Riding South Dakota’s Badlands on a Motorcycle Road Trip

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Are your travel feet itching for a boomer road trip, but can’t make up your mind about the destination? What about riding South Dakot’s Badlands?

Get your motor running because Diane White is back with the latest addition to our ongoing boomers-on-bikes series. Previously, Diane has taken us on motorcycle road trips to Georgia’s Golden Isles, the Outer Banks, and the Four Corners. And, now, she’s taking us on a South Dakota’s Badlands motorcycle trip, where boomers, buffalo and bikes collide. (Not literally, of course.)

How my Badlands motorcycle road trip came to be

Two Boomers wearing motorcycle leathers standing in front of Mount Rushmore
Jim and Diane discovered that though they’d often seen Mt. Rushmore’s four famous faces on stamps and in photos, when viewed in its magnificent National Park setting this monument is both thought-provoking and awe-inspiring.

On his 65th birthday my husband of thirty years announced that he had bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and would pick it up the next day. I was flabbergasted.

Jim had never owned motorcycles or even talked about them throughout our relationship. As far as I knew, he hadn’t ever ridden one, but that day, the truth emerged: until his mid-twenties, Jim was a biker.

After a fluke accident left him miraculously unharmed but totaled his bike, Jim replaced it with a gorgeous gun-metal blue Corvette convertible that he traded several years later for a family-friendly sedan. Now he intended to recapture the joy and freedom of riding he’d let go four decades earlier—while he still could.

That last assumption struck me as debatable, but readers with their own active-adventure boomer spouse (of either gender) know ability is always presumed. Jim had been a good rider once, and a skill like that—well, it’s like riding a bicycle. You never forget. Right?

Getting reacquainted with a Harley

During the next twelve months Jim and his beautiful blue Dyna Wide Glide regularly braved Washington, D.C. traffic, roared through Virginia countryside, and ventured north to Nova Scotia and back again without incident.

The Nova Scotia ride convinced Jim of three things: first, long range cruising was even more fun than he had expected; second, doing it on a larger cruising bike would be more comfortable; and third, a cruising bike would permit me to experience all that riding-free bliss along with him.

Another highly debatable assumption, I thought!

Nevertheless, Jim soon acquired a Harley Davidson Ultra Wide Glide cruiser sibling for his Dyna, confident I’d become a convert in time. “I won’t even ask you to go anywhere on this bike until I’ve taken a few long trips on my own and you see it’s okay,” he promised.

A motorcycle road trip invitation

Several years and many long solo trips later, Jim asked, “Would you consider going on a ride with me this year?”

He’d asked before and I’d declined each time, but now I wavered. He looked so guardedly hopeful I hated to say no right away. “I don’t know—Where, when, how long and with whom?”

“South Dakota in August for a week with your brother and some of his friends. Just think about it. I’m going anyway.

I plan to ride alone to Minneapolis for the Steel-Toe Tour at the Harley Museum there, then head west to South Dakota. You could fly up for the week we’ll ride the Black Hills.”

In many ways this was a fait accompli. My brother’s friends had already rented a house, Jim had already signed up for a room, and he didn’t expect me to ride 3,700 miles up and back.

All I had to do was buy a plane ticket. Jim had certainly made it hard for me to refuse this invitation!

“Yes,” I said. “I always wanted to see Mt. Rushmore.”

The South Dakota’s Badlands motorcycle ride begins

Members of our merry biker band rode from Louisiana, South Carolina, and North Georgia to assemble in Custer, S.D. under drizzly skies.

A week of rain had made the unpaved drive to our cabin one long slippery mudslide. Jokes flew about who would be the first to drop his bike and eat mud. (Was it Jim? I’ll never tell.)

Woman wearing motorcycle rain gear in Custer
Active boomer bikers don’t let a little rain spoil their ride!

South Dakota’s varied topography divides into three zones: eastern South Dakota, western South Dakota, and the Black Hills. East South Dakota is lower and wetter than the western region, while the Black Hills are a low, isolated mountain group in the southwest corner, where we were. Our two-story log house, dwarfed by majestic Ponderosa pines on three sides, offered a good view of the Black Hills from its glass-walled fourth side and adjacent deck.

Things to do near Custer

This part of South Dakota is rich in history. The town of Custer is named for dashing golden-haired Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, whose soldier’s luck turned terribly bad near here one June morning in 1876 at “Custer’s Last Stand” on a hill overlooking the Little Bighorn River. Today’s Custer is a much quieter and safer spot for tourists!

Custer provided our group with a fine base for visiting Custer State Park, taking in the wonder of two South Dakota Stone Monuments, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial. Other adventures included spelunking in Wind Cave, adventuring in the world’s third largest cave at Jewel Cave National Monument, and making our motorcycle pilgrimage to Sturgis.

Our coming and goings sometimes gave us a glimpse of South Dakota’s state champion ponderosa pine near Custer. That tree is hard not to notice, since it’s over 10 feet in girth, 132 feet tall and boasts a crown spread of 32 feet.

Custer makes its own fun too. We enjoyed visiting its shops and small museums, and where else but at Flintstones Bedrock City could I have worn my leopard-skin leggings, long-fringed black leather jacket and clunky biker boots without ridicule?

Motorcycles parked in front of brick buildings in Deadwood.
Deadwood, SD’s elaborate Victorian architecture was unique in Gold Rush territory and is preserved today as a national treasure, with the entire town listed on the National Historic Registry.

For a bigger dose of Gold Rush frontier town authenticity, we traveled sixty miles north to Deadwood, SD. The Spearfish Canyon Scenic By-Way Route makes the drive itself a treat.

No matter how you get there, though, this frozen-in-time National Historic Register city delivers unique and memorable sights. It’s easy to picture Gold Rush risk-takers like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane in Deadwood‘s saloons or at its gambling tables.

Gambling is still big business there today. Just watch out for sore losers—South Dakota is an open carry state!

Biking to Sturgis

Thousands of motorcycles parked in Sturgis
You haven’t seen a packed parking lot until you’ve gone shopping at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally outdoor vendor mall.

Sturgis’ annual Motorcycle Rally is a bucket-list necessity for many bikers and some of our boomer biker group had attended before. However, the 2014 Rally would be our first and last. We felt that hanging with 400,000 other motorcyclists in a small South Dakota town was one of those cool travel experiences we only needed to experience once.

Riding down the street in Sturgis
During Sturgis Motorcycle Rally week, an incessant stream of iron horses and their riders passes through the storied rough-and-tumble Gold Rush town of Deadwood, SD.

Still, for any of you active boomer bikers who haven’t participated in a Sturgis rally, our advice is to “just do it”. The 2015 Sturgis rally marked this event’s 75th anniversary and drew an estimated 1,000,000 bikers. Quite a few of them were first-time boomers who must have been taking our advice!

Historical buildings in a Gold Hills town
Small towns like this dot the Black Hills and Badlands region. Many cling to their Gold Rush Days roots and position more modern-looking malls and amenities well away from the historic downtown area.

We’re really glad we went. As bikers, we loved the opportunity to mingle with many different kinds of people who could bond over a common passion for the ride life. Only once a year does this event happen, and we boomers know how time flies! If this is your kind of thing, don’t let the chance to be a part of the Sturgis scene fly away too.

Exploring the Black Hills and Badlands on a motorcycle

Even if we hadn’t gone into Sturgis at all, this trip to the Black Hills and Badlands region of South Dakota ranks among my most exciting ever. Any geology buffs reading this article? Come here to walk across nearly two billion years of geologic diversity, reading stories written in stone and sand from the Pleistocene Epoch through modern times.

Woman posing in front of a bison statue
We saw plenty of real (and far bigger) buffalo on the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop, but only this friendly little faker in Custer would let Diane pet him!

Besides generously gifting us with jaw-dropping scenery, this region let us get close to animals we’d rarely or never seen before. We enjoyed Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop so much on a drizzly day that we did it again when the sun shone later in the week just to see if different wildlife would appear.

Bison, pronghorns, prairie dogs, burros, mule deer, elk, and even predators like coyotes and wolves roam free in Custer State Park. We hoped to see as many of these creatures in a relatively natural environment as we could, and we were not disappointed.

Early settlers called this area the Badlands because the terrain was literally “bad” for travel. Today it’s easy to explore roads by motorcycle that are so full of such beauty that the word “bad” doesn’t seem to fit at all. Jim and I hope you too will have a chance to visit this beautiful, rugged, timeless section of our United States, hopefully on a Harley!

Scratch those itchy travel feet!

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