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Sunday, July 11, 2021

2021 Black Hills Bounty (Day 4) - End Of The Line

Well, it's alright, ridin' around in the breeze
Well, it's alright, if you live the life you please
Well, it's alright, doin' the best that you can
Well, it's alright, as long as you lend a hand

The End Of The Line, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynn, Ray Orbison, Tom Petty (1988)

Cautiously coasting toward a buffalo herd on Lame Johnny Road in Custer State Park.
Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Day 4 of the Black Hills Bounty starts with some roster changes and a resulting big audible. 

Ben Cooper rode every bit and then some of the Black Hills Bounty during the time he had available and now on Day 4 must return to North Platte to honor family commitments. Paul Brasby brought family along for a week's vacation in the Black Hills and has seen them off and on. To honor his family commitments on Day 5, Paul plans to ride the morning of Day 4 but return to Custer rather than remote camp, and then spend Day 5 with family. 

I know that the other 3 guys have commitments at home later in the week and had planned Day 5 to be a pretty short day anyway. So I ask what they'd think of modifying Day 4 to loop back to Custer with Paul and simply save the remote campsite and the roads of short Day 5 for another time. With 3 big days behind us, a full day ahead and each facing a long drive home, we agree to call the 2021 Black Hills Bounty good after Day 4.

Another DEAD END? Really? Are you sure? Yep, that's the way.
Craig Groseth, Jeff Bloom, Paul Brasby, Lane Bergen, Mark Hoffman
Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

So, with that big audible, we roll out of Custer for a Day 4 grand finale ride of a big 60 mile loop south and east into the buffalo and burro country of Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. We'll ride the first 43 miles to Pringle, as originally planned. Then, instead of riding south 17 miles on Secondary and Low Standard Roads to a dispersed campsite, we'll turn north 15 miles on the popular Mickelson Trail back to Custer.

But not before another hearty breakfast at Baker's Bakery in downtown Custer. It's habit forming.

Lane Bergen and Mark Hoffman lead the way toward Custer State Park.
Early on Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Fully loaded on burritos and pancakes, we drop south out of Custer on Sidney Park Road (793), climb a little for a couple of miles on Hazelrodt Cutoff Road (343) and then quickly descend to Lower French Creek Road (342) all the way down to the Hazelrodt Picnic Area at about 9 miles. It happens so fast. And ends just as fast at a sign. DEAD END. 

Imagine that. Everyone stops and looks at me. Yes, of course, this is the way. (I think). Yes, this goes through. (I think). Yes, somehow. (I think). Yes, keep going that way. (I think).

That DEAD END sign was accurate, at least for motorized traffic.
We pass through the gate and onto some smooth single track.
Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

The road turns rough and passes a few cabins, ending at a fence. But there's an opening for non-motorized traffic and a mellow single track beckons from the other side. We squeeze our bikes through and amble down the single track, which starts as smooth dirt and gradually dissipates to little more than bent grass. Dropping toward French Creek, we spot a bridge and bee-line to it. On the other side lies paved Highway 87 near the Blue Bell Picnic Area.

Road closed, schmoad closed. We're through and now into Custer State Park.

Jeff Bloom, Mark Hoffman, Paul Brasby navigate the barely-track.
Early on Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

We ride less than a mile of pavement to turn onto graveled Lame Johnny Road (CSP 4), which drops into the French Creek Horse Camp. This is a large state campground developed specifically for folks to camp with their horses and ride the surrounding trails. The 111 mile single track Centennial Trail also wanders through this camp on its meandering path through the Black Hills from Bear Butte to Wind Cave National Park. We stop for some cool water and soft pedal through.

Climbing out the French Creek valley, the forest thins a bit and someone asks when we should start looking out for buffalo. Anytime you are in Custer State Park, I respond. They can be anywhere, including in the trees, where you don't expect them. With that said, we round a corner to face a couple hundred of buffalo lounging all over the road.

Our short single track connector ends at a bridge over French Creek.
Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

There's not much room in this narrow valley to pass so many buffalo and this herd does not look overly interested in moving. Many lie in the tall grass, while others graze. What really stands out amongst the big beasts are the many lighter colored calves. 

This is not a herd of buffalo to underestimate or, worse, to try to order around. The entire herd will aggressively protect every one of those calves milling about. And those mammoth bulls on the outer edges will protect everyone else. We are not about to get very close.

Black Hills traffic jam. Don't mess with buffalo, especially with calves.
Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

We cautiously coast toward the buffalo and they begin to move down the road. I know that the road forks ahead in a little bit. If the buffalo will move that far, we can just take whatever fork they don't.

That sounds like a good plan, until a group of cars approach from the other way. The buffalo not only stop, but some look to be coming back our way. Now we retreat and look for another option.

We consider crossing a ridge to skirt the scene, but only find more buffalo in that direction. So, we wait on the road. More automobile traffic appears, from both directions. Stalemate.

The entire herd quickly and decisively moves to protect every calf.
Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Eventually, the buffalo decide that they've had enough and move more quickly down the road along the adjoining hillside. Some cars start to move in the same direction and we tag along with them. Before long, we all reach the fork. The buffalo go left, up and out of the valley. So, we say "Have A Great Day" and turn right.

The trees all but disappear as we drop heavily into the rolling hills at the prairie's edge. In about 7 miles, we descend over 1,000 feet to breathlessly land at the Custer State Park Wild Life Visitors Center. Now, that was a sudden change of pace and landscape. We take a break at a shelter, which surprisingly offers a pop vending machine, along with cold water. Nice.

Jeff Bloom powers up Red Valley Road (CSP 6) to the ridgeline border with Wind Cave National Park.
Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

We follow the paved Wildlife Loop for just 2 miles before crunching gravel again on Red Valley Road (CSP 6). Near that intersection, a large number of parked cars draw my attention to scores of people walking out on the prairie. I follow the moving lines to a pack of burros enjoying lunch.

These wild burros originally came to this area as pack animals in the 1800's. Some made their way into the wild and these descendants are managed in the park as wild animals. In any event, the burros are long time favorites of tourists and locals.

We pause on a climb in Wind Cave National Park for another buffalo crossing.
Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Riding south on Red Valley Road, we cross the border into Wind Cave National Park and briskly drop down Boland Ridge. Most tourists go to Wind Cave National Park, well, to see the big cave. That leaves almost all of the 28,000+ acres above ground free of tourist traffic, unlike busy Custer State Park. I ride these sweet gravel back roads at least a few times a year and rarely see more than a car or two.

On the other hand, every single time I've ridden Highland Ridge Road (NPS 5) in Wind Cave National Park, I have seen buffalo. And these beasts are not accustomed to vehicle traffic. So, not surprisingly, we pause for a herd slowly moving across the road.

Paul Brasby and Jeff Bloom spin up another pitch along Highland Ridge Road.
Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Cresting a final pitch up Highland Ridge, we meet a real Trail Angel, a friendly young man from North Carolina visiting the Black Hills for the first time. Polite and engaging, he graciously offers each of us water and makes sure that we're OK. It's like manna from heaven.

After taking a few pictures from that vantage point, we beat feet over to the first shade in miles. We've ridden almost 30 miles today and most of the remaining 28 miles are uphill. Water and lunch await at Pringle, a one bar settlement about 13 sunny, exposed miles and 1,000 feet uphill from here.

Coasting down to another intersection with the Centennial Trail, we pass alongside yet another herd of buffalo and ride directly through a prairie dog colony. Stay alert. Those are not potholes in the gravel road, but rather holes to prairie dog burrows.

Shade bandits taking a break from the heat and hills in Wind Cave National Park.
Craig Groseth, Jeff Bloom, Mark Hoffman, Paul Brasby
Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

We finally climb out of Wind Cave National Park back into Black Hills National Forest. Almost immediately, we spot the historic Cold Spring School, a log cabin school built in 1887 and restored in 1965, and the adjacent Cold Spring Cemetery, with grave stones dating back to the 1880's. There's also a functioning outhouse of the same vintage.

Turning onto Beaver Creek Road (391), we wind along a scenic valley, up a serious pitch to paved U.S. Highway 385, and then drop a short spell to Pringle. It's past time for lunch and there's not much at the Hitch Rail Bar. We buy what we can, eat what we have, refill water and turn north on the Mickelson Trail for a gradual 15 mile climb back to Custer.

Cruising along Highland Ridge Road through Wind Cave National Park, heading up into the Hills.
Lane Bergen, Jeff Bloom, Mark Hoffman, Craig Groseth
Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Once clear of Pringle by a few miles, the Mickelson Trail meanders through a series of meadows and valleys sprinkled with occasional granite outcroppings and small ranches. This is a pleasant cool down to a hot day riding mostly out on the transitional hills between forest and prairie. 

After several encounters with herds of buffalo, but only one audible, we ride back into Custer at about 58 miles and over 3,700 feet of elevation gain. Our final day on the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Bicycle "sculpture" at Pringle.
Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Here's a link to the map I created for Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty, as ridden by Craig, Jeff, Lane, Mark and Paul. 2021 Black Hills Bounty - Day 4.

For my prior posts on the 2021 Black Hills Bounty, go to Day 0 - Come Together, Day 1 - Start Of Something Good, and Day 2 - Trust, and Day 3 - All American.

End Of The Line, Traveling Wilburys (1988)

1 comment:

  1. 25-30 years ago Custer had a great group of organized riders. They even put out a map of the rides in the area. Some of the stuff you mention at the beginning is part of one of those rides. I will bring my copy to the next coffee