Not only known as the largest zoo in the world that focuses on reptiles but also as one of the most visited family attractions in the Black Hills area of South Dakota, guests who visit Reptile Gardens will come out not only having had tons of fun but also having learned something. Although focused on reptiles, visitors will also experience the renowned Sky Dome’s beauty, play on a playground named after a famous resident, and enjoy wholesome family time.
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The inspiration behind Reptile Gardens came after local South Dakotan tour guide Earl Brockelsby, a 19-year-old snake lover, started to end the tours he held with removing his cowboy hat to surprise guests with a live rattlesnake! He opened the doors to his first reptile attraction in 1937, charging just a dime for adult visitors and a nickel for children. It moved into its current (and hopefully permanent) location, which is located less than ten miles south of the town of Rapid City, in 1965. It is still operated as a family business and has won awards for its hospitality and service.
Permanent Attractions and Exhibits
The areas of Reptile Gardens are divided by attraction, arranged in a giant circle around the Sky Dome.
· Sky Dome- Often considered one of the most recognizable of the attractions in South Dakota, the three level Sky Dome is a huge oasis filled with tropical plants (orchids, caladiums, etc), sculptures brought in from New Guinea and Indonesia, and freely roaming frogs and lizards. In fact, truly living up to the name Reptile Gardens, the dome holds the largest reptile collection in the world! Maniac, the giant crocodile, lives on the lower level, while both the non-venomous and venomous snakes live on the mezzanine.
· Rattlesnake Gulch: Full of children’s attractions and activities as well as live animal experiences (offering bird, gator, and snake shows), the themed old west boardwalk leads families through the many choices. Learn how to do both arrowhead and gemstone sluicing from an expert. Go on a 3-D, black light safari! Pet and take a picture with a python! Make sure to stop by Little Mount Rushmore for a great family photo opportunity.
· Prairie Dog Town: Many places offer prairie dog exhibits, but few offer the ability to get down on their level with a unique underground bubble! Considered a vulnerable species, Reptile Gardens tries to educate visitors on prairie dogs while allowing them to experience the adorable and important animals for themselves.
· Methuselah's Playground: Named after the long-time giant tortoise who died in 2011 at the ripe old age of 130. The playground is situated around a life size bronze statue of Methuselah. The brand-new playground debuted in 2012 and the mayor of Rapid City even declared the day that it was opened as a day to “Go Slow” in his honor. It is said that Methuselah is the one of the most frequently photographed tortoises in the United States.
Visitors should make sure to check out Cheyenne, the avian ambassador of Reptile Gardens. The bald eagle has lived on the grounds with permission from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service since 2001. Although she has been rendered flightless due to a wing injury, she now helps spread the importance of preservation of the country’s national bird.
Taking students on field trips to the Gardens has been a tradition for local schools since its inception. The website is chock full of different educational worksheets (as well as their corresponding answer keys) separated by age level. Teachers are encouraged to go through them and pick the one that is the most appropriate for the grade level they will be taking on the field trip. Younger students should choose the Tortoise Level, while the Tarantula Level is best for intermediate grades.
For advanced grades, the Gardens offers the Taipan Level. While no tour guides are available to guide field trips through the grounds, the worksheets help teachers plan a visit that will help the class achieve their educational goals. Group rates are available for a discounted admission fee per student. Contact the staff prior to a visit to find out any other important information, as well as open hours and where to park school buses.
The gift shop located on the grounds of Reptile Gardens offers visitors a chance to take home a reminder of their stop at the renowned attraction. With most of the trappings of a regular gift shop with a specifically reptilian twist, take home a t-shirt, book, or some art work for the home.
Reptile Gardens, 8955 US-16, Rapid City, SD 57702, Phone: 800-335-0275