South Dakota: Black Hills BDR-Xtended

South Dakota: Black Hills BDR-Xtended

Flashback to grade school photos of Mount Rushmore in my history book, and I was infatuated instantly. It’s a striking monument, carved from dense granite into an elegant display of our nation’s leaders. Even as a kid with no understanding of how this marvel came to be, I knew that one day, I had to stand before it.

When I moved to Colorado in the summer of 2013, I was one step closer to the Black Hills of South Dakota. No longer a kid riding around a rusty pedal bike, I was now big enough to ride a motorcycle and knew that would be my vessel. I had spent years staring at maps, gazing upon photos, and planning for my journey to this legendary region. It was finally coming true.

Upon researching the area, I stumbled upon an event called the Dakota 600, a then-new fundraiser for adventure and dual sport motorcyclists. Given my background in photography and video, I reached out to the organizer, Bill Hearne, and volunteered my talent in exchange for participation in the event. Off I went, like a pioneer blazing through the plains of Nebraska to reach this mythical landscape.

With countless twists and turns, tight switchbacks, and corkscrews, the pavement through the Needles is some of the very best in the country.

Three days of backcountry riding later, I was hooked. Not only was I able to experience the best trails in the area but, more importantly, I gained a sense for the region itself. The landscape, the attractions, the people, the food, the culture, the history—I was enamored. A subsequent trip to reconvene with Bill and film a documentary on the Dakota Adventure Loop (DakAL), his 900-mile figure-eight adventure loop through South Dakota, would forever instill the area as one of my all-time favorite destinations for motorcycling.

Flash-forward a few more years and a dozen more visits, and here I was developing a route for Backcountry Discovery Routes. Teaming up yet again with Bill, we chose to highlight the best parts of the DakAL and scouted dozens of new roads to design this epic, 355-mile, big-bike-friendly loop. With the route dialed in, we filmed the official documentary in the fall of 2022.

Motorcycles & Gear

2021 Yamaha Ténéré 700
2014 Triumph Tiger 800XC

Helmet: Touratech Aventuro Carbon
Jacket: Mosko Moto Surveyor
Pant: Mosko Moto Woodsman
Boots: Gaerne SG-12
Gloves: Klim Badlands Aero Pro
Luggage: Mosko Moto Backcountry panniers
Comm System: Sena 50s
Camera: Fujifilm X-T4

A BDR-X is “a shorter BDR-style route that loops.” With so much incredible riding and countless wonders to see, how could we possibly fit it all in? This particular route had to be designed for three to four days of riding, but you could easily spend double that and barely scratch the surface. In the end, what makes this route unique is that it gives the rider a perfect introduction to adventure riding in the Midwest, and a glimpse into all there is to see in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Kickstands Up in Keystone

The Black Hills BDR-X officially starts in downtown Keystone, the gateway town to Mount Rushmore and an iconic Old West settlement in the region. Founded in the late 1800s and booming in the gold rush of 1874, the town is relatively new in the grand scheme of our nation. Today, it flourishes in summertime with guests from across the world. With a quaint downtown and dozens of shops, there are plenty of things to do in this little town and it makes an easy connection to the area’s largest city and airport in nearby Rapid City. I’ve enjoyed many fantastic dinners downtown on the boardwalk at the Ruby House and highly recommend you take the time to explore the local scene.

Tucked away in Spearfish Canyon, Roughlock Falls features a stunning collection of cascading water within a short hike just off the road.

The route heads north through dense pine forest, traversing trickling creek beds and rocky two-track before topping out at Pactola Reservoir, an impressive dammed lake built in 1952. The ghost town of Pactola remains at the bottom of this gargantuan body of water, abandoned in an effort to control floods and provide water to nearby towns. This is one of my favorite viewpoints in the area and a great place to take a rest.

As you twist and turn through endless gravel roads, stop at the general store in Nemo. They have a great restaurant and patio for the weary traveler. Moving north, the route meanders into downtown Deadwood, infamous for its Wild West antics that include the shenanigans of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. The site of the former’s demise is on Main Street. I recommend you catch a reenactment of this event, play some slots if that’s your vibe, and admire these iconic brick buildings.

After strolling through the town like a Gore-Tex-laden cowboy, saddle up your iron horse and off you go to the town of Spearfish. I always take a side trip to Sturgis and visit the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame. If you avoid the rally week, you can take in the peace and quiet of Main Street, devoid the rumble of a thousand V-twins.

No trip to this area would be complete without a close encounter of the third kind. I love taking a detour from Spearfish to Devils Tower National Monument. It’s an easy hour’s ride to witness this impressive feature made (even more) famous by the Spielberg movie. While I’ve never stayed near the tower, I recommend hiking around it and swinging through Sundance, WY, on your way back.

Canyon Carving

Set your ride mode to Sport when leaving Spearfish and prepare for 13 miles of blissful pavement carving through Spearfish Canyon. With towering cliff walls, cascading waterfalls, and vibrant fall foliage, this incredible road does not disappoint—no matter how many times I’ve ridden it. Spearfish Canyon Lodge is one of my favorite inns in the area, and the Latchstring restaurant serves up top cuisine, perched above majestic Spearfish Falls. A well-maintained gravel road, cut through canyon walls, features a stop at Roughlock Falls, where you can take a selfie at the filming location for the closing scene of Dances With Wolves. I’ll never forget visiting this area in 2018, shortly after a tornado ripped through the canyon. While extremely rare, you can still catch evidence of its destructive power.

The final stretch of the climb up Bear Mountain is a challenging section, but it rewards riders with stunning views atop the fire lookout tower.

A moderately rocky and scenic climb brings you to Cement Ridge, an impressive lookout tower just over the border in Wyoming. It has my favorite panoramic views of the valleys below. After taking in the vista, set your compass south—it’s dirt all the way to Hill City.

On a hot day, I’ll grab a sasparilla on the way at the general store in Rochford, then explore the ghost town of Mystic, home of the first gold dredge in the Black Hills. The George S. Mickelson Trail—a 109-mile bicycling and hiking trail built on the old railroad line, spanning from Deadwood to Edgemont—runs through this forgotten town. It’s on my bucket list to ride this trail with pedal power the next time I’m here.

Eroded granite pillars and towering spires provide an epic setting as you wind through the Needles within this prime section of Custer State Park.

A step into Hill City is yet another step back in time. While larger and more bustling than Keystone, this quaint Western town features a row of historical buildings that host restaurants, saloons, and other modern curios. I highly recommend a steak at the Alpine Inn. This place is legendary and the desserts are unforgettable, but be prepared for a wait. The Lantern Inn is a great place to grab a room and the owners are the salt of the earth. Well rested, if I think I’ve earned it, I always gorge on a hearty breakfast at the Hill City Cafe.

Epic Climbs and Open Prairies

Leaving Hill City, it’s time to choose your own adventure. The only optional advanced portion of the Black Hills BDR-X awaits via a primitive rocky road up the backside of Bear Mountain. This is one of my favorite dirt roads. The first time I rode here (or tried to anyway), the road was covered in slick, deep mud and we didn’t make it far before turning around. During dry weather, it will put your skills to the test with a few tight switchbacks, steep hills, and loose rocky texture. Riders wishing to avoid this more technical portion can remain on the main route and still make a pit stop at the lookout tower.  This impressive structure is usually open to visitors and a few flights of stairs award intrepid souls with 360-degree views.

It’s not unusual to spot a herd of bison on the Wildlife Loop Rd. The annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup happens every fall and is a great way to witness these majestic creatures.

After a quick jaunt on forested gravel roads, you’ll cross US 16, with easy access to Jewel Cave National Monument and the town of Custer. With plenty of amenities, Custer makes another excellent base camp in the Black Hills. I’ve never had the opportunity to stay downtown, but I do always make a point to grab a cup of Joe at Calamity Jane Coffee Shop.

The route continues to its southernmost point and features perhaps my favorite section yet. It consists of primitive two-track through bustling pines that requires paying careful attention to your GPS. After a rally through the woods and tall grass tracks, hit the pavement near the town of Pringle. Nearby, you’ll find Wind Cave National Park—the seventh-longest cave system in the world, hidden beneath sprawling prairie grass. It remained undiscovered until 1881 when two brothers, Jesse and Tom Bingham, stumbled upon a small hole in the ground, forming the cave’s one and only natural opening. I highly recommend taking a guided tour here, but bring a pair of good walking shoes to change into. The tour leads you into the depths of the cave and features a moment of experiencing complete and total darkness—under guided supervision, of course.

With less traffic in the region and stunning fall colors, late September is the ideal time to visit the Black Hills. You’ll feel like you have it all to yourself.

After a bit of spelunking, keep an eye out for herds of bison as you cross the rolling plains. Purchase your ticket at the kiosk before embarking on the Custer Wildlife Loop, an impressive mixture of pavement and gravel with almost guaranteed sightings of these iconic creatures of the American West. I have never missed a chance to see the buffalo roam here. The sight simply takes my breath away.

Grab a bite to eat at Blue Bell Lodge, a rustic setting with excellent cuisine tucked just off the road. If the gate is open, a quick side trip follows a gravel road up to Mount Coolidge Lookout and yet another impressive view atop a stone tower. From here, you can see the tallest mountain in the Hills, Black Elk Peak (7,242 feet) and catch a glimpse of the granite spires of the Needles.

Finding Rushmore

A spin around Stockade Lake and a short stretch of gravel connects to Needles Highway, an iconic paved road simply designed for motorcyclists. With countless hairpin turns, switchbacks, granite tunnels, and unbelievable views, this road is absolutely epic. I always stop at Needles Eye Tunnel for a photo and, if time allows, take a quick hike around the backside of Sylvan Lake. The lodge here offers luxurious accommodations nestled in the sprawling granite peaks, near my favorite campground in this majestic setting where I’ve enjoyed many nights beneath moonlit spires.

In the early 19th century, a railroad line took passengers directly over Spearfish Falls. Now, a short hike from the comfort of the Spearfish Canyon Lodge will get you there.

After what might have been a lifetime of anticipation for you as it was for me, the route carves through the hills, right to the gates of Mount Rushmore. My first visit here brought back memories of those long days in history class that were finally coming true. An unforgettable entryway via the state flag-laden walkway, the park features a great walking path near the base of the monument and many historical points of interest. Visit the museum and grab an ice cream for the walk back to your bike.

The final stretch of this route is all paved and features quite possibly my favorite tar in all the U.S.: Iron Mountain Rd. With switchbacks, curlicue turns, multiple tunnels, bridges, and breathtaking views, this marvel of modern engineering was made just for you. Enjoy every moment of this incredible finish as you make your way back to Keystone.

With a newfound love for this wondrous gem, nestled in a vast ocean of wild prairie lands, you’ll undoubtedly depart the Black Hills with a profound appreciation for the area, just as I have time and time again. With enough to fill a lifetime of further exploration, there’s just so much more to see.

Facts & Info

Approximately 355 miles


The Black Hills BDR-X is the perfect introduction to adventure riding in the Midwest as it circumnavigates the core elements within the Black Hills. With striking landscapes ranging from wide-open prairie to dense pine forests and pristine lakes and streams, this 355-mile loop encompasses everything you need for a great adventure. Although it starts officially in Keystone, SD, this loop can be accessed at any point.

Enjoy a plethora of gravel and dirt roads, challenging two-track, and some of the best pavement you’ve ever ridden as you make your way through historical towns in an area that helped shape the West. Mount Rushmore, Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Rd, Spearfish Canyon, Cement Ridge Lookout Tower, and the Custer Wildlife Loop are some of the many incredible features dotting the landscape of this scenic route.

Winters can be very cold and snowy in South Dakota, while the middle of summer can be warm and quite busy with tourists. Late spring and especially fall are the best times to visit the Black Hills. I personally recommend a visit in mid-September after the tourist traffic has dwindled, the temperatures are cool, and the vibrant fall colors arrive.

Roads & Riding

The Black Hills are chock-full of smooth gravel roads that seem to connect every town, are easy to navigate, and generally mellow enough for two-up riding. The prime paved roads are typically in excellent shape, with more features than a theme park and enough turns to put the Tail of the Dragon to shame. If you visit in the fall or early spring, watch out for gravel in the turns as they spread it on the road during the snow season. When deeper in the woods, the two-track dirt roads can be quite rocky, overgrown with grass, and potentially muddy following a rainstorm. It’s recommended you avoid the dirt when it’s wet and stick to the pavement.


Backcountry Discovery Routes
Dakota Adventure Loop
Travel South Dakota