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Rapid City is an iconic American road trip destination for families visiting Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands and Crazy Horse Memorial. Want to stretch your vacation budget? There’s a ton of free, kid-friendly fun in town. Add one or more of these awesome things to do to your vacation itinerary.
Located 350 miles west of Sioux Falls, South Dakota and 75 miles west of Badlands National Park in the gorgeous Black Hills National Forest, Rapid City makes an ideal home base for exploring all this stunning area offers. Known as the City of Presidents, Rapid City’s iconic monuments include Mount Rushmore.
Native American culture permeates the region with a particular focus on the Lakota tribe and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Tourist attractions are plentiful. Day trips to Custer State Park, the Badlands National Park, the ghost town of Deadwood and more add to the family fun. Here’s our list of fun free things to do in Rapid City.
Main Street Square in Downtown Rapid City
If you’ve ever been to Rapid City in the middle of summer, you know how hot it can get! The middle of the downtown area delivers a fantastic surprise for children looking to have a frolic and a splash. The open mall’s spouts and fountains are sure to provide respite from the heat! Family fun nights feature free concerts and family-friendly entertainment during the summer.
Nearby you’ll find a tourist center filled with information about area sites and attractions — including all the FREE fun I’ve listed here! In the wintertime, the entire fountain area becomes a skating rink where there is more FREE fun to be had during the chilly months!
Have those swimsuits handy — the fountains are robust and if you go in the summer, you will get wet! I didn’t expect to, but as I hovered near my little ones thinking slippery when wet, this helicopter mom got soaked! Which, in the 90-degree sun felt pretty darn good!
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City of Presidents Walking Tour
You’ll want to get a walking tour map of the City of the Presidents which can be found at the visitor center on Main Street Square. Follow the map to be sure you find all the life-sized bronze statues of our nation’s past presidents. With the recent addition of President Obama, there are 43 statues. There is no fee to enjoy walking around downtown Rapid City and hunting for each of the iconic busts.
This free roadside attraction sits atop a great vantage point where several enormous concrete dinosaurs stand watch over the City of the Presidents. Connected by sidewalks, the figures of prehistoric creatures are perfect for posing and family pictures. There’s even a small snack station adjacent to the parking lot (but the goodies are NOT free). Great for a much-needed pit stop with lots of room to roam. And where else could you get a selfie with a T-Rex?
Not to be missed if you have little ones, Storybook Island contains all the characters of your childhood. The park boasts several acres of huge figurines, statues, bridges and playground equipment for children to enjoy and play out the adventures of their favorite stories. Free admission extends to playing on all of the equipment and statues. Tickets to ride the train around the park and for snacks at the little shop by the train station require a small fee. The pavilion can also be rented for birthday parties. Some of the fun includes Yogi and Boo Boo, The Wizard of Oz, castles, pirate ships and the Cat in the Hat!
Plan on spending at least a few hours here if you have kids under six. They will love it and it’s the kind of stress-free fun every vacation needs. Very much a walk in the park!
Terri Marshall suggests checking out Art Alley. “While strolling through downtown Rapid City, look for Art Alley located between 6th and 7th streets. This free outdoor art gallery showcases the creativity of local artists and offers an excellent opportunity to introduce older kids to art appreciation.”
Fort Hays Old West Town
This is a really fun place and we’ve participated in the Chuckwagon — which is well worth the fee — BUT the property also offers beautiful vistas and a few free tours. Did you know it was the set of Dances with Wolves? Yep. So if you’re a Kevin Costner fan or just need a taste of the Wild West, make a stop here for a look. There’s a lot to see (though not great for super young kid attention-holding power) and it’s very unique.
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Outdoor Campus West
Not a place you’d stumble upon without the help of the visitors center or a local, Outdoor Campus West is a hidden gem for outdoorsy families. Super low-key and free, it’s a hidden gem for outdoorsy families. Spend a little downtime here while visiting Rapid City. We were able to explore some exhibits indoors about indigenous animals of the South Dakota prairies — like those adorable prairie dogs and Badlands and then adventure around outdoors on the little hiking trails on property.
Scheduled programs and talks as well as games entertain the kids. My son enjoyed an open-ended play kitchen (complete with tons of natural rocks) for cooking and creating with endless imagination. With not a lot of bells and whistles, you’ll need to visit with an open mind and be ready for creative play or just stretching your legs. There are modern bathrooms, running water and drinking fountains, and the indoor hall is fabulous for relief from the summer heat.
Stavkirke – Chapel in the Hills
This chapel is in the pines of the western edge of Rapid City and is an exact reproduction of the famous Borgund Stavkirke of Laerdal, Norway. Free for all visitors, its craftsmanship is quite beautiful. Make sure to check the website before you visit, as it is a seasonal site. There is a log cabin museum and an authentic Stabbur (storage facility with a grass roof a la Laura Ingalls) on-site in addition to the chapel. Built in 1969, it still stands today.
Enjoy the View from Skyline Drive
As part of her road trip with her grandson, Marshall, Terri Marshall made sure to take as many scenic drives as possible. “Skyline Drive offers one of the best views of Rapid City. The road stretches about two miles with plenty of beautiful vistas overlooking the city. Also, the Skyline Wilderness Area trails span 150 acres providing some easy-to-reach hiking trails and mountain biking trails.”
Drive Needles Highway in Custer State Park
Although Custer State Park requires a pass of $20 per car, Needles Highway cuts through the heart of Custer State Park and is free to drive. The road also passes by Crazy Horse Memorial — an attraction rich in Native American history that shares the story of the Lakota people. “Take the drive after dark for illuminated views of the Crazy Horse Memorial,” suggests Terri Marshall.
More Free Things to Do in Rapid City
There’s never enough time to see and do it all, but here are some fun things to add to your list for future visits to Rapid City, the Black Hills and nearby areas:
Museum of Geology
Located on the campus of South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, the free Museum of Geology harbors several fascinating exhibits focused on paleontology and mineralogy.
Ellsworth Air Force Base: South Dakota Air and Space Museum
Located 10 miles north of Rapid City on Ellsworth Air Force Base, the free South Dakota Air and Space Museum explores aviation history through guided tours and seasonal exhibits for adults and kids.
Take a day trip 50 miles east to Wall Drug. Perhaps one of South Dakota’s strangest collections of shops and photo opportunities ever, this kitschy little “town” is a great place to let the kids have a bathroom break, stretch with a walkabout and ride a Jackalope. Though it’s corny, it’s not to be missed.
Although parking requires a fee, admission to Mt. Rushmore is free. Driving by is also free and there are a few roadside pullouts for photos.
Pro Tip: Go at night! The lights on the Mount Rushmore faces are exquisite!
US Highway 14S winds through Spearfish Canyon for nearly 20 miles from the city of Spearfish to Cheyenne Crossing. For another scenic drive follow the highway en route to other Black Hills attractions. A haven for outdoor enthusiasts, Spearfish Canyon is a great spot for wildlife spotting, rock climbing, biking and hiking.
Along US Highway 14A in the Black Hills National Forest, three waterfalls add to the road trip fun. Bridal Veil Falls, Spearfish Falls and Roughlock Falls exist relatively close together along this scenic drive. If you’re driving between Spearfish Canyon to Sturgis, South Dakota, detour off Interstate 90 for this short loop to find the waterfalls.
Black Hills National Forest
There is no admission fee for day use in almost every area of National Forest lands including Black Hills National Forest. Even camping is FREE as long as you are NOT in a designated campground (for up to TWO weeks!) With hiking trails, mountain biking trails and caverns to explore, this playground of nature’s splendor beckons. Go check it out — for free!
For more ideas visit www.visitrapidcity.com.