We’ve been to Rapid City, South Dakota, twice with the kids – once pre-COVID and then again this summer. If you’re thinking about planning a Mount Rushmore visit this summer, read on, since I’ve got a lot of additional activities to round out your trip – and most are outdoors.
Disclosure: We received complimentary passes to some of the attractions in this post so that I can review them. We paid admission to others.
The COVID-19 has had a relatively small impact on South Dakota (or so it will feel when you visit), so many places are open with some modifications. Check out Rapid City’s visitor’s bureau’s website to see what is open and what has a modified schedule prior to your visit.
We drove through Rapid City in June 2020, stopping for two nights. I probably would’ve not stopped had I known how little concern people showed for the global pandemic, especially considering how many travelers pass through the area.
Please be aware that most people you will encounter in Rapid City will not be wearing face masks, even at popular tourist attractions. It was a bit unsettling.
There were some signs at places we stopped, like Cosmos Mystery Area, but no one was following the social distancing request nor was anyone wearing a (including staff).
Even restaurant staff was at about 50/50 with wearing face masks, and even then, a few had them on incorrectly.
If all that concerns you, plan a visit when there isn’t a pandemic.
Downtown Rapid City
Where: The area between Omaha Street and Columbus Street (park near Main Street to be right in the heart of it), and between East and West boulevards in Rapid City, SD.
I remember our first visit to Rapid City, and we spent just a short time in downtown Rapid City. And I remember regretting not having more time.
Our second visit fixed that. We allowed enough time for dinner, dessert, running around, and Art Alley.
I think the focal point of downtown is Main Street Square, a community gathering space with a stage, sprayground, and nearby shops and restaurants. It’s a great place for kids to run around.
You’ll also find statues of the presidents in downtown Rapid City. It’s one of the more interesting and well-done public art trails I’ve encountered.
Where: 599 Seventh St., Rapid City, SD
Art Alley is another downtown attraction to see. It’s definitely worth the short walk if you already plan to visit the plaza area. Different artists and taggers have decorated this block-long alley.
There are some social messages, some crazy creatures, and a few pop culture references. It’s all amazing.
Side note: If you’ve been to the Art Alley in Lincoln, Neb., this is similar…and much better.
Where: 1301 Sheridan Lake Road, Rapid City, SD
The fantastic free attraction is geared toward young kids. Picture a giant playground inspired by fairytales and cartoons, and then imagine amateur artists creating play areas about them, and you’ll get the sense of Storybook Land.
I thought it was well done, though my husband thought it was all a little creepy.
The kids, of course, loved it.
Where: 8955 US-16, Rapid City, SD
Cost: $15, adults (16+); $13, seniors; $12, youth (ages 11-15); $10, children (ages 4-10); FREE for children ages 3 and younger.** These rates apply during the summer and fall season.
** Rates reduced in 2020 because several animal shows are not offered at this time.
The king of roadside attractions, Reptile Gardens is well worth a stop. We visited this attraction pre-COVID, but I do know it is open now (with, hopefully, some safety measures in place).
It’s a fun place for families, with safe animal encounters. When we went, there were animal shows and demonstrations, but they temporarily eliminated some shows in 2020.
Chapel in the Hills
Where: 3788 Chapel Lane, Rapid City, SD
After seeing pictures of Chapel in the Hills, I was intrigued enough to insist we drive out of our way to find it. I’m glad we did, since it was beautiful.
This chapel is an exact replica of Borgund stavkirke, which was built around 1150 in Laerdal, Norway.
The structure itself and the nearby museum were closed due to the pandemic, but you can still get a pretty good view of the wooden chapel with all its intricate carvings and peek inside. Details from signs to statues hint at the Norwegian inspiration for the chapel.
There’s also a nearby prayer trail.
Where: 940 Skyline Drive, Rapid City, SD
If your kids love dinosaurs or you just like fun photo opps, be sure to stop here. It’s free, so why not? The paved path takes you by the giant statues.
Indoor Water Park at Best Western Ramkota Hotel
Where: 2111 N. Lacrosse St., Rapid City, SD
Cost: 6 passes to the indoor waterpark included with each guest room.
While the hotel itself is nothing remarkable, its two pool areas put it above many other hotels in the area, especially if you’re traveling with kids. On one side are your typical pool (perhaps a little larger than the usual hotel pool), a hot tub, and a small kid pool.
But the other side is the big draw for kids. It has a zero-entry pool with small slides, a pirate ship, and a few climbable water creatures. Oh, and then there are the two, 135-foot water slides, which my kids went down about a dozen times.
We stayed at the hotel, so a trip to the pool was included with our stay. Beware: There are no lifeguards on duty in either area, though there was technically an attendant by the slide. She was on her phone and didn’t acknowledge anyone who approached the slides, but you know, she was there. I guess.
Cosmos Mystery Area
Where: 24040 Cosmos Road, Rapid City, SD
Cost: $11 for adults, $6 for children ages 5-11, FREE for children 4 and younger
You know how you can just tell a place is a tourist trap? That’s Cosmos Mystery Area for you. But you go because you know your kids will love it. And guess what? They will.
Cosmos relies on optical illusions and messing with your sense of balance, while telling you some silly stories about hot spots causing the gravitational pull to change.
My kids’ minds were blown, so I suppose it was a success.
I was less impressed and also concerned about the extreme lack of concern for the global pandemic occurring all around us. Our tour group was large, and while we were mostly outdoors, we did have to crowd into little shacks for some demonstrations. Our family was the only one in masks.
You can also spend a few additional bucks for the kids to crack a geode. I’d say it’s totally skippable but your kids will beg to differ.
Getting on my soapbox: People are dying. Put on a mask. Yes, we’re all tired of the pandemic. Yes, we all want life to just go back to normal. Wear a mask so we can speed recovery up!
Go to a great Rapid City restaurant
I love finding unique restaurants in a city I visit, and Rapid City did not disappoint. The bonus was that these restaurants were great food foodies and for families.
A few that I recommend:
Harriet and Oak – A charming restaurant for breakfast and coffee in downtown Rapid City. The coffee is fresh and the pastries are tasty. Try the ham and cheese pasty (it’s kinda like a very tasty Hot Pocket).
Firehouse Brewing Co. – Yes, it’s a brewery, and yes, you can bring your kids. Go to the downtown location if you want a kid’s menu. This is pure pub food at its finest.
We’ve been to the downtown Rapid City location of Firehouse Brewing Co. (which has an excellent outdoor seating area), as well as the Firehouse SmokeJumper Station in Hill City (which has an even better outdoor seating area).
Armadillo’s Ice Cream Shop – You’ll likely find a line snaking around the block at this downtown Rapid City ice cream shop. Our waitress at Firehouse SmokeJumper recommended it to us, and it didn’t disappoint.
When we went to Armadillo’s this summer, there was no indoor seating permitted. There were A LOT of people enjoying their ice cream in front of the restaurant. No masks, obviously, while they ate, and no masks while waiting in line, either. The restaurant did, at least, mark off social distancing spots for everyone in line.
Things to do near Rapid City, South Dakota
Rapid City is a great home base for exploring Mount Rushmore and the nearby touristy areas. A few of the stops you might want to include:
- Mount Rushmore (about 25 miles away) – The monument itself is free to visit, but parking is not. We went on our first visit, getting ice cream and touring the visitor center in addition to walking a little closer to the monument. Given our luck at other national parks this summer (all visitor centers were closed), we decided to just drive by the monument instead of stopping.
- Custer State Park (about 35 miles away) – I highly recommend visiting this park to see wildlife and to hike around the beautiful Sylvan Lake. There’s a gorgeous trail around the lake that’s pretty kid-friendly.
- Crazy Horse Monument (about 40 miles away) – I just learned during our recent trip that there’s a free, nightly light show at Crazy Horse (weather permitting).
- Wind Cave National Park (about 55 miles away) – My family took a guided tour of a cave pre-COVID. It gets pretty cold underground, so dress accordingly.
- Badlands National Park (about 60 miles away) – Explore the other-worldly landscape of Badlands National Park.
- Hot Springs (about 60 miles away) – A day trip to Hot Springs means some time to splash around Evans Plunge, a long-running indoor water park build around a hot spring, and Mammoth Site, an active dig site.
Plan a South Dakota trip
Planning a trip to South Dakota? I wrote a series of posts and reviews of kid-friendly attractions, lodging and a photo-heavy trip recap. Check them out:
Comfort Suites and Convention Center (Rapid City, South Dakota)
Dakotah Steakhouse (Rapid City, South Dakota)
Evans Plunge (Hot Springs, South Dakota)
The Hills Inn (Hot Spring, South Dakota)
Evans Plunge (Hot Springs, South Dakota)
Mammoth Site (Hot Springs, South Dakota)
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