Chasing Black Hills Gold: Great Roads in South Dakota

Black Hills
The Black Hills of South Dakota boast some of the nation’s best motorcycle roads, with rugged natural beauty as a backdrop. Oh, and then there is that little rally that draws a few folks to the area each August. Photos by the author.

“I hear the voice of the mystic mountains/Callin’ me back home/So take me back to the Black Hills” -Doris Day

 

Doris Day is one of a multitude of artists who have crooned about the storied South Dakota mountain range. Songs of lush beauty, colorful characters and a rich, often infamous history fill the lyrical canon the hills have inspired. For those of us who grip handlebars rather than microphones, the Black Hills can be equally inspirational. Rising majestically from the Great Plains, the Black Hills of South Dakota are laced with hundreds of miles of serpentine tarmac. Tantalizing roads run through the area’s canyons and forests like the marbling on a quality steak.

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A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

The Black Hills have drawn millions of motorcyclists to southwestern South Dakota for the better part of a century. The lion’s share of that attraction has been the town of Sturgis, which has hosted a rather famous rally since the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club organized an intimate gathering of racers and spectators in the 1930s.

While never a real rally guy, I knew that I should make one trek to the Sturgis Rally as part of my lifetime motorcycling resume. However, knowing that the hundreds of thousands of bikers who would be attracted to Sturgis over the 10 days of the rally would slow my exploration of the area to an annoying crawl, I decide to arrive days before the heavy influx.

As the vendors set up shop in Sturgis, and law enforcement agencies put finishing touches on their public safety strategies, I will set out on my BMW GS into the Black Hills.

Black Hills
The usually quiet little town of Surgis balloons in both population and volume during the historic rally each summer.

Deadwood and Spearfish

I spend my first morning setting up camp in a remote corner of the massive Buffalo Chip Campground a few miles outside of Sturgis. After a quick sandwich, I ride through the property and the smattering of other early-bird arrivals. My afternoon ride will be a “get acquainted” exploration of two of the area’s iconic attractions.

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The historic town of Deadwood sits at the convergence of several great motorcycle roads.

I ride out of Sturgis toward the west into the Black Hills on U.S. Route 14A. The climb is a relaxed, rolling warm-up of long sweeping corners cutting through an increase of forest foliage throughout the 1,000-foot climb to Deadwood.

Black Hills
Many of the roads that carve into the Black Hills are skirted by rushing creeks and impressive canyon walls.

Deadwood is a pristinely preserved 19th century mining town that sprung up as part of the Black Hills Gold Rush. The town’s history is replete with lawlessness of virtually every variety. Gunfights, theft, gang violence and ladies of the night were common, and frontier characters Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok are famously linked to the town. Now, tourists roam the town in search of a bounty of trinkets and the next casino jackpot.

I take time to walk the cobblestone streets of Deadwood before making the short loop ride to the southwest through the town of Lead. Lead was a company town started by the Homestake Mining Company and is home to the largest and deepest gold mine in North America. The mine closed in 2002.

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Gold rush era structures and historic ranches dot the Black Hills landscape.

After Deadwood, U.S. 14A melds with U.S. Route 85 as it carves deeper into the Black Hills. The road is skirted by rock escarpments and mountain streams. It becomes increasingly clear to me that the Black Hills are anything but black. Vibrant greens, multi-hued cliffs and blue-green waters paint the region.

When U.S. 85 branches off to the southwest, I remain on U.S. 14A toward the famed Spearfish Canyon. Its well-paved road winds alongside the cool waters of Spearfish Creek. Impressive gray and pink limestone cliffs flank the ride on both sides. This is prime motorcycling country—canyon carving at its best. The entire canyon road carries a 35 mph speed limit, which seems pretty reasonable for the topography and traffic.

Black Hills
This historic power plant on Spearfish Creek is a significant relic of the area’s gold mining era. It was the second power plant built in the area to meet the increased need for mining electricity.

About halfway through the canyon, the red brick structure of the Homestake Hydro Power Plant carries the date 1917, which harkens back to the heyday of the Homestake Gold Mine operation. Another notable stop on this stretch of the ride is Bridal Veil Falls, which joins several seasonal falls on the route. At the end of the Spearfish ride where the road intersects with Interstate 90, instead of completing the loop with a freeway drone, I exit I-90 on the CanAm Highway (U.S. 85), which allows me to retrace my ride back to Sturgis on U.S. 14A.

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The Buffalo Chip Campground becomes ground zero for concerts and raucous merriment during the Sturgis Rally.

Intermission in Sturgis

After my highly satisfying 80-mile introductory ride in the Black Hills, I have a couple of things I want to do in Sturgis. First on the agenda is a visit to the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame.

Black HillsOn my approach, I am a little taken aback by the diminutive outside appearance of the museum. That first impression would be misleading. The first floor is a compact but well-organized survey of motorcycling history. From a stacked pair of Vincents at the entryway to the pristine Flying Merkel and vintage Indians and Harleys farther in, the legacy of motorcycling is well represented.

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The old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” certainly applies to the impressive Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame. The museum’s modest exterior gives little indication of the treasures within.

Much of the display is a subterranean treasure trove. After a descent down a rather inconspicuous stairway, a number of themed rooms contain fascinating examples from around the world. There is a room for the street-legal enduros of the ’60s and ’70s, another filled with gleaming vintage Hondas, and yet another dedicated to vintage flat track bikes. European bikes are well represented in the basement with beautiful BSAs, Triumphs and much more.

Black HillsAfter imbibing my fill of motorcycling history at the Sturgis Museum, it is time for my second task in Sturgis. I want to talk to some local riders about a good route for my extended ride the next day. After a short walk down the town’s Main Street, I see two men having a conversation over an Indian Scout Sixty with a South Dakota license plate.

Black HillsIt turns out that both men are from nearby Rapid City, and after some friendly debate, the pair agree that I should ride south on Vanocker Canyon Road, which leads directly to Nemo Road. After that southern ride, they tell me to “just ride whatever looks good on the map.” That’s my kind of plan!

Black HillsVanocker, Nemo and Beyond

After a night’s sleep at the Buffalo Chip, I pack the map, check the tires and head to the route that my local friends suggested. Heading due south out of Sturgis, I am on Vanocker Canyon Road before the big GS is even warmed up.

It becomes instantly clear why the locals suggested Vanocker. Birch and aspen trees accent the curvaceous canyon road. This ride has a more wide-open feel than Spearfish Canyon had the day before. In many stretches, the road comprises long, rhythmic sweepers that make for a highly entertaining ride. I do notice that the new day has brought with it an increase in motorcycle traffic—a condition that I am sure increases exponentially as the rally kicks into full gear.

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A dirt side road crosses the cold waters of Spearfish Creek.

After the tiny town of Nemo, the road that carries the same name proves to be every bit as fun as Vanocker. There are stretches of tight curves linked by scenic straights. The lazy Boxelder Creek follows the road consistently on my ride south.

Because of the increasing traffic and as suggested by my local riders, I have decided that I will forgo (for now) the area’s fantastic tourist destinations like Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park. This is a riding tour and I want to see more miles not more traffic. The huge stone faces and famed Needles Highway will wait for a future visit.

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The picturesque Pactola Lake is the largest reservoir in the Black Hills.

After short stints on Norris Peak Road and then State Route 44, I head south for an extended ride on U.S. Route 385. Like so many of the roads in the Black Hills, U.S. 385 is accented by those enticing little green dots on a printed map that indicate its scenic status. Just a handful of miles into this leg, I am stopped in my tracks by the majestic Pactola Lake. The expansive reservoir is a tree-lined living postcard.

The rest of the ride on U.S. 385 serves up dense forests, high plains and mountain lakes in abundance. Not to sound like a broken record, but the long, forest-lined sweeping corners are a treat in this area. The farther south I get the lighter the traffic becomes and the more expansive the views.

As I enter the town of Custer, it’s time for a lunch break, some map study and route decisions. I unfold my legs and my map at the Black Hills Burger and Bun Co. Rejuvenated by iced tea and beef, I decide that I will go west (young man), toward and ultimately into Wyoming.

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After miles of great riding, leaving the Black Hills is no easy task.

My westward expansion is traced on U.S. Route 16, also known as Mount Rushmore Road. The road starts out much straighter than the roads that I had ridden in the morning. It’s nice to gain a little speed and cruise for a while. Well into the ride, I notice that large fallen timbers, immature evergreens and developing grassland replace the high timberland environment that I had experienced on much of the tour.

As I continue my westward ride toward Wyoming, the landscape morphs gradually from forestland, to intermittent tree clusters, to big sky grasslands. I am temporarily leaving the Black Hills. The “Welcome to Wyoming” sign is set firmly in wide-open rangeland.

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A little ranching humor adds spice to the ride through the grasslands near the border of South Dakota and Wyoming.

I terminate my ride west at the historic Wyoming ranch town of Newcastle. After a quick gas stop, I head back toward the Black Hills on U.S. 85. It will take me all the way to Deadwood. The ride transforms wonderfully in the reverse of what I experienced on the way to Wyoming. Grasslands become high chaparral, only to become forestland as I pass the Black Hills National Forest sign. I return to Sturgis on that short, now familiar stretch of U.S. 14A. It was a diverse, memorable and thoroughly enjoyable 170-mile day.

I traveled some great roads on this tour of the Black Hills, and I missed many more. This is all the more reason to come back next summer. Yes, that “voice of the mystic mountains” will certainly be calling me “back to the Black Hills.”

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