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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. 

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