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Monday, February 27, 2023

Taste of Black Hills Gravel

This time of year seems to generate questions about gravel routes, from both locals and travelers.

For stellar day rides on forest gravel roads in the Black Hills of South Dakota, start with the "Routes & Resources" page of Lucas Haan, our local Pied Piper of Gravel, has archived a library of routes from the popular Black Hills Gravel Series. Every route there is worth riding.

The Black Hills Gravel routes are categorized by color to indicate their relative distance and difficulty. "Green" routes are the shortest (10-15 miles) and least difficult (better surface, less climbing, simple navigation). "Blue" routes are longer (25-35 miles) and a bit more difficult (some rougher surfaces, some more climbing, a bit more remote). "Black" routes are the longest (45-55 miles) and more difficult (stretches of rough roads, maybe a Low Standard or single track connector, steeper climbs and more elevation gain). In general, a given Green, Blue and Black route are nested from a common start/finish town or commercial establishment.

RideWithGPS is notoriously inaccurate with its "Paved Surfaces" notation.
Disregard it. This route is practically all gravel and dirt.

One of my favorites from this library is the 2017 Rochford Black Route (49 miles/3,600 feet of elevation gain). Starting and finishing in the quaint mountain town of Rochford, this route includes the pot-holed, often muddy, Low Standard road climb along Castle Creek, a rocky spur up abandoned Flag Mountain Lookout for 360 degree views, a curvy drop down Black Fox Camp Road, and a flying descent on South Rapid Creek Road. See, 2017 Rochford Black Route.

I rode that route in the 2017 Black Hills Gravel Series and highly recommend it. Before that and since then, I've ridden all those roads many times as part of other rides. I've even included many of those miles on several routes I have created, such as the Black Hills BackBone, 2021 Black Hills Bounty, Heart of the Hills Overnighter, and BackBone Grande. They never get old.

All smiles atop Flag Mountain Lookout on the Rochford Black Route.
2017 Black Hills Gravel Series. (photo by Heather Heynen)

For what it's worth, if I were to ride that particular route now, I would ride it counter-clockwise, rather than clockwise, for three reasons.
  • Although the Black Fox Camp Road is top notch either way, I prefer riding it uphill, rather than down. The climb isn't steep and I enjoy soaking in the views of steep cliffs, a meandering stream, dense cover, and the occasional beaver dam. It all seems to go by too fast when riding downhill.
  • In contrast, I prefer to ride Castle Creek Road downhill, even though it's a nice climb, too. That Low Standard Road is rocky enough, and often muddy enough, to check my speed and I don't seem to miss as much as the downhill on Black Fox Camp Road.
  • When turning off Castle Creek Road onto Mystic Road, I would hop on the Mickelson Trail for the final 7 miles. I normally prefer roads, but the Mickelson Trail here avoids some traffic and sharp corners on that gravel road into Rochford and, as a bonus, passes through a tunnel.
Ben Cooper and Paul Brasby navigate Castle Creek Road at the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Black Fox Camp Road. Simply the best.

So, start with the "Routes & Resources" page on But don't be afraid to pull out a map and look for other interesting roads. A lifetime of back road riding awaits in the Black Hills.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

BackBone Grande - To The Start & From the Finish

A logistical issue inherent with a cross-state cycling route is getting to the start and from the finish. Make that state South Dakota and that route on back country gravel/dirt roads and both are sure to be well removed from anything resembling a population center.

Well, the southern terminus of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is Antelope Wells, New Mexico, a closed U.S. Border Station 45 miles away from the nearest town of Hachita (population 49). Self-sufficient bikepackers on the Great Divide figure it out. I'm sure that anyone embarking on a ride of the BackBone Grande will, too.

Nonetheless, since South Dakota is largely unknown to many, here are some specifics of the start and finish of the BackBone Grande to kick start things. Introducing the BackBone Grande.

There's prairie to cross, both North and South of the Black Hills, on the BackBone Grande.

1. Drop Off at the Start & Pick Up at the Finish
A simple approach requires another to drop you off at the start and pick you up at the finish. The RideWithGPS file should direct your driver to both the start and the finish, which are accessible via paved roads and all-weather gravel roads. Yes, both will be a bit of a drive from the nearest coffee shop or pub.

2. Ride to Connect at the Nearest Town
One can ride to the start and from the finish to connect with your driver at the nearest town. The southern terminus of the BackBone Grande lies about 30 miles south of Edgemont (population 725) and about 34 miles southwest of Hot Springs (population 3,400). The northern terminus lies about 43 miles north of Buffalo (population 350). Your driver can access all three of these towns on paved highways.

3. Ride Directly from/to Rapid City
One can ride directly from Rapid City to the start or to Rapid City from the finish, presumably for a flight or other public transportation elsewhere. That's about 90 miles from the Southern terminus and 150 miles from the Northern terminus.

4. Ride Back to the Start on the Grande Route
Every year, some adventuresome folks yo-yo the 2,500 mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. That is, they ride the entire route one direction and turn around to ride it all the way back. Why not the 400 mile BackBone Grande? That actually sounds like a great ride.

5. A Different Return Route for One Big Bad Loop 
I'm working on a unique route that starts at the Northern terminus of the BackBone Grande and loops southward back to the Southern terminus. As currently envisioned, this BackBone "Double Grande" would be a much different experience from the Grande. More rough roads. More remote. More distance between re-supplies. More dispersed camping. More self-sufficient. Likely a swing through parts of Montana and Wyoming. This will take some time to do right. Perhaps next year I'll be ready to publish it. Of course, in the meantime, you can always create your own return route.

6. Support/Shuttle Vehicle Shadow
The entire BackBone Grande route cannot be driven by motor vehicle. However, the sections that are not accessible to motor vehicles are relatively short. With a little planning and communication, a support/shuttle vehicle should be able to meet cyclists off and on every day, if that's your jam. In other words, you can bring your shuttle to the finish with you.

7. Open to Imagination
Possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Say a friend wants to join for an overnighter, but not more. Leave a shuttle vehicle at the start and that friend can ride back to retrieve it on Day 2 while you continue on the route. That process could also be employed in reverse from the finish.

The prairie takes no prisoners.

The start and finish of the BackBone Grande are only about 250 driving miles apart, with Rapid City roughly 2 hours from the southern terminus and roughly 3 hours from the northern. 

"No problemo," says the experienced bike packer.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Today & Tomorrow

Note to self. Go ride. Just ride.

All of December and into the new year, life busted my chops. I'm still staggering. One result was that I did not ride a bike for almost 7 weeks. Not surprisingly, I gained weight, lost fitness, and, worse, cared not.

Then one morning, no different from any other, I dressed up to ride, for no discernible reason. I rode a modified version of my old work commute to downtown, adding to a paved bike path ride a mix of single track, dirt, grass and gravel. Once started, I kept pedaling and eventually rode 16 miles over 2 hours.

Therapeutic. And a nice reminder.

Every day matters. Every ride matters.

Sunny winter day along the Rapid City bike path, with M-Hill in the background.

For twelve years, I rode my bike about 5 miles to and from work practically every day, year around. I had no larger agenda; not training, not spending less on gas, not saving the planet. I just loved that I could ride my bike twice every day. A Final Commute.

Any given day, it was not apparent how such a short, low level effort would make much of a lifestyle difference. However, I loved the ride, felt better all day, and unknowingly built a physical and mental base for the inevitable big rides in the future. Eventually, I realized that little bit of consistent daily movement over time produced significant health and fitness gains. Physical and mental.

Riding past Little League baseball fields always brings a smile.

Three weeks have now passed since that reminder bike ride. Other than a day spent shoveling piles of snow and another day committed to family matters, I have ridden some variation of that route every day since. Most days I cover those 15-16 miles in about 2 hours on my loaded Jones mountain bike, although sometimes it's an easy 90 minute spin and sometimes a hard 3 hour grunt. But I've been out there, living a lesson deeply engraved from the Great Divide. Living A Dream.

Enjoy the day, with everything that comes with it, and give yourself a chance to ride tomorrow.

Ride today. Ride tomorrow.
That today had no snow. Tomorrow this may be a trail.