One of the great pleasures of four-wheeling is that off-roaders explore lands and enjoy vistas that only a handful of others get to experience. The many diversified trails offered to participants in the Dakota Territory Challenge not only offer those memorable moments but also deliver an added bonus of being close to dozens of historic and popular tourist attractions in the scenic Black Hills of South Dakota.
An isolated eastern outlier of the Rocky Mountains, the Black Hills is a majestic setting for the annual Challenge hosted by the Black Hills 4-Wheelers over Labor Day weekend. The club arranges rides over many of the well-known public trails scattered between the legendary gambling and gold rush town of Deadwood and the iconic Mt. Rushmore National Monument. And members also work with forest officials to open a few of the more challenging trails just for the event.
This year, almost 60 participants registered and set up camp at the Whispering Pines campground, which is located on Highway 385 that connects to many of the area’s attractions. “The trails are as tough as you want to make them,” says Brian Buck, who teams up every year with many other Wisconsin four-wheelers to run the Challenge. “The people are great here. It’s a 900-mile hike for us, and we’re glad to do it.”
“We build our rigs around this terrain,” chimes in Keith Truckee, another Wisconsin Jeep owner who, a number of years ago, saw a magazine photo of a trail with Mt. Rushmore in the background. “I said we have got to go there.”
The Dakota Territory Challenge traces its roots to the club’s charter members organizing a long trail ride from the moonscape Badlands National Park to the Black Hills in the late ’60s. “Land use was substantially less difficult back then. There really weren’t trails. You’d just go exploring, using old maps from the ’40s to find ghost towns and abandoned mines,” says Jason Paule, a former world-champion rockcrawler whose parents were early club members. “They’d drive all day and get to the Cheyenne River and camp out. Next day they’d drive all day, camp again. Finally, they’d end up at a church camp in the hills for a third night.”
Eventually, that type of point-to-point trail ride became too difficult to organize, and the club settled on the Whispering Pines in the ’80s as a central base to coordinate excursions to different trails. When rockcrawling became popular, the emphasis shifted from destinations to challenging terrain.
Up until six years ago, public lands in the Black Hills were basically open to all motorized use unless specifically marked closed. Then officials asked all user groups, including off-roaders, ATVs, UTVs, snowmobiles, and even horseback riders, to submit GPS coordinates for all trails they wanted designated and approved. Biologists, archeologists, hydrologists, and other scientific interests then evaluated those requests. “We probably lost 70 percent of the trails we used to run,” says club president Craig Grunenfelder. “They closed a lot of the trails due to water, erosion, and wetlands. There are also closures for winter snow and seasonal animal habitat.”
The event’s biggest year was 2006 with 125 rigs, but the economy and other factors have reduced the annual average to around 75. The club may set limits in the future to ensure enough supervision by club members on the trails. Participants start arriving Wednesday before the holiday weekend to get in extra sightseeing or get an early start on familiar trails. There is a trail signup every morning with priority given to the earliest registrations on the first day. For the next two days, there’s a revolving priority so everyone has a chance at a desired trail.
Trails are rated 1-10, with the Easy Riders trails maxing out at 5. These rides go over different trails every day, so beginners or family groups don’t have to repeat the same route. Participation limits may be placed on certain high-risk, 10-rated trail (like Captain Crunch and Wermers) because there are no bypasses.
Group campfires, dinners, and special awards are also part of the schedule. But if there’s any downtime, some of the participants travel to nearby tourist attractions like the Crazy Horse Monument or get close with wildlife at Custer State Park. For more information on next year’s event, visit bh4wheelers.com.