The Black Hills Tour…I’ve been thinking about this ride for over a year now. There are two long trails (>100miles) that traverse the Black Hills north to south. They are the Centennial Trail and the Mickelson Trail. Both have unique character but in completely different ways.
The Centennial Trail starts out in the prairie outside of Sturgis at Bear Butte, continues on through the central rocky area near Mt. Rushmore, and ends at the southern prairies of Wind Cave National Park near Hot Springs for a total of around 114 miles. It is mostly a hiking trail but it utilizes jeep roads throughout the Hills. There are two sections that cannot be completed by bike. The first is the Black Elk Wilderness area near Mount Rushmore and the second is the last few miles within Wind Cave National Park. As far as I know, the record time for completing the Centennial Trail is 21 hours but that should either be omitted or caveated because the rider ‘poached’ the Wilderness area.
The Mickelson Trail starts in Edgemont and ends in Deadwood for a total of 109miles. This trail is a rail-to-trail conversion and passes through Custer and Hill City with maximum grades of about 5%.
I spent a lot of time up in the Black Hills for work around 2000 and I got to know the trails and all the back roads pretty well. I used to do sections of the Centennial and Mickelson but it wasn’t until 2006 that I attempted to ride the entire Centennial Trail. That was my first multi-day ride and I completed with the support of my wife and daughter. They would meet me along the way at the various trailheads, feed me, and refill my water bottles, etc. It took me 36 hours going south to north (and I portaged around the wilderness area in the car) but I was completely spent after both days to the point that I could barely eat even after hours of being off the bike.
Last year, Marshal and I attempted the Black Hills Tour in late-July, but the record high temps in the mid-100s were too much to cope with. Marshal called it quits about 30 miles into the Centennial and I left the trail after about 75 miles (~36hours). The heat just sapped the energy out of you and I couldn’t keep up with my intake of water and electrolytes.
This year I was back doing it solo. I would have limited support from my family again, but I felt more confident that I could travel more trail without support than I did in 2006. My sister let us borrow their van for the trip which was more than considerate of her. I had plans of camping at Bear Butte and getting a pre-dawn start, but when we arrived in Lead, my friend had cleaned his house and offered us his bed…How could I refuse? So I opted to stay at his house and then get a dawn start the next day instead. He had a telescope so we set it up and checked out the rings of Saturn before we called it a night.
We packed up and left Tony’s house around 4am. By 5am we were at the campground in Bear Butte State Park. There was plenty of light to see by so I didn’t need a light and I started off across the earthen dam just before the sun peaked over Bear Butte.
Leading up to this day, I was mostly concerned about how I was going to cross the first creek (Bear Butte Creek) near Sturgis. I really didn’t want to start the day off with wet feet so I was playing the scenarios over and over in my mind: Do I take off my shoes and socks to wade through or do I deal with wet feet? After the first mile of riding through the dew laden prairie grasses, my dilemma was mute…my feet were soaked and I hadn’t crossed ANY creeks. All of the rain that they have been getting was evident in the green hue and thickness of the prairie. In some places along the Bear Butte bluffs, the grasses were hitting my handlebars.
I picked up my first tick just before getting into Fort Meade. I caught him before he had burrowed in so I didn’t have to dig the head out. In Fort Meade, evidence of torrential rainfall caught me off guard as I was able to make a quick dismount over the bars when the trail dropped off into a deep erosion gulley. As I rode on, the evidence became more pronounced. I stopped at the cemetery to take a quick picture from outside the gate.
I think the aberration may be a ghost…I didn’t feel a presence, but my MP3 player skipped at that moment. The next flood-induced obstacle was the new underpass at I-90. In years past, you could just ride right into the underpass and through it, but this year they constructed a new underpass and they didn’t amour the downstream side adequately resulting in a 6-8 foot drop that made even climbing in from the streambed impossible. My solution was to drop into it from the side which resulted in about a 4-6 foot drop. Directly upstream of the underpass is this trestle:
The climb up Bulldog Hill was everything I remembered. My new back tire really started to show it’s benefit on the loose parts of this climb.
It wasn’t until the descent off Bulldog that I was again caught off guard by the erosion gullies which again resulted in a quick dismount over the bars. However, this time I ripped the rear derailleur cable from its clasp. I quickly fixed it and was again on my way up the climb to reach Elk Creek. There’s usually a dry creek that is crossed a few times on this section and I was surprised to see that it actually had flowing water.
The Elk Creek trailhead was just like I remembered and I was anticipating the steep, rocky descent to the creek where Marshal and I had taken an extended break last time to fill up our water and soak in the cool waters during the heat of the day. As I rounded the corner to the descent, there were a couple of logs across the trail that took me off the bike. Hmmm. Sure enough they re-routed this section but because of all the rain, the new trail was not evident, in fact, it looked like it never existed.
The re-route was a more mellow approach to the creek, but the roar of the creek told me it wasn’t going to be like last year. Elk Creek was more swollen than I had ever seen it before. Although it was running clear, the swiftness of the torrent made me question whether it was passable. It was moving so fast and looked so deep that I was concerned about all my electronics so I took my MP3 player and camera and put them into the top of my pack before attempting a crossing. That first crossing was nearly mid-thigh deep and swift enough to force me to angle the bike with the current to keep it from either being ripped out of my hands or having it run into me taking my feet out in the process. The thrill of crossing the creek without going down put me in an ebullient mood. Even the downed trees crossing the trail couldn’t extinguish the feeling of joy. With each creek crossing the joyfulness of being in the situation continued to grow.
The climb out of Elk Creek was riddled with downed trees slowing my progress much more than I had expected. Eventually I neared the rim of the canyon and soaked in the view before moving on.
I don’t think I will ever be able to complete the remainder of the climb without thinking of the tribulations that Marshal and I had last year on this climb. Last year, we climbed this section in the middle of the day when it was 106F. We struggled but we eventually made it to the top. This year was completely different, it was still mid-morning with mild temps and it didn’t seem to be nearly the obstacle that it was last year. Upon reaching the top, I called my wife to let her know of my progress and we planned to meet in Nemo for lunch. As soon as I reached the road that used to be the end of the singletrack, I found that they have re-routed the trail directly across the road. I don’t know if the re-route was there last year or not. I was too concerned about getting to Dalton Lake to even look for it. But this year, it was right across the road clear as day.
It is a great edition and continuation of the singletrack coming out of Elk Creek. It follows along the ridge for a few miles before dropping down to Dalton Lake. I relished every new foot of singletrack soaking in the new terrain and trail. The only problem was that it is slower than the old route which put me behind my time schedule and I was going to really have to push it to get to Nemo by the time I told Misty. I ran into the first person on the trail since starting right at Dalton Lake.
The next section of trail is where ATV traffic begins. Upon the first mud hole, I realized that all the ATV traffic did not bode well for me through this segment. There were mud holes, and slippery rock everywhere which just put me that much further behind when I told Misty I’d meet her. However, I took my time through this rough and rocky section because I knew that pushing it at this time would only end in disaster. I skipped the section of the trail that circumvents Nemo because I was already late and I knew that it would be just as bad, if not worse, than the section I just came through. We sat down and ate lunch (which took over an hour) and I was back on my way. We discussed where to camp for the night and I thought that the southern end of Sheridan Lake would be a good spot. I knew that getting a record time on the Centennial was out of the question considering the trail conditions to this point and that would still put me about 60-70 miles into the ride. Box Elder Creek TH to Pilot Knob was a series of mud bogs. Some I could navigate around but most I just had to walk through and hope I didn’t lose a shoe.
While the section from Bear Butte to Dalton Lake was very overgrown in some areas needed more trail use to keep a good base, Dalton Lake to Pilot Knob showed serious signs of overuse.
After Pilot Knob, the trail returned to singletrack and the undulating trail through the forest under overcast skies with slight sprinkles required very little effort to travel down. Mostly downhill, this section was covered quickly and before I knew it I was meeting with Misty and Aspen, cleaning the mud from my shoes and socks in Rapid Creek. The climb up Tamarack Gulch was uneventful but the solitude of a rarely used trail was welcomed.
The Bald Hills past the Brush Creek TH were more green than I had ever seen them. Last year, I had to stop and rest before pushing through the Bald Hills because I knew that there would be no shade on the climb because sun+heat made these otherwise beautiful hills formidable. This year, I had an overcast sky which tamed the climb.
Crossing Sheridan Lake dam marked the end of the day. I pulled into camp right at sundown.