By Seth Tupper
In the late 1800s, outlaws and renegades streamed into South Dakota’s Black Hills in search of gold and fast riches.
Nowadays, outlaws and renegades – and wannabes – still flock to the Hills. But instead of gold, it’s a good time they seek.
They find it at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the most recognized and celebrated motorcycle gathering in the world. For two weeks every August, the population of Sturgis, South Dakota, swells from about 6,000 to upwards of 400,000 as bikers of all stripes arrive and proceed to party.
If you are going to attend the Sturgis Motorcyle Rally this year make sure you book your Sturgis Rally Campgrounds today!
The Sturgis rally was founded as a racing event in 1938 by Clarence “Pappy” Hoel, who had bought an Indian Motorcycle Franchise in Sturgis two years earlier and helped found the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club. Nine racers and 200 are spectators are said to have showed up that first year.
The rally continued as an annual event. In the early years, Hoel’s wife, Pearl, cooked meals for rally-goers who camped in the couple’s backyard. That early practice of camping during the rally grew over the years into a tradition made famous of late by the Buffalo Chip Campground, a huge venue that hosts big-name concerts and even drew presidential candidate John McCain to one of its rally events in 2008.
In the early 1980s, the Sturis motorcycle rally experienced dramatic growing pains. Some local residents and officials, wary of the rowdiest rally revelers, enacted numerous restrictions. Some rally faithful reacted with protests that went to the extreme of setting outhouses ablaze.
The issue of whether or not to allow the annual rallies was put to Sturgis voters early that decade. The rally won, and the citizens of Sturgis have never really looked back.
The rally reached its zenith with its 60th anniversary event in 2000. That year, estimated attendance swelled to around 600,000. Since then, estimated attendance has been between 400,000 and 500,000 annually.
Why is the Sturgis rally so popular? The parties, big-name entertainment and camaraderie with other bikers are part of it, as is the chance to see a nearly infinitely varied array of factory- and custom-made motorcycles. The presence of a lot of scantily clad women doesn’t hurt, either.
The real reason for the rally’s incredible drawing power, though, is probably its location in the gorgeous Black Hills. There are other motorcycle gatherings around the world, but none with so many scenic drives to so many amazing destinations nearby.
From Sturgis, it’s 62 miles to Mount Rushmore, 67 miles to Crazy Horse Memorial, 75 miles to Custer State Park and its abundant wildlife, 20 miles to Spearfish Canyon, 13 miles to the gaming halls and historic attractions of Deadwood, 110 miles to Badlands National Park, and 78 miles to Devils Tower in Wyoming.
The routes to those destinations are attractions in their own right. Sweeping vistas, stunning canyons, peaceful streams, beautiful rock formations, rolling plains and pine forests are just a few of the sites that greet bikers in and around the Black Hills. The state of South Dakota has published a motorcycle guide, available from the Office of Tourism, with maps of the most scenic routes and information on motorcycle laws and motorcycle dealers.
The closest natural attraction to Sturgis is Bear Butte, which is practically on the city’s front doorstep. Rally goers who visit Bear Butte State Park should be aware that the site is considered sacred by many American Indians who still conduct religious ceremonies there. During the rally, bikers are welcome to visit the site but are asked to respect it as they would a church.
Riding to the rally, or hauling a motorcycle to the rally in a trailer, is a yearly tradition for many people. They range from hard-core, Harley-riding bikers to retirees with their spouses in sidecars. It seems there is a place for everyone in Sturgis and, for the most part, everybody gets along.
If you are looking for a place to stay try looking at one of the many Sturgis Campgrounds located in or around the city.
Main Street in Sturgis is the main attraction. Every day during the rally, the street is a swarming mass of people, vendors and slow-moving and parked motorcycles. People- and motorcycle-watching are enough to keep a rally-goer busy all day long on this main thoroughfare, and the many local watering holes can keep a rally-goer busy all night.
The racing events founded by the Jackpine Gypsies in 1938 still continue. Other events include bike shows, bike-building competitions and organized rides. The Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame is available for those who want to learn more about the history of the rally and motorcycles in general.
Concerts are a big part of the rally, and especially the concerts hosted by the Buffalo Chip Campground. Aerosmith, Kid Rock and Toby Keith are just a few of the entertainers who have rocked The Chip in recent years. Other events at the campground have included professional wrestling, swimsuit pageants and stunt riding.
The Chip is only one of the many places to stay during the rally. The official rally Web site has a good listing of campgrounds, hotels, cabins and private lodging opportunities.
The rally has grown so big in recent decades that some people have begun pouring into Sturgis during the weeks leading up to the actual event, and some stay in Sturgis or delay showing up until a week or two afterward. At the height of the annual mass migration to Sturgis, there are lines at the gas stations in some South Dakota communities. Interstate 90 in particular, which crosses the state from west to east, is filled with bikers before, during and after the rally.
Because of the huge volume of motorcycle riders, traffic laws take on added importance. There is a handy list of motorcycle driving laws on the state Office of Tourism’s Web site.
Having a safe, good time has become the aim of most modern rally-goers. Modern outlaws still keep things interesting, though, as the Sturgis police force and other rally law officers know well. In 2008, for example, there were 188 parking tickets, five felony drug arrests and 437 people jailed during the rally.
Considering the huge size of the 400,000-strong event, those incidents make up a tiny fraction of the daily activity. With so many things to do and see, it’s pretty easy for everybody to find their preferred level of revelry.
As the South Dakota Office of Tourism says, “Attend the Rally once, and it becomes clear why this slightly out-of-the-way place has become a mandatory destination for so many motorcyclists.”