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Sunday, July 23, 2023

BackBone Grande (Days 3 & 4) - Rain

Bikepacking back country roads for days or weeks at time certainly includes dealing with rain. Sometimes, you ride it out. Sometimes, you wait it out. Sometimes, you may even have a choice.

In any event, rain leaves its mark on remote gravel and dirt roads. And on your experience.

Starting with Day 3, we encounter rain and its aftermath every day of our June ride of the BackBone Grande. On both Days 3 and 4, we handle some major thunderstorms by sitting out 3 hours during the worst of it and riding through the rest. So, the big storms never really drench us or our gear. The roads, however, are not so well protected.

Maneuvering up Castle Peak Road through the mud and standing water common there.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Day 3 opens with bright sun and fluffy clouds. The forecast is more ominous, however, with a major thunderstorm slated to arrive before noon and others to follow, probably well into the upcoming week. 

From French Creek Horse Camp, we sit about 14 miles of gravel, single track, two-track, and bike path away from Custer. We aim for Baker's Bakery for a late breakfast, hopefully before the big rain.

We climb out of the French Creek valley on good gravel to paved highway 87 and roll past the well stocked Blue Bell C-store, cafe, and cabins. Crossing a wooden pedestrian bridge to a picnic area, we turn onto a nifty unmarked, unnamed single track that follows French Creek for about a mile to connect with Hazelrodt Picnic Area and then Hazelrodt Cutoff Road (USFS 341). That single track is overgrown from little use, but navigation is easy-peasy after enduring Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.

Unmarked, unnamed single track following French Creek.
(image by Paul Brasby)

One final obstacle at the end of the single track.

As a USFS Primary Road, Hazelrodt Cutoff Road handles water well and gently flows through a quiet valley, dotted with homes and even new construction. Just as body and bike grow accustomed to a relatively smooth rhythm, we abruptly turn onto USFS Low Standard Road 341.1 for a muddy, pot-holed, rocky little climb to a ridge line. The visual payoff is an early morning view of the Cathedral Spires, but also of storm clouds gathering to the west.

We bounce down the north side of the ridge to a paved bike path dropping us off on the east side of Custer, just as the first real rain drops fall. Before entering downtown Custer, the route turns north on the Mickelson Trail. Not now. We skedaddle into town. The thunderstorm is here.

Starting the short climb up USFS 341.1.
(image by Paul Brasby)

If not mud or standing water, count on rocks on USFS 341.1.

Custer is a small tourist town offering a variety of lodging, re-supply, and food options, including favorites Baker's Bakery, Black Hills Burger & Bun, Skogen Kitchen, Purple Pie Place, and Horatio's Homemade Ice Cream. The South Dakota Outdoors Store even carries a good selection of camping and some bicycling supplies. Good stop.

We arrive at Baker's Bakery just as the heavens open and, perhaps more importantly, just in time to order from their breakfast menu. So, we stay warm and dry inside while inhaling a fabulous omelette and multiple cups of hot coffee. Meanwhile, rain keeps pouring out of those dark clouds, although the forecast looks promising shortly. So, we stay a bit to wait it out. More hot coffee, some mouth watering pastries, and three hours later, we finally pack up.

After the deluge, we roll out of Custer on the Mickelson Trail.
(image by Paul Brasby)

That first thunderstorm moves on, leaving the earth soaked. We roll out of Custer on the Mickelson Trail, which fortunately handles water well. For five scenic miles, we slowly climb a valley overlooked by ancient granite formations that hint of their massive size in ages past. We top a ridge for a view of Crazy Horse Memorial and re-join Forest Service gravel and dirt roads to ride directly into the heart of the Hills.

At Reno Gulch Road (USFS Secondary Road 303), the road narrows and roughens. Granite outcroppings jut upwards, opening crevices for marmots and other critters to dwell. USFS Low Standard Roads scatter in all directions, inviting exploration. I love scouting roads around here, but not today. Today we're riding the BackBone Grande.

With the three hour layover in Custer and with the next thunderstorm advancing with bad intent, we intently climb up to Coad Hill for a big view of Harney Peak and scream down the east side toward Hill City. More rain starts to fall and much more is coming real soon, so we call it a short day and secure a motel room in Hill City. That turns out to be a very good call.

Watchfully passing "Marmot Motel" on Reno Gulch Road.
(image by Paul Brasby)

The forecast promises more thunderstorms throughout the night and into the morning. We decide to do laundry, sleep in, enjoy the motel breakfast, and wait it out. Sure enough, it rains heavily into the night, early morning, and well after. When it finally lets up a bit at about 11:00, we take off. We avoid the worst of it for the second straight day and the forecast now looks better. We hope so, as there will be no opportunity for a cozy shelter like this tonight.

Finally pedaling on Day 4, we cruise on the Mickelson Trail through a little aspen alley to connect with Burnt Fork Road (USFS Secondary Road 389) that leads to Gold Mountain Mine. This historic mine closed long ago, but its surface buildings are structurally restored, some original heavy equipment remains, and interpretive signs help tell its stories. This stop is well worth the short pitch from the road.

Little aspen alley on the Mickelson Trail north of Hill City.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Up that short pitch ahead awaits Gold Mountain Mine.
I took this image a few years ago, on a day with much more sun than our Day 4.

Very shortly after Gold Mountain Mine, Burnt Fork Road turns onto USFS Low Standard Road 389.1F and then 389.1D. Roughened and rutted from ATV traffic, these roads are now enhanced with deep mud and standing water. Wide tires help, but this is a pretty slow slog for several miles. Once again, however, the ridge line we seek eventually firms up the road surface and reveals distant views of the higher elevations to the south, including Harney Peak. 

The thunderstorms of the past two days appear to have moved on, but heavy clouds linger and unseasonably cool temperatures persist. We're never really cold or wet, but certainly not warm and fuzzy, either. Extra layers and jackets stay on all day.

USFS Low Standard Road 389.1F.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Climbing above the mud to ridge line views on USFS Low Standard Road 389.1D.
(image by Paul Brasby)

We hop onto USFS Low Standard Road 530.1A for a relatively dry, rollicking roller coaster ride down to Slate Creek Road (USFS Low Standard Road 530). It's way too easy to go way too fast here. Like any other kid, we do anyhow, sometimes.

Slate Creek Road meanders up another stunning aspen filled valley and then abruptly climbs back up to the Mickelson Trail. We effortlessly cruise down this short stretch, passing through two hard rock tunnels to land at the Mystic Trailhead. Shelters, bathrooms, and water offer a welcomed break.

Blasting through a Mickelson Trail tunnel is never advised.
We came up on two horseback riders making their way through.

Riding south on Mystic Road under the Mickelson Trail bridge we just rode over.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Before long, and before more rain strikes, we roll up Mystic Road to start climbing Castle Peak Road (USFS Low Standard Road 181), one of my all-time favorite roads in the Black Hills. See, Five Favorite Black Hills Gravel Roads. Following closely along meandering Castle Creek, this narrow road hugs the mountainside and often sports large pot-holes filled with water. (See the first image of this post). Maneuver carefully, as the sharply curving road is also popular with the ATV crowd. 

USFS Castle Peak Campground awaits about 8 miles up the valley. Even with our late start, we're not ready to camp yet, so we slug up a suddenly steeper 2 miles to well-developed South Rochford Road. Then it's a fast descent on South Rochford Road to the village of Rochford. 

The day ends well when the grill is still open at the iconic Moonshine Gulch Saloon in Rochford. We feast on burgers and more, refill water bottles, and find a somewhat protected place to camp. So ends Day 4.

Over the last two days, we manage to sit out the worst of the rain and weather the rest. Thunderstorms may keep coming, but they don't dampen our ride of the BackBone Grande.

Riding up Castle Peak Road through off and on rain.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Castle Peak Road not surprisingly is popular with these beasts, too.
(image by Paul Brasby)

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