Vanocker Canyon Road
At the suggestion of a local, I decided to take Vanocker Canyon Road south out of Sturgis rather than superslab it down I-90. I'm glad I did. This road winds its way gently through the Black Hills. It has good pavement with moderate curves to keep it interesting, but not technical so you can admire the scenery you're riding through. There are many places to pull over if you really want to stop and smell the... Not roses, since there aren't any. Follow this to Nemo Road, then take Norris Peak Road to US 44. This can take you back to Rapid City, or onward to more places. Read on.
While you're already there, it's worth stopping to see Mount Rushmore. We all learned about it in school, and it's an impressive sight, even with the construction going on there right now. Admission is free but it costs $11 to park. During bike week, motorcycles get their own entry lane into the park as well as an entire parking garage level dedicated to motorcycles.
I have mixed feelings about this place. On the one hand, it's a historic landmark and an impressive feat of art and engineering. On the other hand, it's land that we stole from the Lakota after the Treaty of Fort Laramie granted it to them in perpetuity. After some General by the name of Custer and an exploratory team found gold here, it was all over for the Native Americans who lived here. The nearby Crazy Horse Memorial seeks to recognize Native history in the area, and the people, such as Crazy Horse, who fought to defend it. Sadly, low fuel prevented me from visiting there myself.
Iron Mountain Road
Take US 16A south from Mount Rushmore for the challenge of Iron Mountain Road. This road through the Black Hills is only 17 miles long, but it contains 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, three pigtails (where the road loops back over itself), and three tunnels blasted through the rocks, as well as a glimpse back at Mount Rushmore through the trees. You'll want your wits about you for this one, as it's a slow, tight, technical ride through the hills. It might not be a bad idea to practice low-speed maneuvers in a parking lot before tackling this one. You're going to need them.
Custer State Park Wildlife Loop
Iron Mountain Road continues straight into Custer State Park. Admission is $10 for a motorcycle, half the price of a car. I recommend taking the Wildlife Loop through the park, which winds slowly through the prairie where buffalo, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, deer, elk, coyote, prairie dogs, and numerous bird species roam free.
This may be one place that is better to visit outside of bike week, as the only wildlife I saw was a deer and this herd of wild burros, descended from a former trail ride pack that was set free. It's entirely possible that the constant rumble of loud pipes all week scared the other wildlife away from the road.
Contrary to what you see in the picture, the park recommends that you stay on the road with your vehicle. These are wild animals, despite how calm they often act. If you do encounter a herd of buffalo blocking the road, just sit tight and wait them out. They're bigger than you.
Here's another tight, technical road through some stunning scenery. Needles Highway rocks, literally, because it's all about the tall, thin rock formations that look like needles pointed up toward the sky. In the middle of this 14-mile road is the Needle's Eye, a narrow one-lane tunnel blasted through the rock that's barely wide enough for a single car. This is another sight that, while well worth visiting while you're at Sturgis, could be even better outside of the rally. I had a long wait in traffic backed up at the Needle's Eye, and found nowhere to park in the large pull-offs on either side of the tunnel. It was still well worth the visit, though.
From here, I made my way back to Sturgis with another ride down Vanocker Canyon Road.
Badlands National Park
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin described the surface of the moon as "magnificent desolation." I couldn't get that phrase out of my head as I cruised through Badlands National Park, despite amenities such as roads, air, and full gravity that the moon doesn't have. Although it's roughly 90 miles east of Sturgis, it's worth the trip, and the $10 motorcycle admission. Ride the 39-mile Badlands Loop Scenic Byway to fully appreciate the unique scenery of this place. You'll want to make a full day trip out of this one.
Town of Scenic
On my way to the Badlands, I decided to skip I-90 and take Route 44 to the aptly named town of Scenic, South Dakota. It's a "blink and you'll miss it" kind of town, but there are a few classic old west buildings such as this one to see. That Indian looks right at home there.
Sage Creek Road
Along the Scenic route, Sage Creek Road takes you all the way into the west end of Badlands National Park. One detail that my route planning failed to tell me was that this road is gravel, with a 50 mph speed limit. I was wishing for my KLR instead of the Springfield bagger that Indian had loaned me. I went nowhere near 50 mph and got through just fine, slow and steady. I was happy to have had the recent dirt riding experience that my KLR had given me, though.
Minuteman Missile Visitors Center
At the east end of Badlands National Park, just past the I-90 on-ramp, sits the Minuteman Missile Visitors Center. This site commemorates South Dakota's history as the home of numerous silos containing Minuteman nuclear missiles. Their presence served as a deterrent to a first strike by the USSR during the Cold War. it has many artifacts from this part of recent history, from nuclear missile control panels to part of the Berlin Wall. My favorite part was a piece of art that looked like a Domino's logo but instead contained a Minuteman missile. It read, "Worldwide delivery in 30 minutes or less or your next one is free." It's amazing we got through the Cold War alive.
A bit farther east along I-90 you can also visit the Delta-09 missile silo to see such a facility for yourself. It contains a life-size replica missile and has been sealed off to satisfy Russian missile inspectors.
As you ride along I-90 heading to or from the Badlands, you will see enough billboards for Wall Drug to give South of the Border some competition. It's worth checking out. Though partly a tourist trap, it's also a genuinely useful stop. I got a new iPhone cable to replace my failed one, and some fresh earplugs to protect my hearing from the wind at the 80 mph speed limit. There is also a restaurant offering free ice water to all. The buffalo burger was the best I've had in my life.
For some great scenic riding closer to Sturgis, take I-90 west to Spearfish, then ride US 14A south, also known as Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. This 19-mile road follows Spearfish Creek through the canyon, through Savoy and down to Cheyenne Crossing. The wide, smooth roads with moderate curves will appeal to the cruisers, baggers, and touring bikes most common at Sturgis.
Continue on US 14A, and you'll enter the town of Deadwood. Yes, that one, from the HBO series. Tourism is obviously huge here, building on the town's rich wild west history. Deadwood is also notable in that, outside of Native American reservations, it's the only place in South Dakota where gambling is legal. If gambling is your thing, Deadwood is the place for you—if you can find a parking space. Despite vast areas set aside specifically for motorcycle parking during bike week, I was unable to find a place to legally park and explore the town further.
Photo credit: Deadwood
Of course, if you're going to Sturgis, you have to visit downtown at least once, just for the experience. You will probably never see as many motorcycles in one place as you will in Sturgis. Vendors are everywhere, and you can find just about anything motorcycle related you could ever want—at least if you ride an American V-twin.
Finally, we can't talk about Sturgis without talking about the Buffalo Chip. Though technically a campground, you could stay here for the entire rally without having to leave for anything. You can camp out in a tent, or rent an RV with full hookups. (Full disclosure: The Chip was kind enough to put me up in one of these RVs during my visit.) There's a general store where you can stock up on all the essentials you forgot to bring with you. There are many different food vendors. I found one whose tacos I particularly liked. Alcohol flows freely, but if you're already camping here you don't have to worry about drinking and riding. Plus, the concerts. Every night the Chip has big-name stars performing. This year had performers including Styx, Collective Soul, Dee Snyder, Disturbed, Snoop Dogg, and Toby Keith. Arrive at the amphitheater early enough and you can literally ride your bike right up to the stage, as long as you plan to be there all night with the crowd surrounding you. I did exactly that to see Dee Snyder and Disturbed.
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