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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Route Overview - "The Big Picture"

Now, the "Big Picture" of the Black Hills BackBone prospective route.  I have mapped out the proposed route and have ridden or driven most of it, but not all.  The maps spread out over 7 sheets of 11" by 17" paper, but the digital version remains incomplete due to the remoteness of some of the forest gravel roads.  Without getting into turn-by-turn cue sheets, here's something to chew on over a winter weekend.  Grab a map, a cup of coffee and drop into the pace line.

1. The Northern Prairie - North Border to Spearfish (roughly 150 miles)
Pedals start turning in Harding County, South Dakota on Harding County Road 867 at the North Dakota border and less than 3 miles east of the Montana border.  It's a remote, nondescript, inauspicious start, an hour's drive to the nearest village, way out there in the open prairie.  Perfect.  It's also the only option, given that I want to enter the Black Hills from Spearfish and stay west of the heavy, fossil-fueled traffic on the paved highways to the Bakken oil fields.

Actual Geographic Center of United States.
After crossing the Little Missouri River and roughly 90 miles of rolling, remote prairie gravel, the BackBone pays homage to the "Geographic Center of the United States" on Harding Road.  This neglected landmark is the real deal, not the tourist display fabricated in nearby Belle Fouche.  Crossing U.S. Highway 85, the BackBone turns east for a few miles, south below the Belle Fouche reservoir, and then west into Belle Fouche.  Just west of Belle Fouche, it's mostly gravel south into Spearfish, which marks the end of roughly 150 miles of northern prairie gravel.

2. The Black Hills - Spearfish to Wind Cave (roughly 110 miles)
The BackBone ventures into the ancient mountains of the Black Hills via National Forest Road ("NFR") 134 bearing south of Spearfish.  Ahead lies about 30 miles of long, forest gravel climbs up and around Big Hill and Old Baldy, before topping out at O'Neil Pass.  The Forest Service calls NFR 134 a "primary" road, which is relatively wide and maintained, at least for forest gravel.  After a couple of paved miles on U.S. Highway 85, the BackBone again turns south on NFR 231 for a nice cruise to the Black Fox National Forest campground.  Then it's south for another 30 miles to Deerfield Lake on much less developed forest gravel roads, referred to as "secondary" NFRs 233 and 189.  Along this ridge line is a sweet surprise:  fleeting glimpses below and beyond of hundreds of acres of rolling high altitude prairie surrounded by the conifer stuffed Hills.  Deerfield Lake marks roughly 200 miles into the BackBone.

The conifer stuffed and granite spiked Central Black Hills.
South out of Deerfield Lake on secondary NFRs 691, 291, 292 and 286, the BackBone dishes out a relentless series of ups and downs through the very heart of the Black Hills, before dropping onto U.S. Highway 16.  After roughly 30 miles from Deerfield Lake, the couple of miles of pavement east into Custer is a nice break.  Back on forest gravel pedaling south of Custer on Custer County Roads 793 and 336, the BackBone throws down more ups and downs through granite spiked hills.  It eventually spills into a valley sporting the 1887 Cold Spring school house, fully restored in 1965.  Shortly thereafter, a couple of paved miles in Wind Cave National Park lead to more gravel, National Park Service Road 5. You're now clear of the Black Hills.  Prepare to set sail for the open prairie.

3. The Southern Prairie - Wind Cave to the  South Border (roughly 60 miles)
When entering Wind Cave National Park, on a bicycle or otherwise, have your camera handy and lens cap off.  In addition to the stunning landscape, Wind Cave is crawling with critters, large and small.  On every single bike ride through Wind Cave, I have seen deer, elk, pronghorn, buffalo and the ever

Traffic jam in Wind Cave National Park.
barking prairie dog.  Watch out for prairie dog holes on the road itself!  It's a fun, fast 15 mile primarily downhill on prairie gravel to Buffalo Gap.  But don't go so fast you miss this treasure, including some unique yard sculpture just outside Wind Cave of a metal cowboy on a horse lassoing a 15 foot tall, fire-breathing dragon.

South of Buffalo Gap, the BackBone returns to wide open, rolling prairie passing through the villages of Oral, Smithwick and Oelrichs for a final 45 miles to the Nebraska border.

On the road to Smithwick.

 Like the start, the finish is only a spot on the map, and not even that on some maps.  But it will occupy a spot on the heart of all who rode to it on the BackBone.

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