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Sunday, July 9, 2023

BackBone Grande (Day 2) - Trail #1

There are no easy days on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Every day, bikepackers face all sorts of challenges, on all sorts of surfaces, in all sorts of weather. Many are unpredictable, but some are not. 

One well known and major challenge of riding the Great Divide is the occasional, off the charts, insanely difficult climb or descent. Lava Mountain, Fleecer Ridge, Union Pass, the watershed divide after Brush Mountain Lodge, Brazos Ridge, and Polvadera Mesa, for example. Part of the Great Divide experience is occasionally pushing your bike, and yourself. As hard as it is, it's always worth it. See, The Great Divide - The Toughest Climb.

Trail #1 in Custer State Park offers that experience on the BackBone Grande. That's why I put it in and that's why I'm leaving it in, even after "riding" it. If you seek a Great Divide type of experience, or you're preparing to ride the Great Divide, Trail #1 may be for you. Otherwise, bypass it. You've been warned.

Recovering from the first heft-a-bike pitch on Trail #1.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Day 2 of our ride of the BackBone Grande starts innocently enough as we roll out of Oelrichs on solid county gravel through the villages of Smithwick, Oral, and Buffalo Gap. In Smithwick, we chat with Sue, the local Postmaster who shares stories of local history while offering water, and Jerry, a retired Pennington County Correctional Officer who keeps an eye on things around town. 

On to Buffalo Gap, we stop for cold Cokes at the mind-boggling Buffalo Gap Trading Post. This place has so much stuff, and such a variety of stuff, inside and out, that it's hard to take in. Some of it may even be for sale. Elray, the proprietor, keeps adding to his establishment and to his assorted collections. American Pickers have nothing on him.

Steadily climbing through Wind Cave National Park toward Custer State Park.
(image by Paul Brasby)

The day warms up as we gently climb 7-11 Road, then turn toward Wind Cave National Park on NPS 5, a long time favorite gravel road of mine. See, Five Favorite Black Hills Gravel Roads. Prairie dogs scamper all over, occasionally even into holes they dig through the road itself. Buffalo, elk, deer, and pronghorn also roam these lands, so stay attentive.

Approaching Boland Ridge, we ride past a temporary tipi and tent encampment of the Ogallala Sioux tribe celebrating an annual ceremony. Then we quickly drop into Custer State Park onto the popular Wildlife Loop, where a smattering of tourists flock to feed the park's wild burros. A couple of short, paved miles later, we stop for shade and fresh water at the Wildlife Station Visitor Center. After gradually climbing much of the day, it's time to gather our forces for the climb ahead.

Relatively gentle climb up Lame Johnny Road in Custer State Park.
To bypass Trail #1, simply stay on this pleasant road to French Creek Horse Camp.
(image by Paul Brasby)

From the Visitor Center, the route steadily climbs almost 1,000 feet over the next 6 miles on the good gravel of Lame Johnny Road, Nature Trail Road, and Fisherman Flats Road. Climbing out of the prairie into the Black Hills, we enjoy occasional shade from the increasing number of trees along the way. After nearly 100 miles of riding through prairie, it feels that we're finally entering the Black Hills.

Twisting and turning, Fisherman Flats Road reaches up to the Hills as high as it can, before morphing into a rocky two-track that leads to a gate. From that trailhead, Trail #1 actually looks reasonable and rideable.

Fisherman Flats Road hints at what's ahead.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Trail #1 is an old two-track logging road long closed to vehicle traffic, but open for travel by foot, bicycle, and horse. The nearby, very nice French Creek Horse Camp provides a convenient base camp for horse back riders to readily access it and the state park actively promotes it to them. With heavy horse traffic to roughen up the ground and no vehicle traffic to pound it down, Trail #1 is not surprisingly very loose and very rough. An abundance of rocks and stupid steeps make much of it all but unrideable on a loaded bike.

From the gated trailhead, Trail #1 ambles for a half mile or so. Then, in the words of Goose from Top Gun, "We're going ballistic!" 

Early on Trail #1, I'm actually pedaling my bike.
(image by Paul Brasby)

A little bit later, I'm still pedaling. It doesn't last long.
(image by Paul Brasby)

This is hard. This is very hard. Steep, rocky, loose, rough. Now, I'm pushing the bike. When the sun pops through the clouds, it's hot with no chance of shade. I spot a saddle up an impossibly steep pitch and resolve to make it that far. After many stops to arrest my gasping, I reach that saddle and collapse. Watching Paul hoof up that pitch confirms its difficulty.

Perhaps the best way to tell the story of this pitch is by pictures.

The first heft-a-bike section. Not my first stop.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Almost to the first saddle.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Enough strength to lift one arm to encourage Paul.
(image by Paul Brasby)

You know it's steep, loose, rocky, and rough for Paul to be walking.

Stopped to recover, we marvel at the big views of the surrounding hills and the prairie far below. I question whether this is simply too much for the BackBone Grande. Paul encourages me to keep going.

Looking ahead, my elation of reaching that saddle vanishes at the sight of more steeps. We ride some, walk lots, and stop frequently. Trying to break this beast into smaller pieces, I resolve to count ten steps before stopping. Even when the gradient slackens a bit, the loose, rocky, rough trail takes enormous effort to climb, whether walking or pedaling.

It never gets easier. When we finally reach a short downhill, it's such a mess that we start by walking it. Further down is more rideable, but it's full on mountain bike territory on a loaded bike. Bring appropriate gear, ability, experience, and judgment to safely descend this stuff.

Working up another pitch that just doesn't look that steep. Let me know if you ride it.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Cresting another saddle on Trail #1 reveals big views all around.
Just a couple of hours ago, we were riding in that prairie far below.
(image by Paul Brasby)

We even walked some downhills.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Trail #1 winds about 3 miles from Fisherman Flats Road to connect with Lame Johnny Road. Whatever the elevation gain, we earn every foot. To cover those 3 miles, we work hard for about 2 hours. Yeah, it's at the end of a solid day mostly spent climbing with fully loaded bikes, but still. 2 hours to cover 3 miles! 

Know that a simple bypass of Trail #1 is to stay on Lame Johnny Road all the way into the French Creek Horse Camp. That's still a solid climb on a nice road with beautiful scenery. Nothing wrong with that, especially if you're not physically and mentally prepared for a Great Divide type of experience.

Paul joyfully rolls off Trail #1.

Late afternoon, we finally roll into French Creek Horse Camp. Even with the campground full of RV campers with their horses, the friendly camp host finds a nice, grassy spot next to the creek for us to pitch our tents. Water, showers, electricity, and picnic tables are all nearby and available. What a peaceful place to relax after a challenging day.

Over dinner, I critically analyze Trail #1 in the context of the entire 400 mile BackBone Grande route. It's utterly singular in its challenges. There is nothing else anywhere on the route that is inherently more difficult. No circumstances will make it easier. It likely will only get more difficult over time. Coming less than 50 miles after crossing the rugged Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, it will be a rough first 100 miles for many. Maybe too rough.

Paul simply states, "That's what the Great Divide is all about!" and emphatically concludes, "It needs to stay in!"

I could not agree more. Trail #1 offers a Great Divide type of experience. That's why I put it in. That's why it stays in, even after "riding" it. It's the signature insanely difficult climb of the BackBone Grande.

If you seek a Great Divide type of experience, or you're preparing to ride the Great Divide, Trail #1 may be for you. Otherwise, bypass it. 

You've been warned.

Our little campsite at French Creek Horse Camp.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Paul's Garmin paints a picture of our day.
(image by Paul Brasby)

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