This post is a part of my Black Hills Road Trip Series 

I’m not a fan of snakes, so when my sister suggested we visit Reptile Gardens South Dakota during our trip to the Black Hills, I balked. Nope. No thanks. Not interested.

Snakes are one of my biggest apprehensions about moving to Australia as well.

I started following a few Australian snake catching pages to ease my fears through exposure therapy, but it actually made them way worse because now I know that Carpet Pythons are really good climbers and you’re not even safe from snakes in the comfort of your own bed!

Luckily that’s not the case at Reptile Gardens South Dakota. It’s completely safe, controlled, and actually lots of fun.

Reptile Gardens South Dakota Things to do in Rapid City

10 Reasons to Visit Reptile Gardens South Dakota

We almost didn’t visit, even though my sister really wanted to! We had seen the signs along the highway throughout our trip to the Black Hills, but wrote it off as a kitschy tourist attraction.

But then our flight home was delayed by a few hours and we needed something to do  — something that turned out to be one of the most fun things we did in South Dakota.

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Reptile Gardens is Affordable

Reptile Gardens South Dakota Things to do in Rapid City

The admission price for adults ranges from $10 to $18 depending on the season, with discounts offered for kids, seniors, and military personnel. Considering all this allows you to access, it’s a great value for your money.

You can easily spend at least two to three hours exploring all the exhibits and interacting with the animals. We would have stayed longer if we didn’t have a flight to catch.

Reptile Gardens is Invested in Conservation

Reptile Gardens South Dakota Things to do in Rapid City

Founder Earl Brockelsby understood the importance of ensuring that all life can thrive for generations to come. Because of this, the team at Reptile Gardens works closely with many international zoos and organizations to champion the causes of conservation, biodiversity, and environmental education.

You can read more about the programs by clicking here.

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Nicolas Cage Visited

Reptile Gardens South Dakota Things to do in Rapid City

This is honestly a good reason to visit any establishment, as Nicholas Cage is the most underrated (and greatest!) actor of our generation. No, I’m not kidding. Have y’all seen Vampire’s Kiss? It’s a masterpiece – true art.

While Cage and the crew were in the Black Hills area filming National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets, he decided to stop by the iconic Reptile Gardens to get to know some new cold-blooded pals.

It was an honor walking where he walked tbh.

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It has Prairie Dogs

Reptile Gardens South Dakota Things to do in Rapid City

If you don’t get enough of the prairie dogs during your visit to Badlands National Park, you’re in luck! The chubby little dudes were out and about and very chatty on the day we went. There’s even a tunnel, so if you’d like to live your truth and join the dogs for a bit, you can make that your reality.

If you don’t like snakes too much, seeing some cheerful mammals flitting about for a bit is a nice respite.

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There’s a (Karma) Chameleon

Reptile Gardens South Dakota Things to do in Rapid City

Reptile Gardens might be known for its extensive and exciting menagerie of snakes, but there are also a number of other interesting animals to learn about, including Chameleons and many other types of colorful lizards, frogs, turtles, and birds.

Playing “I Spy” aka “I can’t immediately see where in the tank this thing is I really hope it didn’t escape” with all these creatures was a good way to pass the time.

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A Bond Girl Crocodile is in Residence

By visiting Reptile Gardens South Dakota, you’ll be in the presence of a real movie star! The American Crocodile living on site appeared in the 1973 smash hit Live and Let Die.

I was definitely star stuck and it made me want to watch the movie again.

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You Can Face your Fears

Reptile Gardens South Dakota Things to do in Rapid City

The “snake show” that I went to was definitely the highlight of the visit. After winding our way through all the exhibits and learning about each’s habitat and personality, it was time to go and meet a few of them up close.

In the olden days, founder Earl Brockelsby would lead tours at a local Rapid City attraction, only to end the tour by lifting up his hat to show a real life Rattlesnake curled up on top of his head!

I can’t imagine being brave enough to do that, but the woman who gave our talk might be.

She seemed so calm and relaxed around the snakes. There was a constrictor wrapped firmly around her waist, but she might as well have been holding a puppy.

Reptile Gardens South Dakota Things to do in Rapid City

I don’t think her interest and affinity for snakes rubbed off on me at all, but I definitely respected her for it.

The talk was mostly families, with a few older couples and 20-somethings like me and my sister mixed in. I love being in groups with kids because they always seem to ask the questions that we all want to know, but aren’t brave enough to speak up about.

“Have you ever been bitten?” one asked.

“Yes,” the handler explained. “Have you even been bitten by a dog, or a cat, or a hamster?”

I had to think about that for a second. Yes, I had. Does that mean that I’m scared of them? No. So then why was I so scared of snakes?

I left Reptile Gardens South Dakota with a new appreciation of the legless beauties…although I will still definitely be keeping my distance.

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Jewel Cave National Monument has rock formations that look like bacon.

So, in the eternal Jewel Cave or Wind Cave debate, I think it’s very clear who the winner should be. My sister and I tacked Jewel Cave onto the end of our grand tour of South Dakota and were very glad that we did so!

Jewel Cave National Monument interior

While it’s not number one on a list of things to do in South Dakota (that would be Mount Rushmore, duh), if you have the time, it’s a fun look into the geographical history (and mystery!) of the Black Hills.

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Getting to Jewel Cave National Monument

Knowing how to get to Jewel Cave National Monument is step one to a great trip. You don’t want to end up lost somewhere in the Black Hills only to have a Donner Party moment with your travel mates.

how to get to Jewel Cave National Monument

As you can see, Jewel Cave National Monument is about an hour’s drive southwest of Rapid City. Set your GPS to Custer, South Dakota and from there, follow Highway 16 West. There are signs for the monument’s entrance along the road.

If needed, its exact coordinates are as follows

594270, 4842528 (UTM NAD 83)

Latitude / Longitude:

43 43′ 46.6153″ N

103 49′ 46.6522″ W

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Purchasing Jewel Cave Tour Tickets

Jewel Cave National Monument tickets

You’ll need to wake up and get going quite early on the day of your visit.

This is because you cannot reserve tickets for the guided tours online. You can only get them in person on the day you wish to tour. Because of this, you’ll want to arrive early in the day to purchase and pick up your tickets, even if you don’t end up touring Jewel Cave until the afternoon.

Seriously. Get there early. During the summer, tours for the day are almost always sold out before noon.

The quantity and scheduling of tours depends heavily on the season. The year is divided into ten sections, each with its own tour time table. You can read this in detail on the NPS website here.

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Types of Jewel Cave Tours

Jewel Cave National Monument interior

  • Scenic Tour

$12 over 17 / $8 under 17 / free under 5

This is the one my sister and I took. It lasted just about 90 minutes.

We entered and left the cave through an elevator and walked on paved trails and metal platforms throughout the cave. It was a nice group, about 20 people (although they will take up to 30), so it didn’t feel crowded. The parts of the cave we walked through had high ceilings and felt very open.

At the beginning of the tour, after the Park Ranger gave his little intro, he gave the opportunity for anyone feeling scared or uneasy to leave at that point. So, if you are unsure how you will feel going down into the cave, you should still try! If you get down there and you don’t like it, you can bail. You just don’t get your money back.

The scenic tour is also well lit. I didn’t feel afraid at any point.

So, if you are scared of the dark or of tight spaces, you should be fine on this tour as there is no pitch darkness and no squeezing through anything. You are just walking around. There are 723 steps on the route; however, so those with limited mobility will unfortunately not be able to take this tour.

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Jewel Cave National Monument interior

  • Discovery Talk 

$4 over 17 / free under 17

The Discovery Talk tour lasts only 20 minutes and is accessible to visitors with limited mobility, kids in strollers, and those with apprehensions about caves. You take the elevator down into the Jewel Cave’s Target Room, enjoy the introductory talk, then take the elevator back out again. Easy!

Jewel Cave National Monument interior

  • Historic Lantern and Wild Caving Tours

During the summer season, visitors looking for a more “authentic” spelunking experience can join the Historic Lantern and Wild Caving Tours with offer the opportunity to enter Jewel Cave through its “natural entrance” and shimmy and squeeze through stalacTITE (oh ho ho) spaces.

This honestly sounded terrifying to me, so I took a hard pass on these options, but hey, if it sounds fun for you, go for it.

More information on the NPS website here.

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Tips for Visiting Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument interior

  • Bring a jacket!

Even if you visit during the summer months, it’s still a chilly 49°F/9°C year-round down in the cave. Just enough to be uncomfortable in a t-shirt.

  • Leave your purse in the car!

Lock it in the trunk if you need to, but the folks that run the cave don’t like backpacks, purses, or bulky camera bags along for the  tour.

  • Bring your camera!

Like I said earlier, there are rock formations inside of Jewel Cave National Monument that look like freaking bacon. If I didn’t see it with my own two eyeballs, I might not believe it. So make sure to bring your camera so the people at home don’t think you’re yanking their chain.

Things To Do Near Mount Rushmore Jewel Cave

  • Save the bats!

If you have been to any other caves outside of the Black Hills, do NOT wear the same clothing or bring the dame gear.

A terrible disease called White-Nose Syndrome is wiping out bats at an alarming rate across the USA. We love our bats and want to keep them save, so do your part to stop the spread of the disease. 

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Most people visit South Dakota for Mount Rushmore, but there is so much more to do in the area! One of my unexpected favorites was to explore the Minuteman Missile Site along Interstate 90 in Western South Dakota.

Minuteman Missile Site

It’s actually pretty easy to get there.

As you can see, the park is nestled near Badlands National Park, so combining the two of them into one action-packed day is very doable.

5 Reasons To Visit the Minuteman Missile Site in South Dakota

Depending on your pre-booked tour time for Delta-01, you might have to do a little backtracking along the perfect loop created by Route 240. Plan to spend an entire day between the two parks, paying attention to the more time-sensitive nature of the activities at the Minuteman Missile Sites.

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

Outside the visitor center.

Here’s what you need to know about visiting (or why you should if you haven’t considered it yet!)

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You’ll Gain Some Useful Trivia

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

Freezing, but impressed.

Before I added the Minuteman Missile Site to my South Dakota itinerary, I honestly thought that the Feds kept all of America’s nukes in a vault somewhere near DC. Kind of like a Fort Knox situation, but with weapons of mass destruction instead of gold.

The nice thing is that this is the first time I’m letting anyone else know this, so while I was touring the former bunker and missile silo locations, noone was looking at me like, “Wow. This girl is a Class A IDIOT.”

For all they knew, I’d always been in the loop about Uncle Sam stashing his nukes in the ground throughout the Midwest. Because putting things that have the potential to end the word on regular ole’ farmers’ land is a totally rational and normal thing to do.

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It’s like Taking a Free Cold War History Class

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

My sister taking in the exhibits, under construction at the time.

You should start your visit to the Minuteman Missile Site with a stop by the visitor center, where you can take in the exhibits, films, and bathrooms.

There is a 30-minute film called Beneath the Plains which introduces you to the Minuteman Missile Site’s context within the Cold War, as well as the system’s continued role as a nuclear deterrent…because yes, as mentioned, there are still top secret sites somewhere out there in the Midwest with active missiles in them.

You can also go through exhibits on the Cold War as a whole through the lens of the Air Force and Defense Departments.

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You’ll Get To Explore Launch Control Facility Delta-01

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

“Topside” at the launch site.

This was one of the coolest parts of visiting the Minuteman Missile Site.

Delta-01 is a real-life decommissioned missile launch facility. From 1963 until the early 1990’s, rotating sets of two Americans would spend hours of pure boredom punctuated by moments of acute panic locked down in this bunker.  If the Soviets launched, this team was our first line of defense…or the people pushing us once step closer to M.A.D. 

Also, fun fact: my sister and I learned that the launch codes changed with each new pair of personnel that went down for a shift, and the old ones had to be incinerated.

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

The white barrel is where they burned the launch codes after each shift.

Obviously, since this was top-secret stuff, it was important that every shred of paper be completely destroyed, and if a sliver the size of a dime blew away, the workers had to scour the South Dakotan wasteland to recover it…or else.

You start the tour up top and see what it was like to live day-to-day above a launch control facility, then take the elevator 31 feet down into the “launch room” itself.

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

The toilet down in the launch bunker.

The tour typically lasts about 30 minutes and because of limited space, accommodates six people and one Park Ranger. You should reserve your spot ASAP, up to three months in advance, here.

Unfortunately, no same day reservations are allowed. You don’t want to miss out, so book now!

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You Can See a Real Nuclear Missile Silo, like Delta-09

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

A reconstruction of the warhead.

During the height of the Cold War, there were approximately 150 missiles spread out across the western portion of South Dakota. Most of these missiles have now been decommissioned, but if you’d like to get a look at what one looked at during the height of America’s pissing contest with the Soviets, then you should check out Delta-09.

Delta-09 was once home to a  fully operational Minuteman Missile, bearing a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead. Casual.

There is a cell-phone tour available because there are typically no Park Rangers onsite, so you can call in to get the deets.

It was so windy when my sister and I visited that we just peeked down into the silo and quickly left, but if the weather is nice, I recommend staying for the tour.

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You Might Even Meet a Veteran

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

I took this for my dad, a USAF veteran.

A few days after our tour of the Minuteman Missile Site, my sister and I were eating lunch at a creepy little café near Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. The place the local Park Ranger recommended was closed, but we were too hungry to wait to eat until we got back to Rapid City, South Dakota, so we found ourselves in a dimly lit hovel with three tables that smelled a little too musty to be serving food.

Two older men walked in, wearing flannels and trucker hats, but sporting sweet smiles. They greeted us as soon as they entered with a “Howdy, ladies!” and asked for pie and ice cream. The woman at the counter, who was barely pushing five feet tall and had nails nearly longer than her fingers, was out of ice cream, so she quickly scurried to buy some from the podunk grocery next door.

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

Two locks with two keys, so no one person could launch. They had to work as a team.

Alone in the creepy café, the gentlemen struck up a conversation with my sister and me, as it became very obvious that we weren’t from around these here parts. This might sound like the beginning of a Criminal Minds episode, but if you had seen these men in person, you’d know that they gave off a sweet grandpa vibe and not a murderous one.

When we mentioned we had toured the Minuteman Missile Site, one of the gentlemen beamed, “I worked in those! Back in the ’60s. I was just a kid with Nuclear Codes in my hands.”

“Wait, what?” my head has never swiveled around so quickly (okay, except for when I met Eddie Redmayne, but that’s another story.)

He paused, the color slowly leaving his face.

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Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

Interesting info graphic about the power of modern weapons.

“Wow, the wood paneling in here is awfully well done, isn’t it?” Suddenly, he was out of his chair and very, very interested in the obviously fake “wood” peeling off the walls. His buddy was shoveling ice cream-less pie into his mouth at a pace too quick not to be suspicious.

The bell above the door jingled as the waitress lumbered in with the ice cream. Another local family showed up for lunch. I never got a further explanation.

Still mad about it, tbh.

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Looking for things to do at Mount Rushmore other than just standing there, looking at the monument and doing your best Owen Wilson impression?

things to do at Mount Rushmore National Monument

Don’t worry, y’all. I got you. Mount Rushmore is one of my favorite places I’ve ever been and I’ll give you the tools you need to have a great time.

My Top 10 Things To Do at Mount Rushmore

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Make Friends with the Goats

things to do at Mount Rushmore National Monument Mount Rushmore Vacation

When my sister and I first arrived at Mount Rushmore, the mountain goats standing outside the entrance were realllly still. Their fur was blowing softy in the wind, but their lack of overall movement made me think they were fake. As I moved closer to investigate, I kept bracing myself, thinking at any moment this goat was going to lunge at me, or at least blink.

But it didn’t.

So I walked closer and closer until this woman, let’s call her Karen from Nebraska, walked past and laughed, “Girls, those are statues! You don’t need to act so scared.”

Jokes on you Karen from Nebraska. A statue doesn’t try to bite your hand when you reach out to touch it. Way to go Mount Rushmore staff, your seemingly innocuous attack goats are working as intended.

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Eat at Carver’s Café

things to do at Mount Rushmore National Monument Mount Rushmore Vacation

I usually don’t eat at National Parks, or other major tourist attractions, because you usually just end up with overpriced, nasty airport-quality food. But I knew I wanted to eat at Mount Rushmore because an iconic scene from North by Northwest was filmed in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria so it was one of the things to do at Mount Rushmore that I couldn’t miss.

Give me the opportunity to walk where Cary Grant once walked or give me death tbh.

best time to visit Mount Rushmore best time to visit mt rushmore

My sister and I were actually in for a nice surprise because the food ended up being delicious (tasted home-cooked, really) and reasonably priced. You also can’t beat the views of the boys from the amazing floor-to-ceiling windows.

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Buy a Kitschy Souvenir

things to do at Mount Rushmore National Monument Mount Rushmore Vacation

Y’all. Mount Rushmore has a wealth of souvenirs to pick from. T-shirts? Check. Shot glasses? In stock. Ridiculous magnets? Ready to go.

If you’re going to visit a place as well-known and commercial as Mount Rushmore National Monument, then you might as well invest in a fun souvenir to remember your all-American presidential vacation.

“Hike” the Presidential Trail

things to do at Mount Rushmore National Monument Mount Rushmore Vacation

I put hike in quotations here because this trail is a fully paved, .6 mile leisurely stroll, but calling it a hike just makes it sound a lot more exciting. If you’d like to do some real hiking, then you can head to nearby Badlands National Park, but if strolling along a nicely-wooded path under the watchful eye of four former presidents carved into stone sounds like a fun way to kill 20 minutes, then this is the activity for you.

It was actually fun y’all. When I went during the spring, there was hardly anyone else there, so it felt like I was getting a private tour.

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Reenact National Treasure or North by Northwest

In college, I took a class on Alfred Hitchcock’s films and my favorite one was North by Northwest. I loved the capers, the soundtrack, and of course, Cary Grant.

things to do at Mount Rushmore National Monument Mount Rushmore Vacation

I actually ended up writing my final paper on the infamous “Crop Duster Scene” and how the lack of music in the moment contributes to the terror of being exposed, so standing at the base of the monument was one of my favorite things to do at Mount Rushmore because I got to imagine the movie’s final chase unfolding right in front of me.

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Take a Selfie with the Boys

things to do at Mount Rushmore National Monument Mount Rushmore Vacation

They are already posing for you, so it seems like a waste of a trip if you don’t get a couple of good shots of you and the Presidents on Mount Rushmore cheesing for the camera.

Extra points if you pick their noses because let’s be honest, we are all children here.

things to do at Mount Rushmore National Monument Mount Rushmore Vacation

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Literally just Stand There and Stare at the Mountain

best time to visit Mount Rushmore best time to visit mt rushmore

I tend to do this with all famous landmarks. Catching me staring at Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and now Mount Rushmore with my mouth open for a good five minutes before speaking.

I’ll probably do this when I visit the Grand Canyon later this year as well. It’s a cool moment, when you’ve grown up seeing something in pictures and on TV and then suddenly it’s right there in front of you.

There’s plenty of spots on the Mount Rushmore grounds to pause for a good look. Make sure to soak these moments in.

Tour the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center

things to do at Mount Rushmore National Monument Mount Rushmore Vacation

The center teaches you how to actually pronounce Borglum (it’s a mouthful), the history of Mount Rushmore’s construction, why the area was picked, and what the monument was actually supposed to look like.

I always like to learn about the “what ifs” and “almosts” of major events in American History, so this all was a real treat. If you breeze through, you could spend about 30 minutes in the center, but if you’d like to take your time you could spend well over an hour taking everything in.

Watch the 14-Minute Movie about Mount Rushmore’s History

things to do at Mount Rushmore National Monument Mount Rushmore Vacation

One of the best things to do at Mount Rushmore. Whether you watch the movie about Mount Rushmore to actually learn about how it came to be, or you’d just like to get some quick shut eye in a dark room is totally up to you.

I may or may not have stayed in the theater for 28 minutes and “watched” the film twice through so that I could experience both of these options.

Take in the Sculpture’s Studio

things to do at Mount Rushmore National Monument Mount Rushmore Vacation

The Sculpture’s Studio is only open seasonally, so when I went in early spring it hadn’t geared up for the new season yet, but if you are there when it’s ready for tours, be sure to stop in to learn more about the techniques and history behind carving giant presidential faces into the side of a mountain.

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Looking for things to do in Rapid City South Dakota? The tourism capital of the Mount Rushmore State is a great place to base yourself while you are exploring the nearby natural and historical wonders.

While Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and the Badlands are the main draw of the area, there’s still plenty to do and see around Rapid City instead of staying shut up in your hotel room after a long day of exploring.

things to do in Rapid city South Dakota Berlin Wall Memorial Dinosaur Park Presidents

The view from Dinosaur Park.

Here Are Three Fun Things To Do in Rapid City South Dakota

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Rapid City Dinosaur Park

things to do in Rapid city South Dakota Dinosaur Park

Some “love” at Dinosaur Park.

Address: 

940 Skyline Dr.
Rapid CitySD 57701

Rapid City Dinosaur Park has been open to the public since 1936! Although the draw these days are the life-size sculptures of Little Foot and his friends, the park was actually built where real fossils were found from the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous periods!

things to do in Rapid city South Dakota Dinosaur Park

Just riding a Stegosaurus nbd.

Real life dinosaur footprints have also been found in the area. Thinking about how these majestic beasts could have actually been walking where you are walking so long ago makes climbing on the models a lot more fun.

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Berlin Wall Exhibit in Memorial Park

things to do in Rapid city South Dakota Berlin Wall Memorial

On the way to see the Berlin Wall Memorial.

Address: 

444 Mt. Rushmore Rd. N
Rapid City, SD
57701

My sister and I actually stumbled on the Berlin Wall Exhibit on accident. We were on a walk in Memorial Park, saw it in the distance, and ventured over. It’s very easy to find as Memorial Park runs along Rapid Creek through the heart of Downtown Rapid City. The exhibit is actually one of the largest on Berlin in North America!

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things to do in Rapid city South Dakota Berlin Wall Memorial

A piece of the wall in South Dakota.

South Dakota Tourism prides itself on preserving freedom, hence Mount Rushmore and the Minutemen Missiles. With this in mind, information about the reunification of Germany doesn’t seem so out of place.

It’s a quick stop, as it should only take about 15 minutes to take it all in, but it’s worth it.

City of Presidents — Downtown Rapid City

things to do in Rapid city South Dakota Presidents Sculptures

Guess who? (FDR, DUH!)

Address:

Downtown Rapid City on St. Joseph Street and Main Street between 4th Street and 9th Street.

This was one of my favorite things to do in Rapid City South Dakota! There are life-size bronze statues for presidents 1-43 scattered throughout downtown Rapid City.

Since trivia is my strong suit, my sister and I made a game out of it. She’d cover the name and I’d have to guess the president based on his face and what was with him, like a tophat, legbraces, or microphone.

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things to do in Rapid city South Dakota Presidents Sculptures

Bill Clinton, the president when I was born.

She was able to guess the likes of Bill Clinton and George Washington, while I even got the tougher ones, like Taft. Jeopardy here I come!

Obama and Trump haven’t been added yet, but since each sculpture is individually commissioned and crafted, I’m sure their renditions will be worth the wait.

things to do in Rapid city South Dakota Presidents Sculptures

We made sure to get a photo with each Texan president!

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