NORTHERN HILLS — Joe Hudson perused a shelf of Black Hills souvenirs at the Common Cents convenience store in Sturgis on a lazy Saturday morning recently.

He and his family, from Valley Springs, Calif., were in the midst of a summer vacation they have had planned for a year and a half. Hudson said they were happy to be out in the wide open spaces of the country after being on lockdown back home in California for months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a beautiful state,” Hudson said. “We already finished the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore. Now we’re going up to North Dakota for a week and head back across Montana.”

Hudson said he called ahead to chambers of commerce on their planned route to found out the status of state’s openness because of COVID.

Apparently, many others have been craving the openness of the Heartland, and specifically the Black Hills. Visitor industry officials from throughout the Northern Hills say visitor numbers are much more robust than they imagined amid a pandemic.

“All things considered, travel into Deadwood has been quite strong,” said Deadwood Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lee Harstad. “We have both COVID and construction challenges, but overall it’s better than I had anticipated.”

Veronica Grosek, executive director of the Sturgis Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, agrees saying visitor numbers seem on par with last year.

A drive through Main Street Sturgis Saturday showed license plates from Maine to Arizona with lots from Texas.

“I’ve talked to different business owners and they say people have told them they are trying to escape from wherever they are from,” Grosek said.

Debra Elliott, co-vice president of the Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce said that she has seen an uptick in visitors to Belle Fourche even prior to this week’s 101st Black Hills Roundup.

Local business owners have told her they have seen customers from throughout the region and across the country.

“It’s certainly taking longer to get through town. Businesses say people are spending,” she said.

On a personal note, Elliott said her family rents out a 30-foot bumper-pull camper through an online camper-share site which has proved quite popular this year.

“Every day I have two to three people wanting to rent the camper. It is now booked through the end of the Sturgis Rally,” she said. Many are from bordering states such as Minnesota, Wyoming, and Nebraska, but there also have been individuals from the East Coast.

“It’s crazy busy. Last week we delivered the camper to the KOA in Hill City. That place was a zoo,” she said.

On weekends, it is often bumper to bumper and shoulder to shoulder at traditional tourists stops in Spearfish Canyon. And the Spearfish City Park has been a popular gathering point.

“It’s definitely busy. It’s tourists, but it’s also a lot of locals,” said Spearfish Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melissa Barth.

Industry officials say safety of all visitors is their priority during the pandemic.

“We have lots of open space and that is a draw. We have plenty of room for people to stretch their legs and spread their wings,” Harstad said. “We want people to be comfortable, but also mindful of those around them. Safety is our priority.”

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