Rapid City is located on the eastern edge of the Black Hills, and is split in half by the Dakota Hogback, which runs north-south at this point. "Westside" or "West Rapid" is located in the Red Valley or Racetrack between the foothills of the Black Hills proper and the Hogback, so named for the red Spearfish formation soils and the way the valley completely circles the Black Hills. The city has grown up into the foothills, with both ridges and valleys developed, especially in the last 20 years, and wildfire is a distinct threat to these residential areas, as shown by the Westberry Trails fire in 1988. Skyline Drive follows the crest of the Dakota Hogback south from near Rapid Gap (where Rapid Creek cuts through the Hogback) to a large high plateau which forms the current south edge of Rapid City. The Central and Eastern portions of Rapid Creek lie in the wide valley of Rapid Creek outside the Hogback, which includes a number of mesas rising a hundred feet or more above the creek.
Rapid Creek flows through Rapid City, emerging from Dark Canyon above Canyon Lake and flowing in a large arc through the Gap and north of Downtown, and then descending to the southeast as the valley widens. The floodplain of Rapid Creek is mostly undeveloped, one legacy of the Black Hills Flood of 1972. To the north, a series of ridges separates Rapid Creek from Box Elder Creek, with large older and new residential areas and commercial areas along I-90. To the south, the terrain rises more steeply to the southern widening of the Dakota Hogback into a plateau dividing the Rapid Creek drainage from Spring Creek.
January and February are the coldest months of winter. Daytime temperatures average in the 30s, but Chinook winds can warm temperatures into the 50s and 60s. Occasional intrusions of Arctic air are short-lived and temperature inversions sometimes produce warmer conditions in the Black Hills. Low temperatures average from 10 to 20 degrees above zero. Below zero readings are not uncommon in the higher valleys of the Black Hills. Rapid City frequently has inversions during this period, which can trap air pollutants, but also provides periods of "unseasonably" warm temperatures. Average monthly snowfall ranges from five inches in Rapid City to in the Black Hills. The snow on the plains and Rapid City usually melts within a few days.
March and April is western South Dakota’s snow season and temperatures are still cool enough in the higher elevations to retain the snow cover, but Rapid City rarely has snow on the ground for more than a week at a time. March is typically the snowiest month of the year, with average snowfall 15 to in the northern Black Hills and eight to over the southern Hills. Normal highs are in the 40s and lows are in the 20s. Snow often occurs in April, although temperatures are warmer. Normal snowfall for the Black Hills is 10 to in the north and five to in the south. Average daytime temperatures are in the 50s with lows in the 20s and 30s.
May and June weather is mild and precipitation changes from rain showers to thunderstorms. Storms typically develop over the Black Hills during the afternoon and move onto the plains in the evening. However, Rapid City still sees an average of 20 clear to partly cloudy days and 65 percent of its possible sunshine in June. This is the traditional "flood" season for Rapid and other creeks in the Eastern Hills. Temperatures warm rapidly as summer approaches. Daytime highs average in the 60s during May and 70s during June. Overnight temperatures are still chilly, especially in Black Hills, where May minimums are in the 30s and 40s. Lows are typically in the 40s and 50s during June.
Summer is warm, dry, and sunny. July and August are the warmest months of the year, when daytime temperatures climb into the 70s and 80s--and sometimes 90s and occasionally to over 100. Breezy winds and low humidity levels help make the hot days comfortable. Early mornings are cool, so a jacket or sweater may be needed for outdoor activities. Low temperatures average in the 50s, although 40s--and even 30s--can occur at the higher elevations like Deerfield. Snow can occur in the higher Hills even in July and August. Thunderstorms produce less rainfall, and drier conditions increase the wildfire potential in the Black Hills. Rapid City records an average of 9 thunderstorm days in August, but only of rain. Rapid City receives 75 percent of its possible sunshine. Because the elevation of the Black Hills are between 4000 and , the sun is very intense.
Sunny, mild days and cool nights are characteristic of September and October weather. Temperatures begin to cool around Labor Day, with September highs averaging in the 60s and 70s, falling into the 50s and 60s in October. Lows drop from the 30s and 40s into the 20s and 30s. The average first freeze in Rapid City is October 4 and late August through September in the Black Hills. The Rapid City area’s first snowfall is usually in October, although higher elevations sometimes receive significant snow in September. Occasional cold fronts moving through the area bring blustery northwest winds.
November and December mark the beginning of winter in the Black Hills. Despite cooler temperatures and more snow; the area still has many mild, sunny days. By December, daytime temperatures are in the 30s with nighttime readings in the teens and sometimes below zero in the Black Hills. Occasionally cold air fronts from Canada will bring subzero temperatures to the entire area; however, warmer weather returns quickly. Snowfall averages about five inches each month with only two days typically receiving more than one inch of snow. Storms early in the season produce heavy, wet snow. As the winter progresses, storm tracks from the northwest bring drier snow. Rapid City’s chances for a "White Christmas" (defined as having inch or more of snow on the ground) averages about 50 percent.
|Monthly Normal and Record High and Low Temperatures|
|Rec High °F||76||75||82||93||98||109||110||106||104||94||83||75|
|Norm High °F||33.6||38.6||46.6||57.1||67.2||77.4||85.5||85.5||75.2||61.7||44.8||36.1|
|Norm Low °F||11.3||15.9||23.2||32.3||42.7||51.8||57.9||56.6||46||34.7||22.1||13.3|
|Rec Low °F||-27||-31||-21||1||18||31||39||38||18||-2||-19||-30|
There were 23,969 households out of which 31.2% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 46.7% were married couples living together, 12.6% had a female householder with no husband present, and 36.5% were non-families. 29.4% of all households were made up of individuals and 10.0% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.39 and the average family size was 2.96.
In the city the population was spread out with 25.3% under the age of 18, 11.8% from 18 to 24, 28.7% from 25 to 44, 20.9% from 45 to 64, and 13.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 35 years. For every 100 females there were 96.2 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 93.6 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $35,978, and the median income for a family was $44,818. Males had a median income of $30,985 versus $21,913 for females. The per capita income for the city was $19,445. About 9.4% of families and 12.7% of the population were below the poverty line, including 17.6% of those under age 18 and 6.9% of those age 65 or over.
Although the Black Hills became a tourist destination in the late 1890s, it was a combination of local boosterism, the popularity of the automobile, and construction of improved highways that brought tourists to the Black Hills in large numbers after World War I. Gutzon Borglum, already a famous sculptor, began work on Mount Rushmore in 1927, and his son, Lincoln Borglum continued the carving of the presidents' faces in rock following his father's death in 1941, but work was halted and the massive sculpture was declared completed in 1941, due to pressures leading to the US entry into World War II. Although tourism sustained the city throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, the gas rationing of World War II had a devastating effect on the tourist industry in the town, but this was more than made up for by the war-related growth.
The city benefited greatly from the opening of Rapid City Army Air Base, later Ellsworth Air Force Base, an Army Air Corps training base. As a result, the population of the area nearly doubled between 1940 and 1948, from almost 14,000 to nearly 27,000 people. Military families and civilian personnel soon took every available living space in town, and mobile parks proliferated. Rapid City businesses profited from the military payroll. During the Cold War, missile installations proliferated in the area: a series of Nike Air Defense sites were constructed around Ellsworth in the 1950s. In the early 60s the construction of three Titan missile launch sites containing a total of nine Titan I missiles in the general vicinity of Rapid City took place. Beginning in November 1963, the land for a hundred miles east, northeast and northwest of the city was dotted with 150 Minuteman missile silos and 15 launch command centers, all of which were deactivated in the early 1990s.
In 1949, city officials envisioned the city as a retail and wholesale trade center for the region and designed a plan for growth that focused on a civic center, more downtown parking places, new schools, and paved streets. A construction boom continued into the 1950s. Growth slowed in the 1960s, but the worst natural disaster in South Dakota history, the Black Hills Flood led to another building boom a decade later. On June 9, 1972, heavy rains caused massive flooding of the Rapid Creek. More than 250 people lost their lives and more than $100 million in property was destroyed.
The devastation of the flood and the outpouring of private donations and millions of dollars in federal aid led to the completion of one big part of the 1949 plan: clearing the area along the Rapid Creek and making it a public park. New homes and businesses were constructed to replace those that had been destroyed. Rushmore Plaza Civic Center and a new Central High School were built in part of the area that had been cleared. The rebuilding in part insulated Rapid City from the drop in automotive tourism caused by the Oil Embargo in 1974, but tourism was depressed for most of a decade. In 1978, Rushmore Mall was built on the north edge of the city, adding to the city's position as a retail shopping center.
In the 1980s, growth was fueled by an increase in tourism, increasingly tied to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, followed by another decline in the late 1990s. Fears for the closure of Ellsworth AFB as part of the massive base closure process in the 1990s and 2000s led to attempts to expand other sectors of the economy, but growth continued and the city expanded significantly during this period.
Today, Rapid City is South Dakota's primary city for tourism and recreation. Urban flight from neighboring towns has greatly benefited the growth of Rapid City and the city continues to expand both commercially and residentially. With the approval of a Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory at the Homestake Mine site, Rapid City has a future of great advancements in technology, medicine, and scientific research.
On June 9-10, 1972, extremely heavy rains over the eastern Black Hills of South Dakota produced record floods on Rapid Creek and other streams in the area. Nearly of rain fell in about 6 hours near Nemo, and more than of rain fell over an area of . According to the Red Cross, the resulting peak floods (which occurred after dark) left 238 people dead and 3,057 people injured. In addition to the human tragedy, total damage was estimated in excess of $160 million (about $664 million in 2002 dollars), which included 1,335 homes and 5,000 automobiles that were destroyed. Runoff from this storm produced record floods (highest peak flows recorded) along Battle, Spring, Rapid, and Box Elder Creeks. Smaller floods also occurred along Elk Creek and Bear Butte Creek. Canyon Lake Dam, on the west side of Rapid City, broke the night of the flood, unleashing a wall of water down the creek. The 1972's flooding has an estimated recurrence interval of 500 years. (Burr and Korkow, 1996), which means that a flood of this magnitude will occur on average once every 500 years. Every year there is a 0.2 percent chance (1 in 500) of experiencing a similar event. To prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the future, the city's flood plain is no longer allowed to be built upon. Today the flood plain features golf courses, parks, sports arenas, and arboretums where neighborhoods and businesses once stood.
In 2007, the Rapid City Public Library created a 1972 Flood digital archive that collects survivors' stories, photos and news accounts of the flood. The Journey Museum has an interactive display on the 1972 flood which is an on going project to give future generations the best idea of how the people were affected and the changes made to it because of the lose of 237 lives. It will in the future include the biographies of all of those who died so they will be remembered as more than names on a memorial.
Rapid City also has a large amount of public sculpture on display in many parts of the city. The most visible of this art is the "Parade of Presidents" - a series of lifesize statues of all past American presidents placed on street corners in the downtown area, with an interpretive center. These statutes were erected by public subscription over a ten-year period between 1997 and 2007.
Although most gold mining has ceased in the Black Hills and was never done in or near Rapid City, mining of sand and gravel, as well as the raw materials for lime and Portland cement (including chemical-grade limestone, taconite iron ore, and gypsum, remains an important part of the economy.
The largest sector of the Rapid City economy is government services, including local, state, and federal. Major employers include Ellsworth Air Force Base, home of the 28th Bomb Wing flying the B-1B long-range bomber; the Army National Guard based at Camp Rapid and hosting annual exercises in the Black Hills drawing troops from five to ten states; and various federal agencies including the National Park Service, US Forest Service, and Indian Health Service.
The Rapid City Regional Hospital Healthcare System covers one of the largest expansions of territory in the United States. Regional Healthcare employs over 7,000 persons in the Rapid City area.
Tourism is also a major portion of the Rapid City economy, due to the proximity of Mount Rushmore, Sturgis, home of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, Deadwood, and other attractions in the Black Hills. Rapid City is the major source of services for the Motorcycle Rally, and the Rally's demand for motel rooms, camp sites, and other services for tourists during the first week of August means that Rapid City has the capacity to host large conventions and large numbers of tourists year-round. Various minor tourist attractions, including wildlife parks, specialty shops, caves, water parks, private museums, and other businesses are found in and near Rapid City.
Other economic sectors include financial service and investing companies such as Waddell and Reed, Citibank, WaMu, Merrill Lynch, and Northwestern Mutual. Rapid City is the headquarters for Assurant Insurance and Rapid City has a strong medical services sector, and institutions of higher education. Rapid City is also the major market town for much of five states, drawing commerce from more than half of South Dakota, and large portions of North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and the Nebraska Panhandle.
Rapid City is a major transportation hub for the Northern Plains. Rapid City Regional Airport provides flights daily to the airline hub cities of Denver, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. There are also three flights a week to Las Vegas, two flights a week to Phoenix/Mesa and daily flights to Chicago during tourist season. The airport also has extensive General Aviation operations, including wildfire fighting activities and medical flight support to Rapid City medical facilities and Indian Health Service operations in the Dakotas.
Although historically a fairly important regional rail hub, today Rapid City is a minor railroad junction, with a single local rail line to the Northern Black Hills, and railroad connection east to Minnesota and south through Nebraska to connect with major transcontinental railroads (Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific).
Rapid City's central location in North America (the geographic center of the United States is located approximately north) allows easy transport of products to both coasts, and trucking is a major business activity in the city. Improved connections with Denver and I-80 to the south, via the Heartland Expressway now under construction will primarily benefit local trucking.
Rapid City's location on the boundary of the Western and Eastern power grids, together with the hydroelectric plants of the Mainstem Dams on the Missouri River and the large coal fields and power plants of the Powder River Basin of Wyoming make it one of the points where the two national power grids connect with each other, allowing switching of electrical power from east to west and vice versa.
Rapid City's location on the boundary of the Western and Eastern power grids, together with the hydroelectric plants of the Mainstem Dams on the Missouri River and the large coal fields and power plants of the Powder River Basin of Wyoming make it one of the points where the two national power grids connect with each other, allowing switching of electrical power from east to west and vice versa. Rapid City has its own coal-fired power plant, but also obtains much of its power from both the Missouri dams and power stations near Gillette, Wyoming. Electrical rates are considered relatively low.
Rapid City obtains most of its water supply from Rapid Creek and the alluvial aquifers associated with the creek, owning significant water rights in Pactola Reservoir located some west of the city, but does also obtain water from some springs in the vicinity, and has the ability to draw water from deep formations which receive water from recharge in areas of the Black Hills where the formations come to the surface. The heavy dependence on shallow alluvial aquifers is of some concern to planners, as most suburbs of Rapid City use septic systems for domestic sewage treatment. However, water supplies remain relatively good for future growth.
The Rapid City Regional Airport operates at below maximum capacity for general aviation and commercial aviation, and is capable of handling all current commercial passenger and cargo aircraft.
Rapid City has no passenger rail service. Rail cargo service is limited: the Dakota, Minnesota, and Eastern provides connections to other cities in South Dakota and Minnesota, and connects to major rail service along the Mississippi River corridor, but the DM&E also connects to major transcontinental rail lines to the south, in Nebraska and Wyoming.
Rapid City has limited city-to-city bus service along I-90, but many charter bus services operate in the area, and connect Rapid City and Deadwood with cities in Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa. The city does have a municipally-owned small bus service.
Among the nearer suburbs in Pennington and Meade Counties:
Suburbs at a greater distance from Rapid City include: