By Lee Bruns
When the subject of dual sport riding in South Dakota comes up it’s usually assumed that you’re talking about the Black Hills. While the Black Hills are indeed epic there is also a lot of really fun dual sport riding to be found on the Eastern half of the state.
South Dakotas low population density means there is very few tax dollars available to build or maintain roads. This is great news for dual sport riders. Thousands of miles of these roads in the state have been declared ‘Minimum Maintenance” or even better “No Maintenance”. Many of these roads over time degenerated into top notch off road riding trails but since they are still technically roads you still need to have a street legal motorcycle to enjoy them.
To find these roads and layout your riding routes, just stop past anywhere in the state of South Dakota that sells hunting licenses. There you’ll find a stack of a free publication called the South Dakota Public Hunting Atlas. It is put out every year by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. This handy guide not only shows hunters where all of the public hunting lands are but also shows the location of every Minimum maintenance road in the state. The Atlas is broken down into a 35-page grid, each showing a detailed section of the state. The paved roads are marked as heavy black lines, gravel as thin black lines and the minimum maintenance roads as dashed lines.
Using these maps, a rider can layout a ride to maximize the Minimum Maintenance roads and minimize the paved roads. I have used these maps for years to lay out a half dozen loops based out of Watertown SD. Most of my loops are around 30 miles each, half of which is minimum maintenance road and the rest gravel. I can then vary the rides by stringing together the loops to create 30 60, 90 or 120 mile routes.
The terrain varies from grassy prairie paths to scenic river valleys. As the seasons change the ‘roads’ and views change also. The scenery dominated by corn and soy beans in the summer gives way to crimson leaves and prairie views that go on for miles as fall moves in. Be ready though, the muddy wheel tracks of spring become the rock hard ruts of July. Traveling the same routes during different seasons is highly recommended. The paths change by the season, direction of travel, and rain amounts. Out away from the towns, be sure to stop on a hilltop every now and then and listen to the wind through the prairie grasses. Enjoy the views and smells. It’s a special kind of quiet. Or maybe stop under one of the wind power generators that dot the landscape to hear the whoosh of the blades. Be aware though, not all roads go through. These are usually labeled as such. It is rare to be surprised by a dead end.
Water crossings are not uncommon, sometimes from washed out bridges or culverts, other times entire road beds may be covered in seasonal flooding for a mile. If a section of road is submerged be extra careful, it may be washed out also and drop from 8 inches deep to several feet deep with no warning.
Some of the ‘roads’ may have cattle gates on them. Some are nice steel welded gates, but most are just moveable sections of fence. When traveling in a group of riders there are established courtesies. The first rider to arrive at the gate opens the gate. The second rider goes through the gate and rolls the first riders motorcycle through. Once all riders are through, the gate tender closes the gate and takes their spot as the last rider. This way the same person does not get stuck opening and closing the gate every time. Do NOT leave the gate open. If the cows get out they are a hazard to everyone and angry farmers are even more dangerous than loose cows.
If traveling alone, be aware that cellular phone service is spotty at best. Ride accordingly. If traveling as a group, the lead bike will startle the wildlife fairly regularly. Mostly deer, turkey and pheasants but occasionally a skunk or raccoon. Steer clear of the skunks and raccoons, they are not happy to be awake in daylight hours and prone to rabies. As the damp and wet mud of spring dries out and plant-life matures, be careful to clear the grass from your engine and exhaust. Prairie wild fires are still a threat and can be deadly. Mufflers and spark arrestors are a must.
Since the entire eastern half of the state is set up on a 1-mile grid of roads it’s easy to bail out if a particular piece of road or water crossing is more than you want to attempt, just reverse course and ride the three miles around that section. You can avoid having to do this by riding the appropriate motorcycle. As with most off road riding, light is right. A 600 lb ‘Adventure Tour’ motorcycle will not be as much fun as a 250 lb quarter-liter dual sport. Especially when, not if, you have to pick it up off of its side while standing in a muddy rut.
Whether riding alone or with a group the dual sport riding of Eastern South Dakota is a great and inexpensive way for riders of all skill levels to get out and have fun. Head out on your own, or check out the “Street Trail Four-Wheelers Unlimited Motorcycle Club” (STFU-MC) page on Facebook to find when they are leading a group ride out of the Watertown SD area.