Bikepacking in the Black Hills: A New Approach to an Old Idea

This article is scheduled to appear in SD Magazine (PC version) in the spring of 2019. content by site authors

A fully loaded bike on the side of Castle Creek, near Mystic, SD

A fully loaded bike on the side of Castle Creek, near Mystic, SD

Last month, when a few local mountain bikers asked me to accompany them on a 125-mile ride over three days through the Black Hills, I shrugged and said, “Why not?”

Black Hills Pay Dirt: 125 miles beginning and ending in Sturgis, SD

Black Hills Pay Dirt: 125 miles beginning and ending in Sturgis, SD

9:10 a.m. on Friday, June 29

Six of us huddle around our loaded bikes, anxiously packing and repacking our gear, topping off water bottles, and comparing tire pressures. It is the first time Molly and I will bikepack, and I’m feeling the familiar combination of nonchalance and nervousness that I always get before a big day in the saddle. I look at my rig. Did I bring enough? Did I bring too much? “Fuck it,” I say. The term bikepacking couldn’t be more literal—I guess we cyclists aren’t really a creative lot. It’s the harmonious yet-slightly-absurd blend of mountain biking, cycle touring, and lightweight backpacking. Throw those ideas in a food processor and the term bikepacking is born. One of the many challenges (one that, in my naiveté, I thought I could figure out the night before) is packing everything a person might need in the woods onto the frame of a bike. That’s where we bikers tend to get creative. Tent poles strapped to handle bars, sleeping bags stuffed into seat bags, rain gear smashed into the front triangle, food stashed in odd pockets and crevasses. There is an entire industry built around bags for bikepacking. We even have a local source in the Black Hills, DirtBags.

“Ready?” Kristi asks us.

I mutter something unintelligible as I scarf down the rest of my banana—I’m not about to get stuck carrying a peel for 30 miles until we reach a trash can and our first stop, Lewies Saloon & Eatery in Lead, SD.

5 miles into our route

5 miles into our route

10:35 a.m.

Brrapppp brap brapp! A four-wheeler is headed in our direction. I’m always startled when, after riding with my head down for a few hours, I run into a four-wheeler or side-by-side on the trail. It’s jarring. It’s not that I’m surprised they are out there, but I’m always surprised by how they look. They’re so clean in comparison. After an hour of pedaling I’m usually covered in dirt (usually mixed with cow pies) and pouring sweat, while they look like they’re going to the movies. “How far are you going with that bicycle?” If the color of his rig was in a box of crayons they’d call it Army green. “We’re headed to Lead for lunch, but I think we’ll end up in Rochford tonight,” I reply. The ultra-clean recreator nods. “That’s pretty far,” he says. “Not really,” I shrug. Whenever I talk to people on the side of the trail who aren’t familiar with mountain biking or bikepacking they always say the same thing (as they look my bike up and down, skeptical but curious). First, they say something about it not being safe, usually in the form of a question. Then they ask what they really want to know: “Why would you want to do that?” “Isn’t that dangerous?” “Not really.” I shrug again. He looks doubtful—he thinks I’m joking. “But that’s so far! Why would you want to do that?” he asks.

When I was in kindergarten my dad stuffed me in a blue, hard-plastic baby seat (hopefully discontinued) attached to his old Trek bicycle (certainly discontinued). He’d drop me off and pick me up that way, every bump and subsequent “ow!” worth the breeze in my hair. I was learning the first lesson of riding a bike: the pain is worth the ride. By the first grade, I had a real bike. Real as in not a trike, which I make note of here not for the sake of the reader, but for my six-year-old self, who considered it an important (ehem! essential) distinction. It was white, purple, and pink. Despite already being a burgeoning young feminist who abhorred anything purple or pink, I loved it anyway. My brothers helped me spray paint it silver. Isn’t it incredible how a can of paint can make something change form, can give it new meaning, new purpose? Since then, my bike has changed (650b Specialized 2017 Comp Carbon Camber, with an Eagle drive-train and Red Monkey grips, matte black) but my experience has stayed pretty much the same. Every time I ride I have this feeling of total freedom—the freedom to push myself, the freedom to take risk, the freedom to stop thinking and let my ape-brain drive for a while. It seems silly how empowering (how primal!) it is to ride a heap of metal and plastic and rubber down a hill.

What I like about bikepacking is that it’s an odd mix of old and new, traditional and innovative, simple and complex. For example, while riding a bike is easy enough, controlling a weighted bike down steep, rocky single track and navigating the vast expanse of the Black Hills by GPS is very, very tricky. In the same thread, while the bicycle is very, very old (1817), the idea to huck your ride down the steepest trails in the Hills while stuffed to the brim with everything you need to survive for a week is relatively new. I guess it’s a Millennial’s eco-friendly, heart-healthy approach to the outdoors. I wish I would have said that to the ultra-clean recreator.

12:05 p.m.

Galena, 1890. Photo by John C. H. Grabill [Public domain] license, via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve been linking up old forest service roads all the way to Galena for hours now. I love Galena, with it’s silly signs like “Ghosts on Road.” As we hop on Yellow Creek Road, just above Lead, we take in the views. I can see Terry Peak. We coast down the rutted, bumpy road for a few miles until we pop out more or less across the street from Lewies. I’ve been eating burgers there since I was in ski lessons, tied to an instructor’s hip by a rope and “pizza-ing” and “French-frying” down what was then called Deer Mountain.

1:40 p.m.

I’m stuffing my leftover French fries into a Ziploc bag while the server is pretending not to watch. Little does she know these fries will taste even better that night.

We leave the restaurant and ride another 20 miles on the Mickelson, past the highpoint of Dumont at over 6,000 feet. The Mickelson is a rails-to-trails success story. It’s 109 miles of hard, tacky gravel—so smooth it’s almost dirt. At a 4% railroad grade, the climbing is easy and feels good on my knees. Thousands of tons of gold was once transported on this same path, when the Black Hills supplied 10% of the worlds gold for 125 years. (Source: Wolff, David. "Gold Mining in the Black Hills")

Although faster than by foot, bikepacking is still slow enough to breathe in a place—pine and moss and fern. It's slow enough to appreciate the Black Hills for what they are; rugged, old, forested. In the spring they are purple with Lupine, in the summer yellow with Black-Eyed Susan, in the fall red from Poison Ivy and Virginia Creeper. They’re limestone, granite, slate, and sandstone; simple, sometimes boring (yes, I really do mean boring), and undeniably beautiful.

Cycling the Mickelson near Lead, South Dakota

Cycling the Mickelson near Lead, South Dakota

2:15 p.m.

The greasy food is slowing us down a little. I don’t mind—riding slow gives a person plenty of time to think. Reminders of the colorful (a South Dakotan euphemism for bloody and convoluted) past of the Black Hills saturate the area near Rochford. As we ride past a “No Trespassing” sign I wonder, “if I hopped off my bike and stepped onto private property, who would I be trespassing against?” The Black Hills are simultaneously my home, and not mine to have. What a strange paradox to be born into! My very presence on the trail stands as a marker of flagrant violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty and subsequent acquisition of the Black Hills. That’s definitely something to spend some time thinking about when you’re rolling at 5 m.p.h. Source: Mattison, Ray H. (1955). "The First Fifty Years". National Park Service.

I think that’s why early homesteaders used the name “Black Hills” (a translation of Lakota Pahá Sápa) rather than coming up with an English name of their own. I’ve since learned that a lot was lost in our translation, as is so often the case in life and linguistics. Lakotah Dakota Crow Russel Means defines Pahá Sápa as not only a description of color, but more profoundly an origin story, as well. He writes, “The word ‘Pa-ha’ is broken up into two meanings…The Ponderosa Pine gives the illusion of black from a distance…Pa describes the mountains emerging from the earth.” Source: Means, Russel (July 29, 2009) “Kȟe Sapa and Paha Sapa – Russell Means’ response to David Swallow” Republic of Lakota.

I like the imagery of the Hills emerging from the surrounding grasslands, all the rock being pushed up through the crust, Ponderosa and blue grass springing up like stubble on a clean face. Interestingly enough, the battle for the Black Hills and Pahá Sápa continues to wage near Rochford, with the weapon of choice the law. KEVN reports, “three people have filed a civil suit appealing the state’s decision to transfer an exploration permit from the Canadian Company Mineral Mountain Resources to its subsidiary, Mineral Mountain Resources South Dakota.” One can’t help but nod at the irony of yet another foreign entity staking claim to land that is already claimed twice over. Source: Caudill, Jack (June 12, 2018) “Legal battle over Rochford mining exploration continues” KEVN Black Hills Fox.

3:50 p.m.

We’re moving through the old railroad tunnels between Dumont and Rochford. How long does it take mere mortals to blast through the side of a mountain? I love how it’s always a few degrees cooler and damper in the tunnels than outside—it gives them a supernatural quality.

4:01 p.m.

The temperature plummets by 10 degrees as dark blue clouds gather in the North. We lower our heads and click up a few gears on our cassettes as we race toward Rochford and shelter.

Meanwhile, Spearfish local Punky Engesser’s horse, LJ, is struck by lightning as one tornado touches down in Spearfish Canyon, a second in Newell, and a third on U.S. Highway 212 on the South Dakota-Wyoming border. Source: Waston, Mark (July 5, 2018) “Friday tornado damage 19 miles long” Black Hills Pioneer.

4:15 p.m.

As the rest of the Hills are bombed with hail ranging from 1.2 to 4.5 inches, we watch a heavy rain hit the empty street outside of the Moonshine Gulch Saloon. A few dogs run through the unlatched door—no one seems to notice or care. Two of the women only planned to ride with us for a day, so we started saying our “goodbyes.” Their ride showed up without a windshield. We’re lucky we didn’t go with poor LJ. I didn’t realize just how lucky we were until I drove through Deadwood—every single car looked like someone smashed it with a baseball bat. I look around the table: four women; dirty, cold, tired, but smiling. Each carrying everything she needs to survive on her bike. Autonomous. What would Calamity Jane think of us?

7:10 p.m.

We bed down on an old road just outside of Rochford for the night. It rains while I eat granola bars and the cold French fries I brought from Lewis for dinner. Cayotes howl most of the night, and no one sleeps much. There is nothing like a wet, cold night in the woods to convince a person to invest in better gear.

6:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 30

Soaked, I roll out of my damp bivy sack (which is really nothing more than an expensive garbage bag to wrap around your sleeping bag, en lieu of a tent) and wriggled into my stinky clothes. Why didn’t I bring extra shorts? No one carried a stove on the trip, and so our morning started off without coffee. In hindsight, I doubt I’ll ever skimp on coffee again. It’s one of those extraneous things that is worth its weight.

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8:05 a.m.

We climb toward Myersville and Castle Peak. It’s slow-going and steep at a 7% grade, and the recent rainfall turned the two-track road into a meandering stream. Small ferns, grass, and wildflowers line the banks as we ride through the water. The mixture of sunlight, humidity, and atmosphere reminds me of hiking above the timberline in Glacier National Park.

Upper Trail 40

Upper Trail 40

11:00 a.m.

Eventually, we turn onto Trail 40. The 10 miles of single track has over 40 creek crossings. Goodbye fast rolling forest service roads, hello 1 m.p.h. single track. The question we found ourselves asking was, “how do you carry a bike that weighs nearly half your bodyweight over a creek 40 times?” I think the answer to most questions in life is just as simple as ours: “move forward and try to keep your socks dry.”

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In case you’re wondering, we weren’t able to keep our socks dry. The gulch looks pretty much the same now as it did in 1874, when Custer’s 1,000-man Black Hills Expedition named it Castle Creek, and in 1875, when gold was found in the very same water we were now wading through. Did Custer get as much poison ivy on him as we did? I imagine Custer trying to scratch his foot in his thick leather boot, itchy with poison ivy.

Custer Expedition Photo by Illingworth, W. H. (William H.), 1842-1893, sourced from Creative Commons

Custer Expedition Photo by Illingworth, W. H. (William H.), 1842-1893, sourced from Creative Commons

2:00 p.m.

As I push my bike past mile 60 my eyes keep taking in the scenery, but my brain stops caring about it. It’s like I’ve maxed out or reached a threshold on raw beauty. There is a moment, I’m guessing everyone experiences it sometime or another, when the scenery stops being sublime and simply just…exists. That’s when a person really sees nature: rock, dirt, and earth. No more, no less. Your body reaches a threshold, too. As the miles roll by, I’ve forgotten about that my head is pounding and my legs feel like lead. After a while, that itch on the top of my knee I’ve been meaning to scratch for three hours just disappeared, along with my sense of time. It really doesn’t take long to forget that you’re hungry and thirsty and you just sort of keep moving without consciously thinking about it.

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5:30 p.m.

I’m exhausted. We’ve been on our bikes for over 10 hours now, and I’ve run out of food. More accurately, if there is some food stuffed somewhere on my bike, it isn’t worth packing and unpacking everything to get it. I just don’t care anymore. This is probably how chipmunks feel when they forget where they buried their seeds. We continue onto the Centennial Trail, or Trail #89, to ride eight miles to Highway 385.

The entire Centennial is 111 miles or 105 miles, depending on who you ask. How this is still up for debate in 2018 baffles me. However, everyone agrees that it begins on Bear Butte, just outside of Sturgis, and ends near Wind Cave, outside of Hot Springs. It boasts some of the best single track in the whole region, and as we wind down its fast berms I’m reminded why I set off to do this in the first place: riding a bike down a steep trail is really, really fun.

By the time we reach the Sugar Shack off Highway 385 it has been raining for six hours straight. With all of my sleeping gear soaked, I bail on the remaining trio. They roll back into Sturgis by 9 a.m. the next morning. They rode 125 miles and climbed over 11,000 feet of elevation over three rainy days, totally self supported.

5:55 p.m.

While my two dogs fight over who sits on my lap, I watch the Sugar Shack get smaller in the mirrors of my partner’s ‘98 Chevy Malibu. My friends are so determined—and I can’t help but think that their tenacity mirrors the tenacity of the multiple generations of people to explore and live in the Black Hills and Pahá Sápa before us, forecasting the generations to come. Respectfully, I agree that there is much more to the land than our over simplified translation lends it. I suspect as more people travel our pine laden forests by bike they’ll agree, too.