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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Route Overview: The Big Picture (Final Cut)

Whoa.  This is going to be one long, challenging ride.  The individual pieces each seem reasonable, but reality hits when viewing them all together in the big picture.  This will be more than a stretch for me.

So, the Black Hills BackBone route is complete, with a turn-by-turn narrative for the entire route spilling over 8 separate blog posts.  This is a recap of each of those 8 posts, with running mileage, additional pictures and links to the full posts.  The final tally:  305 miles, over 270 of which are gravel or dirt, with about 16,500 feet of elevation gain, most of which are jammed into the 100 miles within the Black Hills.  For those wishing to physically or mentally ride along, GPS mapping is in final review and cue sheets are drafted.  Should be a ride to remember.

The signature shot for the Black Hills BackBone.  The best remote roads around.

1.  The Start:  NoWhere, North Dakota to the Geographic Center of the United States  (79 miles / 79 miles total)

The beginning of this 300+ mile journey lies at the northern border of South Dakota, less than 20 miles east of Montana, on Table Mountain Road (Harding County Road 233).  There's actually a carved stone marking the state border, if you look for it long enough, are willing to hop a barbed wire fence and cross a solid 50 meters of cow pie laden pasture.  Notwithstanding the marker, it's still way out there.  It's still NoWhere, North Dakota.  Full Post HERE


In the beginning, the northern prairie stretches before you, unfolding its unvarnished character. 

2.  The Geographic Center of the United States to Spearfish  (56 miles / 135 miles total)

From the high plains of the Geographic Center of the United States to the entrance into the Black Hills at the college town of Spearfish, these 56 miles of the Black Hills BackBone deliver a visual feast.  Of all the highlights, however, two stretches really stand out, both Minimum Maintenance Roads specifically included as a tribute to TransIowa founder and gravel grinder guru Mark Stevenson.  Thanks, Mark, for your inspiration and dedication.  I'll need all of it, with these deeply rutted, nearly impassable when wet roads starting over 120 miles into the Black Hills BackBone.  Full Post HERE

More so than individuals, herds of buffalo inspire wonder, knowing that their ancestors filled the northern plains.

3.  Spearfish to O'Neil Pass  (30 miles / 165 miles total)

Coasting into the college town of Spearfish after 135 miles of big prairie gravel and dirt, the Black Hills BackBone is about to earn its name.  Time to climb into the Hills.  This stretch is essentially a 30 mile climb on a National Forest Service Road.  Yep.  30 miles.  Full Post HERE

The 135 mile warmup of exposed prairie pays off with a 30 mile washboard climb to the spine of the Black Hills. 

4.  O'Neil Pass to Deerfield Lake  (30 miles / 195 miles total)

With the 30 mile ascension of O'Neil Pass, the Black Hills BackBone deeply embeds one into the thick pine forests of the Northern Hills.  Ahead promises another 30 miles of shorter, but steeper, climbs and descents, winding along secondary U.S. National Forest Service gravel and dirt roads through remote logging and recreational high country.  The next destination is Deerfield Lake, a high altitude sparkling jewel at mile 195 of the BackBone.  Full Post HERE


Grades steepen, roads narrow, sight lines shrink, ruts multiply, gravel diminishes.  But glimpses of distant granite.
 5.  Deerfield Lake to Custer  (31 miles / 226 miles total)

In designing the route for the Black Hills BackBone, I set out to include my favorite back country roads, with memorable highlights, within the constraints of a generally North to South traverse of the Black Hills.

That can get complicated.  Spinning south out of Deerfield Lake, the Central Black Hills explode into a confuzzling labyrinth of gravel roads, dirt roads, abandoned roads, wanna-B roads, skid trails, hiking trails and paths.  Some are labeled, perhaps with numbers, letters or numbers and letters.  The roads may be county, state, a division of the state, like the Game, Fish & Parks, or one of a smorgasbord of federal agencies.  Some aren't even roads.  They just look like one, until they don't.  I've been misplaced on many of these "roads."

Time to simplify.  Sort of.  Some things I just had to include.  Full Post HERE

Wind wears.  Water weakens.  Earth cracks and heaves.   Crops of granite burst into daylight in the Heart of the Hills.

6.  Custer to Buffalo Gap  (33 miles / 259 miles total)

For me, this is the best of the best.  This is where I most love to ride.  In about 33 miles, these remote roads wind up conifer stuffed, granite spiked hills, roll down creek filled valleys, climb a final ridge to a stunning vista, and drop to the prairie below.  All along is history, wildlife, folk culture and more.

I know there's nice stuff further west, from Jewel Cave to Pringle to Edgemont.  But that's for others, or for a different day.  I'm going from Custer to Buffalo Gap.  Full Post HERE

Emerging from the blanket of thick forests and hard rocks of the Black Hills, the broken prairie beckons.

7.  Buffalo Gap to Oelrichs  (26 miles / 285 miles total)

From Buffalo Gap, the Black Hills BackBone bursts out of the shadows of the Black Hills and hurtles into the wide open spaces of Western South Dakota prairie.  This 26 mile stretch from Buffalo Gap to Oelrichs is full of surprises, so stay alert.  And know this.  There are very, very few trees, hills, rock formations or anything else that shields, or even slows down, the relentless winds out there.

One exception is Ash Road, a 3 mile roller coaster of short, steep hills, a rare-for-these-parts center pivot irrigation system and a hint of a gravel grid system, all reminiscent of Gravel Worlds.  Gotta pay tribute to the Pirates.  Full Post HERE

The hard life of the dry southern prairie, where cemeteries outnumber towns.

 8.  The Finish Line:  Oelrichs to NothingThere, Nebraska  (20 miles / 305 miles total)

Although the journey may be more complex, the destination of the Black Hills BackBone is simple:  the South Dakota border with Nebraska.  The finish line itself is equally simple:  an unmarked boundary between the two states where Black Banks Road t-bones into Dakota Line Road in Fall River County, South Dakota.  No town.  No lights.  No markings.  Not even a spot on a regular road map.  Just a STOP sign.  If you want to ceremonially enter Nebraska, you can dip your wheel into the ditch across from Dakota Line Road.  Perfect.  Full Post HERE

The billowing ribbon of snow-lined gravel fades to dirt as the BackBone reaches for the Nebraska border.
All that's left is to ride it.  Maybe a few minor things like my bike and gear, nutrition and hydration, resupply possibilities and other logistics, like a ride to the start and from the finish.  Mere details.  The Black Hills BackBone is now out there.  Waiting.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

O'Neil Pass to Deerfield Lake

With the 30 mile ascension to O'Neil Pass, the Black Hills BackBone deeply embeds one into the thick pine forests of the Northern Hills.  Ahead promises another 30 miles of shorter, but steeper, climbs and descents, winding along on secondary U.S. Forest Service gravel and dirt roads through remote logging and recreational high country.  The next destination is Deerfield Lake, a high altitude sparkling jewel at mile 195 of the BackBone.

On the descent to Deerfield Lake, glimpses of remote high plains tucked into the steep Hills.









So, it's into the heart of the hills.  On paved U.S. Highway 85, just before the summit of O'Neil Pass, turn Left (south) onto graveled O'Neil Pass Road for about 1 mile, and then again turn Left (south) on South Rapid Creek Road (231).  This is the high country of the Black Hills, with snow pack supporting downhill ski and snowboard resorts, snowmobile trails and camps, and now fat bike events like the Minus 28, part of the Savoy Winter Challenge.

In mid March, South Rapid Creek Road (231) remains snow stuffed.
Enjoy the undulating forest gravel of South Rapid Creek Road (231) for about 11.5 miles to USFS Black Fox Campground (233).  Resist all the other tempting roads, trails and paths and resolve to return to explore them on another day.

Take a hard Right (southwest) onto Black Fox Camp Road (233), which winds along, climbing a bit.  After about 5 miles, turn Left (east) onto Flag Mountain Road (189) for a spin past the North Fork Castle Creek Natural Area and Flag Mountain itself.  For the exceptionally spunky, a mile long spur to the top of Flag Mountain (elev. 6937) beckons.  Not for the BackBone, however.  Stay the course.

Just rolling along on the Black Hills BackBone.
Just 7 miles on Flag Mountain Road (189), the BackBone drops to the edge of Reynolds Prairie, a high plains in the very middle of the Black Hills.  Turn Right (south) on paved South Rochford Road for about 1.5 miles, then a Left (east) onto paved Deerfield Road.  About 1.5 miles later, turn Left (north) on 421, which leads to USFS WhiteTail Campground in about a mile.  Take a break.  There's water here, and great views.

Flag Mountain Road hints at the big granite ahead - Mt. Rushmore, Cathedral Spires, Crazy Horse.
From the WhiteTail Campground, continue on 421 for about a mile, then turn Right (west) on paved Deerfield Road.  But don't get too comfortable on pavement.  About a half mile later, turn Left (south) on Williams Draw Road (691).  The Black Hills BackBone is about to dive into the very Heart of the Hills.







Saturday, March 14, 2015

Spearfish to O'Neil Pass

Coasting into the college town of Spearfish after about 135 miles of big prairie gravel and dirt, the Black Hills BackBone is about to earn its name.  Time to climb into the Hills.

It starts early on the 30 mile climb out of Spearfish.

From the corner of Hills View Road and McGuigan Road, spin south on McGuigan Road and get comfortable going uphill.  That's what's ahead for most of the next 30 miles.  Yep.  30 miles.

That's a lot of signs for a t-bone intersection.  Just go up. 
At about 1.5 miles, McGuigan Road t-bones into Tinton Road (USFS 134).  Turn right (west) onto Tinton Road.  Relative to the rest of the BackBone, there's a fair amount of rural residential development and some logging along this road, with the attendant traffic.  But the roads are wide for these parts and the sight lines moderate, so it's a nice ride, if a little rough.


Up into the Hills.  

Tinton Road (134) steadily climbs past several Northern Hills destinations, including Big Hill, a popular snowmobile area, Iron Creek Lake, home of the Iron Creek X-Terra triathlon and School House Gulch Road, which leads to Cement Ridge lookout, a highlight of the Gold Rush Gravel Grinder.  The road twists and turns, climbs and climbs, and sometimes drops a bit, before climbing again.  Do not take any of the numerous other roads, at least not on this ride.  Stay on 134 for 26 miles until you finally emerge on paved U.S. Highway 85, the CanAm Highway.

Confirmation of the climb.

 Turn right (west) onto paved U.S. Highway 85 for about 1.5 miles of more uphill.  Just before the top at O'Neil Pass, turn left (south) onto graveled O'Neil Pass Road.  The long climb is over.  Many shorter climbs lie ahead.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Geographic Center of the United States to Spearfish

From the high plains of the Geographic Center of the United States to the entrance into the Black Hills at the college town of Spearfish, these 56 miles of the Black Hills BackBone deliver a visual feast.  Of all the highlights, however, two stretches really stand out, both Minimum Maintenance Roads ("MMR") specifically included as a tribute to TransIowa founder and gravel grinder guru Mark Stevenson.  Thanks, Mark for your inspiration and dedication.  I'll need all of it, with these virtually impassable when wet, deeply rutted dirt roads starting at 120 miles into the BackBone.

Deeply rutted Sale Barn Road leading into the cow town of St. Onge.
So, here's the details.  From the Geographic Center of the United States, continue South (straight) on Old Highway 85 for about 8 miles of more big roller, big view prairie gravel.  Turn NorthEast (left) on U.S. Highway 85 for 0.5 miles and then East (right) on Brooker Road.  There's a few more ranches and even some irrigation here, as the Belle Fouche Reservoir approaches.

Heading toward the Black Hills.
After 7.5 miles on Brooker Road, turn South (right) on Arpan Road, which eventually reveals vistas of the Belle Fouche Reservoir and the still-off-in-the-distance Black Hills.

At 13 miles, Arpan Road t-bones with U.S. Highway 212.  Turn West (right) for 1.6 miles and then South (left) on Fruitdale Road for a short 3 miles.  Fruitdale is a collection of buildings, some of which appear to be inhabited, but none of which are open commercial establishments.  Since it's only another 12 miles to the St. Onge Bar, I plan to ride through.

South of Fruitdale through a river bottom before some hilly foothills.
Fruitdale Road crosses the Belle Fouche River and t-bones with Snowma Road.  Turn East (left) for 0.5 miles, then South (right) on Crooked Oaks Road.  Now, this is different country.  Shorter, steeper rollers, with twisty gravel through sporadic clusters of oak trees and occasional pines.  I can only imagine the fall colors.

Crooked Oaks Road has a few steep pitches that seem to go up with each bend in the road.
After 5.5 miles, Crooked Oaks Road runs into a t-bone.  Take the non-obvious East (left) turn onto Sale Barn Road, a Minimum Maintenance Road ("MMR").  This particular 2 mile stretch of MMR is deeply rutted and passable now primarily due to the snow pack.  After 2 miles, turn West (right) at a four way intersection, which will keep you on Sale Barn Road.  About a half mile later, turn NorthWest (right) on U.S. Highway 34.  This is the rollicking livestock sale town of St. Onge.  The only place in town, the St. Onge Bar, is worth the stop.  It's also been 73 miles since the last planned water stop at Harding.

From St. Onge, continue NorthWest on U.S. Highway 34 for 2 miles, then turn West (left) onto 196th Street.  Odd that this remote road does not have a more colorful name.  It certainly deserves one.

Rolling hills on good prairie gravel on 196th Street.
After 4 miles on 196th Street, turn South (left) on LookOut Mountain Road, which starts out as gravel before turning into another MMR as it winds up, along and then over a ridge line.  I have not tested the veracity of the sign's message, but it was a challenge to pass when mostly frozen.

Back to Minimum Maintenance Roads, this time with some steeps.
Turn West (right) onto Kerwin Lane, which becomes more and more residential as the college town of Spearfish nears.  After about 2 miles on Kerwin Lane, turn South (left) onto U.S. Highway 85 for 1.5 miles to a stop light at Hills View Road.  If in need of provisions, stop in this area, as there likely will be nothing, other than perhaps water, until Custer.  That's about 80-90 miles of Black Hills gravel away.

From the intersection of U.S. Highway 85 and Hills View Road, turn West onto Hills View Road for 1.5 miles to McGuigan Road, which will become USFS 134.  Turn South (left) onto McGuigan Road and prepare to enter the Black Hills.