Deadwood, South Dakota Shamrock Tour®: The Black Hills and Beyond

Text: James T. Parks • Photography: James T. Parks, Bruce Read, Karen Parks

“My hat is off to South Dakota Treasures … Go to South Dakota, but drive there. It is so near to us all and yet I never knew, nor had ever heard much about its southwestern treasure house ….” — Frank Lloyd Wright

Motoring west across the Great Plains, we see the dark jagged silhouette of our journey’s end in the distance. Abundant ponderosa pines make the up-thrusting hills (actually mountains) appear black.

A Devilish Destination

Having picked up our V-twin mounts the previous day at Black Hills Harley-Davidson, we’re anxious to get riding on this crisp and brilliantly sunlit spring morning. Bruce brings the Heritage Softail Classic to life with a thunderous roar. My wife, Karen, and I are riding the Electra Glide Ultra Limited, which matches the staccato rumble of the Softail. First gear engages with an authoritative thump; I ease the clutch lever out and simultaneously roll on the throttle. Engine torque immediately translates into commanding forward motion. We’re off for a day of close encounters with the Black Hills and beyond.

We leave the mountainous central core of the Black Hills and ride on to an expansive limestone plateau that stretches to the horizon in all directions. After crossing into Wyoming, we dive into the Red Valley, which encircles the entire Black Hills region. The road is like a giant serpent draped lazily across the lush grasslands. We feel swallowed up in this vast landscape. Near the far side of the valley, we pass through Sundance, WY. And, yes, the real Sundance Kid was named after this small burg, which in turn derived its name from a Native American ceremony.

Rising to almost a mile above sea level, Devils Tower dominates the prairie surrounding it. Scientists have competing theories on how the tower was formed, but the essential fact is clear: columns of very hard igneous (volcanic) rock were deposited here eons ago. Over millions of years the sedimentary rock eroded away and left a visually arresting geological structure. Besides being a spiritual icon for Native Americans, Devils Tower also was the alien landing spot in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A T-shirt in the visitor center pictures an extraterrestrial asking that we “Please send more tourists, the last ones were delicious.”

Near day’s end, we arrive in scenic Spearfish Canyon where the creek has carved a dramatic high-walled gorge into the Black Hills. The canyon is home to a surprisingly diverse collection of flora, including plant life from the Rockies and deciduous trees from the east.

Instead of drinking in the splendor, though, I’m more captivated by the smooth-as-glass road surface squirming its way along Spearfish Creek. Consequently, that beautiful vista is mostly just a blur in my peripheral vision.

Crazy Horse and Custer

Our second day of touring begins with cooler temperatures and a partially cloudy sky. Predictable sweeping curves and lush vegetation adorn our up-tempo trajectory south on U.S. 385. Picturesque Pactola Reservoir, however, demands that we pull off for a closer look. Crystalline waters are encircled by olive green conifers that grow up and above surrounding ridgelines along the shore.

Condensation is rising over rooftops in Hill City, SD, as we glide to a stop in front of the Black Hills Central Railroad. A steam powered excursion train is about to chug out of the depot for a two-hour and 15 minute round trip to Keystone, SD. Inside the South Dakota State Railroad Museum, I spot a humorous quote by America’s most famous investor. When his company acquired the Dakota Southern Railroad as part of the billion purchase of BNSF in 2009, Warren Buffett said, “This is all happening because father didn’t buy me a train set as a kid.”

A little farther south on U.S. 16 is a monument that seems to rival the scale used by ancient Egyptian builders, but this one is still in progress. Korczak Ziolkowski was already a well known artist and sculptor when he was invited to the Black Hills in a letter from Henry Standing Bear. The letter intoned, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, also.” Work began on the massive memorial to 19th century Lakota leader Crazy Horse in 1948. Ziolkowski died in 1982, but his wife and children have carried on the work.

Although the exact completion date is uncertain, the structure ultimately will be 641 feet long and tower 563 feet above the surrounding topography. The head alone, which has been completed, is more than 87 feet high. Crazy Horse was chosen by the Lakota Sioux for the tribute because of his skill in battle, modest lifestyle, devotion to his people, and tragic death.

Ironically, Custer State Park, named after Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer (a cavalry commander in the Indian Wars) is located several miles south of here. It was Custer’s Black Hills expedition in 1874 that preceded the discovery of gold and triggered the ensuing Black Hills Gold Rush. The influx of fortune seekers violated this sacred land of the Sioux, which was supposedly protected by a treaty with the U.S. Government. The Great Sioux War of 1876 to 1877 led to, and resulted in, Custer’s famous last stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

State Route 87 leads through Custer State Park where a herd of 1,500 bison roams free. A large male brings us to a rapid halt when he decides to cross the road just ahead of us. It’s one thing to view these 2,000-pound beasts from the protection of a car but quite another to do so from a motorcycle. The combination of tall grass meadows, rolling terrain, and native species gives visitors some idea of how the area appeared in the 19th century.

Continuing south, we make our way into Wind Cave National Park, which was named for the vast network of caves lying beneath the surface. Above ground, we see more bison grazing on big bluestem prairie grass. After lunch, we return to Deadwood under warm sunshine, and I reflect that it has been an altogether delightful day.

Pigtails and Presidents

It’s another cool and clear day as we saddle up and head out. Not far west of Deadwood is Lead, SD, home of the Homestake Gold Mine. During its many years of operation, the Homestake produced an estimated 40 million ounces of those shiny gold rocks.

U.S. 85 takes us on a circuitous route into Wyoming, across expansive prairie highlands, and then to the mountainous, crystalline core of the Black Hills. State Route 87 leads south to the northwest entrance of Custer State Park. After paying the entrance fee, we linger on the delightful shores of Sylvan Lake. This 17-acre reservoir was created in 1881 when a dam was built to impound Sunday Gulch. There’s no doubt why the magnificent scenic beauty of this spot has made it the crown jewel of Custer State Park.

Continuing south on the Needles Highway, we’re treated to more grandeur. The narrow roadway weaves in and around its namesake spires. One of the most striking places in this geological wonderland is the Needle’s Eye Tunnel.

As we start to ride into the tunnel’s narrow one-way passage, a large sightseeing bus suddenly blocks out all daylight at the far end. I’m thinking that the driver surely doesn’t intend to maneuver through. We’re amazed, as is the rest of the gathering crowd, when the vehicle emerges with only inches of clearance. I think maybe the operator has done this before.

By mid-afternoon, the Needles Highway gives way to another stretch of stunningly beautiful Black Hills roadway, the Iron Mountain Road, which is part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. It’s reputed to have 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, three one-lane tunnels, and three pigtails in just 17 miles. What’s a pigtail, you ask? That’s the name given a spiral road that loops over itself with bridges in order to change elevation quickly. Driving through one of the three tunnels, we are suddenly confronted with the granite-carved faces of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore perfectly framed in the tunnel’s exit. I’m in awe.

Arriving at the memorial minutes later, we anxiously park the bikes and hurry in to behold the splendor from the base of Rushmore. We stand transfixed, gazing up at the colossal sculptures of four men who have carried our country on their shoulders at critical times in its history. Afterward, we tour exhibits in the visitor center and learn about the techniques used in the monument’s construction as well as the life of its renowned sculptor, Gutzon Borglum. We linger and absorb all that Mount Rushmore has to offer. But now it’s late afternoon and the temperature has already dropped into the 40s.

By the time we reach Vanocker Canyon Road, darkness is advancing rapidly, and it’s much colder. We stop in Sturgis, SD, for hot coffee and warm up inside a food mart. Riding the final stretch of road in full blackness, we arrive in Deadwood at 9 p.m. We’re tired and cold but thrilled by the day’s adventures.

A Good Day in the Badlands

“I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Bad Lands … What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere—a distant architecture, ethereal …, an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it.”

—Frank Lloyd Wright, 1935

Bruce and I are rocketing south on Nemo Road, which has become one of our favorite north and south routes for avoiding the humdrum of I-90. Although not as technical or scenic as some of the other more famous Black Hills byways, Nemo is still a thrilling ride. Sweeping curves allow a sprightly pace beside a rushing stream. Sun glistens off the rippling water and makes it sparkle like thousands of diamonds. The Harleys effortlessly torque their way around a seemingly endless parade of curves.

In Rapid City, SD, we pick up State Route 44, which leads out of the Black Hills and across broad, flat prairie land until it reaches the North Unit of Badlands National Park. Native Americans and early French trappers referred to this largely barren topography (in their respective languages) as the bad land. It was both enchanting and treacherous to cross in those earlier times.

Riding the serpentine Badlands Loop Road, we’re captivated by the multihued layers of sedimentary rocks that are formed into sharp pinnacles, spires, ridges, mini-mesas, and steep valleys—it’s an extraordinary dreamscape. These bizarre shapes were formed by erosional forces during the last 500,000 years and are still eroding today. Geologists believe they will probably be completely gone in another 500,000 years. So don’t delay—plan to visit here soon!

After lunch at the Wall Drug tourist trap in Wall, SD, we hop onto the interstate for the trip back to Deadwood. Although we’ve had a full four days of pleasurable roads, striking panoramas, and iconic destinations, it’s become clear that there is much, much more here to be experienced. I guess we’ll just have to come back!

DESTINATION: Mount Rushmore

“The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.”

—Gutzon Borglum

One of my earliest memories, while still just a toddler, is standing with my parents and gazing up at the huge visages of the four presidents. For most of my later life, I’ve wanted to return to that same spot to see them again. Almost three million visitors a year come here to satisfy a similar yearning to lay their eyes upon Mount Rushmore.

The idea of carving large statues in the granite peaks of the Black Hills was first hatched by Doane Robinson, who was the state historian of South Dakota. He believed that an outsized monument would lure more tourists to the Black Hills. Famed sculptor Gutzon Borglum first came to the area in 1924 at the age of 57 and agreed to do the project, but work didn’t begin until 1927.

During the 14 years of its construction, about 30 laborers worked on the statue at any given time. Drillers and carvers were strapped into a bosun’s chair and dangled over the cliff face. Dynamite was used to blast the rock within 3-to-5 inches of the final face surfaces. A multi-diamond drill bit then ground the presidents’ skin smooth. Some 800 million pounds of rock were removed from the mountain. Borglum died in 1941 before the memorial’s completion, but his son Lincoln, who had worked alongside him, put the finishing touches on his father’s vision later that year.

RoadFOOD: Jake’s Fine Food & Drink

Signature dishes include Cajun Seafood Tortellini, regional fare, and Crème Brulee. Although luxuriously appointed, casual dress is accepted. Jake’s, which has an extensive wine list, is the only fine dining restaurant in Deadwood. Find it atop The Midnight Star at 677 Main St, Deadwood, SD, (605) 578-3656.

LODGING: Mineral Palace Hotel and Gaming 

Situated in the heart of historic Deadwood, the Mineral Palace is a modern 75-unit hotel on the inside but retains its frontier gold rush architecture on the outside. In the 1870s, the bawdy Gem Theatre was located on the present day site of the Mineral Palace. Today an extensive array of gaming tables and machines occupies most of the hotel’s lobby and first floor. Upstairs, guests can find the Gem Steakhouse and Saloon. While limited on-site parking is available for cars, motorcyclists can enjoy covered parking in the rear of the hotel. Walking the streets of Deadwood is an enjoyable pastime for guests; especially interesting is the Mount Moriah Cemetery, Wild Bill Hickok’s final resting place. Find the hotel at 601 Historic Main St, Deadwood, SD, (800) 847-2522, www.mineralpalace.com. $