Rapid City, South Dakota. I don’t know about you, but that’s not the first place I think of for a park-themed trip. Utah, California, and Colorado come to mind first.
Sure, I think most of us have heard of Mount Rushmore. But Rapid City is also close to a lot of OTHER park sites – most are within an hour or two’s drive in various directions. In my mind that makes it a “must-visit” for anyone who loves parks.
I have good friends who are in the area now, which brought this topic to mind. Lee and I visited with friends last September. Late September was a great time to be there. Nothing was too crowded and the weather was nice – we had mostly sunny days with highs in the 60s.
Here are the places we visited during the four days we were there – and by no means did we see everything:
Mount Rushmore – the figures are impressive, but we spent more time in the Visitor Center watching the movie and learning about how it was created than we did looking at the monument. Unfortunately the Sculptor’s Studio was closed, as was the path to it, so we couldn’t explore very much. Be aware that a National Park Pass will NOT give you free entry – EVERYONE pays for parking on the way in, though the parking permit will be valid for a year. Per vehicle fee of $10, or $5 for 62 and over, or free for Active Duty Military. There is an evening show when lights come on, illuminating the faces…we didn’t see that.
Jewel Cave National Monument – You’ll need to take a ranger-guided tour to see anything inside the cave. Tickets are first come, first served. A limited number of Scenic Tour tickets can be reserved in advance. We did the Discovery Tour, a 20-minute tour which visits one large room. Check the web site for information on the physical requirements of the tours and what to bring and what not to bring: backpacks, purses, etc. are NOT permitted in the cave. Get there early if you don’t want a long wait for a tour.
Devil’s Tower National Monument – Perhaps the only thing that most of us remember about the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” 🙂 I will admit that I was underwhelmed. There’s really not much to do there beyond walking around the base of the tower. The Visitor Center is quite minimal – no movie or exhibits. It’s a quick visit.
Wind Cave National Park – You’ll need to take a ranger-guided tour to go inside the cave. Some tours are first come, first served, but advance reservations are available up to one month ahead for the Candlelight and Wild Cave Tours. We did the Natural Entrance Tour, which gave us a good overview of the features of the cave. It required us to go down some very narrow circular staircases. Be sure to check the web site in advance for information on the physical requirements of the tours, and be aware that photography is not allowed on the Candlelight and Wild Cave Tours.
National Grasslands Visitor Center – Located in Wall, SD, a block from the famous Wall Drug Store. The rangers there were delightful, and the movie, though quite dated, was very informative. We enjoyed learning about the endangered black-footed ferret.
Badlands National Park – The Badlands Loop Road offers a scenic drive through the areas of the park with the most easily visible rock formations. The Door and Window Trails, located in the eastern part of the park along the Loop Road, are easy walks to viewing areas: from the Door Trail you can walk out into the Badlands on your own. Bring water.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site – the exhibits and movie in the Visitor Center give a sobering look at a tumultuous time in history. A tour of a Delta-01 Launch Control Facility is available – reservations can be made up to 90 days in advance. There is a Delta-09 site that anyone can drive to and view from the outside.
Custer State Park – maybe the best state park I’ve ever visited. There is SO much to do here – I want to go back and spend more time. The Needles Highway itself and the views from it are impressive, and there are lots of hiking trails and beautiful lodges by serene lakes. The Wildlife Loop Road is a “don’t miss.” You are almost guaranteed to see bison, burros, and prairie dogs; antelope, deer, and elk are also common sightings.
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway – a 22-mile drive between Spearfish and Lead on highway 14A. The road passes through a gorge along Spearfish Creek – there are several waterfalls to see along the route, as well as limestone rock formations.
The Mammoth Site – in Hot Springs, SD, is an indoor dig site with the largest concentration of mammoth fossils in the world. It was a sinkhole with steep sides where mammoths and other animals become trapped and died. We found it surprisingly fascinating, and well worth the time and the $11/person admission charge.
There were many other cities and sights in the area that we didn’t visit…like the Crazy Horse Memorial, the town of Deadwood, the geographic center of the United States at Belle Fourche, and Bear Butte State Park…and I could have spent a lot more time in Custer State Park. It was really a beautiful area and I’d like to go back and visit again.