A Sturgis Hidden Gem: Black Hills Trails

Many know Sturgis for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and because of its proximity to the beautiful Black Hills with Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, and other world-class attractions. However, there is one world-class attraction right in Sturgis’s backyard that is considered a bit of a hidden gem - the Sturgis Trail System.

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What is Black Hills Trails and the Sturgis Trail System?

Black Hills Trails was founded to fill a gap - it provides a unified trail system management organization to service the entire Black Hills area. Executive Director, Sam Greear, explained that BHT focuses on non-motorized trails, but does not discriminate within that genre -  hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians, snowshoers, and many other non-motorized activities are welcome to use the trails built and maintained by the organization.

The group is volunteer-led and guided by a volunteer Executive Director (Greear), Board of Directors, and numerous individuals that choose to dedicate their time and energy to preserving and growing the non-motorized trail systems. Greear estimates he has spent 15 to 20 hours per week - as a volunteer - each week for the last eight years. A significant dedication of time and energy. 

The Sturgis Trail System is one of the most noteworthy accomplishments of Black Hills Trails thanks to volunteers like Greear. It is a modern, stacked-loop trail system, accessible right from town.

How did we get the trails, and where did they come from?

Greear explains that some of the trails have existed for decades, but only recently have they been rebuilt, marked, and promoted by an organized group.

The Sturgis Trail System in particular is the newest addition and the first in nearly a full generation to be added to the existing repertoire of trails in the Black Hills. It includes an extensive network of trails mostly to the south of Sturgis, and was created by the Black Hills Trails volunteers after partnering with the Black Hills National Forest, City of Sturgis, Meade County, Sturgis Area Chamber of Commerce, Bureau of Land Management, and others to make the permitting and construction process possible. Greear notes that the collaborative planning process between so many entities took time and perseverance, but it has truly resulted in an incredible addition to our community and the Black Hills as a whole. 

Interestingly, the Sturgis Trail System is partially the result of Greear and his partners taking a closer look at a planning document from the 1960s - found in the archives at Fort Meade - stating intentions to improve upon the area’s existing trails at that time. He and his team of volunteers started the project in earnest, and leveraged the document to help convince the other entities to join forces with Black Hills Trails. The first milestone within this project to be completed was the 7th Cavalry Trail System near Fort Meade, now part of the greater Sturgis Trail System.

Are the trails seasonal or open year-round?

The trails are open year-round, and many permanent residents of the area engage in a variety of activities on them in the colder months. “Fat tire” biking is especially popular, but many choose to utilize them for snowshoeing and more as well. Some trails are even groomed after snowfalls to better accommodate winter recreation. The Sturgis Trail System is an increasingly popular draw for winter recreation tourism.

Where are the trailheads & where do they go?

There are several trailheads throughout the system noted on the Sturgis Trail System map. These locations are shown as parking areas with blue circles and the letter “P” - there are four trailheads to the 7th Cavalry System around the Fort Meade area, including the Alkali Creek Trailhead, near the softball fields, the Lions Club Park trailhead, and the parking area and trailhead on the west edge of the fort. There is also a newer trailhead on Pineview Drive established by the City of Sturgis in partnership with Black Hills Trails to access the Deadman Mountain area, and a couple through Vanocker Canyon.

Is the trail system motorized or non-motorized?

The entire Sturgis Trail System is non-motorized, meaning you may not utilize ATV’s, dirtbikes, or side-by-sides on the system. The Sturgis area does have a few nearby access points for motor-friendly trails and forest roads, most notably the access point to Bulldog Road slightly south of the National Cemetery, and Redcut Road on the southwest edge of Sturgis.

E-bikes are a trickier topic since they are relatively new and gaining popularity. Greear states, “some users do bring them, and in practice they generally do not create any more impact or create interactions any different than a normal mountain bike, but at this time they are technically not allowed on the non-motorized trail system.”

What is the long-term vision for the trail system?

Greear explained that Black Hills Trails envisions developing trail systems near each community in the Black Hills, and eventually connecting them together to make a “European-like experience.” He elaborated, stating that the system is already connected to Nemo, and will one day be connected to Piedmont via Little Elk Creek trail. A next step might be to connect the Sturgis Trail System to Deadwood and Lead. Trail users would be able to explore each of the unique communities in the region from a new perspective via trails on foot, bicycle, horse, and more. 

How has this project impacted our local quality of life and economy?

The positive impact on the trail users’ - and Sturgis’s - quality of life is clear. Some residents of the town have moved here from other areas simply to be closer to the Sturgis Trail System, even if they still work in Rapid City or elsewhere. Residents can be seen walking dogs and jogging on the trail system daily. The trails help promote an active lifestyle, help us enjoy the beautiful outdoors right in our backyard, and even encourage business and population growth to add vibrancy to our area.

Are there different difficulty levels of trails?

Absolutely, Greear states. The trails range from easy, beginner-level paved and gravel paths, such as the path around Fort Meade or the bike paths through the City of Sturgis, to advanced routes more to the south of town such as Deadman Mountain - a welcome challenge for experienced mountain bikers. There is a trail in the system for any experience level.

In your opinion, which is the most scenic trail?

“Opinions vary wildly,” Greear notes, but goes on to explain that one of his favorites is the currently unnamed trail shown as #2 on the map, between markers S14 and S10. “There is an overlook on that trail with an opening that frames Bear Butte perfectly,” he states. He also notes that there are numerous such sites with incredible views of Bear Butte and other Black Hills scenery.

How much does it cost to use the trails?

All trails in the Sturgis Trail System are free to use year-round! Greear says this is one of the best qualities of our Sturgis Trail System. If you have shoes on your feet, feed for your horses, or a bicycle to ride, you’re set!

How do I determine the right trail for me?

Greear explains that part of the beauty of the Sturgis Trail System is that it utilizes a “stacked loop system.” This means that there are several sections of the trail system that can be built upon one another and combined in a custom trail experience depending on your interests. You can create a beginner experience between two or three trail markers of your choosing, or you can traverse a larger loop or two for a more advanced, intensive experience. Many users like to use the Trailforks app to plan their route in advance and take advantage of the stacked loop system. There is not yet an official map showing the distances of each section, but Greear assures that it is in progress and coming soon. In the meantime, the Trailforks app works well for planning purposes.

Are pets allowed?

“Heck yeah!” Greear says. Pets are most definitely allowed, but there are some generally-agreed-upon guidelines to consider when taking your pet on the trail. Dogs should be able to respond to voice commands if they are unleashed.

Are there any new trails?

The Sturgis Trail System boasts roughly 50 miles of trail, and nearly all of the trails within the system have been constructed new or re-constructed in a modern, sustainable way since 2013. This process requires teams of volunteers, countless hours, a substantial amount of fundraising, and heavy equipment to pull off. Greear provided some photos showing the intensive process of crushing rock, shoveling, moving dirt, eliminating brush and tree limbs, and other labor-intensive tasks to make the most recent trails possible.

Do the trails have GPS/cell service?

Trails within the Sturgis Trail System often do receive cell service, including the BLM portion of the trails and Deadman area, but some of the lower elevations such as the Sturgis Dams (accessible via Unnamed Trail #4) do not have reliable service. Greear recommends downloading the trail system map of choice in advance using the Trailforks app, a free app available for mobile devices. This app has a wide variety of information about each trail submitted by trail users, including photos, difficulty levels, elevation gain, closures or areas needing maintenance, and more. The app also tracks your location along the trail when you are not using Wi-Fi or data - a handy feature.

Are there a lot of snakes?

As with all wilderness trails, users should be wary of snakes and other inhabitants along the trail system. However, Greear pointed out that snakes - along with the occasional mountain lion and other wildlife - prefer to leave humans alone. As long as we leave them alone, they will likely do the same for us.

How can I support Black Hills Trails and the Sturgis Trail System cause?

Black Hills Trails unveiled an ambitious capital campaign in 2021. They are seeking to raise $250,000 in funds to create an endowment for the organization that will then cover the costs of Sturgis Trail System standard maintenance for perpetuity on interest alone. This campaign has been met with widespread support, and collected about $40,000 - nearly 7% - of that goal in only the first couple months. Greear is certain that they can reach their goal and ensure the trails’ longevity for years to come.

Those interested in contributing to this mission can donate any amount at any time to the Black Hills Trails organization. Simply contact Greear to donate, or drop cash or check donations off at the Sturgis Chamber office anytime. Those willing to make a more substantial donation of at least $200 have the opportunity to have their name posted on an official Sturgis Trail System trail blaze marker. There are also opportunities for commemorative benches at scenic locations along the trail routes for significant contributions. If financial giving is not an option, supporters are welcome to serve as volunteers. No matter your budget, you have a chance to contribute to an incredible cause that will last for generations and beyond.

Author: Chamber Staff Writer