We arrived in Sturgis, South Dakota in a minivan on a Sunday afternoon in May and it just wasn’t right – a minivan in Sturgis – so uncool. Actually, it was kind of spooky, like some apocalyptic event had taken place.
There was not a soul to be seen. One beat-up pick-up truck sat alone on Main Street. The tattoo parlors, bars and pool hall were closed. We could even hear the birds chirping and the wind rustling leaves on the trees. The flag snapping in the breeze above the old post office was the only indication of the attitude that this town is known for.
Sturgis, of course, is synonymous with a motorcycle culture that brings upwards of 600,000 people to this otherwise docile town of 6,000 residents each August. The influence of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on the entire Black Hills region of western South Dakota cannot be understated. As soon as the weather warms up, about the first of June, the bikers start to arrive. The roar of a Harley is as common here as shops selling Black Hills gold, turquoise, and fudge.
Of course, that’s not at all what the 25 members of the Jackpine Gypsies, a local motorcycle club, were thinking in 1938 when they organized the first event. The little club needed a fundraiser, so they set up a dirt track and held nine races one day. About 200 people showed up. Every August since, with the exception of two years during World War II, the numbers have grown to become the legendary event it is today.
In the 1940s as more people starting coming to Sturgis, the Jackpine Gypsies organized a ride to a little spot in the hills near the village of Keystone where a fellow named Gutzon Borglum was carving up the side of a mountain. The hairpin turns, tunnels and otherwise scenic roads of the Black Hills on the way to Mount Rushmore are the makings of an ideal day on a motorcycle.
The motorcycle culture of the Black Hills is captured at the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum, located in the former post office on Main Street, a building coincidentally built in 1938, the year the rally started. Inside are about 100 motorcycles dating back to a 1907 Indian single rider and a 1914 Minneapolis. A recent acquisition is a 1938 Indian with sidecar and an OCC Chopper. One of the more popular exhibits is the 1949 Sundance built for a Texas oilman that, at the time it was built, was considered the most expensive bike in the world. The jewel-encrusted bike with engraved images of lions, snakes and eagles was considered beautiful at the time, but now receives much laughter and ridicule from many visitors.
Other than exploring the beauty of the Black Hills and legends of nearby towns like Deadwood, where Wild Bill Hickok was shot to death and Kevin Costner has opened a casino, everything else in Sturgis is about motorcycles.
The names of several restaurants and bars reflect that devotion: Full Throttle Saloon, Easy Rider Saloon and the Loud American Roadhouse all speak to that passion. The most recent development in town is at The Knuckle Saloon, a legendary destination for rally fans. They’ve recently been licensed as a microbrewery selling beers that will surely be as popular as the T-shirts, do-rags and short-shorts sold at the popular bar.
If four-wheeled rides are more your pleasure, plan a visit to Sturgis on Labor Day weekend. That’s when the Ford Mustang replaces Harleys on the streets of Sturgis. Since 2006, Mustang owners and fans of the original muscle car have been coming to the Black Hills, riding with tops down and the wind in their hair. About 1,000 or so Mustangs are a part of the show that includes an auction, drag racing and barrel racing – normally a rodeo event on real Mustang horses, but this time, with Mustangs made by Ford.
It’s just how they ride and roll in Sturgis.
Is a visit to Sturgis on your bucket list?
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