Rapid City sits on the eastern edge of the Black Hills  and is the only urban area in the region. While it has the second-largest population in the state after Sioux Falls, Rapid is still a relatively small Midwestern community of about 70,000 souls.
The city’s history, like many of the Black Hills communities, dates back to the late 1800s and the discovery of gold by Custer’s expedition in 1874. The original businesses were established to service the mining camps. The community was named after Rapid Creek, which flows through the center of town.
Easily accessible from both the south and east, Rapid also developed as the hub of railroad activity in the hills. As a result, it became a commercial center, not just for mining, but also for the ranching and timber industries that followed. The carving of Mount Rushmore  firmly established Rapid City as the center of tourism for the Black Hills and the construction of Ellsworth Air Force Base quickly increased the city’s population and solidified Rapid City as the urban heart of the hills.
In more recent history, a natural disaster contributed to the landscape of Rapid City as it looks today. In June 1972, Rapid City and most of the eastern Black Hills experienced record rainfall. Rapid Creek rose 13 feet in five hours and sent a wall of water crashing through town. It was a frightening flood, made more so by its unexpected arrival in the middle of night. Tragically, 238 people lost their lives in the flood. Some 1,265 families lost their homes and another 3,000 homes were damaged. Thirty-six businesses were destroyed, as were 5,000 vehicles.
The cost of damage to homes and businesses was estimated to be over $165 million dollars throughout the Black Hills. As devastating as it was, the flood resulted in some positive change for Rapid City. Research into the flood determined that it was likely that a flood of this magnitude could happen again. To prevent future loss of life and property damage, the city decided that rebuilding along Rapid Creek would not be allowed. Today the Rapid Creek floodplain is lined with a series of city parks connected by a walking and biking path that parallels the creek all the way through town. It’s one of the community’s nicest outdoor assets.
Rapid City is a fairly easy city to navigate, with four major traffic arteries. Highway 44 runs east–west and connects the Rapid City Regional Airport to the downtown and western sections of the city. Highway 79 south on the east side of town is a four-lane highway that makes travel between the Southern and Central Hills  fast and easy. The highway runs along the front range of the hills and as such doesn’t involve the winding twisted roads you find within the hills themselves.
Highway 79 north cuts through the heart of town and then heads north to Sturgis. I-90 runs right along the northern fringe of the city and is the primary route used by road trippers heading to the Black Hills  from the east and from the northwest. Highway 16, otherwise known as Mount Rushmore Road, runs south from the downtown area and is the main artery that brings visitors from Rapid City to many of the region’s best roadside attractions and to Mount Rushmore .
Lodging in and around Rapid City  is concentrated in four separate areas of town. Most lodging options, not surprisingly, are along U.S. 16 (Mount Rushmore Rd.) because of its quick and direct access to Mount Rushmore and other area attractions. The historic district downtown has some nice choices as well. It’s fairly small, easily traversed on foot, and is dotted with galleries, restaurants, and unique shops. The western side of the city, near the Canyon Lake area, provides a more scenic, if slower access route into the Black Hills.
The winding roads west of Canyon Lake lead to Pactola Reservoir, to many hiking and biking trails , and to other outdoor recreation activities. There are more camping and cabin-type lodging options  on this end of town. For road travelers arriving in Rapid City via I-90 from either the east or west, hotels are plentiful around Exit 59. This location provides easy access to the Northern Hills  for travelers headed west and to the Badlands (and Wall) for those headed east. Exit 57 is the easiest exit off of I-90 to head south to the downtown district and to Mount Rushmore Road. There aren’t many lodging choices available near the airport or on the eastern side of the city, but Highway 44 from the airport will bring travelers right downtown.
To get a feel for the city, its layout, and the location of many important sites, consider taking the one-hour narrated tour provided by City View Trolley Tours (333 Sixth St., 605/394-6631, Memorial Day–mid-Oct. daily 9:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m., tickets $2). The trolley can be picked up at any one of several stops along the route, including many of the local hotel locations. The trolley circulates at approximately 35-minute intervals.
The Rapid City Regional Airport (www.flyrapidcity.com ) is located about 11 miles from downtown, off of Highway 44 headed east. Call 605/393-9924 for airport information, 605/393-2850 for flight information. Shuttle service between the airport and downtown is provided by Airport Shuttle Service (605/399-9999 or 800/357-9998, $18 per person).
The Black Hills are a driving destination. Car rental companies at the airport include Alamo/National (605/393-2664), Hertz (605/393-0160), Avis (605/393-0740), Budget (605/393-0488), and Enterprise (605/393-4311).
The Rapid City Transit System (300 Sixth St., 605/394-6631, www.rapidride.com , adult and student $1.50, senior $0.75, child under 4 free) has five major routes that carry passengers within the city limits. It’s a great transportation deal if you want to spend a morning downtown or near the I-90 shopping district. Buses run Monday–Friday 6:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m. and Saturday 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.