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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Camp Crook Road to NoWhere, North Dakota

Bursting out of the foothills of the Black Hills, the DoubleBackBone launches into 120 miles of wide open spaces toward the North Dakota border. This limitless landscape looks like it leapt straight off the cover of an old western dime novel. Big prairie. Big sky. Imposing buffalo herds. Cowhands on horses nudge hardy cattle grazing over mammoth ranches. Thousands of pronghorn and deer thrive, despite the harsh environment. Like all of them, one must adapt to survive the rigors of the exposed Northern Prairie.

A portion of a large buffalo herd in Harding County.
From U.S. Highway 85, turn north on Camp Crook Road, which winds for 54.6 miles all the way to the outpost of Camp Crook. Very few county road options appear before town, so navigation is very straight forward. Just stay on Camp Crook Road until you arrive in Camp Crook. Easy-peasy, as Black Hills BackBone finisher Dave Litzen would say.

Although navigation of this section of the DoubleBackBone may be dull, the country is not. The land folds and bends. Creek bottoms nurture cottonwoods, which shelter birds of many feathers. Many times more deer and pronghorn populate Harding County than people. And that herd of buffalo pictured above numbers at least in the hundreds. Imagine their ancestors filling the Northern Plains just 150 years ago. Today, the buffalo are still very much in charge, especially when encountered by a solitary cyclist.

Not like you weren't warned.
Like the easterly side of this Northern Prairie loop, these roads are generally hard packed, lightly graveled, lightly traveled county roads over gently rolling terrain. Absent a recent snow storm or exceptionally large thunderstorm, the road surface should not be a limiting factor to your travel by gravel out here.

Now, the exposure. Well, that's a different thing altogether. No respite from the wind. No respite from the sun. No respite from anything else nature throws out there. Nothing whatsoever to temper the elements. And there's always something.

My first crossing of the Northern Prairie on the BackBone dumped me in Spearfish after horizontal rain left me shaking, barely able to stand. A Rancher's Kindness. In a subsequent run, the conditions were ideal at the border and for much of the crossing, but quickly deteriorated to freezing rain and snow outside Spearfish. A Sudden Turn. During our BackBone tour last summer, the building heat beat, and beat, and beat down all day, leaving us exhausted short of Spearfish. Crossing the Northern Prairie. It's likely every ride across this country will be uniquely challenging.

Wary pronghorn rarely get close.
The outpost town of Camp Crook sports about 60 hardy residents, a U.S. Post Office, a U.S. Forest Service office, and a general store. But this stop is about water, water, water. Don't leave without it.

From Camp Crook, ride east on U.S. Highway 20 for 3.3 miles, then turn north on Latham Road, a minimum maintenance road. After 8.0 miles, turn north on Bullock Road for 4.4 miles and north again on River Road for 6.4 miles.

After 6.4 miles on Bullock Road, continue north on Ladner Road, which winds a bit before it eventually T-bones after 5.8 miles with paved Table Mountain Road (733). This is the home stretch of 8.8 miles north to NoWhere, North Dakota and the historic Dakota Marker.

The Dakota Marker, with the Speed Limit start/finish sign in the background.
That's it. Doubled back to the start of the Black Hills BackBone. That's one long remote road ride of 640.6 miles from North Dakota to Nebraska to North Dakota, across the prairie and along the spine of the Black Hills.

The Black Hills DoubleBackBone. Go for it.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

O'Neil Pass to Camp Crook Road (part 2)

The Black Hills DoubleBackBone route flows from the BackBone finish at NothingThere, Nebraska along a sweeping loop of rugged, remote roads in the Western Black Hills back up to the heights of O'Neil Pass. U.S. Forest Service secondary roads cover most of these miles, connected with a few primary and several primitive roads. This route gets out there, and then up there. I like it a lot and I'm sticking with it.

Unfortunately, the DoubleBackBone cannot continue as a loop from O'Neil Pass, without losing its character. Too much pavement, too much development, too much traffic, too much Wyoming. So, I'm dropping the arbitrary notion of a single loop. I'm going with a great route that I know well.

Of course, that route is the Black Hills BackBone. So, from O'Neil Pass, the DoubleBackBone will backtrack on the BackBone route to Spearfish, east around Orman Dam and back up to U.S. Highway 85 by Harding Road and Camp Crook Road. As a result, a map of the DoubleBackBone will look like a large balloon south of O'Neil Pass and a large balloon north of Belle Fouche, connected by a string.

Climbing up Lookout Mountain Road from Spearfish.
Yes, Robbie Sorge, that means a return to Tinton Road, that dust-choking, tourist-trafficked sludge of a climb from Spearfish on the Black Hills BackBone. But this time, it's almost all downhill. And it's now only 17 miles on Tinton Road before turning onto Higgins Gulch. So, saddle up, cowboy.

From U.S. Highway 85, turn north on Tinton Road (134) over a couple of surprising rollers before the long descent to Spearfish. After 16.9 miles, veer west on Higgins Gulch Road (214) to continue the quick descent for another 12.1 miles. Eventually, Higgins Gulch Road T-bones into paved Hills View Road on the northwestern outskirts of Spearfish.

Turn east on Hills View Road for 2.5 miles to U.S. Highway 85. Stop. Before turning north toward the Northern Prairie, check supplies and gear. Spearfish is the largest town on the entire DoubleBackBone route, offering convenience stores, grocery stores, restaurants, motels, a city campground, a couple of bike shops, and even a community rec center for a kettle bell or yoga class. If needed, now's the time.

When girded for the grind, ride north on U.S. Highway 85 for 1.7 miles to paved Kerwin Lane, turn east for 1.9 miles and then north back on gravel on Lookout Mountain Road. Now, we're getting back out there. Pay attention on the sharp descent off Lookout Mountain Road, which is greasy when wet and can be rutted when dry. This stretch is reminiscent of many miles of rutted, gutted, loose, messy, steep dirt roads at the legendary Odin's Revenge gravel race.

After 2.8 miles on Lookout Mountain Road, turn east on St. Onge Cutoff Road (196th Street) for a hilly, curvy spin through pastoral cattle and horse properties. A quick 4.0 miles later, turn south on paved U.S. Highway 34 for 1.9 miles to the one bar town of St. Onge. This is the last chance commercial establishment until Camp Crook, nearly 100 miles of open prairie to the north.

From St. Onge, turn east on Sale Barn Road, which is paved for about 0.5 mile, improves to gravel for about 0.2 miles and then turns 90 degrees north on gravelly dirt for another 2.2 miles. Virtually impassable when wet, this minimum maintenance road is specifically included as a tribute to the founding father of the modern gravel grinder, Mark Stevenson and his Trans Iowa gravel race.

Sale Barn Road is all minimum maintenance, all the time.
Turn north on Crooked Oaks Road for 5.6 miles of sweet, hilly gravel through groves of oak and past a pioneer era cemetery. Then it's west on more heavily traveled and heavily graveled Snowma Road for a short 0.7 miles, before turning north on Fruitdale Road for 2.8 miles. Midway along this stretch lies Fruitdale, a collection of inhabited buildings in various states of disarray, but no commercial establishments. Continue north through Fruitdale to T-bone with U.S. Highway 212 and turn east for 1.7 miles to paved Arpan Road.

(Crooked) Oaks Road? Or (Crooked Oaks) Road? Both work.
Riding north on Arpan Road, the DoubleBackBone rolls past small ranches and irrigation channels supplied by the Belle Fouche Reservoir. Shade is small and infrequent, as it will remain until the North Dakota border 120+ miles away. After 12.9 miles, turn west on Brooker Road for 7.3 miles of small rollers to merge with U.S. Highway 85.  Stay west on U.S. Highway 85 for 2.4 miles to Camp Crook Road.

Finally, we're ready to set sail into the Northern Prairie.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

O'Neil Pass to Camp Crook Road (part 1)

In creating the Black Hills DoubleBackBone route, it's all been great fun so far. But as that famous philosopher Mike Tyson observed, "Evr'budy got a plan, til ya get punched in tha face."

With an abundance of rugged, remote roads in the Wild, Wild Western Black Hills, the hard call so far has been between better and best. But now, sitting triumphantly atop O'Neil Pass, to continue as a loop toward that Dakota Marker on the border, the choices are poor and marginal.

I want a loop. One big, bad loop. But not at any cost. So, what's the plan, now?

The original Black Hills BackBone enters the Black Hills from Spearfish over O'Neil Pass for several reasons, not the least of which is climbing over this 6,683 foot pass on remote roads in South Dakota. Route Tweaks & Cue Sheets. The DoubleBackBone deserves the same.

So, the DoubleBackBone does not skirt O'Neil Pass, but scales it from the South en route to NoWhere, North Dakota. The back country roads in the Western Black Hills are a sight to see and a joy to ride. Now, atop O'Neil Pass, the DoubleBackBone must find its way to Camp Crook Road, some 11 miles north of the cow town of Belle Fouche, while retaining its rugged, remote road character.

Of course, the easy path is paved. Just coast down Spearfish Canyon Scenic Highway 14A into Spearfish, hack your way through the middle of town and survive the oil field traffic on U.S. Highway 85 to Belle Fouche, plus 11 miles beyond.  Yeah, well, that's not happening.

Options of descending O'Neil Pass to the West are appropriately remote for the DoubleBackBone and fun to ride, including the ambitiously named "Grand Canyon of the Black Hills." However, the public roads wander into Wyoming for many miles and do not connect north up to Camp Crook Road without significant pavement and higher traffic. There is much to explore out there, but it doesn't fit the DoubleBackBone.

To the East lie many possibilities, some stretches of which are a lot of fun to ride. Lucas Haan certainly struck gold with Cracker Jack Road and Avalanche Road just north of Sturgis in the first race of last year's Black Hills Gravel Series. But those stretches, and others like them, are relatively short and isolated. Connecting such roads to the DoubleBackBone extracts a high cost with long bouts of pavement, commercial and residential development, and traffic. Again, that overall vibe is not consistent with the rest of this remote road route.

Back to the drawing board.

As a start, I love the Black Hills BackBone route. I've ridden every mile of it. Many of those miles I've ridden many times. It goes where it goes for reasons. It's a keeper.

The DoubleBackBone began with the idea of riding from the finish of the BackBone at the Nebraska border back to North Dakota through the amazingly rough, rugged and remote roads of the western Black Hills up to O'Neil Pass. So far, so great. I also knew that Camp Crook Road north of Belle Fouche to the outpost of Camp Crook starts a nice loop on the Northern Prairie that extends almost to the North Dakota border. That will be great, too.

The path between O'Neil Pass and Camp Crook Road is the issue. Now, what.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Jewel Cave National Monument to O'Neil Pass

North of Jewel Cave National Monument, the Black Hills DoubleBackBone climbs into the western reaches of the Central Black Hills through the most remote country around these parts. Best to rely on self sufficiency, not cell service. This stretch is not for the ill-prepared or the inattentive.

Out here, an alphabet soup of federal, state and local agencies manage the roads and trails, so names and numbers can be confusing. However, the DoubleBackBone keeps it simple. First off, the route explores remote roads, not trails.  And it stays on local county roads or U.S. Forest Service roads that are "primary" (suitable for passenger cars), "secondary"  (generally suitable for passenger vehicles) and "primitive" (suitable for high clearance vehicles). No skid trails. Also, the DoubleBackBone follows fun Forest Service roads that are identified by whole numbers only. So, if you find yourself on a Forest Service road with a number containing a decimal (like 383.3), or with a number and a letter (like 383D), or both (like 383.3D), you may be having fun, but you're not on the DoubleBackBone. It's not complicated to stay on course, if you pay attention.

Digging deep into the western Black Hills on a primitive Forest Service road.
From U.S. Highway 16, turn north onto Mud Springs Road (282) for a steady climb for 2.7 miles to Antelope Ridge Road (283), which flows directly into the heart of the area still recovering from the massive 83,000+ acre Jasper Fire in 2000. Much of the sweeping panorama along this road was formed or enlarged by that fire. In the relatively dry southern Black Hills, the forest returns slowly.

Riding directly through the 2000 Jasper Fire zone on a typical secondary Forest Service road.
Ride west on Antelope Ridge Road (283) for 5.4 miles and then turn east on Custer Limestone Road (284), the first primary Forest Service road of this section. A more refined surface and some hills make for a couple of pretty quick descents. Be alert at 3.4 miles for a numbered, unnamed brown sign (383), where the route turns north. This primitive Forest Service road is mostly dirt two track gradually moving upstream through a valley.

Just rolling along on the Black Hills DoubleBackBone.
Riding generally north on USFS 383, the DoubleBackBone rolls up and occasionally down a valley, in and out of trees, along and across creeks and through meadows. Back here, the mind easily wanders. That's great, but make sure to stay on USFS 383 and not drift off on a side trip to oblivion.

After 5.1 miles on USFS 383, turn west on Gillette Canyon Road (296), a secondary forest gravel road that will smooth out your ride for a spell.  Just 6.5 miles later, Gillette Canyon Road (296) T-bones into Six Mile Road (301), another secondary USFS road that handles its share of the logging traffic from these parts. It's not a super highway, but you may see a truck or two here.

Remote as it gets around here, climbing along the DoubleBackBone.
In any event, the DoubleBackBone follows Six Mile Road (301) just 2.2 miles before turning north onto Briggs Spring Road (384), another primitive Forest Service road flowing north up a long meadow. Although more dirt than gravel, Briggs Spring Road (384) is relatively smooth and quick, when dry.

These 3 miles pass quickly and the route turns west on South Castle Creek Road (294), another secondary Forest Service road. Immediately to the north, one may consider the mile long spur to the north to Red Bank Springs, a primitive Forest Service Campground. Unfortunately, Red Bank Springs does not have any water for the weary cyclist.

Aspen lined meadows high in the Central Black Hills.
After 1.3 miles on South Castle Creek Road (294), turn north onto Boles Canyon Road (117), a primary Forest Service road. Open the throttle for a long, winding climb on smooth forest gravel. The route intersects with several other roads, but stay on Boles Canyon Road (117) for 15.9 miles until finally reaching South Rapid Creek Road (231). 

Forest Service roads built primarily for logging and fire management.
Almost there. Turn west onto South Rapid Creek Road (231) for 2.8 miles, then east onto O'Neil Pass Road (also numbered 231 on the sign) for 0.8 miles to T-bone onto U.S. Highway 85, the Can-Am Highway. Here, the DoubleBackBone route turns east on this pavement for 1.7 miles before heading north again, then onto Tinton Road (134).

However, before making that turn toward Tinton Road, check your water. It's been about 50 miles since Jewel Cave National Monument and another 30 miles remain to Spearfish before a commercial establishment of any kind is on this route. Although other sources of water may be available along the way, or just off the way, here one may turn west on U.S. Highway 85 for about a mile to Trails Head Lodge for access to water and snacks.