Riding into Sturgis, South Dakota

Sturgis draws bikers from all over.
Sturgis is home to one of the largest bike rallies.

The sleepy town of Sturgis, South Dakota, wasn’t our planned destination, but one never knows where the road may lead.

My friend, Heather, had never been to South Dakota, a north-central American State rich in beautiful landscape and Native American history, so we planned a road trip to the Black Hills Forest in the southwestern part of the state.

Our timing, as it turned out, would determine our journey. As we headed our car onto the highway heading out of our current home state of Colorado, the 65th annual Sturgis Bike Rally was about to begin. The rally, which attracts motorcycle riders from all over the world, is a weeklong extravaganza in the first full week of August. Live music is offered at most venues, both large and small, and hundreds of vendors funnel into town. Drag races, custom bike contests and exhibition shows are just a few of the events offered. With a few hundred arrests and a few hundred more emergency room visits recorded each year, the rally has a rowdy reputation.

While I didn’t think we’d end up at the rally, I packed an array of black halters, well-worn denim jeans and a bandana, just in case.

We got our first taste of Sturgis while still 2½ hours away. In need of a hotel room, we stopped at Edgemont, population 900. However, there were few rooms to be found, due to its close proximity to the rally, and those with a rare vacancy had hiked up their prices three times the normal rates.

We headed on to Hot Springs, a larger town of 4,000. We had no luck there either, so we opted for plan B – camping.

The “campground” wasn’t very elaborate — a simple strip of grass that ran through the middle of town. Along one side ran the main street, lined with businesses and a very busy local tavern. The other side offered three churches. We agreed it was a good place to rest, so we parked the car a few spots down from the only other campers present, locked the doors, cracked the windows, and drifted off to sleep to the sounds of loud bar patrons and Warrant, an ’80s heavy metal hair band, singing the lyrics “she’s my cherry pie” from a jukebox.

The next morning, after getting ready for the day at a local convenience store and grabbing some tasty, yet nutritionally void “croissanwiches,” we headed north to explore the Black Hills National Forest, one of the area’s most popular destinations. The Black Hills, which appear black from a distance despite its green color, cover an area of 125 miles (20 km) by 65 miles (104 km) and are home to spectacular woodlands, streams, rock formations, lakes and canyons.

When we reached the well-known Mount Rushmore National Memorial, where the 60-foot-high (18 m) high heads of the four American presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln — are carved 500 feet (152 m) above the ground in a wall of granite, I was incredibly relieved I had dressed according to the biker dress code. Instead of the commonly-seen khaki walking shorts, button-down shirts and tennis shoes, there was an onslaught of boots, leather, fringes, black tank tops cut down to there, bandanas and tattoos of every size and subject matter.

On this day, the people-watching was ten times more fascinating than the giant stone faces. The most interesting to me were the bikers. Though appearing a bit intimidating to some, they stopped to pose, like any other tourist, in goofy “presidential” manners in front of the monument.

As we continued through the beautiful and curvy roads of the Black Hills, we often shared the road with motorcycles. I spoke with bikers at every stop, becoming more and more intrigued with the whole rally concept. I took more than my share of photographs for couples who wanted pictures together at scenic stops and learned many personal stories. Later that afternoon, at a stop in Custer State Park – a scenic region containing tall, slender rock formations, caverns and magnificent mile-high views – I met a tall, burly man with a long, graying beard who had been riding nonstop the last few days from Mississippi, which is a distance of nearly 1,400 miles (2240 km). After a bit of small talk I discovered he was surprisingly familiar with my midwestern town of Sedalia, Missouri. We laughed over details that we both recognized from mid-Missouri, and were even able to find a few mutually known people. The world seemed a heck of a lot smaller at that moment.

Sturgis fills with motorcycles for the rally.
A sea of motorcycles stand on display for thousands of Sturgis visitors.

From there, our next stop was Deadwood, a town best known as the place where the West’s legendary figure Wild Bill Hickok met his demise in a local saloon. This usually quiet town nestled among the hills is filled with architecture reminiscent of the 1800s Old West. As we passed along Main Street, we stared in awe at the motorcycles perfectly lined up for blocks on either side of us.

It was at this point we decided we just had to go to the rally. There was still daylight and Sturgis was less than an hour away, so we jumped back on the road and headed north.

As we entered the town of Sturgis we were surrounded by hundreds of motorcycles on every side. While the city outskirts have a modern appearance with chain restaurants and strip malls, the heart of Sturgis is more personal, with individual-owned establishments. The views from downtown into the distance were of peaceful hills covered with green trees and untouched by anything but nature. We drove along the main street of the rally at a turtle’s pace, due to the throngs of people filing into town.

Sturgis, a town with a year-round population of 6,400, actually grows to more than half a million during “Bike Week,” making slow traffic inevitable. Nonetheless, it gave us a chance to check out the chaos as people filled the sidewalks and town residents rented out their yards, showers and restrooms to travelers. All main-street parking was reserved for motorcycles only, making it a bit difficult to find a parking spot. After we finally found a place at the edge of town, we embarked on our first walk through the hub of the activity.

Now, I’ve been raised around motorcycles all my life. My father always has at least one bike in the garage and my mother, siblings and I all know how to ride, so I’ve been to numerous races and events where I’ve seen my share of motorcycles and bikers. However, never had I seen such an incredible amount of either in one place. Every parking lot and most streets were lined with thousands of motorcycles in deep metallic colors. The artwork on the sides of tanks was detailed to perfection. Nature scenes depicting the sunset were meticulous enough to rival a photograph, and portraits were rendered so lifelike that the eyes seemed to speak to passersby. The chrome was beautifully shined despite the long trips most of these bikes had just made. There was laughter and conversation among strangers as they checked out one another’s rides.

After wandering through some vendor tents, which lined the main street and seemed to offer mostly Harley-Davidson and Jack Daniels apparel, we grabbed some dinner from one of the makeshift sidewalk cafés, and then ducked into a local bar to whet our palates. The Firehouse Saloon, painted red with yellow flames around the walls, was our first stop.

As we walked in, I noticed a couple of girls with blue flames worn over their shoulders, yet no material on their backs. I headed toward the bar where the girls were sitting and, upon closer inspection, realized that their “shirts” were merely painted on over adhesive patches concealing their nipples and accented with short denim skirts. I sat with them for a while and asked all sorts of curious questions: Where did they get it done? How long does it last? How do the police officers react to it? The gals, who were friendly and fun-loving, were more than happy to promote the artist, a guy who airbrushes artwork onto motorcycles but had expanded during Bike Week to airbrushing shirts onto women. It seems that the paint stays on well despite humid weather, but comes off fully in a soapy shower.

As for the cops, the girls hadn’t had any problems so far, although they had heard that one woman, who had worn pasties only and no painted shirt, had been fined US$ 90 for indecent exposure. I guess that just goes to show how much artwork is valued in this area. The girls assured us that it was a great way to keep cool during a summer evening.

We finished off the night at the Broken Spoke Saloon. A friend had told us that it was the place to check out — and he was right. We grabbed a drink from a bartender dressed in lace shorts, leather chaps and a bikini top, and found a seat at one of the many picnic-type tables. Motorcycles were once again the most prominent décor and the place had a rustic feel to it. A band consisting of mostly graying, longhaired, bushy-bearded men kept the crowd riled up.

As our evening wound down, we headed back to our car knowing we’d be driving hours away to find a place to lay our heads. The streets were still filled with people who weren’t even close to calling it a night, and music continued to blare from every bar and tent we passed. While the atmosphere seemed relatively tame on this particular evening, it wasn’t difficult to imagine that things could get pretty rowdy during this unforgettable rally, a time when the streets are full, sleep is rare and liquor flows freely.

If You Go

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally


South Dakota Department of Tourism


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Janna Graber

Janna Graber is an award-winning American travel journalist and current editor of Go World Travel Magazine. Since moving to Austria at age 19 for college, she's been in love with world travel, and has covered destinations around the globe for more than 55 newspapers, magazines and websites. She's the author of three travel anthology books, including "A Pink Suitecase: 22 Tales of Women's Travel".
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