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Monday, February 27, 2023

Taste of Black Hills Gravel

This time of year seems to generate questions about gravel routes, from both locals and travelers.

For stellar day rides on forest gravel roads in the Black Hills of South Dakota, start with the "Routes & Resources" page of Lucas Haan, our local Pied Piper of Gravel, has archived a library of routes from the popular Black Hills Gravel Series. Every route there is worth riding.

The Black Hills Gravel routes are categorized by color to indicate their relative distance and difficulty. "Green" routes are the shortest (10-15 miles) and least difficult (better surface, less climbing, simple navigation). "Blue" routes are longer (25-35 miles) and a bit more difficult (some rougher surfaces, some more climbing, a bit more remote). "Black" routes are the longest (45-55 miles) and more difficult (stretches of rough roads, maybe a Low Standard or single track connector, steeper climbs and more elevation gain). In general, a given Green, Blue and Black route are nested from a common start/finish town or commercial establishment.

RideWithGPS is notoriously inaccurate with its "Paved Surfaces" notation.
Disregard it. This route is practically all gravel and dirt.

One of my favorites from this library is the 2017 Rochford Black Route (49 miles/3,600 feet of elevation gain). Starting and finishing in the quaint mountain town of Rochford, this route includes the pot-holed, often muddy, Low Standard road climb along Castle Creek, a rocky spur up abandoned Flag Mountain Lookout for 360 degree views, a curvy drop down Black Fox Camp Road, and a flying descent on South Rapid Creek Road. See, 2017 Rochford Black Route.

I rode that route in the 2017 Black Hills Gravel Series and highly recommend it. Before that and since then, I've ridden all those roads many times as part of other rides. I've even included many of those miles on several routes I have created, such as the Black Hills BackBone, 2021 Black Hills Bounty, Heart of the Hills Overnighter, and BackBone Grande. They never get old.

All smiles atop Flag Mountain Lookout on the Rochford Black Route.
2017 Black Hills Gravel Series. (photo by Heather Heynen)

For what it's worth, if I were to ride that particular route now, I would ride it counter-clockwise, rather than clockwise, for three reasons.
  • Although the Black Fox Camp Road is top notch either way, I prefer riding it uphill, rather than down. The climb isn't steep and I enjoy soaking in the views of steep cliffs, a meandering stream, dense cover, and the occasional beaver dam. It all seems to go by too fast when riding downhill.
  • In contrast, I prefer to ride Castle Creek Road downhill, even though it's a nice climb, too. That Low Standard Road is rocky enough, and often muddy enough, to check my speed and I don't seem to miss as much as the downhill on Black Fox Camp Road.
  • When turning off Castle Creek Road onto Mystic Road, I would hop on the Mickelson Trail for the final 7 miles. I normally prefer roads, but the Mickelson Trail here avoids some traffic and sharp corners on that gravel road into Rochford and, as a bonus, passes through a tunnel.
Ben Cooper and Paul Brasby navigate Castle Creek Road at the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Black Fox Camp Road. Simply the best.

So, start with the "Routes & Resources" page on But don't be afraid to pull out a map and look for other interesting roads. A lifetime of back road riding awaits in the Black Hills.

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