South Dakota’s mid-western location means it can be overlooked as a destination if you are dashing south from Alaska, but as Michelle Lamphere makes clear, the Black Hills are a glorious place to explore, and to clear your head.
Pine sap. That’s the problem. I must have stepped in some as I walked from my motorcycle, and now a knot of pine needles and forest-floor detritus puts a hitch in my giddy-up. Leaning against a tall ponderosa, I use a stick to scrape what I can from the deep crevices in the sole of my boot. The intensely pungent pine smell from the sticky residue fills my nose and reminds me of my grandmother’s bathroom cleaner. I’m grateful I caught it before unintentionally smearing it all over my XT250, which is parked at the trailhead two hundred yards behind me and is dirty enough as it is.
It feels good to stretch my legs even after only a short hour-long ride from my home in Custer, South Dakota. My camping gear is still on the bike, unguarded, so I remind myself to keep this stop short. Today is my first full day off work in over four months and I’m greedily trying to squeeze too much into this late September day. The six inches of snow we had just three weeks ago reminds me that my riding days for the year will soon be over. The snow has gone, but not for long. At 5,300+ feet, winter comes early.
A quarter of a mile farther and I emerge at the familiar clearing. Nestled in a small cluster of scrub pines growing in the centre of the meadow lists a weathered two-story house. Its neighbours include a scattered collection of abandoned cars and a rusted-metal-roofed shack. These are the remnants of the abandoned mining town of Spokane. Each time I visit I witness the effects of season, sun and decay on the crumbling skeletons of a bygone era: More rust; a steeper angle of lean to the two-story house; less tin on the roof. But there’s something peaceful and pretty about the meadow and the golden hand-hewn boards on the sides of the buildings. Spokane is one of the few ghost towns in the area that still has several buildings intact, and its proximity to the road makes it popular with locals. National forest encroaches from all sides, trying to reclaim the land, but the old town has held her own for another year.
I cross the meadow and follow the trail down a slope. On the other side I turn right at a fork, pass through a narrow alleyway of saplings, and follow the path up the hill to the southeast. After another two minutes, the trail takes me near the flat granite gravestone of a miner. His marker decries him being shot for his claim more than a hundred years ago. Tucked behind young pines, half sunk into the ground and covered with scattered pine needles, most hikers probably won’t even notice as it slips quietly back into the earth.
The forest is quiet except for an occasional short song from a passing meadowlark. Soft breezes cause clusters of pine branches to sway and a few stray needles to loosen their hold and fall to the ground. A hundred yards farther on, the sun-soaked front porch of the mine manager’s house welcomes me back.
It’s nice to see that little has changed since last year. The covered porch is still whole and square, topped with a solid roof. I make my way around to each side of the house, noting that all its windows are still intact, and peer inside.
A pair of squirrels have made their home in the kitchen for the past couple of years and have worked hard to build up an enormous hoard of food. Open cupboard doors and cabinet drawers overflow with pinecones and disassembled cone scales that splash out onto the kitchen floor, forming a knee-deep sea of winter-survival stash. I’m happy to see they’re still here, even though I’ve never actually seen them.
When I was young, my dad, uncles and great uncles gathered the family’s children for summer camping weekends. We’d spend our days riding horseback in the forest and our nights splayed out in sleeping bags by the campfire, listening to tales of cowboys and the Old West. My cousins and I would explore nearby ghost towns and go for a dip in a creek if we were lucky enough to find one. Coming here makes me feel rooted and calm.
After snapping a couple of photos, I retrace my steps to the bike and carry on north. ‘Daylight is burning’, as my dad says (quoting John Wayne), and I will have plenty of miles to cover on this abbreviated autumn afternoon before I get to my campsite. A cool breeze blows from the northwest. Gray clouds thicken overhead. The wind carries delicate scents of balsam and fir, rich earth and smoke. In the distance, someone must have a fireplace or woodstove on the go.
Back at the bike, I recheck my boot and find that it’s reasonably clean. My gloves have softened and warmed in the sun. The little XT’s seat has done the same, making it even more comfortable to climb aboard.
Iron Mountain Road rolls over hills, through pines and spruce, and runs across valleys doubling back on itself several times to climb the side of the mountain. I stop for a photo of my bike with Mount Rushmore in the distance and another of Black Elk Peak, the USA’s highest point between the Rocky Mountains and the east coast at just over 7,200 feet. I pass through two rock tunnels carved into the mountain at just the right angle to frame Rushmore in the distance. A series of hundred-year-old spiral wooden structures, aptly named the Pigtail Bridges, help carry vehicles down from the peak. I stop just past them at Grizzly Gulch for a quick drink of water.
Western South Dakota and the Black Hills are filled with jagged rocky peaks, clear streams running through meadows and narrow canyons, and a variety of wildlife: Bison and burrowing owls, pronghorns and prairie dogs, coyotes and cougars live here. I ride slowly and try to stay alert.
The day is moving more quickly than I am, so I turn off Iron Mountain Road and ride through Hill City. Dozens of old mines and ghost towns dot the landscape. By the time I reach the one-horse town of Rochford, I’m thirsty and ready for another break. Thankfully, Rochford’s only watering hole, the Moonshine Gulch Saloon, is open. The saloon closes at the “end of summer” each year, an anyone-can-guess date that varies as much with the owner’s mood as it does with the declining weather. I buy a bottle of water and ride a mile out of town to a clearing near Rapid Creek and pull over for a brief rest. So far I’ve been on paved roads, but I’m undecided about the way ahead.
Of the handful of options, I choose a dusty forest service road to lead me northwest on gravel and eventually out to the paved highway which will take me to Cheyenne Crossing. Somewhere in the past hour I crossed over from the leeward side of the Black Hills to the colder windward northwest. Loose pine forests give way to denser spruce backwoods veined with the bright gold of aspens. Streams and creeks run a little fuller and faster than in the southern hills, and the air smells of cold fresh brooks and evergreens.
My shoulders and grip have relaxed on the bike. The constant stream of thoughts about pending projects and unfinished work has slowed down. I find myself out of my head and entirely absorbed in the moment for the first time in months. It’s a good feeling.
From Cheyenne Crossing, I turn into the top of Spearfish Canyon, but only ride a few miles before turning up one of its arms. There’s a trailhead not far up the gravel road where I can stop and walk to Roughlock Falls. But the parking lot is so crowded I decide to keep moving. I’m not the only one who enjoys the bright autumn foliage in the canyon. Heavy clouds of dust from the traffic hang in the air and coat my visor. I resist wiping it off for fear of ruining it with tiny scratches.
The movie Dances with Wolves was filmed on the grassland prairies of South Dakota and in this very canyon. Its high rock walls and rich blue skies contrast perfectly with the verdant canyon floor and quiet stream.
At Timon I set up camp in a forest service campground. I can tell from the half-dozen pickup trucks, campers, and empty trailers scattered around the campsites that the other tenants must be out hunting or riding ATVs. Hoping to go unnoticed, I forgo the gravelled tent pad and instead push my bike to a handful of tall spruce trees, making camp in the space between them. I’m ready to stretch out in my tent and listen to the nearby brook rather than make polite conversation with strangers. I do enough of that in my work at my motel. Enjoying some peace is an appreciated luxury.
I light up my backpacker stove and boil enough water to make a cup of tea and bring my dehydrated curry-in-a-hurry dinner to life. My choice to arrive at camp in the afternoon has proven to be wise as the sun disappears early enough this time of year and earlier still in the canyon. I call it a night and crawl into my tent before the neighbours return.
The air inside is warm, making my little nest feel cozy. Camping near a creek always seems to make the night cooler, so, just in case, I slide into my silk liner and burrow my legs into my 10-degree bag. Better to stay ahead of the chill than to have to recover from it.
With my map poised next to the mat, I slide on my nearby headlamp to make plans for tomorrow. I stare at the map for a moment and mentally run through the catalogue of stops I had planned earlier in the week for my mini-escape. Even though I didn’t make it to Cement Ridge, or Roughlock Falls today, I’m just happy to be out on the bike. In fact, I enjoyed the day more when I started slimming down my itinerary. I refuse to make a list for tomorrow, I’ll just go where the day takes me. The subdued grey and rust colours of the tent walls melt into one in the twilight. Within minutes, the soft sounds of Little Spearfish Creek lull me to sleep.
The late September morning dawns cool, making me grateful to have brought my bag liner. The extra warmth it afforded me is especially welcome this morning. Luxuriating in my warm sleeping bag for a few minutes, I finally concede to my bladder that it’s time to get moving.
There’s no point lingering. I’m cold, hungry, and I’m ready for breakfast back in Cheyenne Crossing with its famous burritos. It takes only a few minutes to pack up my tent and load everything into the soft luggage on my bike. It’s easy to be quiet while packing, a good thing since most of my neighbours aren’t up yet.
After breakfast, I head out on a tangled network of gravelled forest service roads toward Black Fox, turning right, left, right, left. I’ve spent more winters snowmobiling the trails in this part of the hills than I have spent summers riding them. Spruce trees and chokecherry bushes line both sides of the narrow road, causing me to catch several deer off-guard as I round the bend. Thankfully, I’m not going fast enough for us to be a hazard to each other.
I bump along on washboard sections of road near Deerfield Lake and Odakota Mountain, eventually turning towards the Bear Mountain fire tower. Massive forest fires like the Jasper fire and the Flagpole Mountain fire have ravaged the Black Hills’ western slopes. What the forest fires left untouched, the Mountain Pine beetles targeted, sadly killing off enormous tracts of forest.
Rocky outcrops and barren landscapes provide a stark contrast to the views up to this point, and in places the exposed road shows significant erosion. I have to pick and weave my way through several sections of jagged rock that stick up in the track. Since I haven’t seen a single car or bike in the last hour and a half, I’m riding cautiously. The last things I have time for are a puncture or a fall, especially when I’m trying to make it safely to my favourite road.
Close to home in Custer, Needles Highway is the perfect 38-mile icing on the cake of my 250-mile weekend. I think it’s one of the best roads in the United States. Spindly rock spires, gargantuan granite mountains, single-lane rock tunnels, narrow black ribbons for roads, and a sapphire blue lake at the summit, make the perfect combination.
Rocky Mountain goats frequently climb the rocks in the area, but there aren’t any around today. The wind is picking up. It’s one of these clear autumn days that dapples the road with warm sunny patches and cold shade, reminding me of sitting by a campfire. One half of my body is warm and toasty, while the other half freezes.
I yield to an oncoming car and wait my turn at the one-lane Needles Eye tunnel before descending into the heart of Custer State Park. Riding past the Cathedral Spires, a cluster of slender rock towers, I glimpse wide-open vistas at slow corners, but quickly return my focus to the curvy road and oncoming traffic. The park is a popular place on a sunny day.
At the bottom of the highway, a giant buffalo bull grazes on the shoulder of the road. Tatanka, as they refer him to in Lakota, turns his head from side to side to tear off great clumps of grass and chew them down, busily devouring as much as he can before winter. I stop to take a photo from a safe distance but leave the bike idling and my gloves on, wary of how quickly he could tire of my presence. The park rounded up the herd of 1,400 head just two days ago. Calves will be separated from their mothers and given vaccinations and health inspections before being auctioned off. Only the bulls are left to roam the park, too large and unruly to be corralled.
His deep grunt awakens me from my daydream and achieves the intended effect of making me move along. I tuck my camera into my jacket, drop the bike into gear and roll on toward home, grateful for having stolen a wonderful day from the busy-ness of life.