Home TripsAcross the Country Visiting Rapid City, SD in the Winter

Visiting Rapid City, SD in the Winter

by Bonnie
Visiting Rapid City in the Winter

As one of the biggest cities in South Dakota, if you’re looking to visit The Mount Rushmore State, Rapid City is a great place to start. We first visited this area, called the Black Hills, in 2012. We have wanted to return ever since. This somewhat spontaneous visit to Rapid City in the winter turned out to be the perfect vacation!

Our original plan for this winter road trip was to visit the national park sites of Southern New Mexico. Unfortunately, the government shutdown forced us to alter our plans. After much consideration (and hotel price comparisons), we decided to chase the snow and finally return to the Black Hills.

Snow in the Black Hills

So, why exactly did we choose Rapid City in the winter? First, we know from previous visits that this area has some unparalleled natural beauty. Second, we found a really inexpensive Hilton Garden Inn. Third, the nearby Custer State Park is widely known as one of the best state parks in the country. And, finally, Rapid City has plenty of culture, dining and shopping opportunities.

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Winter Weather in Rapid City

If you’re visiting Rapid City in the winter, like we did, you certainly need to be prepared for the cold, though milder temperatures do often mix in. The average highs this time of year are in the 30s, with lows in the teens. Rapid City does get some snow, but it doesn’t usually stick around all season.

Rapid City in the winter
Snow on the sidewalk in Rapid City.

For us, though, it was the snow that we were looking for! We actually had to avoid a snow/rain storm on our way to Rapid City. Thankfully, we were able to navigate around most of the bad weather and arrived in Rapid City with enough snow to cover the ground, but not be a major problem.

Unexpectedly, another snowstorm (a blizzard, actually) moved through a couple of days after we arrived. This storm brought quite a bit of snow to the Black Hills and moderate snow to Rapid City. It also brought with it some serious wind and very cold (single-digit) temperatures! 

South Dakota DOT at work
A South Dakota DOT plow. We were very impressed with how well they kept up with plowing in South Dakota.

Thankfully, South Dakota Department of Transportation does a great job of treating their roads and we were able to get into town once the snow ended. The extremely low temperatures did keep us inside during the day on New Year’s Eve, though.

For a summer visit, expect much warmer temperatures. Highs in the 70s and 80s are normal, but temperatures can climb up to the 90s or 100s at times.

Things to Do in Rapid City

Rapid City is a large city with all of the amenities you would expect in any city. You’ll find plenty of opportunities for shopping and dining, along with plenty of museums and other things to do. In the summer, tourists flock to Rapid City and the Black Hills. The winter is decidedly quieter.

Downtown Rapid City, SD
This statue in downtown Rapid City is called “Tying on the Eagle Plume.”

Unfortunately, fewer tourists in the winter also means many attractions are closed or have limited hours. We still found plenty to keep us occupied though.

Tour the City of Presidents in Downtown

In downtown Rapid City, you’ll find life-size statues of most of the past US presidents. Indeed, only the two most recent presidents (Obama and Trump) are not currently included. The bronze statues are scattered throughout the main downtown area and are free to view.

City of Presidents in Rapid City, SD
Rapid City has statures of the presidents along the streets… we just had to find Teddy Roosevelt.

According to visitrapidcity.com, “each of the sculptures is privately funded and the pattern of placement was chosen to maintain a coherent structure and eliminate any sense of favoritism or political gain.” As such, if you’re searching for a particular president, you’ll likely want to refer to the interactive guide.

The online guide will also provide details on each president and why the sculpture is presented in the manner it is. Even if you’re not a history or presidential buff, you can enjoy finding the various presidents and checking out the sculptures.

Main Street in Rapid City
Main Street in Rapid City

Of course, you’ll be wandering around outside to view the statues so if you’re visiting Rapid City in the winter, be sure to dress warm! If you prefer to stay inside when it’s cold (or when it’s hot), consider one of Rapid City’s many indoor attractions.

Wander Through Art Alley

Just off Main Street, between 6th and 7th Streets you’ll find a small alley known as Art Alley. The color and creativity cover just about everything, from the walls to the dumpsters. It won’t take you long to walk through this small area, but you’ll surely be impressed.

Art Alley in Rapid City
Art Alley in Rapid City

The Dahl Arts Center

Located in downtown Rapid City, The Dahl is a Rapid City’s art center for contemporary visual arts, art education and performing arts. Here you’ll find several art galleries, an interactive children’s gallery and the Cyclorama Mural of American History.

We are not typically huge art gallery fans, but with limited things to do in the winter, we decided to check it out. And, since admission is free, we figured we had nothing to lose.

The Dahl Arts Center in Rapid City
The Dahl Arts Center in Rapid City

During our visit, there were four different exhibits on display. Our favorite exhibit was “Painting the West” by Aaron and Jenny Wuerker, a husband and wife team. We especially liked how they captured the essence of the modern rural west and man’s interaction with the landscape.

We also enjoyed a collection by the Two Bulls Family, an Oglala Lakota family of artists and musicians from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is southeast of Rapid City. This exhibit featured the work of 21 different family members and covered a wide range of mediums. Pieces included paintings, graphic design, sculpture, leatherwork, mixed-media and much more. The diversity of the work here was truly impressive.

Exhibit at Dahl Arts Center in Rapid City, SD
An exhibit at the Dahl Arts Center in Rapid City.

The Cyclorama Mural of American History was also very impressive. The mural wraps around a large room and depicts about 200 years of US History. Included in the painting are significant events and people, such as the Civil War, the westward expansion and invention of the telephone and automobiles. This was truly a great summary of American History and is very nicely done.

Of course, the exhibits rotate so be sure to check the website before visiting if you’re not sure if this is for you. The cyclorama, however, is permanent and certainly worth a quick visit. Even if you’re not an art enthusiast, you could probably spend 15 or 20 minutes here. Art lovers could certainly spend more time here.

The Journey Museum and Learning Center

Located just a short drive from the main downtown area, the Journey Museum provides an overview of the history of the Black Hills and the Native Americans who first settled this area. Here, you’ll get a fairly complete history of the western great plains through geology, paleontology and archeology. 

With exhibits including rocks and land formation, dinosaurs and other fossils, Native American life and the American pioneers, there is a little bit for everyone. Some of the most interesting exhibits covered the homesteaders who came with the westward expansion, the demise of Wild Bill Hickock and the great Rapid City flood of 1972.

The Journey Museum in Rapid City.
An exhibit on the Lakota in the Journey Museum.

We thought the adult admission price of $10 was a little high, but overall this was an interesting museum. We spent about an hour here, but have also seen many similar exhibits at other museums and national parks. If the story of the West is something you are not familiar with, you could easily spend two or three hours here.hS

Shopping

As you would expect in any town, there are plenty of shops in downtown Rapid City. For a traditional, yet modern, western trading post, check out Prairie Edge and Sioux Trading Post. Part souvenir shop, part art gallery and part Native American Trading Post, you’ll find just about anything you can imagine here.

Prairie Edge Trading Post in Rapid City, SD
Prairie Edge Trading Post has some great souvenirs, not to mention some fantastic Black Hills artwork.

Even if you’re not interested in buying anything, you should spend a few minutes walking through the store and checking out the goods. Be sure to wander upstairs to the art gallery and bead shop.

Other Attractions in Rapid City 

Due to limited time and winter closures, we were not able to visit all of the amazing attractions in Rapid City. Some others that looked interesting are the Museum of Geology, South Dakota Air and Space Museum, the Founding Fathers Exhibit, Dinosaur Park and Reptile Gardens. 

Ice Skating in Rapid City in the winter
Ice skating at Main Street Square

In the winter, you’ll also find ice skating at Main Street Square. We had hoped to make it onto the ice, but, sadly, the rain and blizzard took away the opportunity.

Hopefully, we’ll get to check on some of these attractions during a future visit. 

The Black Hills

The area just west and south of Rapid City is known as the Black Hills due to the dense ponderosa pines covering the mountains, which gives them a dark appearance. Here, you’ll find an abundance of outdoor attractions, including four National Parks sites and one of the best state parks in the country. In the winter, the snow-covered ponderosa pines create a scenic winter wonderland.

In the summer, the Black Hills attracts millions of visitors. The visitation is MUCH less in the winter. If you’re trying to avoid the crowds, the winter is the time to visit, just be ready for the cold (and potentially snowy) weather!

Mt. Rushmore in the winter
Mt. Rushmore

From Rapid City, you can easily visit Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Memorial, Devil’s Tower National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, Mammoth Site, Spearfish Canyon and, of course, the Black Hills National Forest. All of these parks and attractions provide hours or even days of fun all on their own.

If it is winter recreation you’re looking for, you’ll find that around the historic town of Deadwood. Driving through here, we saw quite a few snowmobile trails and signs for skiing and snow tubing. Deadwood itself is also an interesting town that seems to stay touristy through the winter. Additionally, we did find inexpensive hotels in Deadwood during the winter.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park in the winter
Hiking in the snow at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park.

Finally, the nearby town of Belle Fourche, SD is known as the geographic center of the United States (including Alaska and Hawaii). While the official center spot is on private land, you can visit the 21-foot diameter monument off 5th Avenue.

Click here to read more about exploring the Black Hills in the winter.

Badlands

East of Rapid City you’ll find a decidedly different landscape from the lush green trees of the Black Hills. This area to the east is characterized by the traditional dry and wide-open spaces of the plains. It is here, about an hour east of Rapid City that you’ll find the town of Wall and two more national park sites.

Badlands NP at Sunrise
Badlands National Park at Sunrise.

Wall is a small town with not much to offer other than the famous (or maybe infamous) Wall Drug. Badlands National Park and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site are just a short drive from Wall and are both worth a visit. Read more about our 2018 visit to Wall and these nearby national park sites here.

A day trip to Wall and Minuteman Missile NHS is possible from Rapid City, If you want to include Badlands NP, I would suggest staying in Wall for a night or two.

Where to Eat

Rapid City has a wide range of dining options. You’ll find the usual chain restaurants including our western favorite, Taco John’s. If you’re like us, though, you’d prefer something local or at least something you can’t get at home.

Firehouse Brewing Company

Located right in the heart of Downtown Rapid City, Firehouse Brewing was South Dakota’s first brewpub and is housed in the original firehouse, built in 1915. The brewery opened in 1991 and is now a favorite among locals and tourists. If you’re looking for someplace local, this is our first suggestion.

Firehouse Brewing Company in Rapid City, SD
Bonnie enjoying a beer at Firehouse Brewing Company in Rapid City.

You’ll typically find 10 local brews on tap and a large food menu. Grant enjoyed the Krampus Ale, a winter warmer habanero porter and I had the Jefferson Plug Nickel, a pale ale. Both beers were tasty and enjoyable. For lunch, I had the gorgonzola ale soup. The gorgonzola provided a nice twist on a traditional beer cheese soup. Grant had the Backdraft, which had some tasty smoked sausage.

For non-beer drinkers, you will find a root beer on tap. Firehouse also has their own winery, Firehouse Wine Cellars. There is a tasting room right next door to the brewery and restaurant. Sadly, we did not get a chance to stop in to try the wine. Guess we’ll just have to come back!

Sickie’s Garage Burgers and Brews

Sickie’s was recommended to us by the hotel staff. It is a small chain restaurant with just a few locations in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. Since it was new to us and certainly something we can’t get anywhere near home, we decided to give it a try.

Here you’ll find an extensive burger menu with many unique topping combinations. There is even a Glazed Doughnut Burger that uses a glazed doughnut bun! We weren’t quite that adventurous, but did try to step a little outside of “normal.”

Burger and sweet potato fries at Sickie's Garage Burgers and Brews.
Burger and sweet potato fries at Sickie’s Garage Burgers and Brews.

I enjoyed the Beer Cheese burger with beer cheese dip, bacon bits, croutons and green onions. Grant had the Nodak Burger, which is topped with fried jalapeños, BBQ sauce and gouda cheese. Both burgers were tasty and a nice twist on the usual options. Even if you’re used to trying new and interesting burgers, you’ll likely still find something different here.

(kōl) 

For an early evening New Year’s Eve dinner, we lucked out and got a table at (kōl), one of Rapid City’s most unique restaurants. In the center of the exhibition-style kitchen, you’ll find a large 1,200-degree, coal-fired oven.

Everything about our meal here was fabulous, from the ambiance to the drinks and food to the service. 

Kol in Rapid City, SD
Tableside S’mores were a fund dessert at Kol.

We started with the meatball appetizer, followed by four-cheese mac & cheese with cajun smoked chicken for Bonnie and pork belly with cornbread pudding and bacon braised greens for Grant. Every bite was filled with smoky goodness and a depth of flavor that you don’t get just anywhere.

Tableside Smore’s brought the fire to our table for dessert. Yes, we had to work a little for it by roasting our own marshmallows, but it was worth it. Honestly, the challenge of getting your marshmallows toasted (or sometimes burned) in just the right way is more fun than work!

While we certainly enjoyed our food, the cocktails were the real standout here at (kōl). Grant chose the Honey Bear Bees Knees with gin and Cointreau, served up in a honey bear-shaped glass. For his second drink, he went with the Pineapple Express. The bourbon, spicy ginger syrup and sour mix paired well with the pineapple juice to provide a balanced and not overly sweet drink.

Cocktails at Kol in Rapid City, SD
Kol, our stop for dinner on New Years, had some very inventive cocktails.

I started with an Ornamentini, made with vodka, Cointreau, pomegranate and garnished with fresh rosemary. The drink was a little sweet, but tasty. As good as the drink was, I really enjoyed the presentation… it was served up in a small, round ornament resting in a martini glass. To finish our meal, I had a Mistletoe Toddy, a warm mix of spiced rum, cider, tea and honey. 

(kōl) is typically closed on Mondays, so plan ahead if you’ve got a short visit. You can also make a reservation, which is probably a good idea. 

Where to Stay

There are tons of hotel options in Rapid City. You’ll find all the standard chain hotels along with a few local hotels.

Hilton Garden Inn

I’m going to be honest, here… one of the main reasons we chose to visit Rapid City is because we were able to get a room at the Hilton Garden Inn for only 17,000 Hilton Honors points each night. Additionally, a standard room was available for less than $75/night. You might think at these prices that there would be something wrong with the hotel. Not at all.

This was a great Hilton Garden Inn and we would certainly recommend it, regardless of the price. The hotel is located about 10 minutes outside of downtown, but that didn’t bother us at all. In fact, we enjoyed the proximity to the Interstate.

Hilton Garden Inn Rapid City, SD
Grant scraping the ice and snow off the truck.

As is standard for Hilton Garden Inn, there is a restaurant on site. Additional dining and shopping are available within a 5-minute drive.

The staff was helpful with restaurant suggestions, tips on road conditions and anything else that we needed. They even upgraded us to a junior suite (having Hilton Honors Gold status helps for that) and kept us in the same room when we added an extra day onto our stay. We can’t say enough good stuff about the staff at this hotel.

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Hotel Alex Johnson

If you prefer a hotel in downtown, look no further than the Hotel Alex Johnson, part of the Curio Collection by Hilton. The building dates back to the 1920s, offering a historic setting for your visit. 

Hotel Alex Johnson in Rapid City,SD
An old railroad hotel, the Hotel Alex Johnson dominates downtown Rapid City.

We did not stay here, but we have always had good experiences at Hilton properties so we have no problem recommending it. 

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Final Thoughts on Rapid City

Grant and I had both visited the Black Hills with family/friends before we met each other. Our summer visit back in 2012 opened our eyes to the beauty of the Black Hills. This winter visit of 2018-19 really solidified our true love for the area.

Whether you are looking for the outdoor recreation of the Black Hills or the amenities and culture of the city, Rapid City is a great destination any time of year. The tourists flock to Rapid City and the Black Hills in the summer. Rapid City in the winter, though, is a quiet treat of culture and beauty.

Regardless of when you are traveling, if you haven’t been to Rapid City, it’s worth a visit.

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