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Sunday, August 13, 2023

BackBone Grande (Day 9) - Grand Finale

The BackBone Grande reaches the remote trading post of Buffalo at Mile 360, just 40 miles from the border. A bit up the route, with North Dakota practically within sight, a barely marked Low Standard Road climbs to the top of a forested oasis in the midst of millions of acres of grassland. It looks and feels like you're right back in the heart of the Black Hills. After that final farewell, it's just a short jaunt to the finish.

Border to border, the BackBone Grande delivers the best of the Black Hills and surrounding prairie.

Up and into the North Cave Unit of Custer Gallatin National Forest, just a few miles from the border.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Under overcast skies and a forecast of significant rain later, we roll out of Buffalo for the final stretch of our through-ride of the BackBone Grande. Yesterday's monstrous wind roared off in search of new prey, leaving a breezy, more manageable northerly headwind today. Rested from a relaxing night on the town, we're bound for the border. 

The early miles pass smoothly on good county gravel and a bit of pavement. We're still in big cattle country, where the roads are named after large ranches along the way. We turn onto Brown-Johnson Road and spot the dark hills of Custer Gallatin National Forest looming in the distance. Time to climb. 

Spinning out of Buffalo toward the border under ominous skies.
(image by Paul Brasby)

A climb to a forested oasis awaits.
(image by Paul Brasby)

We turn onto South Cave Road, away from ranch land and toward those dark hills. The road roughens and slants upward. As the hills slowly draw nearer, we begin to discern sloping hillsides leading to sheer cliffs topped with thick strands of trees, the likes of which we haven't seen since emerging from the Black Hills over 100 miles ago. This looks good.

We stop at a crude, weathered USFS sign marking the entrance into Custer Gallatin National Forest. Knowing the upcoming Low Standard Roads are poorly marked, if at all, I take a handy USFS Motor Vehicle Use Map from a simple wooden box. Let's stay on the route.

Spinning up toward Fuller Pass.
(image by Paul Brasby)

On the way up, looking back.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Now, we climb. No, it's not climbing all day up an epic mountain pass above tree line. It's less than 5 miles to gain only about 700 feet of elevation. But it's all up, with an occasional 10% pitch, to reach the top of this unique formation high above the surrounding prairie.

We spin up Schleichart Draw on USFS Low Standard Road 3120, continually rubber-necking to take in the constantly changing views. Shortly before reaching Riley Pass, we turn onto USFS Low Standard Road 3123 for a longer, steeper pitch up to the top. This one takes a little more focus to grind up, but pays well with views all around.

Still climbing, although the top is just ahead.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Approaching the top.
(image by Paul Brasby)

On top, it's a entirely different scene. It looks like we're back in the middle of the Black Hills, rolling through a meadow lined with densely packed pine trees. Here, however, the prairie far below occasionally peeks through the trees. We're on top of a very large hill surrounded by at least a hundred miles of prairie in every direction.

We bump along the top for about 5 miles and then abruptly drop to USFS Picnic Springs Campground, another sparkling gem within this treasure chest. We relish a quick lunch at a picnic table and refill water bottles from a spring. This would be an ideal place to camp, but we're aiming for the border, just 13 miles away and we need to move. The dark clouds that have been threatening all day are about to burst.

USFS Picnic Springs Campground.
(image by Paul Brasby)

Rolling down Fuller Pass Road, now just 12 miles from the border.
(image by Paul Brasby)

With drizzle in the air, we cruise the final miles through a hodge-podge of construction vehicles and equipment. The roads are just a mess, maybe the messiest of the entire route, and spray that mess all over our bikes. Thankfully, it doesn't clog.

We finally clear the construction, turn due north, and hit the border, although it's not obvious. At this back road crossing, neither state marks it with a fancy sign. I know the spot because of a nearby Dakota Marker I discovered years ago. See, A Start Line With Some History And A Personal Connection (2015).

We celebrate the first through-ride of the BackBone Grande, but do not linger. Heavy rain is imminent. Here, we part ways. Paul pedals west in the direction of Devil's Tower, his ultimate destination on this ride. I turn east toward Picnic Springs Campground to work my way home. The downpour begins almost immediately.

This is a ride to write home about. And to experience again. We'll be back.

Addendum. For my prior posts on our 2023 through-ride of the BackBone Grande, go to The First Through RideRight Vibe Right Away (Day 1)Trail #1 (Day 2)Rain (Days 3&4)Low Standard & Lower (Days 5&6); Prairie Gold (Days 7&8)For every blog post about the BackBone Grande and a link to a digital map on RideWithGPS, go to the BackBone Grande Page.

Rain + Construction = Muck
(image by Paul Brasby)

End of the line at the northern border. This picture looks south into South Dakota.
(image by Paul Brasby)

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