Here’s the thing with traveling: There are no guarantees. Flight delays or cancellations may cause you to miss part of your trip, and weather is always a factor—and one that you can’t control, too. So the nice thing about visiting Rapid City, the largest city in western South Dakota that draws tourists looking to hit up Mount Rushmore and the Badlands, is that when weather happens, there are plenty of other things to do than the monuments and parks.
Such was the case when I descended upon western South Dakota a couple weeks ago. Now, let’s be frank here: This was my third time in South Dakota and my third trip plagued by rain. It’s a true testament to a destination that has me wanting to keep coming back despite the weather, and South Dakota is such that great place.
I’m told this isn’t standard May weather in Rapid City, that it had been beautiful and springy—until we arrived. (So perhaps I’m the jinx here.) But Jade and I were traveling with five other intrepid adventurers, and we didn’t let the weather slow us down one bit. We still made the most of Rapid City.
How to enjoy Rapid City even in the rain? Here’s the thumbnail sketch:
Explore the Skyline Drive Wilderness Area
On our first afternoon upon arrival, Jade, Hardy and I went up to Skyline Drive, to both the free Dinosaur Park, and then to the 150-acre wilderness area where we hiked a mile or so in before the rain hit.
Even getting a little bit wet, it felt pretty amazing to be in the outdoors surrounded by so much greenery after way too many months cooped up indoors. I’d love to come back to the Skyline Wilderness Area on a sunny day and truly dive into all the walking, biking and hiking trails that crisscross the ridge line.
Taste your way through the breweries
One of our very first stops of the weekend was a tour and tasting at Hay Camp Brewing Company, which was absolutely packed on a Friday afternoon despite the weekly Bike4Pint ride being canceled due to rain. There were nearly a dozen house brews on tap, my favorites of which were the Dino-sour Pale Ale and the Lacto-Hand-Rye Coordination stout (obviously).
On our final day before heading to the airport, Jade and I also snuck in a quick flight at Lost Cabin Beer Co., which was a much smaller operation but well worth the trek. I also enjoyed sampling other South Dakota brews at Independent Ale House, boasting a rotating roster of more than 40 beers on tap, as well as plenty more available by bottle.
Check out the art scene
Rapid City is outfitted with an alley right in the heart of its downtown that artists can obtain a permit to paint in. The result is a mishmash of a canvas that spans a block between 6th and 7th and Main and Saint Joseph streets with colorful installations such as these.
What better way to combat a dreary day than with a little color, right? Downtown Rapid City is also peppered with indie shops and artist collectives such as Prairie Edge, perfect for procuring your next piece of art or a token from your time in South Dakota, as well as a place to duck in out of the rain.
Test your luck at Mount Rushmore. Then, test it again
Let me preface this saying: I’ve seen Mount Rushmore; it’s awesome. So I perhaps wasn’t as bummed as my travel companions that I didn’t get to see it in person this time. Or rather, I saw a vague outline of Washington’s mug, but that was about it.
Here’s my pro tip, though: Drive Highway 244 from Rushmore toward Crazy Horse, and around the first bend, you’ll be rewarded with fun views of the presidents’ profiles as well as some lake vistas.
We tried Rushmore again the next day as we were all determined to glimpse it via helicopter, only the weather was even worse: The fog was as thick as soup.
Note: The presidents are indeed directly behind Hardy.
But look at it this way, photographers: Here’s your chance to exercise your creativity instead!
Drive to the Badlands anyway
Here’s the thing: I probably wouldn’t have driven the hour each way to Badlands National Park in inclement weather had I not been with Jade who is always overly optimistic. (This is why you always travel with a pal who has complementary traits to yours.) And in this case, I’m so glad she suggested it because even though we were socked in with fog the entire drive there, it miraculously lifted as soon as we crossed into the park’s domain.
The first time I was in Rapid City, the Badlands were closed for flooding, and I’d always wanted to see this otherworldly landscape that looks straight out of a scene from Star Wars. It’s also home to some of the world’s richest fossil beds.
We drove in and out of foggy pockets, stopping often to snap photos and fawn at the pronghorns and other wildlife we saw.
Even though we stayed in the park just two hours, this wound up being my favorite part of the trip. The Badlands also was my 23rd national park to visit—I’m almost halfway there!
And if all else fails, you do drive out the Badlands and the weather doesn’t let up for you, well, then at least you have the iconic Wall Drug to look forward to before you head back to Rapid City!
Cruise through Bear Country U.S.A.
With Rushmore and Crazy Horse both too foggy for views, we changed our plans on the fly and headed back toward Rapid City for a pit stop at Bear Country U.S.A., a drive-through wildlife park in the heart of the Black Hills.
This was my first time going to such a park, and I had no idea what to expect, but I’ll tell you what I did not expect: An arctic wolf breezing past our car, so close we could have reached out the window and tousled his fur, and a pair of grizzlies lumbering past the car right in front of us.
The park spans 250 acres and houses 20 different species of mammals native to North America. We were told that during the park’s CubFest you can actually mingle with bear cubs(!), but alas, we missed this by a few weeks. Regardless, Bear Country U.S.A. was definitely a fun way to kill an hour, rain or shine, with kids or without.
Go on a wildlife safari in Custer State Park
It might require a 4am wake-up time, but an early morning safari through Custer State Park will be very worth your loss of sleep. It’s one of South Dakota’s most iconic spots, mostly for the bison herds and other diverse wildlife.
On my first visit to Rapid City with SVV seven years ago, we fell in love with this park and its inhabitants, so much so that we went back twice. And while you could technically drive around on your own as we did, let me say as someone who has tackled it both ways, being some of the first park visitors of the day guided by a trusty park employee from the comfort of an open-air Jeep definitely trumps solo exploration.
After all, he knows all the best spots to find bison, prairie dogs, elk and more.
And as if you needed another reason to rise before the sun, I’ll give you one: DONKEYS.
Or burros, rather. I had completely forgotten I’d met the Begging Burros back in 2011 and immediately fell for their charm once more. These guys are anything but shy and ambled right on up to our Jeep looking for a handout.
Unfortunately for them, all they got was a selfie instead.
Sure, sun would have been preferable, but despite the rain, we had not just a good, but a GREAT time in South Dakota. I’m telling you all: If you want a place that has wildlife, national park, art, and a brewery and culinary scene all rolled into one, Rapid City is your place.
And I’ll be right there beside you on my fourth visit to the state as I still need to swoop past the presidential quartet in a chopper. Mark my words, it’s going to happen.
Have you ever visited Rapid City? What’s your favorite way to turn a rainy day right around?
Looking for other South Dakota travel tips? Start here:
- 11 Reasons We Fell in Love with Sioux Falls
- A Weekend Guide to Sioux Falls
- A First Glance at Mount Rushmore
- An American Safari in Custer State Park