Rapid City, with a population of about 70,000 people (more if you
include the adjacent town of Box Elder and Ellsworth Air Force Base), functions as a
trading center and tourist headquarters for the Black Hills area. It was
founded in 1876, two years after gold was discovered nearby.
One of the displays at the Black
Hills Visitor Information Center in Rapid City;
note the dark green "spruce
trees" that give the region its name.
visited Rapid City several times. Each time we discover more to love
about the area -- unique national parks like Wind Cave and Mt. Rushmore,
fascinating Custer State Park, legendary Black Hills towns, scenic lakes and forest trails, beautiful
city green spaces.
It's also one of those places that feel like "home" to us, not just
because our mailing service is located here, but also because of all the great scenery, nice people, and things
we like to do
nearby. We always feel welcome when we're in the area.
Jim and Cody walk along St.
Joseph Street in downtown Rapid City
Display near the entrance to the
An artistic rendering of a bison,
iconic symbol of the Black Hills area, greets you at the door.
Eleven days isn't nearly enough time for us to do everything we want
to do here this year so we plan to return in September for another
couple of weeks. One of the highlights of that visit will be to witness
the huge annual buffalo roundup in Custer State Park on September 26.
Where else can you see that?
LET'S START AT THE VISITOR CENTER
In this entry I'll show you some scenes from Rapid City that we
enjoyed during this visit. Since we aren't big shoppers or
restaurant-goers, most of our activities involve outdoor exploration.
I'll talk about those little adventures in the next entries.
A good place to begin any visit to an area is its visitor center. For
some reason we haven't gone to Rapid City's excellent
Visitor Information Center, located at exit 61 on I-90, until this trip.
It's state-of-the-art and full of interesting interpretive
displays about the geology and history of the area, tons of brochures
about things to do and see, a giant relief map of the Black Hills,
interesting maps and books to purchase, and knowledgeable folks to
answer your questions.
A relief map of the Black Hills
area is in the foreground above.
Digital display of Rapid City's
weather forecast and a slide show of various Black Hills scenes
Display focusing on nearby Jewel and Wind Caves
I liked the place so much, I went back a second time to learn even
more. The visitor center is half museum. I came out with a dozen free
trail maps, several brochures, and lots of inspiration for things to do
on this and subsequent visits.
Just down the access road from the magnificent visitor center is
the magnificent new headquarters for our mailing service,
Mailbox. It's also near Ellsworth AFB, where we're camped, so we've
stopped in several times while we've been here to get our mail, chat
with the staff, and check out the new facilities.
The biggest flag in Rapid City
is like a beacon
to the new America's Mailbox
The company is run by a couple named Don and Barb who were full-time RVers
before they started the whole process of building a new place for their
business. That's consumed more than a year of their time. Once the dust
settles, they intend to hit the road again and leave the details of the
operation to their capable staff.
Jim picks up our mail and
chats with three of the women who work at
America's Mailbox. Note the large
"WELCOME HOME" in the background.
This is a neat American small-business success story.
As full-time RVers, the couple saw the need for a reliable way for folks
who either do not have a sticks-and-bricks residence -- or who
are away from their residence for long periods of time -- to receive their
Most of their 3,000 or so members are full-time or extended-travel RVers
like us. They also
cater to folks in the military, long-distance truckers, visiting nurses, construction workers,
traveling sales(wo)men, and other people who are on the road or water
(some people live in their boats) most or all of the time.
This US map made from license plates represents 48
of the states
through which America's Mailbox members travel.
In addition, they provide assistance to folks who want to make South
Dakota their legal residence. They are full of information about how to
do everything yourself, from obtaining a driver's license to registering
to vote. For a reasonable fee, they will do the actual legwork --
if you want them to -- for some tasks like registering your
vehicles so you don't have to stand in long lines at the various county
Don and Barb have done a good job and their business has steadily grown. In fact,
they completely outgrew the scattered rooms they leased in an old
building in downtown Rapid City, which we saw when we first became
members in early 2009.
The newly-planted grass at the brand new building should be more lush in a
So they purchased some land on the outskirts of town and built a new
facility (above) that should take care of their mail handling and other needs
for years to come.
They also added about twenty RV campsites for current and
potential members who are visiting the area and built some guest suites
for folks who come without a camper.
The new building just opened in mid-May; we were two of the first
customers to see it. We are impressed -- what an improvement over
the old rented spaces! The owners and employees love it. No longer do
they have to run run up and down stairs to different cramped rooms to sort and
distribute the mail and handle other aspects of their business.
A cozy, home-like corner of the lobby for guests
and staff to enjoy
The campsites will be convenient for America's Mailbox members and
wannabes who visit the area. However, the sites are not seeded with grass
yet because the utility work isn't completed (long winter, lots of rain
and snow). The sites have been muddy while we've been here but several
folks are using them already (next photo). They should be nicer when the grass
comes up and all the work is done. I'll give a progress report the next
time we're here.
These campsites aren't finished yet but there is
obviously a need for them.
Although America's Mailbox camping fee is less than some other private
campgrounds in the area we prefer to stay at Ellsworth AFB when we want
to be close to Rapid City. The cost is
lower at the FamCamp, the sites are much larger, they aren't right
next to a freeway, and we have access to many miles of roads and trails
right out our door.
The Ellsworth AFB FamCamp is perfect for RVers who are current or retired military
personnel. Otherwise, for current or potential America's Mailbox
customers, try their new facilities when you're in town.
REAL. AMERICA. UP CLOSE.
That's what this summer's Convention & Visitors' Bureau banners say
in downtown Rapid City:
Jim and I aren't much into shopping or eating out so we can't
recommend any unique stores or restaurants in Rapid City or the Black
Hills area. We are quite happy to shop in places you can find most
everywhere, like Walmart, Sam's Club, Cabella's, Scheels (a western
sporting goods chain), Petsmart, and such.
I'm impressed with the bronze statues outside the Scheel's store,
including this cyclist and two of our first presidents, Washington and
They were wise to include historical information about the two
presidents and some of their famous quotes. It's an easy history lesson
for those who take the time to read them. As you'll see in a minute,
this city is big on our former presidents.
You can find all the stores I mentioned above and
many other popular chain stores in Rapid City.
In fact, people come from
five states to patronize those stores and take advantage of other amenities
(cultural, medical, sports, etc.) not found in their own smaller
communities. We found the
same phenomenon when we lived in Billings, MT. There just aren't a lot
of business hubs in these sparsely-populated
northern Plains and mountain states so people drive for dozens or hundreds of miles to
small cities like Billings and Rapid City to find what they need.
If you live east of the Mississippi River, this concept may be hard
for you to grasp!
We did a double-take walking past
this store, trying to determine
which birds were real and which
were painted on the sign!
Meanwhile, visitors can also find plenty of unique local boutiques and eateries in Rapid
City, if that is
their choice. The place has something for just about everyone.
Jim and I do enjoy seeing local parks and bike trails,
architecture, historical sites, museums, and art in the places we visit.
I'd like to share some of those things that we saw
recently during leisurely walks and drives through Rapid City.
HOWDY, MR. PRESIDENT!
Some cities have inviting downtown areas that are a pleasure to
visit. Rapid City is so nicely landscaped and it has such a variety of
architectural styles that it's a treat to walk or drive through.
There's another reason it is visitor-friendly -- the life-size bronze renditions of 42 of our previous
presidents. If you aren't aware they are there, it's a nice surprise to
George Washington presides over
the intersection at St. Joe and 6th St.
Many cities have interesting
public art on display; Rapid City's public art features former leaders
from Washington to Clinton, playing off the area's proximity to Mt.
Rushmore National Memorial. The project, begun in 2000, is called the
City of Presidents.
It's just downright fun to walk up and down Main and St. Joseph
streets between 4th and 9th -- twelve intersections with one to four
presidents gracing the corners, each in a representative historical pose.
Oh, sure, you can drive up and down the streets and see them but it's
much better to get out and walk. It's only a 12-block loop. That way you
can read the short blurbs about each president, admire the work of the
five local sculptors who contributed to the project, and pose with your
The first statue we found was the one with Gerald Ford and his dog.
Cody had to check out the dog, which was comical, then he posed in a
similar position with Jim:
I had to pose with Jimmy Carter, who is the only president I've ever
met in person. He presented me with an age group award at a road race we
both ran in his hometown of Plains, GA back in the '80s. That was
Even though I didn't vote for Carter it was cool having a laid-back
president -- and a fellow runner, no less --
from the state in which I lived at the time.
next page . . .
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil