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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Bikepacking the BackBone? - Part 1

What about bikepacking the Black Hills BackBone route?  The route itself and the distances between water and food are pretty well mapped out, so one could start with the number of days to cover the 300+ miles of rough roads and divide it up.  Three days at about 100 miles each seems like a nice, gentlemen's trip.  But is it?  For the 93 miles of Black Hills gravel from Spearfish to Buffalo Gap, there's a lot of elevation gain on rough roads to pull a loaded bike.

It's 0 dark:30 spinning out of Deerfield Lake.  There are no mountain lions in the Black Hills, right?
So, I decide to find out.  Early Tuesday morning, I leave Deerfield Lake heading south on Williams Gulch Road (USFS 691), about Mile 193 on the BackBone route.  My destination is Buffalo Gap, where the route turns to prairie after 63 miles of Black Hills back roads.  From there, I would either ride the route on rolling prairie to the Nebraska border and on to Edgemont to camp or turn west into the Black Hills to explore more mountain roads.  Get up Wednesday to check out some gravel and dirt north of Jewel Cave National Park on a round about way back to Deerfield Lake.  Two long days, one night.  Let's ride.

The snow is long gone since my last ride through here, but the scene remains.
 Over the past few birthdays and such, I've been accumulating some bikepacking gear.  Some stuff, like the tent, sleeping bag, pad and stove, are simply updates of familiar backpacking gear from the 70's.  Other stuff is bike specific, like the Revelate Designs bags to carry it all.  Wow.  The Sweet Roll handle bar bag holds the tent, sleeping bag and pad, the Terrapin seat post bag holds food, clothes and tool kit, the Tangle top tube bag holds a water bladder, pump and miscellaneous small items, and the Gas Tank top tube bag holds food for on-the-fly feeding.  And there's still two usable water bottles, one for Perpetuem and one for Heed.  Water for 6-8 hours.  Food and gear for 2 days.  It's pretty sweet.

Rolling south on Williams Gulch Road in the pre-dawn darkness, I can just make out a slow moving herd of large mammals meandering across.  I stop, but lose track after counting 20 some elk.  The harem passes.  OK.  Where's the king?  A short gap.  Then he arrives.  A mammoth bull with a majestic rack.  He stops mid-road, turns his head directly at me, maybe 20 yards away.  As I reach for my camera, he bolts into the darkness.

A ridge line on Custer Limestone Road.
The skies gradually lighten.  The secondary National Forest Service roads can be rough and there's plenty of climbing, but my loaded Black Mountain Cycles monster cross bike handles it well.  I barely notice the Revelate Designs bags, other than the very obvious additional weight of all that gear.  I spend most of my time in the smallest gear I have on, a too-tall 34 x 26.

Always a good sign.  Heading out of Custer toward more back roads.
Soon I'm in the tourist town of Custer and stop for donuts and coffee at the local bakery.  Thinking the same, three guys pull up in dual sport motorcycles, loaded for the long, remote haul.  They are a father, son and son-in-law team from Idaho exploring back roads and trails throughout the Black Hills.  They strike up a fast conversation, asking all sorts of questions about travel by bicycle and answering my questions of their similar travels.  We compare notes and maps and just enjoy the simple company of kindred spirits.

The ubiquitous prairie dog is easy to overlook, with all the big mammals and big views.
South of Custer, the day warms, the wind picks up and the hills taper into the prairie.  The miles flow too quickly over one of my favorite roads anywhere, Highland Ridge Road (NFS 5) traversing Wind Cave National Park.  As Buffalo Gap approaches, I conclude that the added weight of the camping gear makes those 63 miles harder than normal, but the concept is doable.

Decision time.  Continue on the known Black Hills BackBone route to Nebraska and beyond to Edgemont to camp?  Or turn west to climb back into the Black Hills for some unknown-to-me back roads?  Which way should I go?

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