Western South Dakota's Only Ranch Station
The far north end of the lengthy U.S. 385 improvement project is a busy place that must be navigated with care by motorists.
Photo: Bart Pfankuch / South Dakota News Watch

Black Hills highway closure to snarl holiday traffic

PACTOLA RESERVOIR, S.D. – Angie Weaver, who co-owns the Pactola Marina in the Black Hills, remains hopeful that the full closure of U.S. 385 won’t sink her summer revenues that are critical to remaining profitable for the entire year.

U.S. 385 is the only north-south highway through the central Black Hills and the only route people can take to get to Pactola Reservoir and the marina.

“It’s going to be a weird year for us, and I’m looking forward to it being over,” Weaver said.” All we can do at this point is let customers know about the construction and hope for the best.”

The full closure of the highway just north of the reservoir began on May 19 and will remain closed until July 12, messing up traffic in the tourism-dominated region over both the Memorial Day and July 4 holidays.

The South Dakota Department of Transportation has embarked on a $72 million project to rebuild 15 miles of the highway, which is a scenic drive but one that also has a high rate of crashes and fatalities.

The closure will disrupt any motorist driving between Hill City on the south and the Lead-Deadwood area on the north. The hour-long, more than 50-mile official detour will require people to drive through Rapid City to get around the highway closure near Pactola.

The two-lane highway provides access to Pactola Reservoir and Sheridan Lake. The road is also a pipeline to Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial and helps fuel a regional tourism industry that brought $2 billion in revenue to South Dakota in 2021.

In all, the project will include five separate complete closures of the winding two-lane highway that flows amid scenic lakes, rock outcroppings and dramatic ridges.

“This construction goes through 2027, so it’s gonna be a long process,” Weaver said. “But this year, for us, is going to be the biggest year in terms of affecting our business.”

So far, so good at marina

Like other business owners in the Black Hills, Weaver and marina partner Dan Fisher have tried to get ahead of the road closure to keep customers happy and coming back.

The pair rents boats and kayaks, sells snacks and supplies and has 200 boat slip rentals, about half of which are on the north side of the reservoir where the entrance road will be closed for a while in May and June. During that time, they have agreed to use a boat to ferry people from the south marina to the north marina so slip renters can still access their boats.

Weaver was heartened to see a solid pre-booking of boat rentals for the Independence Day holiday, typically her busiest time of the summer, despite the fact U.S. 385 will be completely closed during that period.

“That’s a whole month-and-a-half that our renters have to drive an extra hour to get to us,” she said, adding they have posted notice of the pending road closure on their website and in confirmation emails sent to renters.

DOT: New highway will be safer

The South Dakota Department of Transportation issued a press release on May 13 that spelled out the closure time frames and stated that while the road will be fully blocked, temporary access to the Pactola north boat ramp will be available on weekends and on Memorial Day.

The overall construction project will include widening road shoulders, smoothing out sharp curves and adding turn lanes to make the road safer. In the five-year period from 2018-2022, 187 crashes were reported in the area now under construction, with four fatalities and 57 injuries. A third of those wrecks and most of the deaths occurred when motorists left the roadway, which in spots is flanked by deep ravines or craggy rocks.

DOT plans to clear trees, blast rock, enact lane closures with use of pilot cars and close the highway completely at five separate locations for up to months at a time. Tree-clearing began in November and in recent weeks, a 15-minute pilot car delay has been in place north of Highway 44. The state will open the road fully during certain high-traffic times, including for the Sturgis rally in August.

The state has created a website to provide project information and updates. Prior to the start of the project, DOT officials held a series of public meetings to inform the public about the need for the construction.

“Complete closures were deemed necessary for the safety of the traveling public and efficiency of the project due to the large amount of material being blasted and moved throughout the closure areas,” DOT said in its May 13 release.

However, Weaver and some other business owners have told News Watch that they weren’t fully satisfied with the DOT’s approach to the project and an overall unwillingness to listen to ideas or accommodate the needs of residents.

“There’s a group of us small business owners in the area that also had a meeting with them, and it felt more like an informative meeting,” she said. “Instead of a, ‘Hey, what what are some suggestions,’ approach, and ‘What do you guys need from us,’ there was none of that.”

But Weaver insisted that in the end, it will all be worth it to have a safer highway through the scenic central Black Hills region.

“It’s going to be a great road, and I know they’re going to do a really great job,” she said.

Law enforcement taking steps toward safety

Pennington County Sheriff Lt. David Switzer told News Watch that his agency is working closely with the state local fire departments, the Highway Patrol, and the Game, Fish and Parks Department to coordinate emergency response efforts during the highway closures.

“We’re aware that when there are pilot cars running up there or a full closure, there’s going to be significant delays,” he said.

The sheriff’s office has realigned its patrol “beats” and will have more deputies in the area to respond efficiently to incidents to emergencies on both sides of the road closure, Switzer said.

“There’s going to be a point where they’re going to break up the road because they have to remove a big chunk of it, so you have to adjust your resources to respond to that,” he said.

In advance of the full closure of U.S. 385, authorities have posted a boat in a slip at the north Pactola marina to respond to lake emergencies more quickly by not having to trailer a rescue boat through a road closure or construction zone.

“If we have any emergency at the swim beach or the marina or any of the campgrounds close to the boat ramps, we’ll be able to quickly get to a boat there to respond,” said Switzer, who also serves with the nearby Johnson Siding Volunteer Fire Department.

Switzer’s big advice to motorists is to plan ahead, be patient and follow signage to avoid accidents or injuries.

“Don’t drive around road closure signs,” he said. “Follow the detours and be patient because the worst thing you can do is got stuck in a construction zone where there is no road.”

Boater sees detour as minor annoyance

On a recent Sunday, Jeff Woods of Black Hawk secured his family’s boat at their rented slip at the Pactola Marina after going for one of their frequent joy rides.

Woods said the highway closure will cost him about 20 minutes in extra travel time to get to the marina via the southern detour. Woods said he will take Sheridan Lake Road on the south end and shave off distance from the official detour route that takes drivers on U.S. Highway 16 through Rapid City and then back to U.S. 385.

Woods said the road blockage will not stop his family from using their boat or visiting their nearby cabin as often as usual this summer.

“It makes it more of a hassle,” Woods said. “But it’s really just more of an annoyance than anything else.”

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