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Sunday, March 12, 2023

Five Favorite Black Hills "Low Standard" Roads

Last week I posted my "Five Favorite Black Hills 'Gravel' Roads," which included only USFS Primary and Secondary roads. See Five Favorite Black Hills "Gravel" Roads. In general, those roads are great fun for experienced cyclists on gravel bikes with tires of 40 mm or wider. But that's only the beginning.

Spinning off those many miles of Primary and Secondary roads, countless Low Standard roads wriggle into practically every nook and cranny in the rugged Black Hills. Some connect to other roads, some stop at logging areas, and some simply dissipate into the forest. For me, this is mountain bike territory, whether loaded or unloaded, for all but short connectors.

I explore many miles of Low Standard roads every year. To identify the best five Low Standard roads, out of hundreds, is impossible. And any such list is necessarily dated, as I continue to discover more every year.

Nonetheless, just for fun, here are five, currently favorite Black Hills Low Standard roads, or combinations of Low Standard roads, that connect something. Note that these roads are identified on a USFS map by a number, which may or may not appear on a sign out there.

1. Bear Spring (USFS 681/284.2L/284.2A)
USFS 681/284.2L/284.2A along Bear Spring Creek to Alkali Spring.

USFS 681 starts from U.S. Highway 16 looking to be a pretty well developed back road to connect with Custer Limestone Road (USFS Primary Road 284) in about 8 miles. However, USFS 681 turns onto USFS 284.2L, which deteriorates as it enters Hell Canyon to follow Bear Spring Creek, where the walls close in. If that is flooded, I head back to Bear Spring and take a different Low Standard Road (USFS 284.2B/284.2C) that traverses the adjacent hillside to the East to connect with Custer Limestone Road.

A rare sign along a Low Standard road in the Black Hills.

2. Booms Canyon (USFS 682/335.1D/335)
USFS 682/335.1D/335 to disperse camp near Booms Canyon.

Whether coming off of Wildcat Canyon (USFS Secondary Road 682) or Argyle Road (USFS Primary Road 333), this little 5 mile loop is a nice break on rough two track into an island of National Forest surrounded by private land. The initial rocky descent climbs back up to a ridge with 360 degree views and some cover for dispersed camping. This little chunk of isolated Black Hills National Forest solved a camping problem for me when scouting the route for Day 4 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty. 

USFS 335.1D enroute to Booms Canyon.

3. Burnt Fork (USFS 389/389.1F/389.1D/530.1A/530)
USFS 389/389.1F/389.1A/530.1A/530 on classic Black Hills Low Standard Roads.

Starting from Deerfield Lake Road and the Mickelson Trail, Burnt Fork Road (USFS Secondary Road 389) rolls past small ranches to the restored Gold Mountain Mine, which is well worth the short hike. Shortly thereafter, USFS 389.1F climbs along Friday Gulch to eventually drop down USFS 530.1A to Slate Creek. These are classic Low Standard roads in the Black Hills:  a constantly changing mix of surfaces and pitches, up and down, through dense pine forests with occasional big views, a creek prancing down a craggy valley, and even an active logging area. After almost 12 miles, it pops out at the Mickelson Trailhead and on Mystic Road near the Redfern Trailhead.

USFS 530.1A dropping toward Slate Creek.

4. McKenna Springs to Jewell Cave (USFS 270.1A/270.1Z/unnumbered/277)
USFS 270.1A/270.1Z to unnumbered/abandoned road to USFS 277.

I discovered this little gem while scouting for a connector between Schenk Canyon and Hell Canyon for Day 4 of the 2022 Black Hills Bounty bikepacking ride. See Connecting. This 11 mile connector starts from Mann Road (USFS Secondary Road 270), turns onto USFS 270.1A as a mellow double track, turns more rough onto USFS 270.1Z, dissipates into nothing but tall grass for a hundred yards or so, and re-appears as a rocky, unnumbered, abandoned road that does not appear on a USFS map. Drop down that rocky pitch to McKenna Spring for fresh water, dispersed camping, and a short two track to USFS 277, which winds north to U.S. Highway 16 near Jewell Cave National Monument. 

This may well be my all time favorite Low Standard road find.

Unnamed and unnumbered abandoned road not on a USFS map.
McKenna Spring lies at the bottom of this hill in about a mile.

5. Bear Mountain (Unnumbered/unnamed to USFS 285.1A)
Unnamed/unnumbered road to USFS 285.1A to Saginaw Road.

Just west of the Bear Mountain Lookout Tower lies a nice clearing to disperse camp with an unnamed, unnumbered two track leading south. For about 3 miles, that gentle two track winds through aspen trees, hinting of hills to come. Then it rounds a corner to reveal a fleeting view of Crazy Horse Memorial before dropping onto USFS 285.1A for another 3 quick miles to Saginaw Road (USFS Primary Road 285). I discovered this route after finding that the Forest Service had barricaded with barbed wire my planned rough road descent off Bear Mountain. It all worked out, as I scouted around to find this great little, unnamed, unnumbered road.

Streaming off Bear Mountain on an unnamed,
unnumbered two track that leads to USFS 285.1A.

So many other Low Standard roads could have made this list, such as Galena north on USFS 567.1C/567.1/172.1; Hawkright Canyon on USFS 275; Pilger Mountain on USFS 319; Idol Gulch to Pole Cabin Gulch to Cement Ridge on USFS 803.1/802.1/1603; Richardson Cut-Off on USFS 276; Rifle Pit Canyon on USFS 806.1; Rhoads Spring on USFS 189; and Gillette Canyon on unnamed USFS 383. As a practical matter, there is a lifetime of Low Standard roads in the Black Hills to explore.

Going forward, maybe I should write an annual post identifying five favorite Low Standard roads that I discovered that year. I know I won't run out of material.

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