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Thursday, January 28, 2021

Looking For Black Hills Bounty

Sweet dreams are made of this
Who am I to disagree
I travel the world and the seven seas
Everybody's looking for something.

Sweet Dreams, Annie Lennox & Dave Stewart (1983)

Scouting back roads in search of the Black Hills Bounty.

The Black Hills Bounty is my name for a 5 day, remote, rough road bikepacking tour of the Black Hills of South Dakota that I am designing for cycling buddy Paul Brasby. Later this year, I plan to ride it with Paul, along with a few other friends from Nebraska. Afterward, I'll post a ride report with pictures and digital maps.

For now, I'll describe the daily rides in mileage, elevation gain, and road type so that Paul and his friends know something of what lies ahead and can prepare. To preserve an element of surprise and discovery for them, I'll wait to reveal the details of the route until shortly before we start.

As currently configured, the Black Hills Bounty bikepacking route covers about 300 miles and gains about 25,000 feet of elevation gain over 5 days, with little deviation. In other words, it's about 60 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain every day for 5 days. Overall, the mileage is split pretty evenly between USFS Primary, Secondary, and Low Standard roads, with the exception of one day that is primarily paved. For descriptions and illustrations of what those types of roads look like in the Black Hills, go to my prior post The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.

As I confirmed this route, I kept adding more rough Low Standard roads to connect things and to dive a little bit more remote. So, mileage is reduced from earlier drafts, but the degree of difficulty per mile is increased. For me, this is a mountain bike tour, for tires and gearing, except for the primarily paved day.

Here's the overall outline, with one photograph somewhere along the route for each day and a break down of mileage of each type of road for the day. Further changes, if any, are likely to be minor.

Day 0  Disperse camp off a Primary road deep in the Black Hills.
Day 1  (62 miles/5,268 feet) 3 miles paved/21 miles Primary/26 miles Secondary/12 miles Low Standard.
Day 2  (68 miles/4,280 feet) 1 mile paved/29 miles Primary/16 miles Secondary/22 miles Low Standard.
Day 3  (57 miles/6,220 feet) 48 miles paved/9 miles Primary.
Day 4  (60 miles/4,398 feet) 11 miles paved/32 miles Primary/11 miles Secondary/6 miles Low Standard.
Day 5  (43 miles/4,636 feet) 1 mile paved/15 miles Primary/4 miles Secondary/23 miles Low Standard.

5 day Total = 290 miles/24,802 feet. Or, about 58 miles/4,960 feet of elevation gain per day average.

Day 0. Disperse camp deep in the Black Hills off a Primary road like this one.
Drive to camp along a ridge with panoramic views.

Day 1 (62 miles/5,268 feet) 3 miles paved/21 miles Primary/26 miles Secondary/12 miles Low Standard.
Rougher roads earlier, with steady, not crazy steep climbing to disperse camp with big views.

Day 2 (68 miles/4,280 feet) 1 mile paved/29 miles Primary/16 miles Secondary/22 miles Low Standard.
Rougher roads early, then tunnels and an abandoned gold mine, with a downhill finish to Custer.

Day 3 (57 miles/6,220 feet) 48 miles paved/9 miles Primary.
Unloaded bike day, riding a paved/fast gravel loop starting and ending in Custer.
(Yes, that's Mt. Rushmore as you ride through a one lane tunnel)

Day 4 (60 miles/4,398 feet) 11 miles paved/32 miles Primary/11 miles Secondary/6 miles Low Standard.
Fast gravel onto buffalo patrolled prairie, then back into the forest, rough road to disperse camp remote.

Day 5 (43 miles/4,636 feet) 1 mile paved/15 miles Primary/4 miles Secondary/23 miles Low Standard.
Fast gravel warmup, then steady climbing on rougher roads all the way back to the start.

So, that's what I've been working on.

What fun, memorable, challenging routes lie waiting for you to create in your neck of the woods?

Sweet Dreams, Eurythmics (1983)

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Black Hills Back Roads - The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

The way back to town is only 70 miles. If you save your breath, I feel a man like you can manage it.
Blondie encouraging Tuco, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966)

The United States Forest Service (USFS) categorizes the roads within its boundaries as "Primary Routes," "Secondary Routes," or "Low Standard Routes." That's it. Just three categories for the staggering variety of roads in the backcountry, even just here in the Black Hills National Forest. 

Well, it's a start. Here's a USFS graphic introducing each category of roads in our National Forests.

As an introduction to understanding these categories of roads in the Black Hills, here are some of my general observations, with representative photographs. Whatever the USFS calls them and however I describe them, every road in the Black Hills will deliver a variety of riding conditions and challenges that change over time. Your eyes on the road and tires on the ground are the best way to know these roads.

Note that the USFS manages extensive logging operations in selected parts of the Black Hills. In large part, that's why most of these roads exist. Yield to all traffic out there, but especially the big logging trucks. And be thankful to be able to ride on the seemingly unlimited roads resulting from their work.

The Good (USFS Primary Route)

The most developed non-paved road in the USFS system is the Primary road, which is designed, built, and maintained for year around, regular travel by standard passenger cars. In the Black Hills, the surface of these roads typically is moderately graveled, hard packed local dirt and limestone that drains water well and generally does not instantly clog, at least not like Iowa top soil, Nebraska talc, or Oklahoma clay. Some roads are treated with Magnesium Chloride, which hardens and stabilizes the surface.

Primary roads generally are wide enough for opposing motorized traffic to pass easily. If enough gravel exists to form tracks, there would be three or even four. Often a small shoulder will accumulate a bit more gravel that has been pushed off to the side. Relatively high speed vehicle traffic may create washboards and pockets of loose gravel in spots, especially around curves and corners.

My ride of choice for Primary roads is my Black Mountain Cycles Monster Cross bike with 40 mm Schwalbe G-One tires. Even when loaded for multi-day bikepacking, the Black Mountain provides plenty of support and control to comfortably ride all day. Relatively speaking, these gravel roads are fast.

On USFS maps and signage, a Primary road is designated by brown sign with a number enclosed in a rounded corner, isosceles trapezoid having the longer parallel side on top, as shown below for Boles Canyon Road (117).

The following photographs are representative of USFS Primary roads in the Black Hills.

The Bad (USFS Secondary Route)

The next level of developed, non-paved roads in the USFS system is the Secondary road, which is maintained for high clearance vehicles. In the Black Hills, Secondary USFS roads typically are similar in composition to Primary roads, that is, hard packed dirt and limestone that handles water well and does not overly clog. However, the surface may be even less graveled, or just occasionally graveled, or not graveled at all. Almost certainly, it will not be treated with Magnesium Chloride. Foremost, that means Secondary roads are more susceptible to mud when wet and ruts when dry.

Due to less maintenance, Secondary roads also sport occasional loose dirt, exposed surface rock, pot holes, standing water, and fallen timber, while presenting sharper turns, steeper gradients, and shorter sight lines. Also, Secondary roads typically are two tracks wide, often with little to no shoulder. If a motorized vehicle approaches, I typically pull off the road to allow it to pass. For logging trucks, I definitely leave the road.

All that being said, many Secondary roads in the Black Hills are passable in dry weather in passenger cars, if attentive to occasional obstacles and clearance issues. For example, I confirmed my cue sheets for the entire Black Hills BackBone route driving my 2006 Chevrolet HHR, hardly a high clearance vehicle. Over the 310 mile route, with many miles of Secondary roads, I maneuvered around a few high-center issues and only had to skirt one fallen tree blocking the road. These roads can be fast, but stay alert.

My ride of choice for most Black Hills Secondary roads is still my Black Mountain MonsterCross with 40 mm tires. These roads may be rougher and mountain bike type gearing may be helpful in spots, but most of these roads are developed enough for me on that "gravel" bike. On the other hand, if loaded for a multi-day ride with significant miles of Secondary roads, I may well opt for my Jones 29+ with bigger tires.

On USFS maps and signage, a Secondary road is designated by a three or four digit number enclosed in a brown, rounded corner rectangular sign, as shown below for Williams Draw Road (691).

The following photographs show three USFS Secondary roads in the Black Hills.

The Ugly (USFS Low Standard Route)

The third level of developed, non-paved road in the USFS system is the Low Standard road, which is unimproved and not maintained for automobiles. The Forest Service recommends travel by vehicles with both high clearance and four wheel drive. I would add driver prudence and experience.

Design, construction, and maintenance of Low Standard roads are all over the map, even along a single numbered road. Some sections may be soft dirt, while others are rock gardens. If wet, standing water and mud can be a real issue, leaving deep ruts when dry. Maybe a load of chunky rock was dumped to stabilize a low spot, or maybe not and there's a stream to ford. They are rough, sometimes little more than a bull dozed logging trail. For me, this is mountain bike territory, for tires and gears, even unloaded, for anything more than a short connector.

Many, many, many are dead-end spurs that were built to get to a spot for logging. Maybe some spurs later connect to something else and haven't made it on a map, or maybe not. I often refer to the USFS Motorized Vehicle Use Maps, which are updated every year and prove to be pretty accurate. However you navigate, count on no cell coverage and no passing traffic of any kind. You are on your own.

If you like this kind of riding, the Black Hills offer a lifetime of miles to explore.

On USFS signage, a Low Standard road is designated with a three-digit number vertically imprinted on short, 4 inch wide, brown carbonite post. On USFS maps, it's just a plain three-digit number. The designation of any road emanating from that Low Standard road adds a decimal and another number. For example, in the Black Hills, USFS 278.1 runs off of USFS 278. Then, any roads running off of USFS 278.1 get letters, the first being USFS 278.1A, then 278.1B, and so on. It can be confusing in the field and USFS map navigation is an entirely separate subject. Just know that any carbonite USFS road sign with a three-digit number, or with decimal numbers, or with letters, identifies a Low Standard Road.

Shown below is a sign for Low Standard road 242, and then one for Low Standard road 325.1D.

The following photographs show a sampling of USFS Low Standard roads in the Black Hills. I captured all of these images while riding, with the sole exception of the last photograph, which Lucas Haan provided as an example of a deposit of chunky gravel. I included more photographs of Low Standard roads because of their great variety.

Here's a fun rendition of Ennio Morricone's 1966 composition of music for the movie "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly," performed by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in 2018.

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, Danish National Symphony Orchestra (2018)

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Scouting A Route For Friends

I'll be there for you (when the rain starts to pour)
I'll be there for you (like I've been there before)
I'll be there for you ('cause you're there for me, too)

I'll Be There For You (Friends Theme Song)
Phil Solem, Danny Wilde, David Crane, Marta Kaufmann, Michale Skloff, Alee Willis (1994)

Over the course of many miles and days of riding with me last year, cycling buddy Paul Brasby wondered aloud of a possible multi-day bikepacking tour of the Black Hills and identified some desired characteristics, features, and highlights. We eventually developed the concept of a 5 day, mixed road ride hitting my favorite remote, rough roads and places in the Black Hills, designed around a rider like Paul on a bike like his Salsa Cutthroat. In other words, a relatively short, remote "road" tour for a seasoned bike packer on a mountain bike. With this conceptual ride stuffed with goodies, I named it the Black Hills Bounty and set out to create it.

A dusting of December snow highlights a "Low Standard" road in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
A fresh perspective may show the start of a new path.

The Black Hills offer a treasure trove of all kinds of roads, especially if you're willing to go remote on some rougher stuff. With so many options, much of my riding over the past three months has been scouting connectors to piece together this Black Hills Bounty. Most of these roads I have ridden before, but many I had not. I certainly have not ridden them in the imagined configurations and combinations.

In any event, the process of putting together this ride gets me out in the Black Hills riding remote roads different from the familiar roads and trails. It provokes thoughts and fresh perspective, resulting in  creating routes different from what I would have otherwise done. Making this for friends is a sweet bonus.

Creating a 5 day route for a posse of out-of-state friends also forces me to think about what makes a ride fun, memorable and appropriately challenging. Not just to me, but for them. What to showcase? Is it worth the negatives to get there? What's worth putting in, just because it's ordinary? Hey, that road looks great, but what about riding it after 4 hours of hard pedaling? How about after 8? 12? How about that road on Day 3? Or on Day 4? Day 5? Throw in unpredictable variables like weather, road conditions, and especially group dynamics, and you just don't know for sure how it's all going to turn out.

And that may be the most fun of all.

Addendum. Attention Paul Brasby and compatriots from Nebraska whimsically pondering a road trip for the Black Hills Bounty, which now looks to be about 300 miles and 25,000 feet of elevation gain over 5 days. The five photographs below are taken along the proposed route, which is still a work in progress. There is one photograph for each of the five days of that ride, but they are intentionally not in order. Note that each photograph is a snapshot of one section of one day's ride and may/may not represent all, or even most, of the roads on that day. Patience, young Jedi.

Look for next week's post "Black Hills Back Roads - The Good, The Bad & The Ugly." That will be an introduction to the three types of U.S. Forest Service roads and my observations of what that looks like in the Black Hills, with over 30 illustrative photographs. After that, we'll get more specific about The Bounty.

I'll Be There For You, The Rembrandts (1995)

Thursday, January 7, 2021


And oh, my dreams
It's never quite as it seems
Never quite as it seems

I want more
Impossible to ignore
Impossible to ignore

And they'll come true
Impossible not to do
Impossible not to do

Dreams, Noel Hogan & Delores O'Riordan (1992)

Christmas gifts from an amazing wife.
Great Divide Mountain Bike Route Map Set #1-6, Adventure Cycling Association
Cycling The Great Divide, Michael McCoy & Adventure Cycling Association
Spot X 2-way Satellite Messenger


Impossible to ignore.

Impossible not to do.

Bikepacking The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.

Dreams, Cranberries (1992)