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Sunday, June 25, 2023

BackBone Grande - The First Through-Ride

Celebrating at the North Dakota border on 6/22/2023.

Over 9 days, Paul Brasby and I rode the BackBone Grande across the State of South Dakota from the Nebraska border near Ardmore to the North Dakota border near Picnic Springs Campground, self-navigated and self-supported, with resupply as available along the way. 

425 miles with 24,880 feet of elevation gain on primarily dirt and gravel roads. In this Spring, mostly wet.

But this ride, and this route, mean far more than numbers. 

Hidden gems await.

I designed the BackBone Grande specifically for bikepacking, drawn from years of exploring these back roads by bicycle and from bikepacking across the country on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. It showcases our best roads and most memorable sights put together to create a Great Divide type of experience. But creating a route on the computer is one thing. How would it actually ride?

I love it.

Our through-ride of the BackBone Grande resulted in one Great Divide experience after another. We faced a wide variety of challenging variables and met an array of interesting people. Every day. Day after day. For over 400 miles. No day was easy. Some spots were very hard. Every day was amazing. 

I will be writing more about our trip and will be making a few minor changes to the route. Mostly, I will be looking for the next chance to get out there to ride again.

For links to all my posts about the BackBone Grande and to a RideWithGPS map, go to BackBone Grande Page (2023).

Sunday, June 18, 2023

BackBone Grande - A Page Linking All My Posts

Climbing into the Black Hills on Lame Johnny Road in Custer State Park.
(photo by Kevin Fox)

The 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 and surrounding prairie. 

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

Since introducing the BackBone Grande in January 2023, I've posted more details of the route and received enthusiastic responses from many cyclists. I'll be posting more in the future, including ride reports from me and others.

To readily access current and future posts I created a Blog Page that lists, describes, and links every blog post about the BackBone Grande. BackBone Grande Page.

Now comes the fun part of riding and sharing.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

BackBone Grande - Off-Route Mount Rushmore Loop

The BackBone Grande is a 400 mile bikepacking route, chockfull of the best roads and sights in the Black Hills of South Dakota and outlying prairie. To encourage riders to savor this experience, I added an optional, off-route loop to create a magnificently memorable day ride.

A Zero Day in either Hill City or Custer opens the option of riding a mostly paved loop through the Needles, past the Cathedral Spires, up and down iconic Iron Mountain Road, and then into Mount Rushmore National Memorial. But even a Zero Day must toss in a few, short connectors of lesser known gravel, dirt, and single track. That's what makes it the BackBone Grande.

Mount Rushmore celebrates American heritage of freedom and liberty.
2021 Black Hills Bounty riders.

For this post, I'll describe the loop from Hill City. See, BackBone Grande - Mt. Rushmore Loop (Hill City), because I prefer it. Note that I also created a string/balloon loop from Custer that follows the same main roads and hits all the same highlights. See, BackBone Grande - Mt. Rushmore Loop (Custer). In 2021, riders on the Black Hills Bounty rode from Custer up and down Iron Mountain Road, into Mount Rushmore, up and down Needles Highway, and back to Custer, with some different connectors. For a report of that ride, go to 2021 Black Hills Bounty (Day 3) - All American.

Climbing up to Sylvan Lake.
Mark Hoffman, Jeff Bloom & Ben Cooper on the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

From Hill City, ride the Mickelson Trail south 3 miles to Needles Highway (SD Highway 87) and start climbing toward Sylvan Lake. By a series of switch backs, Needles Highway gains over 1,100 feet in about 5 miles, but it's paved and not steep. Even better, views of the surrounding granite formations across the valley pop up throughout the climb, not just at the top. 

At about Mile 9, the route swings by picturesque Sylvan Lake and a trailhead to 7,242' Harney Peak, the highest point east of Rockies and west of the Alps. The resort there offers snacks, drinks, and some shelter, if the weather acts up. Also, for a unique short hike, many enjoy the Sunday Gulch Trail, a well developed, popular 4 mile loop around Sylvan Lake. 

Threading some needles on Needles Highway.
Lane Bergen on the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

From Sylvan Lake, the route winds through ancient granite rock formations that grow in number and size, closing in from both sides as the road seeks a path through. A break in the granite opens a panoramic view of the valley below leading to the distant prairie. This road was purpose built for tourism, with parking areas, trailheads, and interpretive signs. Take a moment to stop. Maybe walk around a bit. This is not a time to maximize power output or obsess with speed.

Not surprisingly, vehicle traffic is common on Needles Highway, although practically none is commercial. Most are tourists moving slowly, or stopping. Generally, I've found most all to be attentive and courteous to cyclists. Some of that vehicle traffic is actually helpful, as a cyclist can piggy-back with a car passing through a one-way tunnel.

Barely one-way tunnel at the Needles Eye.
Paul Brasby on the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Eeking through the Needle's Eye tunnel, Needles Highway switchbacks down past more parking areas for trailheads to Cathedral Spires, Little Devil's Tower, and other renowned rock climbing attractions. On a nice day, a close look may reveal climbers on the vertical granite. 

Needles Highway then dramatically drops over 1,500 feet in the next 7 twisty, turny miles. It's easy to go too fast here, and be unprepared for a sharp corner, wandering wildlife, or a stopped car. I've startled a few marmots strolling across the road here and was very fortunate to avoid damage to body, bike, and critter. It's also easy to fly by this route's left hand turn onto Camp Remington Road (USFS 345) at Mile 17. Know that if you miss it, you'll have some climbing to get back to it.

Piggy-backing safe passage through a one-way tunnel.
Jeff Bloom, Lane Bergen & Ben Cooper on the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

After about 3 miles of generally downhill gravel, Camp Remington Road ends at Iron Creek West Trailhead (Mile 20). For the next 2.5 miles, the route follows the Iron Creek Trail, a gentle, packed dirt single track that repeatedly crosses Iron Creek, sometimes with a single beam bridge. This trail skirts the southern boundary of Black Elk Wilderness Area, so be sure to stay on the trail if you're on a bike.

One of several "bridges" along the Iron Creek Trail.

Popping out at the Iron Creek East Trailhead, the route turns north on Iron Mountain Road, aka Pigtail Highway (U.S. Highway 16A). This scenic byway also was purpose built for tourism, climbing a series of switch backs to Norbeck Overlook atop Iron Mountain. Pigtail turns with bridges, hard rock tunnels cut to frame views of Mount Rushmore, and occasional glimpses of Mount Rushmore through the forest create a nonstop highlight reel along this 4 mile climb.

Like Needles Highway, this two lane paved road is narrow with practically no shoulder and often steady tourist traffic. But this iconic road is on the Bucket List for many cyclists. Just be attentive and courteous, like you expect the motorists to be.

Out of a tunnel, a pigtail goes over, and then under, a bridge.

The 4 mile descent off Iron Mountain is just as scenic, curvy, tunnelly, and pig-taily as the ascent, but adds stretches of divided two-lane. Yes, occasionally you will be flying down a one-way, one lane paved highway. It's something like a wide bike path through the forest. It all goes by too fast, although I have been slowed down several times after catching up with slower moving cars.

At about Mile 30, the route turns left onto S.D. Highway 244 for a 2 mile, 800 foot climb to Mount Rushmore. This short stretch is the least pleasant of the route. Steep, exposed, often hot, and almost always busy with fast moving traffic. Fortunately, the shoulder is very wide and the scenery is inspiring. And it's only 2 miles.

Now, there's a view!
Mark Hoffman climbing Iron Mountain Road on the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial (Mile 32) does not charge an admission fee, per se, but does charge for vehicles to park. So, smile and wave as you ride past the parking lot attendant and ride right up to the main entrance. Then you can walk your bike into the Memorial, including the pavilion (see the first picture above). I also recommend a stop at the commissary for their famous ice cream.  

After that sumptuous break and photo op, hop back on Highway 244 heading west. Just around the corner, look up for a unique profile view of the George Washington sculpture on Mount Rushmore. Also, watch for mountain goats scampering off these cliff faces onto the road.

At about Mile 37, turn right onto USFS 356. Yes, the BackBone Grande simply must include a short stretch of a Low Standard Road, to accompany the earlier gravel and single track. This little gem flows mostly downhill on some rocky, likely rutted dirt for about 2 miles to connect with Old Hill City Road. Then the route climbs steadily on an old, lightly traveled paved road for about 4 miles back to Hill City.

Riding around Mount Rushmore on Highway 244.
2021 Black Hills Bounty riders.

All told, that's 44 miles with almost 5,000 feet of elevation gain on iconic paved roads to a cherished national memorial, with a little gravel, rough dirt, and single track sprinkled in. A Bucket List ride for cyclists from all over, with a couple of twists from a local.

That's one memorable Zero Day on the BackBone Grande. 

Sunday, June 4, 2023

BackBone Grande (Miles 272-400) - Oasis in the Northern Prairie

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. It's a Great Divide type of bikepacking experience right here in my backyard. See, Introducing The BackBone Grande.

Now clearly out of the Black Hills, the BackBone Grande streaks into the Northern Prairie on solid county gravel. The next 128 miles roll through wide open ranch country, but it's not homogenous and it's not flat. Then, with the North Dakota border practically within sight, a fun Low Standard Road climbs to a forested oasis in the midst of millions of acres of grassland. The BackBone Grande. It's not over, until it's over.

Custer Gallatin National Forest, North Cave Unit, USFS Picnic Springs Campground.
Just 12 miles to the North Dakota border, this view is right by a campsite.

From the Belle Fouche National Wildlife Refuge at Mile 272, the BackBone Grande rolls over county roads along pastures and irrigated cropland by the town of Arpan (no services). At Mud Buttes, the route turns onto graveled Old U.S. Highway 85 into the wide open, exposed Northern Prairie streaming toward the North Dakota border. 

Just 8 miles later, a small turn-off to the east reveals a truly unique piece of Americana (Mile 300). Next to a hand stacked stone marker, a handprinted sign proudly proclaims this to be the "TRUE Center of the Nation." A beaten path leads into the pasture with an American flag marking a survey medallion set in a concrete base. Although perhaps appreciated best by geography and math geeks, this is the one and only "Geographic Center of the United States." See, Geographic Center of the United States.

Local rancher marks the "True Center of the Nation" with a homespun, heartfelt marker.

Just 9 miles later, keep an eye to the west for a simple wooden sign by a cattle gate (Mile 309). It's easy to miss, as I have done numerous times while riding and driving on this road. This marks the Battle Creek Wetlands Project, a cooperative effort between the Bureau of Land Management and Ducks Unlimited. In big ranch land, it's a rare patch of marked public land for disperse camping. 

One could camp just on the other side of the gate and barbed wire fence. For a little wind break in the exposed prairie and a bit more seclusion from the occasionally traveled gravel road, ride about 3/4 mile into Battle Creek Wetlands Project to a large trailer sitting at an intersection. (That's the light, small dot on the horizon just right of center in the picture below). At that point, taking the south (left) fork in the road for another 3/4 mile reveals a good sized reservoir for possible water re-supply.

A simple sign identifies Battle Creek Wetland Project, a patch of public land in ranch country.
Bureau of Land Management and Ducks Unlimited.

Next up is Harding (Mile 332), a collection of a few homes and abandoned buildings. Back in 1884-1885, Harding was a stage coach stop on the Medora-Deadwood Stage Line. A local resident, Gayle Penn, once showed me glass bottles from that era that she found while working on her property. Gayle herself is another gem hidden in plain sight in the Northern Prairie. See, A Rancher's Kindness.

The BackBone Grande cruises out of Harding north and eventually east toward Buffalo (Mile 360), a town with a cafe, bar, a couple of C-stores, a grocery store, a motel, and a bare bones campground. Like many small towns, the days and hours that a business is open may be limited. For what it's worth, I happened to stop there in May of 2023 shortly after noon during the week and enjoyed the Daily Special (meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, bread) at the Blossom Cafe. It was busy with locals, always a good sign.

Dropping into the mound speckled prairie on Gilbert Road en route to Buffalo.

Since dropping out of the Black Hills about 120 miles ago, the BackBone Grande has been crossing the vast, exposed Northern Prairie. Now, an unexpected, lumpy mass of rocks covered with pine trees juts up from the horizon north of Buffalo. It's a small, isolated piece of Custer Gallatin National Forest called the North Cave Hills Unit, only about 10 miles long, north-to-south, and less than half that wide. There's nothing like it anywhere around here.

From Buffalo, the route picks up some local gravel, but eventually follows paved U.S. Highway 85 for about 5 miles to access graveled Brown-Johnson Road. This nice, rolling county gravel road passes a few ranches and turns onto Tuft Road to enter a unique patch of national forest. You may wish to stop at the USFS welcome sign to pick up a Motor Vehicle Use Map, as this area is not well marked or well mapped.

Winding toward the North Cave Unit of Custer Gallatin National Forest.

Now into the National Forest, Tuft Road (USFS 3120) winds up a valley supporting some trees along drainages and reveals more pine trees higher up. After about 6 miles, the route turns onto unnamed USFS Low Standard Road 3123 (Mile 381) to climb a shorter, steeper pitch to a ridge line. If you've ridden through Riley Pass and started downhill, you missed the turn onto Road 3123.

After rolling along this ridge for about 4 miles, the route runs by idyllic USFS Picnic Springs Campground (Mile 385). Take a look at that picture below. If you didn't know better, you'd think you were back in the middle of the Black Hills, over 150 miles of prairie away.

USFS Picnic Springs Campground.

But, no. Picnic Springs Campground sits just 12 route miles from the North Dakota border. This shaded, quiet oasis offers an ideal spot to relax as you finish the BackBone Grande route. Or, as a South Bound rider, an ideal spot to launch a ride from the North Dakota border. See, e.g., Three Days Of The BackBone (2017).

This delightful, no fee, no reservation campground offers 9 camp sites, plus 2 group camp sites, vault toilets, picnic tables, and "non-potable" spring water. It's scenic, quiet, secluded, and practically at the border. I've camped there several times without seeing anyone else. However, in view of those sturdy, extra long picnic tables, I expect it may be used more often during fall hunting season.

Fuller Pass Road (USFS Secondary 3114).

Dropping down a short pitch to Fuller Pass Road (USFS 4113), the BackBone Grande winds along a final canyon to abruptly pop back out onto the prairie. A final few miles delivers you to the North Dakota border, unmarked as such. The signs shown below state that you're entering South Dakota as well as anything.

The BackBone Grande. That's a ride.

North Dakota border looking south into South Dakota.