South Dakota, Part 1

I remember being able to fly somewhere in an airplane.

I also have the distinct memory of walking about unmasked, shaking hands, and generally interacting with fellow humans without undue concern of a possible contagion.

I recently had the opportunity to do all of these things and many more during a cycling trip to South Dakota. It was fantastic. Pull up a chair with the beverage of your choice and let me tell you all about it.

Maureen and I decided to restart our cycling vacations with a supported tour in South Dakota. We covered a lot of ground in six rides, so I have decided to break this post into two parts, cleverly titled Part 1 and Part 2.

On the morning of our first ride, we met our tour guides and tour members in a Rapid City hotel. Rapid City is the second largest town in South Dakota with a population of 75,000.

You read that correctly.

There’s a lot of space in South Dakota and it’s easy to imagine how life was when the town was founded way back in 1876. On the edge of the Black Hills, the town served as a supply base for the gold mining operations that began a couple of years earlier. To the east of the town lies the Great Plains – hundreds of miles of grass. To the west lies the Black Hills, so named by Native Americans because the pine covered hills look black when viewed from a distance. To get a sense of the ground, watch the movie Dances With Wolves. It was filmed outside of Rapid City.

Ride #1 – The Badlands

After meeting our guides and filling out some forms, we initiated what would become a familiar ritual – getting in and out of the tour van. The van holds 15 people, barely, and when exiting we looked like a circus clown act. Our first destination was Badlands National Park, some 75 miles southeast of town. We eventually made it to the park entrance and our bikes were issued to us.

Maureen and I would be riding Specialized Sirrus flat bar hybrids. The bikes had 38mm tires, disc brakes and came with a handy handlebar bag for stowing food and important personal items. The flat pedals would not please a more serious cyclist, but they allowed Maureen and I to wear sneakers and it was therefore far easier to hop off the bike and walk a bit whenever the mood struck us. The larger tires would be helpful on the gravel trail rides we would be doing later in the week. After ensuring our bikes were functioning properly, the guides gave us a quick route brief which amounted to, “Stay on this road until you hit the hotel. Then you’re done.” In short order we were off.

It’s easy to see how The Badlands got their name. Imagine walking/riding across the Great Plains for days or weeks. seeing nothing but grass and the occasional creek. Then you come across a maze of canyons and dry river beds. This land was not easy to cross, but ideal for all manner of fugitives and bushwhackers, and other troublemakers. Today the troublemakers and fugitives are gone, replaced by a well-paved road with the occasional rest stop so drivers can contemplate a scenic view.

View from a rest stop

We were greeted at the park’s entrance by some buffalo, who politely posed for pictures. We would also see some pronghorn sheep and hundreds of prairie dogs, none of whom were very polite about picture-taking. The prairie dogs live in underground cities and are extremely good about warning each other when a danger approaches. Every time I stopped to take a picture, the chirping would commence and the dogs would disappear in their holes. There must have been thousands of them. We would later learn that some of the prairie dog towns were hundreds of years old. It’s kind of cool to think we were looking at a “structure” that had been there since before Columbus discovered the New World.

But what about the ride? Hang in there, I’m getting to it.

This was quite possibly the best ride of the week. The roads are in excellent shape and there is a decent shoulder. There are plenty of cars, but the speed limit is 25mph and there are very few people who are in a hurry. With only 700′ of climb over 24 miles, this didn’t qualify as a “mountain stage,” but there were several punchy climbs with fun, curvy descents. As a heavier-than-average cyclist, descents are kind of my thing. I found myself wishing I had my road bike so I could make the most of them.

We rode only a portion of the park. You could ride much further if the mood suited you. A word of caution – to say the park is “remote” is an understatement. You are 75 miles from the small town of Rapid City and only slightly closer to the tiny town of Wall (home to the roadside attraction, Wall Drugs). There’s no cell service. If you break down, you are very much on your own. There is an occasional water point at the rest stops that include a bathroom. If things get truly desperate, a stranded cyclist could probably flag down a visiting car. Because we had our beloved van with a trailer packed with spare parts and drinks, we were terribly concerned about those things.

One of the “punchy” climbs

The temperature was warm, about 80 degrees, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We were sweaty and ready to call it a day when we pulled into the parking lot of the Cedar Pass Lodge. We found our room in a quaint cabin and enjoyed great views while we sipped some wine that we purchased in the Lodge’s gift shop. All was good.

Ride #2 – The Needles

Breakfast the next morning was a little disorganized. Two things were at hand. First, the restaurant was just coming to grips with life after most Covid protocols were eased/eliminated and the staff was a little rusty. Second, the restaurant was short staffed. We saw this issue repeatedly. Restaurants simply cannot hire enough people to work at full capacity. I could enter into a political rant about the unintended consequences of multi-billion dollar stimulus checks and extended unemployment benefits, but I won’t do that. Instead, I will tell you about Mount Rushmore.

100 miles west of the Badlands is Mount Rushmore. Cycling around Mount Rushmore is dicey. There are thousands of cars and many of them are eager to get to the monument. Instead of riding to the site, our guides drove us there and we wandered about like all the other tourists, except we were dressed in very cool cycling clothes.

After wandering the grounds for over an hour, we popped into the monument’s restaurant, only to learn they were short food and staff. We found some premade sandwiches and made our way to the van, which took us to nearby Lake Sylvan to begin our ride.

Heading to the tunnel. The Needles are in the background.

The Needles is a locally-famous landmark. It was the original site for Mt Rushmore, but the plans were scrapped in favor of a much bolder project that we all recognize today. It’s very picturesque and features a small tunnel blasted through stone. Motorcyclists love this route and so do hundreds of car drivers. The roads are narrow and windy with no shoulder.

Things got exciting almost immediately. We reached the tunnel after a couple of miles and saw a huge traffic backup. The tunnel is only wide enough for a single lane and there were scores of cars trying to get through from each direction. There is no light, nor any other helpful rule to sort this traffic jam out, such as every other car taking turns. A car on our side of the tunnel became exasperated after 15 or 20 cars came through and darted into the tunnel. He met a pickup truck going the opposite direction and a standoff ensued. Complicating matters was the fact that the pickup truck was being followed by a tour bus. After much horn honking and unkind gestures, the matter was sorted with the pickup truck backing up. We went through behind the car. We later learned the tour bus got stuck in the tunnel and held up traffic (and cyclists) for quite awhile. We were glad to have avoided that delay.

Photo Opportunity in front of the tunnel

This ride was mostly a descent. We started out at about 6,000′ of elevation and finished at the Custer Game Lodge at 4,200′. This was more than a little embarrassing to me as I belong to the camp that firmly states any descent must first be earned with a climb. I explained this to Maureen more than once and failed to convince her this was an important breach of cycling etiquette.

“What can you do? They dropped us off here,” she would point out.

“Nothing, I suppose. That doesn’t make it right.” I would reply.

“There’s plenty of climbing on this ride,” she would retort.

“We’re starting at 6,000′ and ending at 4,200′,” I would reply. “No matter how you slice it, this is a major unearned descent.”

“You’re being silly,” she would state, thus ending the discussion.

So down we went. The trip down was quite technical at times, with a few hairpin turns. It was fun, but the fun was muted by the very heavy traffic. This ride would be great early on a weekday morning before the tourists show up. A proper route would include the 20 mile climb BEFORE the descent, making it a challenging 40 mile effort with great views. As it was, we were happy to not be hit by a vehicle and we arrived at our next hotel – the Custer State Park Game Lodge, ready to eat dinner.

Custer State Park Game Lodge – Calvin Coolidge announced he wouldn’t run for reelection at this site in 1927.

Ride #3 – Windy Cave

Our third ride started out at Windy Cave National Park, about 30 miles from the hotel. There are about 130 miles of underground caves here, none of which we had time to explore. Maureen and I popped into the Visitors’ Center and got acquainted with the area. Native American lore has it that mankind emerged from this cave.

This ride promised to feature plenty of wildlife. After 16 miles, we’d reach the encouragingly-named Wildlife Loop, built for the sole purpose of seeing the local wildlife. I’m not sure, but I believe we took a wrong turn at this point and accidentally found the surface of the sun.

More on that in a bit.

The first half of the ride was northbound on a quiet state highway. We were generally going upward, but nothing too severe. As always, the views were fantastic and we saw the occasional buffalo, standing alone in a field. The ubiquitous prairie dogs were there, standing guard for each other over many miles. Then we turned a corner and were treated to about 200 buffalo grazing near the roadside.

Buffalo!

After admiring that scene for several minutes, we shoved off for our lunch at the beginning of Wildlife Loop. It was getting quite warm and we had a pretty steep climb that caused a few of our tour members to call it a day. Not Maureen nor I. We chugged along and happily pulled up to the tour van where sandwiches, fruit, and liquids waiting.

It was getting very hot. So hot that it turned out to be a record 98 degrees.

Maureen was pretty tired but she elected to press on so she could see the wildlife on Wildlife Loop. I went also because I’m too dim to know when I should quit. This part of the route began with a wonderful gentle descent. We barely turned a pedal for eight miles.

There was no wildlife to be seen.

It turns out that most animals enjoy 98 degree heat as much as humans do. Unlike the humans on this bicycle tour, the animals had the good sense to find some shade. They certainly weren’t standing around in fields for our amusement. At the bottom of this fantastic descent lay about eight miles of climbing.

At 4,000′ altitude.

With no shade whatsoever.

Climbing on the surface of the sun.

That evening, there were several conversations along the lines of “Was that the toughest ride you have ever done?” At a mere 32 miles, it would be difficult for me to say it was the toughest. But for that distance, it was brutally tough. We climbed 2,450′ (again, we were at altitude, making it that much tougher) in 98 degree heat, having ridden the previous two days. I didn’t even have my road bike to help me through this. I was on a heavy hybrid. Our tour leader, a veteran of the 1,200 km Paris-Brest-Paris ride (and therefore no stranger to challenging rides) said this one was brutal. For the distance, she said it was the toughest she had ever done.

Maureen would agree. At one point, we took a break and she commented that her legs were shaking from the effort. She wasn’t sure if she could turn the crank one more time. She did, of course, which is one reason why she’s amazing.

We eventually arrived at the hotel, riding on fumes. We decided the smart course of action would be to take a shower and sit on the hotel porch with a bottle of wine. We hydrated and talked of our first three rides. After a great dinner at the hotel restaurant (buffalo steak was on the menu and was sampled by many) we ran through a thunderstorm back to our room.

Devils Tower would be tomorrow.

9 thoughts on “South Dakota, Part 1

  1. I am glad that you avoided the traffic on that busy section. But the rest of trip sounds good apart from the amazing heat. It would have finished me so credit to you two for coping so well.

    1. It was our first trip there and we very impressed. The views are amazing and the people are very welcoming. I had several conversations with complete strangers who all were eager to give advice and provide directions!

  2. Hot tip: the Badlands are beautiful at dawn, with no traffic. Likewise, Needles Highway is pretty quiet in the early morning. I don’t remember if I saw a car. I do remember the tunnel contained a family of mountain goats licking the walls. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

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