Rapid City has long been one of my families’ favorite places to travel for a little summer fun. This was a road trip I vividly remember taking with my parents and brother as a kid and I wanted the same fond memories for my children to reflect on with their own children. We planned an epic road trip itinerary to in a vast relatively rural region of the country and it did not disappoint. What was a total surprise though is how much FREE fun was ready to greet us in the west central South Dakota city!
Have you ever wondered how you could pack in some family fun on a road trip across the Great Plains without breaking the entire trip budget? We have to conquer the Dakotas and Eastern Montana (parts of “Flyover Country” — so named because most feel there is little reason to stop or heavens forbid make a destination of these places in the Midwest) every time we head West. So, we’ve become pros at finding fun that is cheap or in this case FREE all across the flat lands. Here we have amassed our favorites near Rapid City in the great state of South Dakota.
This is a totally free roadside attraction that is set atop a great vantage point where several enormous concrete dinosaurs stand watch over the City of the Presidents. The figures of prehistoric creatures are connected by sidewalks and 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.
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Not to be missed if you have little ones, this FREE Rapid City gem can be difficult to find if there is any summer road construction as it is not well-signed if you’re on an obscure route. However, it’s worth a little bit of seeking! Filled with all the characters of your childhood, this 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. Admission is FREE for everyone and playing on all of the equipment and statues is as well. There is a small fee for tickets to ride the train around the park and for snacks at the little shop by the train station. 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!
Main Street Square
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 has a fantastic surprise for children looking to have a frolic and a splash. The open mall has spouts and fountains that are sure to provide respite from the heat! There are also family fun nights that feature free concerts and family-friendly entertainment during the summer. Nearby you’ll find a tourist information area that is full of great area sites and attractions — including all the FREE fun I’ve listed here! (Hint: Pick up a President’s Walk map here!) In the wintertime, the entire fountain area is turned into a skating rink where there is more FREE fun to be had during the chilly months!
Have those swim suits handy — the fountains are robust and if you go in the summer, you will get wet! I didn’t expect to, as an onlooking mom, but since I had a child that was just over two years and the entire area is a hard surface (I was thinking slippery when wet), I had to hover. Thus, helicopter mom got soaked! Which, in the 90 degree sun felt pretty darn good!
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 it you’re a Kevin Costner fan or just need a taste of the Wild West, stop here, walk around, look at set memorabilia. There is a ton to look at (though not great for super young kid attention-holding power) and it’s very unique.
Outdoor Campus West
This is a place you wouldn’t stumble upon without the help of a tourist information center or a local, or just really dumb luck in finding the parking lot and driving up. It’s a hidden gem for outdoorsy families and is a super low-key and FREE way to spend some down time while in the city. We were able to explore some exhibits indoors about indigenous animals of the South Dakota prairies and Badlands and then adventure around outdoors on the little hiking paths on property. There are some programs and talks that are scheduled as well as games for children. 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 ready for creative play or just stretching the legs. There are
modern bathrooms, running water and drinking fountains, and the indoor hall is fabulous for respite from the summer heat.
City of the Presidents Walking Tour and Game
You’ll want to get a Walking Tour Map of the City of the Presidents (which can be found at the information
area of Main Street
Square or any of the visitor information centers) in order to be able to ensure that you’ll find all the life-sized bronze statues of our nation’s past presidents. There are currently 42 statues, with Barack Obama coming soon! There is no fee to enjoy walking around and hunting for each of the iconic busts.
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. It is free for all visitors and is quite beautiful in its craftsmanship. 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. It was built in 1969 and still stands today.
Honorable Mentions (FREE nearby):
Ellsworth AFB – South Dakota Air & Space Museum – 10 miles North of Rapid City – Museum tours are free and offer many exhibits for adults and kids seasonally; tours of the base itself are at a nominal fee.
Wall Drug, South Dakota – 50 miles east – Perhaps one of the 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.
Mt. Rushmore – free admission, parking has a fee (driving by is FREE and there are a few roadside pullouts for photos.) Tip: Go at night! The lights on the faces are exquisite!
Black Hills National Forest – There is no admission fee for day-use in almost every area of National Forest lands and even camping is FREE on National Forest lands as long as you are NOT in a designated campground (for up to TWO weeks!) For the weekender or the rugged hiker, this is a playground of nature’s splendor and adventures. Go check it out — for free!