The Beauty of the Black Hills Sets the Sturgis Rally Apart | Black Hills Travel Blog

The Beauty of the Black Hills Sets the Sturgis Rally Apart

  • The Beauty of the Black Hills Sets the Sturgis Rally Apart
Wednesday, March 27, 2019
By : 
Bryan Harley

The passion smolders long before the Sturgis Rally rolls around as the Black Hills start calling your name. It whispers like the winds that whip around Devils Tower, casts a spell on you as enchanting as the song of the Sirens. Anybody who’s been to Sturgis has felt the magic of its mountains and monuments, and those who haven’t visited South Dakota need to move it near the top of their list because afterwards you’ll understand why a half-million motorcyclists make the exodus to the Black Hills each August.

Because while there’s a multitude of motorcycle rallies across the country over the course of the summer, there’s only one Sturgis. Riders come from around the globe to be a part of the spectacle, and two-wheeled enthusiasts who aren’t here generally wish they were. The masses come because no other rally compares, and much of that is thanks to the bounty of riding opportunities through the breathtaking beauty of the Black Hills and surrounding areas.

Merely minutes out of Sturgis you can be rolling up a splendid sweeping stretch through Vanocker Canyon, the worries of the world washing away with each twist of the throttle. Simply follow Junction Avenue straight out of town and just after it passes under Interstate 90 you’re on Vanocker Canyon Road. Green pines crowd the roadway while wildflowers add splashes of yellow to the natural canvas. Tales of geographic upheaval are woven into the strata of the rock outcroppings that butt up against the road. The forest frequently yields to open meadows where the wild grass is thick and the warm summer air is sweet. By this time you’re well on your way to the appropriately named Paradise Valley and headed toward the little general store in Nemo, a popular pit stop for thirsty travelers. 

As scenic as Vanocker Canyon is, it’s eclipsed by the splendor of Spearfish Canyon, another popular destination for motorcyclists seeking a quick getaway from the crowds and craziness of Main Street Sturgis during the rally.  Limestone cliffs chiseled by the hands of time rise above stout aspens and birches. Spearfish Creek parallels the road, the rushing water clean and crystal clear. Trailheads line the passageway and the area is primed for picnics. Stopping to take in the wonder of Bridal Veil Falls from the vantage of the small wooden platform nearby is highly recommended. While the twists and turns of Vanocker are tight and technical, curves in Spearfish are wide and sweeping so it’s best to set a leisurely pace and allow for plenty of time to take in this panoply of paint strokes from Mother Nature’s paintbrush. An outing through Spearfish Canyon always brings me a feeling of peace and is etched onto my list of rides I must do at least once during the rally.

While there’s many memorable jaunts around the Black Hills, Iron Mountain Road is one you’ll never forget. Talk about slowing down and enjoying the ride, Iron Mountain is the type of road motorcyclists dream about. It’s curve after curve after curve as the byway stacks switchbacks upon 360s. You know you’re headed in the right direction when you pass under the arches of a wooden trestle near the entrance, the first of the architectural wonders they call pigtail bridges.  Peek between the pines and through the tunnels as you ride along for glimpses of Mount Rushmore in the distance. The narrow tunnels are a marvel in their own right considering the precision and determination it took to blast through a mountainside. When it’s all said and done you’ve navigated a dizzying 314 turns in a 17-mile span. Then it’s time to turn around and do it all over again because the views, especially of Mount Rushmore through the tunnels, differs depending on your direction of approach.

Or you can keep pressing on to another natural wonder of the Black Hills, Needles Highway. Colossal spires of granite rise out of the landscape like the crystals of Krypton. The rock formations are regal as the moai of Easter Island, and with just a little imagination it’s easy to see faces, characters, and creatures in the clusters of spires. The landscape feels ancient and other-worldly, stone sentinels from epochs long past standing watch as the eons pass by. The road ultimately leads to Needles Eye Tunnel, the longest of the rocky pass ways, so narrow it looks like tourist buses are going to get wedged in its walls and long enough that you stare at the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Needles Highway is the type of place that sticks in your memory long after the initial experience and leaves the type of impression that fuels the annual smolder to return to the Black Hills.

Since you’re in the area it makes sense to press on to Custer State Park and take the Wildlife Loop. This is indeed “a home where the buffalo roam” as big herds freely ramble about the countryside. Riding on the back of a bike through their unrestricted territory will give you a newfound respect for these magnificent animals as they make motorcycles look small in comparison. If you’re lucky you might encounter a herd of elk hunkered down on the fringes where forests meets plains. Then there’s the infamous “begging burros” who love to harry the unwary who drive by with their car windows down. Trailheads splinter off in all directions around the park making it the perfect place to hop off the bike, stretch the legs, and get the heart pumping. The sign at the summit of Lover’s Leap trail epitomizes the magic of this area best – “Custer State Park is a place where one can still be an unworried and unregimented individual and wear any old clothes and sit on a log and get his sanity back again.”  

While all the locations mentioned so far are a fairly short ride from Sturgis, it’s worth setting a day aside to explore the Badlands. I know of few places where desolation looks so majestic. The effects of erosion, driving winds and sheets of rain, have carved out canyons and stripped the pinnacles and spires down to their primary elements of composition. It’s also exposed the “World’s Richest Fossil Beds.” My last trip there billows of cumulonimbus painted the horizon beyond the Badlands in a deep purple and I could feel the winds preceding the storm. Rolling through the striated spires, signs warned of free-range bison, but pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep also call the park home. A small herd of bighorns perched with death-defying nonchalance on a slanted cliff. As dusk settled in, bats took to the skies as the sun disappeared over the Badlands and the landscape etched itself into the crevices of my long-term memory.

Another worthy day trip is the ride to Devils Tower, our nation’s first national monument. Thanks to seeing the sci-fi classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a kid I already held the monolith in mystical reverence. Seems I’m not alone as it is a sacred place to local tribes. The Lakota legends claim the cracks in the big rock were made by a big bear's claws and said the rock was its lodge. Walk along the path around its base and its mythical properties slowly begin to reveal themselves. The rock faces take on a different personality around every bend. The wind whistles through the trees as black-winged birds ride pockets of hot air high overhead. Climbers cluster three wide on rocky pillars as others rappel off the vertical face. The fields around it house some of the biggest prairie dogs around. Majestic and magical, even its true origin and the earthly powers that thrust it skyward is shrouded in mystery.

All this natural splendor and I haven’t even touched on the magnificent achievements of man the Black Hills are famous for, Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Drives home the point that no matter what direction you set out from, this area is rich in wonders. Sometimes my favorite pastime is simply sitting at camp watching lightning striking against the dark skies above Bear Butte as Mother Nature puts on her own light show. Whether you ride a motorcycle or drive a car, the Black Hills will enchant you just the same, and before long you, too, will feel this longing to visit again and again.

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