BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Riding Time: Three hours--Total distance--158 miles (ending and beginning in Rapid City).
Highlights: Weaving through old stone pillars and mountains this ride has moderate turns and climbs taking you through Badlands National Park, into the famous Wall Drug, and finally the South Dakota Air and Space Museum.
Skill Level: Easy
There are so many exciting riding places in the Black Hills that the Badlands often get overlooked for the more popular rides. The Badlands’ location on the eastern plains further compromises its availability. But this area is unique to the whole country and once you’ve spent some time here it will be on your favorite list too. The surreal moon-like topography from millions of years of wind, water and erosion has evolved chiseled spires, deep canyons and jagged buttes called The Badlands National Park.
Locals like to ride Hwy 44 east from Rapid City past Regional Airport through Scenic and on to Interior and Cedar Pass. You will pick up Hwy 240 called the Badlands Loop and exit on I-90 (Exit 110) at Wall. After visiting Wall Drug, we ride back on I-90 West, and stop at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum at Ellsworth Air Force Base just a few miles outside of Rapid City. Then take I-90 to exit 55, and you’re back at Black Hills Harley-Davidson.
Here’s an option for those travelers coming into the Black Hills from the east. Take exit 131 on I-90 West at Interior. There are only a few miles to Hwy 240 to the interior of the Badlands. Continue on 240 and the Badlands Loop until you come back out at Wall (Exit 110) and continue to Rapid City.
I-90 Westbound riders are so eager to get to Sturgis or the Black Hills they don’t want to take the time to stop and see the Badlands. This is a mistake. The whole loop takes only an hour out of your trip and brings you right back to I-90. Regardless, whether coming from the east or west don’t miss the Badlands. They are awesome.
The Lakota Sioux call this area “Mako Sica” meaning a bad land. 64,000 acres of the 244,000 acre Badlands is designated as wilderness. In 1939 it was designated as a National Monument and became a National Park in 1978.
For the rider here are a couple of things to remember:
- The roads are paved two lane highways with some gentle curves—nothing real challenging.
- There aren’t many trees in the Badlands and it can get hot in the summer. Bring along plenty of water.
- Other than Interior there are not any towns in the National Park. Fill up with gas in Rapid City and again in Interior. Wall is another fuel stop if you decide to reverse the journey.
- An early morning ride from Rapid City is going to put the sun in your face and equally, a late afternoon ride west could cause some glare problems too. Midday is best. Sunsets and sunrises in the Badlands are equaled by none. The colors and hues in the rock present an eerie surreal, reddish aura you have to witness personally to fully appreciate.
- There is lodging in the park at Cedar Pass, Interior or a few miles away in Wall.
- Ironically, this is a park where most people don’t even stop and get off their bikes—not even at the Ben Reifel Visitors Center. That’s too bad because they miss a part of the park. There are four scenic overlooks and several scenic pull offs and some short walking trails near the visitors center. Motorcyclists are a more curious lot though and I expect you’ll stop and take in more of the beauty than the typical car traveler.
You’ve probably been seeing signs about Wall Drug for quite some
time. Back in the early 1970’s Ted Hustead, the founder of Wall Drug in the 1930’s, gave me a Wall Drug sign. When I was an Army journalist in Germany in 1976-78, I posted the Wall Drug sign near the Olympic ski jump at Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps at what is better known as the site of Hitler’s Olympics (circa 1936). The sign read “Wall Drug 8,716 miles”. I took a picture and sent it back to Ted. It’s on the wall inside the drug store along with hundreds other Wall Drug signs that have appeared all over the world.
You must stop at Wall Drug. There must be some law on the books mandating this stop. It is a unique place and since the1930’s has been known as the place where you get “free ice water”. They keep that promise to this day. Over 20,000 people stop at Wall Drug on a typical summer day from travelers coming to and from the Black Hills. You can have your picture taken on the giant “Jackalope” (part jack rabbit and part antelope) or try your quick draw against Black Bart the local gunslinger. They offer free coffee to veterans and have one of the best breakfasts in the world! Wall Drug’s cinnamon rolls are to die for. Don’t miss being part of this scene. And there is plenty of motorcycle parking.
Ted Hustead, a young pharmacist, and his wife Dorothy, a teacher, came to Wall in the dirty thirties. It was tough making a living during the depression. It was always hot out on the prairie. Mt. Rushmore was nearing completion and more and more tourists were coming west to the Black Hills on Hwy 16. But the Hustead’s couldn’t get any of them to leave the highway for a few blocks to come to the drug store. Dorothy came up with the idea of giving away free ice water and together they made some signs like the old Burma Shave series offering free ice water. Sales jumped and ice cream sales went through the roof. Ted chiseled ice off a block and Dorothy filled the water jugs. Tourists were standing in line and the rest is history. Wall Drug has been a pillar in the tourism industry. After a jaunt through Badlands National Park on a summer day you’ll probably be ready for that cold drink.
Its 55 miles back to Rapid City on I-90 West but this isn’t your typical boring straight stretch of road. First you drop down the big Wasta hill. At the bottom are the Wasta Rest Area and the Cheyenne River. Wagon Trains came along this trail from Fort Pierre hauling supplies to the prospectors and miners over 135 years ago. Indians were attacking the freight and bull trains all along this route. Miners who chose the Ft. Pierre route to the gold fields in the Black Hills came along the same path you’re riding.
As soon as you climb the hill out of the Cheyenne River Valley – there they are—looming in the distance, The Black Hills. The closer you get the bigger they get. You can pick out Harney Peak, the tallest mountain east of the Rocky Mountains, at 7240 feet. You can see why they call these hills “black”--the dark green Pine covered mountains look black from a distance. “Paha Sapa” means Black Hills to the Lakota Sioux.
For you aviation buffs, and military veterans, Ellsworth Air Force Base is a few miles east of Rapid City on I-90. The South Dakota Air and Space Museum is a short distance from the Interstate (at exit 67B). The exit is well marked. The museum has 25 historic bombers, fighters, utility aircraft and missiles. It’s open seven days a week, 9am to 6pm in the summer months. The museum also houses the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame. Admission is free.
You will see indoor and outdoor exhibits of the B1-B Lancer and its predecessor the B-52 plus a variety of WWII prop planes. The B-29 Superfortress and General Eisenhower’s personal transport plane, a modified B-25 bomber, are the most popular exhibits in the museum. There is plenty of motorcycle parking. This is a world class operation and is only a few minutes off the Interstate. The Black Hills has a long history of military presence. A visit to The South Dakota Air and Space Museum is a nice way to show your appreciation. We have a lot of riders who are active duty Air Force personnel stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base plus more who are retired and continue to live in the Black Hills area.
You’ve just taken the Badlands National Park ride. A lot of the riders coming to the Black Hills never seem to find time to ride the Badlands. I think you’ll agree it was their loss and your gain. As for the local riders, we always take at least one trip to the Badlands each riding season. It’s storybook mysterious, surreal and almost like a different planet.
I was riding from Pierre to Rapid City back in the 1970’s and was watching that beautiful sunset lure the colors out of the Badlands. At the same time it lured me into the park. I decided to take the Badlands Loop in the light of a full moon. Most of us writers have a pretty vivid imagination and I’m no exception. Riding alone at night, with a full moon, through the Badlands scared the bedickins out of me. The shadows bounced off the roadway and ghosts of times past seemed to be moving with me. The motorcycle was my stallion. I finally outran whatever it was I imagined was chasing me just before I got to Rapid City. It was one of those riding experiences you just don’t forget.
Enjoy the rest of your rides. I’ll see you on the road.