Getting There: Mount Rushmore lies just 30 minutes by car from Rapid City near the popular tourist town of Keystone. Parking at the national memorial costs $10 per car, motorcycle or RV ($5 for seniors) and is not covered by any National Park Service pass.
Travel Tip: The ice cream shop at the base of the mountain serves Thomas Jefferson’s own vanilla ice cream recipe. It will cost you more than the shop’s other, less historic options, but it’s worth the splurge!
Crazy Horse Memorial: A Monument to all Native Americans
Mount Rushmore isn’t the only mountain sculpture in town, nor is it the most impressive. Just 40 minutes down the road lies Crazy Horse, and its backstory (and its massive size — the sculpture’s head is 87 feet high alone) is more than enough to make this sight worth a visit. The carving of this sculpture of the prominent Oglala Lakota chief in the sacred lands of the Black Hills was the brainchild of Chief Henry Standing Bear, who approached Korczak Ziolkowski — an assistant sculptor working on Mount Rushmore — with the plan in hopes of sharing the Native American story. Ziolkowski singlehandedly began the carving in 1948 and worked on the memorial until his death in 1982, turning down millions of dollars in government funding along the way. The sculpture stands today a work in progress helmed by two of Ziolkowski’s daughters, who took over the project after their father’s death in 1982.
Visitors to Crazy Horse can take a bus ride to get a closer view of the sculpture, and can learn all about Native American history (and the history of the carving) in the site’s impressive museum. Admission fees support the ongoing carving, the museum, and the Foundation’s on- and off-site education programs.
Getting There: The Crazy Horse Memorial is located just under an hour’s drive from Rapid City in the heart of the Black Hills, between the towns of Hill City and Custer. Visitors should expect per-car admission fees around $12 per person or $30 per car with three people or more. Admission is $7 per person on motorcycle, and waived for Native Americans, active members of the military, Custer County residents, Girl and Boy Scouts (in uniform) and children age 6 and under.
Travel Tip: Don’t miss a chance to take home a piece of the mountain — head to the Rock Box near the to-scale model of the sculpture to grab a rock that’s been blasted away from the carving by the mountain crew.
Custer State Park: Where the Buffalo Roam
No trip to South Dakota would be complete without a good look at the place where buffalo roam. The 110-square-mile Custer State Park provides plenty of opportunity to get almost uncomfortably close to the patriotic bovine, plus prairie dogs and burro, as they graze on the park’s grasslands beneath dramatic granite cliffs. Many visitors to the park choose to drive the Wildlife Loop Road, which winds through the heart of the park and takes around 45 minutes.
But once a year in late September, guests can look on as the park’s 1300-strong herd gets collected by actual cowboys for testing, branding, and sorting, The annual Custer State Park buffalo roundup draws around 20,000 spectators to the park and is an act of true Americana.
Getting There: Custer State Park lies 40 minutes south of Rapid City. The best way to see the park is by car. Expect to pay $20 per car ($10 per motorcycle) for a temporary license upon entry.
Travel Tip: Drive north on Iron Mountain Road as you exit the park in order to encounter the narrow Scovel Johnson, the C.C. Gideon and the Doane Robinson tunnels, which each frame Mount Rushmore perfectly.
Pine Ridge Reservation: The Native American Experience, Past & Present
The Oglala Lakota have faced challenges that many Americans can’t even fathom, and a visit to Pine Ridge — one of the largest Native American reservations in the country — certainly confirms the difficulties of Native American life in many ways. But the reservation also offers a glimpse of hope in its thriving schools: Oglala Lakota College and the Red Cloud Indian School.
Established in 1971, Oglala Lakota College today enrolls around 1500 students per semester and has given over 3000 degrees in fields in demand on the reservation like teaching and nursing. The college is home to a historical center displaying photographs and artwork from the Oglala Lakota people from the early 1800s to the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Not far from the college but outdating it by almost 100 years, the Red Cloud Indian School was founded in 1888 by Jesuits and today is playing an important role in the preservation of the Lakota language. Visitors can tour the site’s Lakota Catholic church, rebuilt in 1998 in an impressive fusion of Indian and Catholic architectural styles and symbolisms, and can walk up to the grave of Red Cloud himself — one of the tribe’s most important leaders ever. The school hosts an annual art show, the Red Cloud Indian Art Show, and is home to a good gift shop that works only with Lakota artisans.
The site of the Wounded Knee Massacre also lies within Pine Ridge. The site — today marked by a cemetery and mass grave — offers a somber look at just one of the struggles the Oglala Lakota have faced. Reports of harassment from vendors in the site’s parking area have been addressed by Lakota leadership but cannot be ignored — visitors should be prepared to politely but strongly decline if approached by vendors selling dream catchers and crafts.
Getting There: Red Cloud Indian School — the southernmost point on the reservation mentioned here — is 90 miles southeast of Rapid City. Allot a full day for a complete visit to the reservation.
Travel Tip: Tatanka Rez Tourz — run by Oglala Lakota College student Tianna Yellowhair and her father Warren Guss Yellowhair — is the only licensed tour guide business on the reservation. The pair can arrange bespoke tours and experiences, including traditional performances, sensitivity training, and lessons on medicinal plants and herbs.
Wall Drug: Knickknacks and Nostalgia
If you haven’t spent your whole life indoors, you’ve probably seen a sign for Wall Drug. The roadside attraction’s eponymous stickers adorn dive bar bathrooms and sputtering RV bumpers around the globe, not to mention the dozens of signs lining the highway between Rapid City and Wall. Wall Drug was started by the Hustead family in 1931, who grew their business by offering free ice water to every passerby. Today, the third generation of Husteads still offers free ice water but presides over a much larger empire — the small drug store has expanded into a 76,000-square-foot amusement behemoth, with a Western shopping mall selling everything from cowboy boots to Black Hills gold. Out back, take a seat on a massive, mythical jackalope, or pose in front of a mural of Mount Rushmore. Who needs the real thing?
Wall Drug’s black-walnut-paneled cafeteria is decorated with the country’s largest collection of Western art and is a great place to enjoy the family’s famous hot beef sandwich (smothered in thick gravy) and homemade maple donuts.
Getting There: Wall Drug sits 49 minutes east of Rapid City on I90, and may be the most well-signed pitstop on the planet. You can’t miss it.
Travel Tip: Not driving? The Wall Drug cafeteria serves what’s arguably the best ice cold Bud Light draft in the world.
Badlands National Park: Pinnacles & Prairie Dogs
Badlands National Park — where almost 380 square miles of windswept prairie spontaneously drop off into jagged red pinnacles and buttes — can be approached a couple of ways. The park’s eroded landscape takes on different moods as the sun takes its daily path over the park, and the land’s features vary across the park’s expanse.
Enter the park at the Badlands Pinnacles entrance and head to the Pinnacles outlook for one of the most colorful sunset scenes on offer. Or, after a day spent at Pine Ridge, head back towards Rapid City via the impressive Red Shirt Table Overlook — the sudden drop from green grass to red sand there seems like it could be the edge of the world.
Getting There: The Badlands Pinnacles entrance sits 56 minutes from Rapid City in Wall, SD, not far from Wall Drug. The Red Shirt Table Overlook is 49 minutes southeast of Rapid City.
Travel Tip: Don’t want to make the drive back to Rapid City after sunset? Book into the park’s Cedar Pass Lodge, where a series of cabins and a more casual campground offer sustainable accommodations, a stunning sunrise and a seriously delicious diner breakfast.
Hot Springs, South Dakota: Mammoths and Mustangs
The sleepy town of Hot Springs offers much more than just the thermal waters for which it’s named. A by-chance discovery in 1975 by a land developer uncovered the sinkhole grave of over 60 mammoths, making the site the largest concentration of mammoth fossils in the world. Today, the Mammoth Site offers visitors the chance to tour an active paleontological dig and see the fossils of two types of mammoth, plus other species found in the sinkhole including camels, wolves and bears. Summer excavation programs even let kids join the dig themselves! The site is fully enclosed – entry fees range from $7 to $10 and visiting hours vary by season.
After an encounter with the Ice Age, head to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary — a private ranch home to over 500 wild horses released to rancher Dayton O. Hyde by the Bureau of Land Management where mustangs have been under federal custodianship since 1971. Today, these lucky horses have the run of over 6000 acres of land on the banks of the Cheyenne River where they live largely undisturbed, only occasionally sharing the land with Native American ceremonies and Hollywood film sets. Visitors can join various types of tours — from 2-hour guided bus tours ($50 per adult) to those aimed at the most serious photographers — or even sponsor and name a mustang with a $400 per year donation. The sanctuary is fully funded by donations and tourism.
Getting There: The town of Hot Springs sits 57 minutes south of Rapid City by car.
Travel Tip: At the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, don’t miss the 8,000- to 10,000-year-old petroglyphs carved into the side of a cliff.