Reptile Gardens in Rapid City was on a USA Today list for Top 10 Roadside Attractions. Roadside attraction? It may have once been a roadside attraction capitalizing in people’s interest in snakes in 1937, but it has grown into a family-run, kid-friendly destination that educates as well as entertains.
Updated: This post was written in 2015 and has been updated in March 2023.
The friendly owners of Reptile Gardens gave me a family pass to visit so I could tell you about the place. I’m glad we got to go and spend a few hours there – it was certainly one of my kids’ favorite stops.
What animals are at Reptile Gardens?
So, with the name Reptile Gardens, you know what to expect. You’ll get your snakes, alligators and lizards, as well as a menagerie of others. Pictured above is one of the dozens of resident alligators at Reptile Gardens. This guy is rather famous – he was in a James Bond movie.
The highlight for my kids (and me, I’ll be honest), were the tortoises. Park visitors are welcome to pet and touch the free roaming behemoths (and I use roaming loosely here, these guys are not speedy).
Hello, photo opportunities. I could barely get Mooch away from them.
If you can get your kids away from the tortoises, head to the Sky Dome. The Sky Dome is home to a pretty tropical jungle with free-roaming parrots and other birds, hanging snakes and other creatures. The dome building actually has three areas you’ll want to see.
Upstairs there are snakes – highly venomous ones if that interests your kids. Some display windows were too high for young kids to see without some help. Some of these snakes are pretty rare – the rough-scaled pythons are the only ones in the world outside Australia. On the ground floor, you’ll find gators and other creepy crawly things.
You’ll find Maniac in that area, a 16-foot saltwater crocodile that you’ll just have to see to believe. I couldn’t fit him into one picture.
Animal shows at Reptile Gardens
Reptile Gardens has three animal shows. You can fit them all in during a three-hour visit, but it’s tight. They’re timed so that you can make it to the next one about 10 minutes before it starts.
Word of advice: Show up early for a good view.
The bird show was the most interactive, with a couple kids getting to go “on stage” and help with demonstrations. More than 20 species were part of the show.
The snake show was packed. The biggies, like the python, excited the youngsters in the crowd the most.
The big show of the place is the alligator show. Gator Arena has the most seating, which was needed. There were 37 alligators, crocodiles and caimans in the arena, most laying still in the water (yes, they’re real, the handler confirmed). The highlight was the alligator wrestling.
The guy who did the alligator show also did the snake show and he was pretty funny. Hope you get him if you see a show here. The show ends with kids being able to put a baby alligator.
Other things to see and do at Reptile Gardens
Reptile Gardens has several photo opportunities, which you kinda expect from a tourist attraction, right?
We can’t resist a good photo op.
There is also a playground, which isn’t too shaded so on a hot summer day, making it unbearable for parents. Kids love it, of course. Which leads me to the next spot: A cool off room. It’s between the playground and the tortoises, so it was a nice stopping point for us to sit and, well, cool off.
Reptile Gardens also has a bald eagle exhibit, Prairie Dog Town, and Japanese Garden & Turtle Pond. There are a couple places in Reptile Gardens to get a snack or full meal, or a drink, plus a massive gift shop. Mooch would not leave without getting herself a tortoise, which she carried around with her the rest of the trip.
How does Reptile Gardens compare to Omaha’s zoo?
Reptile Gardens has more species of reptiles than our zoo – in fact, no other zoo or park in the world has as many species. It’s not nearly as big at the zoo, though, and the jungle in the Sky Dome doesn’t compete with Omaha’s indoor rain forest. But it’s still pretty cool and you get a lot closer to some of the animals at Reptile Gardens.
During our visit, I learned Reptile Gardens has a working relationship with the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. Keepers from our zoo come to Reptile Gardens to learn from the poisonous snakes expert – cool, huh?
If you go
Where: 8955 S. Highway 16, Rapid City, South Dakota
Hours: April 1 to Dec. 31, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily in the summer (call for spring and fall hours)
Tip: Plan on at least two hours here if you rush things. Three hours will allow to see most exhibits and all three animal shows.
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)
Firehouse Brewing Company (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)