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Sunday, January 15, 2023

Introducing A Bikepacking Route - The BackBone Grande

The Black Hills BackBone Grande. A bikepacking route across the State of South Dakota along the spine of the Black Hills. Designed specifically for bikepacking to showcase the best of our Black Hills. 

Streaming into the Black Hills from Custer State Park.
(image by Kevin Fox)

In 2014, I created a bicycle route that I called the Black Hills BackBone, which is a North-South cross-state ride of the State of the South Dakota on primarily gravel and dirt roads along the spine of the Black Hills. The Black Hills BackBone blog first published in 2015 to document the route and attempts to ride it. In 2017, I created the DoubleBackBone route as an opportunity to ride the BackBone route south and then turn north to return to the North Dakota border on mostly different roads. I designed these routes as solo, self-supported, continuous rides across the state, in the spirit of the original TransIowa, the Gut Check 212, and similar continuous cross-state races. See, Black Hills BackBone & DoubleBackBone Page.

Over the years since, I have ridden all those miles, and many more, in the Black Hills and surrounding prairie. I love exploring back roads unknown to me, creating interesting routes, and seeing routes created by others. If not riding, scouting, researching, or routing, I'm probably talking with someone about back country roads around here.

Traffic jam on Lame Johnny Road in Custer State Park.
(image by Paul Brasby)

I started bikepacking in earnest in 2019, rode the Cloud Peak 500 in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming in 2020, and then rode the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route across the country in 2021. Those longer bikepacking rides are extensively covered on my blog throughout 2020-2022. See, Cloud Peak 500 Reports & Logistics Page; Great Divide Mountain Bike Route Page. Inspired by all those rides, I created many multi-day bikepacking routes in the Black Hills, including four different one week trips for out-of-state friends, several 2-3 day trips, and more overnighters.

After completing the Great Divide in 2021 and learning of the current development of the Western Wildlands Route and the Great Plains Gravel Route, I took another look at my BackBone and DoubleBackBone. I still love those routes for their intended purpose, but they were not created for bikepacking. The Black Hills deserve such a route.

Here's my take on it. The Black Hills BackBone Grande.

Mickelson Trail tunnel in the Central Black Hills.
(image by Paul Brasby)

As a starting point, I consider bikepacking to be much more than simply blasting across the countryside to see how fast one can possibly cover a distance. Rather, for me, it's backpacking on a bike, taking the time and effort to absorb the local scenery, history, culture, and wildlife. See, e.g., How I Would Bikepack The GDMBR (2019). As such, to create the BackBone Grande, I first identified what I consider the very best of our Black Hills and surrounding prairie and then connected things with a mix of unique, remote back roads. Here are a few highlights:
  • Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, prairie with dispersed camping (miles 3-11; miles 33-44);
  • Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park for buffalo and wild burros (miles 80-102);
  • Cathedral Spires views (miles 106-108);
  • Mickelson Trail rails-to-trails path out of Custer, views of Crazy Horse Memorial (miles 112-117);
  • historic Gold Mountain Mine (mile 142);
  • back on the Mickelson Trail for two hard rock tunnels (miles 150-152); 
  • creek side Castle Peak Road (miles 155-165), passing USFS Castle Peak Campground (mile 162);
  • Black Fox Road (miles 175-180), passing USFS Black Fox Campground (mile 175);
  • Roughlock Falls (mile 206);
  • Belle Fouche National Wildlife Refuge (miles 267-270);
  • the Geographic Center of the United States (mile 297);
  • the historic stage coach stop of Harding (mile 329);
  • Custer Gallatin National Forest near the North Dakota border (miles 375-390), especially Fuller Pass Road passing USFS Picnic Springs Campground (mile 383).
Sale Barn Road outside of St. Onge.
(image by Craig Groseth)

In general, the BackBone Grande is about 400 miles long, with 23,500 feet of gain and 90% on county gravel or Forest Servie gravel/dirt roads. It's a fun mix of remote roads, similar to those on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, all suitable for experienced bikepackers on loaded bicycles having tires 2" wide or more. A bike designed for the Great Divide, such as the Salsa CutThroat or Fargo, would work well for many. Of course, I'll be riding my Jones 29+ rigid mountain bike with 2.35-2.60 tires.

Full service towns with bike shops are at Custer (mile 102) and Spearfish (mile 223). C-store/restaurant type re-supply opportunities are at Oelrichs (mile 34), Buffalo Gap (mile 63), Rochford (mile 159), Cheyenne Crossing (mile 191), Savoy (mile 196), St. Onge (mile 235), and Buffalo (mile 336).

For a Great Divide type Zero Day, I recommend Custer and/or Hill City for an off-day, off-route ride of a mostly paved loop featuring Mount Rushmore, Sylvan Lake, Needles Highway, and Iron Mountain Road (aka Pig Tail Highway). For a relaxing Zero Day in a college/mountain bike town, enjoy a day in Spearfish.

Fuller Pass Road through Custer Gallatin National Forest, just a few miles from North Dakota.

So far, I have received input on this route from Lucas Haan of Black Hills Gravel and Paul Brasby of the Pony Express Bikepacking Adventure. To make this the very best it can be, I welcome input from everyone. I plan to through-ride the entire the route in 2023 and may well change some things. For now, this is the BackBone Grande.

Here's the link to the BackBone Grande route on RideWithGPS. BackBone Grande. Here's the link to the Mount Rushmore loop from Custer. BackBone Grande - Mt. Rushmore (Custer). Here's the link to the Mount Rushmore loop from Hill City. BackBone Grande - Mt. Rushmore (Hill City).

Note that the "Paved" surfaces data provided by RideWithGPS is wildly inaccurate, as it always is out here. The main route is about 90% county gravel or U.S. Forest Service gravel/dirt roads.

The Black Hills BackBone Grande.

Optional off-route Mount Rushmore loop from Custer.
(46 miles/5,350 feet of gain)

Optional off-route Mount Rushmore loop from Hill City.
(44 miles/4,900 feet of gain)

The Black Hills BackBone Grande. A great ride on its own, and a great shake out ride for something bigger, like the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.

As if I need another reason to bikepack the Black Hills.


  1. This looks like a great ride. I am considering riding it to prep for GDMBR in July. Can a SAG vehicle make it the entire route?

  2. Can a SAG vehicle follow on the route?

  3. No. A sag vehicle cannot drive all of the actual route. There are some stretches of single track and other stretches of Low Standard Road. However, those stretches are relatively short and a sag vehicle could easily drive on roads around them. With a little coordination, one certainly could meet a sag vehicle during the day and at the end of each day. The real issue is the spotty cell coverage throughout much of the Black Hills.

  4. I ride a Salsa El Mariachi steel. Do you recommend tire size greater that 2.25 in? Any areas with loose sand that might take a larger width tire?

  5. As I said in the post, "It's a fun mix of remote roads, similar to those on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, all suitable for experienced bikepackers on loaded bicycles having tires 2" wide or more. A bike designed for the Great Divide, such as the Salsa CutThroat or Fargo, would work well for many. Of course, I'll be riding my Jones 29+ rigid mountain bike with 2.35-2.60 tires."

  6. Thanks for making this website--it's an amazing resource, and looks like an amazing route!

  7. This looks fantastic. Thank you for creating this route. It's now on my list of rides I want to do!

  8. Hi! Is early May an okay weather window? Coming from Canada and hoping to ride the Mickelson Trail and then do this route. Have no idea what the weather is like there. Thanks for posting this. I loved reading your GDMBR blog, and based on that and your "philosophy" of cycling, I figure this will be a great ride.

  9. Thanks! The Mickelson Trail is a treasure. Have fun! If you think you'd enjoy a Great Divide, or a Black Hills Bounty, type of riding experience, I think you'd like the BackBone Grande. And it's not all or nothing. Ride what your time, energy, or ambition allow.

    May in the Black Hills is a volatile month for weather, often very nice for a few days, but then several days of cold rain, possibly even snow. I tell out-of-state friends that you may run into some really nice, dry days to ride, but it's unlikely you'll string together an entire week without some cold rain. And it may rain an entire week, or not. If early May is your time available, just be prepared.

    1. Thanks! That helps! I appreciate the feedback! Weather can definitely have a huge effect on the experience! A whole week of rain would not be fun!

    2. FWIW, here's a link to an old post about a group of Colorado cyclists who embarked on a ride of the Black Hills BackBone starting May 23, 2019. They rode 4 days: 1 cold, really sloppy day from a big, recent snowfall, then 2 solid days on hero gravel, and a final day in cold rain. May is predictably wet.