Welcome to our first city report, in which we break down what we did in a particular location. It could be good, it could be bad; it could be fresh, it could be foul. What it will undoubtedly be, is long.
This is not a report to tell you where to go or what to do. This is also not a report of essential attractions or a summary of everything you can do when you visit a particular place. We understand that we’re not visiting every single hot attraction, and we want you to understand that it’s not about how much you can see.
One thing we can guarantee is this: You can never see it all. That said, why even bother trying? Our mantra is to see what we want at the most leisurely pace possible, and to enjoy it along the way. If we happen upon something we like, we’ll check it out. If we encounter a nice salesperson at a store, we might spend two hours talking to them. (That actually happens.)
We get ourselves into all sorts of interesting situations, and they are often not touristy. We like to experience interesting things. Sometimes, this means sitting at an outdoor table for an hour, sipping a cold beer and people-watching at the bus stop. Sometimes, this means talking to a restaurant owner about his business and his joy about being in the newest edition of Lonely Planet, all in a language that’s certainly not our best. (Two examples of experiences during our visit to Carmona, Spain.)
That’s just how we roll. This is not a guide. This is not an itinerary. This is not a list of essential stops. We know darn well that we didn’t see it all, and we never will. We value our experiences and want to share them, but this certainly doesn’t mean we think we are doing something definitive for your travel plans or your hopes and dreams.
As you are our readers, we do love you very much. Even if you don’t like us. And that’s okay. That also means that we welcome your suggestions and your experiences in the comments section of our blog posts.
Long disclaimer, much? Let’s do this.
Welcome to Rapid City! Known as the gateway to and central city location for monuments like Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse, the Black Hills, the Badlands and all kinds of other goodness. It’s the second-largest city in South Dakota, and sits in the southwest corner of the state.
Virtually no one ever goes to Rapid City to actually visit Rapid City. People stay here because of its above designation, and it will probably always be the case. That’s a shame, because we love Rapid City and had a damn good time there. Alas, such is life.
In case you haven’t been following along our “Fabric of America” tour, we’ll let you know right now that we do not take the interstate. We are exploring the back roads of America, and are avoiding the atlas’s blue roads as much as we can.
We arrived from Pierre, which is in the center of South Dakota and is the state’s capital. We took State Highway 34 west from there, dipped south near Milesville on State Highway 73, and then picked up US 14 west at Philip. When we stopped for gas in Philip, we asked if there was a town center. The ladies looked at us like we were crazy, thought about what a town center is for what seemed like ten minutes, and then told us there is no town. Okay then, no town.
Moving on, we went through the 12-person town of Cottonwood, South Dakota (click here to read our post about that), and jumped on I-90 west. Sorry folks, no other choices. Before jumping on I-90, we visited Wall Drug.
Not much later, we landed in Rapid City. In case you care:
- State Route 34 / US 14 west from Pierre, SD
- State Route 73 south near Milesville, SD
- US 14 west at Philip, SD
- I-90 west at Wall, SD
We stayed at the La Quinta Inn & Suites in Rapid City. We were scheduled for four nights, and ended up staying five. Because the staff there really is the best. Also, Rapid City is just a great place to be. You can read our in-depth hotel review right here.
Don’t be scared off by the prices, as terrifying as they are during high season. It’s easily the best value in an area where hotels are insanely expensive. It also has a water park, a bar, a restaurant, very comfortable rooms, fast wi-fi, and again, the best staff we’ve ever encountered.
The location of the hotel:
1416 North Elk Vale Rd.
Rapid City, SD 57701
Tel: +1 (605) 718-7000
Eating is greater than most things, and of the utmost importance if you have any desire whatsoever to lead a fruitful, fulfilling life. Not because you need it, but because when it’s an enjoyable experience, it’s one of the most glorious things that can ever happen to you. And it happens at least once a day! Or, three times if you eat like a normal person. Where we ate…
Firehouse Brewing Company: This downtown Rapid City brewpub makes a killer set of beers, and serves up some delicious pub fare. The staff was really great and we enjoyed our time there. They have a souvenir/swag shop next door. What they don’t have are packaged goods. This means that you can’t take a six-pack home, and that was more disappointing than your average disappointment. We were told they will be bottling their beer soon, though.
For some bizarre reason, they’re adding a wine cellar soon and making that a big part of their business. Helloooooo, brewery. B-R-E-W-E-R-Y. No need to turn it into half a wine house to get more money, possibly at the expense of your delicious, yeasty goodness. You’re already popular. You’re already crowded. All the time. Enjoy it.
Sliders Bar & Grill: This is the hotel restaurant of the La Quinta we stayed at as well as its neighbor, the Fairfield Inn. We ordered room service late one night, and the pizza we had was crazy tasty. Better than expected, even when you include the insane prices and service charges that come along with having sustenance delivered from the hotel kitchen. We tried to order more than just pizza, but they unfortunately close the kitchen fairly early to everything except pizza. And so it is.
They also have a full dining room and bar, complete with enclosed water slides that literally go through the bar and back into the water park. And huge big-screen TVs for all you sports fans out there. We were there during the Stanley Cup, and it was crowded with hockey fans who should have been out seeing the surrounding beauty of the area. To each his/her own!
Powder House Lodge: This restaurant (and lodge) is located just outside of the (amazingly kitschy) town of Keystone, South Dakota. It’s on the way to and from a lot of the major sights in the Black Hills, so you won’t even need to go out of your way for it. Score! This was recommended by Andrea at La Quinta, and was a huge delight.
This place is known for its wild game and unusual fare, as well as local delicacies. Ang chowed down on bacon-wrapped trout, while I had a meat sampler complete with bison short ribs, elk medallions, bison sausage, and bison-venison sausage. Local beers all around, and success was enjoyed. Loved it.
Colonial House: A local favorite featuring a vast menu of down-home goodness. This was recommended by Jerry at La Quinta, who said it’s one of his favorite restaurants. There’s a full bar and daily specials. Expect to wait ten minutes or so – totally worth it.
Ang had some sort of ridiculous creamy, bacon-y, broccoli pasta. I went with the brisket special, and I’d do it again. The only downside is the beer selection. They did have micro-brews on tap, but the choices were minimal and I ended up with something on the too-light side. Either way, it’s easy to see why this place gets crowded. They also sell some local ingredients and packaged goods in their merch section, including some fun tees.
Sanford’s Grub & Pub: We actually ended up here thanks to a meter maid, of all people. We tried to go to a few other recommended places, all of which were closed at the weird time of day we wanted to eat. This is a regional chain with eight locations, this one being located in an old railroad warehouse in downtown Rapid City.
This place is seriously cavernous, and was nearly dead when we went mid-afternoon. It’s full of vintage memorabilia, much of which we wanted to spirit away into a trailer we’d rent to store our haul. Portions here are huge, with a wide variety of chicken sandwiches and hamburgers dominating the menu. The food was good, but not mind-blowing or anything. It was also a bit of a wait even though we were probably one of a few couples taking up space in the zillion-seat arena. I think we’d eat here again, but it’s not at the very top of our list. Kudos on their large beer selection, though.
And that wraps up all the places we ate while we were in Rapid City, not including the snacks, pastries, and other random eats that filled our bellies.
This is no doubt the most important of what we did, and probably the section to which you should probably pay the most attention. Ready?
Cottonwood, SD: We stopped here before we arrived in Rapid City. It’s on US 14, 16 miles east of Wall, and further east of Rapid City. This town isn’t really much of a town at all, but it’s cool to drive through and see a lot of the old buildings. Great pictures can be had. We actually didn’t encounter a single person here, even though it supposedly houses 12 people.
Wall Drug: This paradise of kitsch is under an hour east of Rapid City, just off of I-90. It’s long been famed as a tourist stop due to its never-ending maze of souvenir shops, memoribilia, and things like the singing gorilla, roaring tyrannosaurus rex, and jackalope. This is 1000% kitsch. It’s great for kids, and great for a half-hour if you’re just passing through. It is not a destination, unless you’re into free bumper stickers, tchotchkes, trinkets, and letting your kids run completely wild. However, if you don’t have kids or don’t care about keeping an eye on them, many of the walls are filled with old pictures and newspaper articles about 19th-century history of the area.
Badlands National Park: Jutting out of the area east and southeast of Rapid City are the Badlands. This national park is famed for a landscape that no one thinks could pop up in the middle of southwestern South Dakota. Its deep, barren rock mountains and formations spread across a wide area, making it seem as though a desert landed in the middle of the plains. It’s quite easy to drive a loop around this park, of which there are entrances near I-90 as well as the route we took from the south, off of State Route 44.
Scenic, SD: If you thought a town of 12 was pushing it, this town actually has 4.75 people. The one person we encountered – who we’d describe as anything but friendly – told us there are four residents and the other .75 are his dogs. Right on, then. This mostly-ghost town was recently purchased by the Filipino Church of Christ, although no one outside of it knows what the organization plans on doing with Scenic. For the time being, it’s a very cool stop if you want to take the back roads, providing for endless ghost-town-style photos. Just don’t go past the “No Trespassing” signs. Apparently, at least one person does live here – and the signs are current. You can probably guess how we know this. 😉
Downtown Rapid City, SD: The downtown area of this city is quite fantastic. We were told that it was redone and revitalized only a few years ago, but you wouldn’t know it given the historic buildings, clean streets, and wealth of people who support its businesses every day. There’s the new Main Street Square, complete with a fountain and stage area, and plenty of independent shops and restaurants to keep you busy for days. In addition, there are sculptures of all the U.S. presidents scattered around street corners of the whole of downtown, making for interesting photo ops and investigations of U.S. history as you make your way around.
Also, this is city employee Manuel. We ran into him on the street and stole him from his work to have a conversation with us. He’s the newest signer of the Declaration of Independence, as you can see below.
Memorial Park and Berlin Wall Memorial: Located next to downtown Rapid City, Memorial Park features a lakeside memorial to victims of the city’s 1972 flood. It also has a fountain and nice rose garden. In addition, there is a Berlin Wall Memorial featuring sections of the wall, other wall defenses, and information about the former Cold War curtain. It’s entirely free and is easy to access on foot from downtown or by driving. As former residents of Berlin, we were very intrigued by this and enjoyed our sunny morning in the area.
Art Alley: This freestyle art space for graffiti and street art resides in a block-long alley in downtown Rapid City. We stumbled across it during a walk, and were pleased to find such a large space that’s open to artists from anywhere to express themselves. It also occasionally hosts exhibitions and installations, and changes frequently. We highly suggest you check it out, as it’s a modern color explosion just off the traditional, historic Main Street area of downtown.
Mt. Rushmore National Memorial: This is probably the number one reason that people come to the area. The presidential sculpture was completed in 1941 and hosts 60-foot-high granite carvings of U.S. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. We personally think Roosevelt, and Jefferson to an extent, got dissed by being pushed to the back of the other two guys. But hey, it’s an impressive sight and certainly a symbol of the United States. When I visited as a kid, it was a simple monument with a parking lot. These days, you drop $11 on multi-level parking and enter a huge arcade full of columns representing all 50 states, a visitor center, gift shops, and restaurants. They have most definitely turned it into a stick-around attraction. There is also a theater, and hiking/walking trails surrounding the base of the mountain. If you’re crazy short on time or just don’t have the funds, you can also get a perfect view of Mt. Rushmore at a turn-out on the highway that leads up to the park.
Crazy Horse Memorial: The story about this memorial is a saga in itself. Saving you that (click on the link above for the story), this will be the largest sculpture in the world when it’s finished. It’s been under construction since 1948, and accepts absolutely zero federal funding. All proceeds of the $10 per person entry go back into the costs of completion and upkeep. That’s all well and good, but it’s unfortunate that visitors get a very, very distant view after entering the park. One must pay another fee to take a bus trip around the mountain, and then drop another $135 per person if they want to go up to the first level of Crazy Horse. That’s, no doubt, a big sum for most people. The story behind it and its completion are important to American culture; it’s only a bit disappointing that the view you get for your initial entry is from so far away. In order to keep people around and draw more money into the project’s completion, there’s also a massive visitor center featuring a large Native American museum, tons of gift shops, a movie theater, and a whole lot more. It’s admirable that a private organization is tackling this on its own, and a visit is worth it if only to support the memorial.
Custer State Park: This is a huge state park just next to Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse. It features a host of scenic drives, including Needles Highway, which climbs up and over the mountains, through tunnels, and provides endless chances to see some of the greatest of what the Black Hills have to offer. In addition, there’s a Wildlife Loop through the park, which gives visitors ample opportunities to see some of nature’s finest beasts, including over 1,500 bison that roam the park. We barely saw any at all during two days of drives, which made us very disagreeable folks. The bison get a pass, though, as it was nearly 100F outside. We did see some deer, but most of the bison, and all of the elk, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and the rest of the animal kingdom eluded us. We didn’t even see the famous feral burros that live in the park. Sad face. Regardless of its lack of fauna, all of our drives through the park were magnificent and we most certainly recommend it. There are also opportunities for camping, outdoor sports, hiking, and more.
Black Hills Speedway: Now, that’s what we’re talkin’ about! Non-tourist insanity in a very touristy location. Jerry at La Quinta recommended this to us, as he’s also a firefighter who provides emergency services at the races. This is dirt track, stock car racing at its finest, with regional hopefuls and champions taking part in a series of races that include modified stock, sprint, stock, and classic car series. We were lucky to have a chance to attend the races, as they had been rescheduled from a few days prior due to the threat of storms. Of all that wonderful beauty and striking monuments we saw during our trip to Rapid City, this was probably the highlight of them all.
As you can see, we did a lot in Rapid City. A lot. I actually can’t even believe we accomplished so much, as we never felt frazzled or in a hurry. We also managed to get plenty of work done, spent an endless amount of hours talking to people at our hotel and at the businesses we visited, and took boatloads of pictures.
When we hear people talk about places they’d like to visit in the U.S. – as Americans or not – almost no one ever says Rapid City or any of the monuments in the region. However, this area is iconic of the culture and history of America, and I think a lot of people are like me and remember visiting back in the day, as kids.
Going back as an adult and as a full-time traveler, it’s wonderful to see how this part of the country has prospered and grown to be very eclectic and a cultural institution of its own. It’s one of the best places we’ve ever spent time, and we’ll never forget what we saw or the people we met.
Next time you think about taking a road trip, or traveling to the U.S., think about spending a good chunk of time in Rapid City, South Dakota. You absolutely will not forget or regret it.
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Have you ever been to Rapid City? Did you visit any of the places in our post? Do you have any suggestions for things people should see when they stay in the region? Any other thoughts? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!