Updated: Aug 10, 2019
I wake up after my first day in Sturgis, feeling time pressing. Really, I’ve been off course since the Grand Canyon: the original plan had been to go from there to Zion National Park and then pick up the Extraterrestrial Highway towards California. It was only ever a loose plan, so changing it didn’t matter. Indeed, that’s the point of the trip: I don’t really have plans, just intentions...
Even so, what with mucking about getting tyres and now diverting north to Harley-Central, South Dakota, I’ve put nearly two weeks of extra riding into the trip and I’m a long way from where I intended to be by now. I know that for the full Black Hills experience I should stay in Sturgis for a couple of days... but it must be just about the most expensive place in America while the rally is on and anyway I’m here for the riding, not the drinking.
So I resume my westward journey with some of the best riding of the trip - South Dakota really does have awesome roads. An early start means I have Spearfish Canyon more or less to myself (I can’t say or type Spearfish without doing it in the style of the Stingray theme tune: Spearfish... Spearfish der-der da-dah da-dah). It’s 20 glorious flowing miles, past waterfalls, fishing spots and something called the Devil’s Bathtub. It alternates between chillingly cold in the shadows of the canyon cliffs, and gloriously warm when the morning sun hits the immaculate tarmac.
When I pick up Highway 85 at Cheyenne Crossing – and especially when I turn north on the 585 – I start passing other people I assume are leaving Sturgis, their bikes being towed behind pickup trucks. These are called “trailer queens”. I’ve learnt that bikers who ride all the way to the event look down on those who haul the bikes to somewhere close, then ride the final few miles to the rally.
From Sundance (yes, where the Kid got his name) I’m following signs for another bit of Old Nick’s real-estate: the Devil’s Tower. I spot it from miles away - an eerily massive grey butte rising above the green landscape. The top is flattened and even from a distance the sides look like clay that’s been shaped with a comb. It looks anything but natural. No wonder it was used in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as the site of the alien encounter.
Clearly, it’s a popular post-Sturgis destination as there are loads of bikes here (loads of tourists, full stop). It’s a National Park, so my annual pass gets me in – it’s paying for itself every day. Frankly, the mountain looks even stranger up close. I won’t bore you with the geology of it - but if you’re as fascinated as I was, the Wikipedia page is here.
My right knee has been giving me a bit of grief for the past week or so - which I think may be because I’m not exercising my legs enough. So I park the bike and take the nicely tarmaced trail around the foot of the Devil’s Tower (just over a mile). The path through shady woods isn’t quiet – there are plenty of other visitors – but it’s not exactly crowded.
I could have spent far longer at the Devil’s Tower (I envied the people climbing it) but I do have to move on. There’s that schedule I don’t have that I need to keep vaguely on track… So I head west, mostly on rolling interstates. I stop overnight in the gloriously named Greybull, Wyoming (my first AirB&B experience…) and next morning I head into Montana to find perhaps the best road in America.
Like Austria’s Grossglockner, the Beartooth Pass is named for a mountain you can see from the road (in this case, a triangular granite peak). Like the Grossglockner, Beartooth is long, wide, well surfaced… and has a sensible speed limit. The sat nav insists it’s a 65mph limit all the way over, though I spot one or two 50 signs. And, like the Grossglockner, the cascades of hairpins means there’s no way to thrash along at the limit anyway…
It is a genuinely, awe-inspiringly fantastic ride – though really it reminds me more of Col d’Aubisque in the Pyrenees rather than the Grossglockner (though the surface is better than the French pass). It’s a truly beautiful landscape, in that austere way only truly high mountain passes manage - a mix of bare rock, wind-blown grass and wildflowers, crystal-clear air and vast views out of the surrounding landscape, framed by higher peaks.
And at the end of the pass is the reason, really, I convinced myself to detour north to Sturgis in the first place. The reason I thought the National Parks pass was a good idea: Yellowstone.
Now, this is a huge park. It covers 3471 square miles – that’s the same size as Norfolk and Suffolk combined. It’s just shy of 16 Isles of Man. Massive. With an official population of less than 400. But the visitors… More than four million people have come to Yellowstone each year in the past four years. I think most of 2019’s lot are all here today.
I’ve mentioned before that the thing Europeans – especially European bikers, and particularly British ones – will have the hardest time getting used to in America is the speed limit. Especially the lower ones in the National Parks. I’m learning to sigh, sit up and give up and go with the flow. But Yellowstone really would test anyone’s patience. I don’t mind sticking to the 45 or even 35mph limits. I’m getting better at just laughing at the drivers who can’t even manage that if the road bends very slightly or goes up hill a little.
But the queues… the queues are still a problem for me. You see, in any other country in the world, it’s taken as read that bikes will overtake queues of traffic. Everyone knows that. The bikes get to the front, then clear off. It’s what we do.
Not in America. Bikes are expected to sit in the queue like everyone else, without questioning it. Never mind filtering to the front. Do that and they all get very upset. So I’m not doing it, even though I feel I’m dying inside.
And there are lots of queues in Yellowstone. Queues at the entry tollbooth. Queues to get into car parks. Queues to get out of car parks. Queues to turn. Queues to join queues. Queues to let buffalo walk across the road (okay, that would be pretty cool if it wasn’t so frustrating). Basically, half the time on the bike seems to be spent in some sort of queue.
And it’s the same when you get off the bike to see the things lazy visitors like me (ie the 98% who don’t want to do the hiking this place really deserves) want to see - the geysers and thermal pools you’ll rarely see anywhere else on earth. There’s great access, with well-constructed boardwalks and signs explaining what you’re seeing… but you are walking slowly in a crowd or queuing to get there.
It’s still worth it, though. Yellowstone is amazing – from Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring to the sight of buffalo and elk and eagles (no sign of a bear - not Yogi, nor even a BooBoo). I spent the afternoon in the northern half of the park, then stayed overnight in West Yellowstone town, then came back in for the morning. And it was brilliant. But too damn busy… Essentially, Yellowstone is like the biggest Ikea in the world.
So then I head south into Grand Teton National Park… which is absolutely stunning, especially along the shores of Lake Jackson with craggy grey mountains reflected in the still waters. I stop for a pizza by the shore, thinking I’ll come out and get an epic picture… Instead I come out and get my waterproofs on because it’s chucking it down and you can hardly see the mountains for the clouds that have whipped up out of nowhere.
I fill up in Jackson and pick up Highway 89 – which I’ll take for 185 incredible miles. The rain finally stops as I’m going round Bear Lake (amazing blue waters) and then the road climbs up from Garden City in a preposterously good series of tight sweeping curves, before dropping down again and vanishing into a high-walled gorge that reminds of the La Hermida gorge outside Potes in Spain’s Picos de Europa mountains… the only difference being that this road is wide, quiet and freshly surfaced - so textured and oily it’s like riding on a giant syrupy flapjack. It makes the final 40 miles to my overnight stop in Logan an absolute joy. In the morning, I'll carry on heading west.