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Sunday, May 21, 2023

BackBone Grande (Miles 114-203) - Heart of the Hills

The BackBone Grande is a 400 mile bikepacking route running south to north across the State of South Dakota along the spine of the Black Hills. It's a highlight reel showcasing the best of the Black Hills and surrounding prairie, connected by a unique mix of remote gravel and dirt roads. A Great Divide type of bikepacking experience right here in my backyard. See, Introducing The BackBone Grande

In its first 114 miles, the BackBone Grande crosses the southern prairie through Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, pokes into the Black Hills through Buffalo Gap, and climbs through buffalo patrolled Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park to reach the historic town of CusterNow, it rides directly into the Heart of the Hills.

Black Fox Camp Road (USFS 233). Five of my favorite miles anywhere.

Leaving Custer, the BackBone Grande climbs the rails-to-trails Mickelson Trail through an array of granite outcroppings along Laughing Water Creek. After rounding a big bend at about 5 miles, the trail crosses U.S. Highway 385 for a view of Crazy Horse Memorial just a couple of miles to the north. That's not far off-route for a tour of a mountain sculpting in progress.

The BackBone Grande then plunges into the Black Hills on some of my favorite Forest Service gravel roads. Rough Medicine Mountain Road slips through granite crags swarming with marmots. Reno Gulch Road scratches up Coad Hill for sweeping views of 7,242 foot Harney Peak, the highest point east of the Rockies and west of the Alps. And Battle Axe Road winds through rocky hills stuffed with pine trees. It's a visual feast smack through the middle of the Black Hills. 

Reno Gulch Road reveals Harney Peak, elevation 7,242'.

At about Mile 140, the BackBone Grande jumps back on the Mickelson Trail for 2 miles to connect to USFS Low Standard Road 389. At that spot, one may stay on the Mickelson Trail and ride south off-route for about 5 miles to descend into the town of Hill City for re-supply, meals, and lodging. Maybe a Zero Day is in order to ride off-route on an optional mixed terrain loop to Mount Rushmore.

And it's not just the monumental Mount Rushmore. That memorable loop climbs steeply up switchbacks to picture perfect Sylvan Lake, squeezes through the Needles Eye tunnel, passes the rock climbers' paradise of the Cathedral Spires, screams down Needles Highway, navigates multiple creek crossings on single track Iron Creek Trail, claws back up Iron Mountain through tunnels framing Mount Rushmore, and then reaches Mount Rushmore for a well deserved break. (Pro Tip - legendary ice cream) A rough dirt road connects to Old Hill City Road, well, just because this is the BackBone Grande. More on this optional Mount Rushmore loop in a later post.

Mickelson Trail tunnel. Yes, one rides through it.

Back on USFS 389, the route passes the restored Gold Mountain Mine (Mile 144), which is well worth the short hike of maybe 50 yards. Although the underground mine itself is closed, the surface buildings are restored, some original equipment survives in the open, and interpretive signs recount the mine's history. It's a nice spot for a break. 

After Gold Mountain Mine, classic Black Hills Low Standard roads meander generally north through the forest, in and out of logging activity. One cleared ridge line surprisingly shows another view of Harney Peak now to the distant south. After about 8 entertaining miles, the route runs back into another section of the Mickelson Trail.

Mickelson Trail trestle over Mystic Road. The BackBone Grande rides both.

In five of its most popular miles, the Mickelson Trail here crosses a trestle, eeks through two old railroad tunnels, and runs into Mystic Trailhead, with its water, bathrooms, and sheltered picnic tables. Then it's back on Forest Service gravel to climb USFS Low Standard Road 181 along rambunctious Castle Creek to popular USFS Castle Peak Campground. If you stay there overnight, the pitch out of that campground will certainly wake you up in the morning.

Eventually back on Rochford Road (USFS Primary Road 306), it's worth the sidestep down to the iconic Moonshine Gulch Saloon in Rochford for bar food and drinks. If you happen to ride in on a Sunday night, check out the Sunday Night Jam, an open mike, ad hoc musical event where locals and tourists freely share whatever instruments and talents they bring. Never the same show twice.

Moonshine Gulch Saloon in Rochford, a landmark stop for travelers of all kinds.

The BackBone Grande then wanders west on South Rapid Creek Road (USFS 231) along bucolic meadows framed by thickly forested hills. In about 8 tranquil miles, USFS Black Fox Campground (Mile 178) offers a very nice, developed campground next to the creek.

Then it's onto Black Fox Camp Road (USFS 233), five of my favorite miles of back country road anywhere. This packed dirt road gently climbs along a meandering stream patrolled by busy beavers working dense stands of willow. As the valley narrows, pine trees give way to towering cliffs. It all ends far too soon.

Chunky pitch up USFS Low Standard Road 631.2.

A bonus awaits. After all, this is this BackBone Grande. Connecting Black Fox Camp Road (USFS 233) and Long Draw Road (USFS 209) is a little unnamed gem that starts with about 3 miles on relatively mild USFS Low Standard Road 631 and then morphs into Road 631.2 for the next 3 miles or so. Time for some chunky monkey. Not all of it is uphill, but there may be some hike-a-bike here.

Then, it's mostly downhill on relaxing Long Draw Road that leads to delightful USFS Hanna Campground. Just a few downhill miles further lies Cheyenne Crossing (Mile 203), with a cafe, some re-supply, and possible lodging.

That's the BackBone Grande (Miles 114-203) from Custer to Cheyenne Crossing.

The Heart of the Hills.

Next Up. Into the Northern Black Hills past Roughlock Falls, small mountain resorts, USFS campgrounds, and popular hiking/mountain biking trailheads. Down to the full service town of Spearfish and out to Belle Fouche National Wildlife Refuge. Almost all on primo Forest Service roads. Almost. On the BackBone Grande, there's going to be a Low Standard, or lower, connector. You know there is.

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