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South Dakota Escape

Looking northwards from a high vantage point on the Black Hills’ Iron Mountain Road, one has a bird’s eye view across the valley to Mt. Rushmore.

Looking northwards from a high vantage point on the Black Hills’ Iron Mountain Road, one has a bird’s eye view across the valley to Mt. Rushmore.

Photo Credit: Mike Koplen

Mike Koplen
March 6, 2013
Filed under Favorite Rides: Motorcycle Rides from Rider Readers, Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel

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As a young boy, my stamp collection included a green 1952 three-cent commemorative of Mt. Rushmore. The four presidential faces gazing wisely across America from the top of a mountain were mesmerizing, almost mystical in their patriotic magnificence. In my child’s imagination, they embodied the historical destiny of our country. As an adult, I keep a framed picture of Mt. Rushmore in my law office. I still find it fascinating.

A laid back riding style fits in nicely with South Dakota’s long winding roads.

A laid back riding style fits in nicely with South Dakota’s long winding roads.

Approaching late middle age and needing an escape from professional life, I decided it was time to finally see with my own eyes the iconic monument of my childhood dreams. What better way to see western South Dakota than by motorcycle? I cleared my calendar, reserved an Ultra Glide at Black Hills Harley-Davidson in Rapid City, and booked a flight out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

At the dealership, my big bike was waiting in a garage the size of an airplane hangar. The air crackled with excitement as a thundering parade of Harleys blasted into and out of the lot. Sturgis was set to start in a few days, and Harleys were arriving from all points on the compass. But my first stop was Mt. Rushmore. I could not have been more excited.

The forbidding and desolate Badlands rise dramatically from the South Dakota prairie.

The forbidding and desolate Badlands rise dramatically from the South Dakota prairie.

I headed out on Route 16. The South Dakota highway was smoothly paved and un-crowded. The bike rode easily in the hot, dry air, very laid back, the two of us without a care in the world. There were few cars on the road, but a steady stream of Harleys hustled east and west on the divided asphalt. I noticed that I was the only one wearing a jacket and helmet.

I felt an adrenaline rush as I pulled into the Mt. Rushmore lot. As the granite Presidents loomed into view, I was overwhelmed with satisfaction, the fulfillment of a childhood dream. A park ranger ambled over to take a look at the Harley and, after talking bikes for a few minutes, the conversation turned to Mt. Rushmore. He described how the artist did not carve the giant sculpture, but rather used carefully placed dynamite and air hammers to blast away the rock. I was also astonished to learn that Mt. Rushmore may not be legally United States territory. In 1979, the United States Court of Claims ruled that the 1877 seizure of the Black Hills lands from the Sioux tribe was illegal. The U.S. has not returned the territory to the Sioux, but has offered money, which the tribe has rejected. The case remains unresolved and has spilled over into international tribunals.

The Badlands feature an alien landscape of ravines, ridges and colored rock layers.

The Badlands feature an alien landscape of ravines, ridges and colored rock layers.

After a few gratifying hours hiking and taking pictures at Mt. Rushmore, I jumped back on the bike. Armed with some riding tips from the park ranger, I headed deeper into the Black Hills. They proved to be a rider’s dream, festooned with winding two-lane roads running between and sometimes through the strange rock formations that spring up on all sides. The Needles Highway, so named for the towering “needles” of granite which jut straight up out of the ground, winds for 14 miles among pine and spruce forests, meadows and vast outcroppings of rock towers. The rocks shoot up from the earth like craggy fingers pointed to the sky. It occurred to me that these scenic, narrow, twisting amusement-park roads would be perfect for sportbikes, but they were filled with chug-a-lug Harleys, including my rental.

My next destination was Custer State Park. As I rode over a hill, I was astonished to see a vast herd of grazing bison arrayed in the rolling green meadows and woods below. Whenever they felt like it, the huge animals lumbered onto the road, apparently oblivious to the automobiles and bikes creeping slowly by. This, as it turns out, is the largest wild bison population in the country and was a setting for the movie, Dancing with Wolves.

The largest herd of bison in North America make their home in Custer State Park.

The largest herd of bison in North America make their home in Custer State Park.

The next day, I took the Harley down Route 44. The lush green landscape of the Black Hills gave way to the forbidding and bizarre desolation of the Badlands. On the outskirts, I photographed typically Western scenes of cattle grazing against mountain backdrops. The grasslands quickly disappeared and I found myself riding through arid terrain, flat desert plains leading to jagged mountains and intricate mazes of weird rock formations. I stared out from my helmet at an alien landscape: colored rock layers, narrow ravines, deep gullies, knife-sharp ridges, buttes and pinnacles rising up out of the desert like petrified sea-monsters, looking like no place I had ever seen on this earth. Signs warned of rattlesnakes, and plague among the prairie dogs. The extreme heat was enervating. I worried that if I dropped the Harley out here, I’d be eaten by buzzards.

Riding up Nemo Road to legendary Deadwood, the quintessential lawless Western town, I could sense the presence of the wild characters who once populated this rough-and-tumble corner of America. When General Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills, Deadwood sprang up overnight. Adventurers, gamblers, prostitutes and gunslingers quickly populated it. Wild Bill Hickok was shot while playing poker in Deadwood. I visited the Buffalo Bar, Deadwood’s oldest bar, established in 1877. On the walls there are 90,000 buffalo nickels, and on the ceiling, more than two miles of rope.

Prairie dogs?  Run for your lives!  These cute little critters carry plague, warn the posted signs.

Prairie dogs? Run for your lives! These cute little critters carry plague, warn the posted signs.

Moving on, I took a long winding country ride into Wyoming on Route 85. There was practically no traffic as I rode at a relaxed pace through the countryside, feeling content in the warm, dry air. The back roads through the Black Hills National Forest past Sundance make for gentle touring. I passed tranquil scenes: farmland surrounded by acres of rolling greenery, quaint homesteads set under blue hills, small lakes, and stands of leafy trees, a stark contrast to the forbidding Badlands. The only vehicles I encountered were other bikes.

As I crossed into Wyoming, I spied in the distance a weird mountainous shaft soaring into the sky out of the flat earth, looking completely out of place. This bizarre monolith is called Devils Tower, an ancient religious site for Native Americans. It was also a setting for the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The annual motorcycle festival at Sturgis draws Harley riders from all points on the compass.

The annual motorcycle festival at Sturgis draws Harley riders from all points on the compass.

After hiking around Devil’s Tower, I rode back to the Black Hills to visit the Crazy Horse monument. The memorial to the legendary Lakota chief is staggering in size, dwarfing Mt. Rushmore. The sculpture was started in 1948 and remains unfinished nearly 70 years later, though work continues, attested to by the dynamite blasts up on the mountain.

At this point, with Sturgis just a day away, battalions of Harleys filled the roadways. I spent my last two days there, where I took in the excellent motorcycle museum and the sights and sounds of the biker festival. The streets were jammed with Harleys, and bikers of all sorts crowded the restaurants, bars and attractions.

With the passage of my week in South Dakota, I sadly returned the Harley to the dealership and grabbed a flight back to New York. I can honestly say that touring western South Dakota on a motorcycle was an amazing way to spend a week out of the office.

(This Favorite Ride was published in the March 2013 issue of Rider magazine.)

Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, an ancient  Native American holy site, was a setting for the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, an ancient Native American holy site, was a setting for the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Map by Bill Tipton/Compartmaps.com

Map by Bill Tipton/Compartmaps.com

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