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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.

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