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Black Hills Tandem Tour June 01-June 08, 2013 Prologue
Sometime in the early winter of 2013, Mike and Susan Mahoney invited four tandem teams to join them for a week long guided tandem tour of the Black Hills in Southwest South Dakota. Mike and Susan had made this tour a few times in the past and we thought if they wanted to return, it must be a great riding venue. We agreed to join the group along with Pete and Laura Holversen, Harry and Janette Thompson and Chuck and Kris Carlson. We have ridden with all of these couples and thought everyone’s riding ability was evenly matched. We decided to drive the 1200 miles from Fredericksburg to the starting point in Rapid City South Dakota. We left Fredericksburg at 5:00am on Friday 30 May; our route took us through Abilene, Lubbock and Amarillo before we crossed the Oklahoma panhandle into Colorado. This is not the most scenic section of any of these three states, but we were impressed with the openness and desolation in this part of our country. We drove 780 miles on Friday arriving in Limon, Colorado about 5:00 in the afternoon. Limon is about one hour east of Denver on Interstate 70…there’s not much there…just a huge truck stop. We found a Comfort Inn with a bar and restaurant within walking distance. The restaurant seemed to cater to truck drivers with the menu tailored for their preferences. They did have Alaskan Amber on tap which was the most outstanding feature of the place. On Saturday we had 380 miles to complete the trip to Rapid City. We crossed eastern Colorado…there are no trees but huge open tracks of land with some cattle. Outside of huge windmill farms there was little of interest to see which made it easy to keep moving forward. We drove mostly on two lane highways, but the extremely low traffic volume enabled us to maintain an excellent average. In Nebraska, the ranches are gigantic as well as the grain and bean farms. We did not pass through a town with more than 3000 population and most were less than a 1000. There was a short section around Chadron, Nebraska that was forested, although it had recently burned; otherwise we rarely saw a tree. There was not much change as we entered South Dakota, but we did start to see hills rising in the distance. The highway 79 changed from 2 lanes to four lanes for the last 80 miles into Rapid City…it’s a very nice highway with virtually no traffic. As were we underway we checked the internet for brewpubs in Rapid City and discovered the Firehouse brewpub on Main Street. We drove straight there for lunch and a brew to celebrate the successful end of our 1200 mile drive. We ordered a buffalo burger and two pints of IPA. The beer had some residual tannins and the balance between the bittering and aromatic hops was a bit heavy on the bitter side, but still a nice beer. As we walked to the pub, we passed by a shop specializing in local art and crafts; Becky wanted to visit the store after lunch, which I can’t advise after a couple of beers. Any way we found some treasures…wooden flowers and hand woven leather place mats which will now have a permanent home in Fredericksburg. From the downtown we drove to the Comfort Inn, where we joined up with the rest of our group.
Saturday 01 June 2013: Rapid City, South Dakota
By 4:00 in the afternoon, all of the teams which drove had arrived at the Comfort Inn and Suites. Happy hour was planned to begin at 5:30 in the breakfast room. Everyone supplied some snacks a beverage so there was plenty to share. We exchanged our driving experiences and reminisced about previous tandem bike adventures. We had 7:00 dinner reservations at an Italian restaurant downtown. Both service and food were good and the portions were very generous. Just as we were paying the tab, we got the phone call from Pete and Laura announcing that they had just landed at the airport. Kris and Chuck left the table and drove to pick them up; the rest of us returned to the hotel to set up dessert. Susan and Mike brought a rum cake and a chocolate kahlua cake, both were wonderful. Mike started to explain the route and plan for Sunday’s ride as Pete, Laura, Kris and Chuck returned from the airport. The plan called for a 45 mile ride to Keystone and Mount Rushmore and then to the Coolidge Game Lodge at Custer State Park. Finally we had to pack up the beverages and a change of clothes to pack into one of the shuttle vehicles to have ready when we arrived at the game lodge. Next it was time to retire and anticipate our first ride in the Black Hills.
Sunday 02 June 2013: Rapid City to Coolidge Game Lodge
Mike and Susan had developed an elaborate plan for shuttling all the luggage 40 miles from Rapid City to Custer State Park. We had to pack one small bag with a change of clothes; and we needed the happy hour supplies all to go in one vehicle while the remainder all went into Mike’s trailer. Mike and Harry drove both cars to the game lodge at 6:30 in the morning and left one and then returned to join the group for breakfast and a 9:30 rollout. We packed the remainder of our gear into the trailer, checked out of the hotel and joined the four teams for a departure commemorative photo. We had to climb a mile long 8% grade to start the ride. The first 5 miles were unremarkable along highway 16 to the Neck Yoke intersection where we started the first of several significant climbs. For the first time I shifted into my new 26 tooth granny gear as we assaulted a mile long climb with some 12% (and a tiny 16% stretch) grades. At the summit we had climbed 1300 feet from the hotel. We continued along the rolling verdant landscape, passing beautiful vistas and pastures. We rolled into Keystone about noon and stopped a few minutes for a quick restroom break at the train station before starting the 2 ½ mile climb up to Mount Rushmore at an elevation of 5400 feet. The climb was slow and a steady 10 – 12%; we stopped once to photograph the presidential bust carved into the mountain. We completed the climb in just over 20 minutes and then went to the restaurant for a well deserved lunch of barbecue sandwich and French fries with plenty of salt! After lunch we walked to the viewing area for photographs and views of the monument. The assent down was fast and a little spooky with the high crosswinds…the speed limit was 35mph but we were coasting closer to 45 which was faster than all the cars. At the bottom we discovered that Pete had broken a spoke on the descent so we stopped a few minutes to make emergency repairs. Next we started our climb up to Iron Mountain, our second 5500 foot high summit of the day. The long gradual downhill was a thrill with multiple switchbacks and spectacular vistas. We stopped briefly at the Elk Haven general store and then trudged the final 9 miles to the Coolidge Game Lodge in Custer State Park. We arrived about 5:30; 8 hours and 45 miles after we started. We had climbed a total 5570 feet during the ride and were completely exhausted as we arrived at our cabins. Mike and Susan jumped into the waiting car to return to Rapid City to pick up the other shuttle vehicle and trailer with all our supplies. Fortunately we had some happy hour provisions and immediately began to recover and recollect the adventures of the day. Susan had assigned us the task to make dinner arrangements while they had gone to get the trailer, we decided to get take away pizza from the general store, but didn’t realize the kitchen closed at 7:00 and as we arrived at 4 minutes passed 7:00 we heard, “Sorry, we’re closed for the night”. We fell back to plan B and ordered take out sandwiched from the game lodge and dined on a picnic table outside one of our cabins. Of course we still had some rum cake left over for dessert. By now most everyone had sights for the bed and some time to recover from the ride.
Monday 03 June 2013: Wildlife Road Loop, Custer State Park
The sun was shining by 5:00am and it’s difficult for me to sleep once the rays of sunshine start peeking past the curtains and into the room; we did manage to a little more sleep, but we were soon up and getting ready for breakfast. We had planned to walk from our cabin on the creek to the game lodge for breakfast. We met Kris and Chuck at 7:15 and started the ten minute walk to breakfast. We had walked about halfway when we discovered 3 buffalo grazing on our path. We hoped they would move out of the way, but the grass must have been very tasty because they showed no indication of moving. We crossed the road to give as much space between them and us, eventually circumvented the beast and arrived at the breakfast buffet. Harry and Janette were not far behind us, but they were less intimidated by the buffalo than we were. Breakfast was a nice buffet with eggs, sausage, bacon, biscuits, chip gravy, fruit, waffles, muffins and more. Following breakfast, we returned to our cabin…the buffalo had moved a few feet off the path but still caused us to cross the road to give as much space between them and us as possible. We changed into our bike clothes and met the group for a 9:30 rollout. The first leg was a 5 mile gradual climb to the Legion Lake Lodge, where we pause briefly before continuing the final 3 miles up a steeper (10 – 12%) incline to the overlook at Mount Coolidge. We did not ride to the summit because they road was unpaved. The descent was thrilling reaching speeds approaching 50mph. In just a few minutes we coasted into the Blue Bell Lodge for lunch. We ordered sandwiches for take a way and picnicked at tables on the grounds. Now fortified with buffalo barbecue and French fries we were ready to ride onto the Wildlife Road Loop for an adventure of spotting wildlife. We didn’t quite get to the turnoff before we were stopped by a herd of buffalo on the road. We convinced a family in a pickup truck to let us ride beside them through the herd…that worked well and we passed unmolested. The first 2/3 of the loop was a downhill glide through beautiful grasslands. We saw buffalo and pronghorn antelope before arriving at a prairie dog village. There were several of the little rodents out of their boroughs just barking their displeasure at the uninvited guest who had stopped to see their village. At the valley floor we had descended to 3900 feet elevation. The climb out of the valley was gradual, but that didn’t seem to matter because any climb was an effort at this point in the ride. We encountered one more heard of buffalo and thought we had seen the end of them, but as we approached the last intersection, three of the beast came charging out of the woods! I thought we were the target of the charge, but they were spooked by our bicycle; two were able to make an abrupt direction change but the third was already on the pavement and when he tried to turn, his hooves slipped on the pavement and he went sliding across the road. We didn’t stick around to see where they ran, but thankfully continued on the final mile to our cabin at the game lodge. We met all the other teams back at the cabins and enjoyed some snacks before we showered and changed. We walked to the visitor’s center where we saw some interesting exhibitions about the wildlife and history of the Custer State Park. At 5:30 we met for the “official” happy hour and then walked to the game lodge for our 7:00 dinner reservation. There was a good menu; Becky chose salmon and I had trout almandine. After dinner we returned to the cabin…there was a dessert option for some more rum cake, but we had had plenty by this time and elected to turn in for the evening after a 32 mile bike ride with 2800 feet of climbing.
Tuesday 04 June 2013: Game Lodge to Sylvan Lake
Today was a shuttle day to move to the lodges at Sylvan Lake where we would spend the next three nights. Harry and Mike left early with the two vehicles; they dropped off one at the destination and returned about 7:30. We loaded the trailer with all our gear and rolled out on the bikes at 8:00 headed for the resort at Legions Lake. The 6 mile ride is totally uphill but the climb was only 600 feet so we could manage the gradual incline in the middle chain ring. We needed less than an hour to climb the distance; this was a remarkably beautiful morning…cold, crisp and clear under brilliant blue skies. This would be our breakfast stop and we were ready for a hearty meal after the early morning ride. Becky was thrilled to learn that she could order an authentic Starbucks latte to go with her western omelet. The portions were very generous…we could have easily shared the serving of eggs, hash brown, and toast, but somehow manage to devour our meals singlehandedly. We exited the restaurant and noticed a significant change in the weather…our clear skies had been replaced with thick clouds and we had lost the warmth for the solar rays. But there was no rain so we started the 12 mile climb up the needles highway to the famous needles rock formations. The first 9 miles of the climb was gentle following the route of a small creek. The last 3 miles presented a granny gear grunt all the way. Grinding along at 4 miles per hour we arrived at the top exhausted and thrilled at the accomplishment of climbing to an elevation of 6300 feet. The ride through the rocks was pretty amazing…best observed from a bicycle and not confined in a car. We stopped at several pullouts to enjoy the natural carvings. Exiting the tunnel at the top, we came to the eye of the needle…a natural hole in the rock. From the eye we had less than a 2 mile descent to the lodges at Sylvan Lake. We had to wait an hour for Mike and Harry to pick up the car and trailer with all of our clothes. Once they returned, we changed into street clothes and drove to the Crazy Horse Memorial. This is the world’s large mountain carving, begun in 1948 with probably another 40 years to go before completion. From the Crazy Horse we drove into Custer and stopped at the local grocery store to buy supplies for an outdoor cookout. Back at our cabins we started a fire and happy hour; the fire was ready in about an hour and so were we to start cooking. We had purchased chicken breast and salads for dinner…Pete took over the grill master role and turned out some mighty fine dining. We managed to crowd around a picnic table and soon all the food disappeared for two reasons…we were hungry from the ride and sitting outside was a little chilly. After dinner we took a short hike around the lake and returned for dessert…but this was inside as the temperature had really dropped. Exhausted and satiated, everyone returned to their cabin for a well deserved rest. We had just completed a 20 mile ride, but with over 3000 feet of climbing.
Wednesday 04 June 2013: Sylvan Lake to Harney Peak
This morning may have been the coldest June morning of my life….we awoke to 30 degree temperature with winds out of the North. We had decided last night to take a day off from riding and enjoy some hiking in the Black Hills. We met Chuck and Kris and Harry and Janette at the Sylvan Lodge at 7:30 for breakfast. Once again there was a very hearty selection which we welcomed knowing that we would be hiking for most of the day in some very chilly weather. I ordered eggs, hash browns and ham, while Becky ordered eggs, pancakes and ham. After breakfast the five tandem teams met in Mike and Susan’s cabin to plan the day. Mike and Susan were going scouting into Hill City, Harry, Janette and Kris were going shopping in Keystone and the rest of us planned to hike up to Harney peak at elevation 7242…the highest mountain between the Rockies and the Pyrenees. The trail up was 3 ½ miles long with a little over 1000 feet of climbing. The trail was well marked and maintained and very steep in some stretches. The forest is in decline with many trees were dead or dying. The final 200 feet to the lookout tower is mostly stone steps with a pigtail bridge and one metal stair. The tower was originally an inhabited fire watch tower, but today just a point of interest for hikers. It was cold on the tower with plenty of wind. We could get a good perspective of the Black Hills and the areas where we had ridden. The skies were cloudy and the landscape was hazy so we won’t have the best photos. Becky and I decided to return by the same route while Pete, Laura and Chuck took a different trail to get a view of the cathedral spires and the devils tower. The seven mile hike left us tired and hungry…fortunately the Sylvan General Store had a pizza kitchen and we enjoyed a nice vege pizza when we arrived. Following the pizza we were ready to rest, recover and get ready for the evening activities. Around 5:00 we started to gather at the table outside Harry and Janette’s cabin; Susan had already set out a spread of snacks. We traded stories of our adventures of the day while enjoying some libations. Our dinner reservations were for 6:30 at the Sylvan Lodge. We had planned an early dinner to allow us time to get to the evening program at Mount Rushmore which started at 9:00. Neither Becky nor I were very hungry following the pizza and happy hour snacks, so we just ordered salads for dinner, although the menu was very tempting. We had a 30 minute ride to Rushmore over the route we would be riding the next morning…all I could see was seemingly endless hill climbs. I had to keep reminding myself the climbs are never as difficult as they first appear, still the terrain was the topic of conversation for the ride to the Memorial. We found our place in the outdoor amphitheater in the cool 45 degree temperature. The program began with a ranger talk follow by a 20 minute movie commemorating the four presidents immortalized in the stone. The program concluded with a tribute to the veterans and active military in the audience; lowering of the colors and singing the National Anthem. We all agreed that it was a very worthwhile program. Now it was time to return to our cabins and preview one more time from the back seat of the car the route we would be riding on Thursday.
Thursday 05 June 2013: Keystone, Hill City, Sylvan Lake
We awoke to a beautifully clear morning but 32 degrees! Once again we walked to the lodge for breakfast and then the 5 teams gathered for a 9:00 am roll out. We knew we had a 6 mile descent down to highway 385 and in the early morning it was be plenty chilly. The downhill was truly a thrill with a tunnel and 4 major switchbacks, but in the back of your mind is this voice that kept saying enjoy it now because you’ve got to climb back up this afternoon. At mile 7 we had descended from 6400 feet to 5200 feet and now we had to start the climb back up to Mount Rushmore. We did not stop at the memorial, but continued the roller coaster 40mph plunge into Keystone. We regrouped at the train station and then continued on the Old Hill City Road to Hill City. This is a very scenic road that parallels the historic steam engine railway so the climb was fairly gradual although when the road veered away from the tracks, the climbs could be a little more robust. We arrived in Hill City about noon and sought the Alpine Restaurant after a quick visit to the Rabbit Bicycle Shop. The Alpine was a German (Bavarian) Style restaurant with a great menu for a group of hungry cyclists. We chose tables outside on the porch and enjoyed good food and service while rehashing the morning’s ride. We were trying to do some carbo loading in preparation for the 10 mile climb from lunch back to the lodge. The first 8 miles of the climb was really quite gentle averaging 2 to 3%. There was road resurfacing underway so we did have to follow a pilot car for about 1 mile over fresh smooth pavement; then we entered the 4 switchbacks and the 8% inline up to the lodge. We downshifted and found our climbing rhythm and before too long had arrived at the 6400 feet high peak. We rewarded our efforts with a stop at the Sylvan Lodge bar to enjoy some wonderful O’Dell’s IPA! We revived with some snacks and the beer before returning to our cabin to shower and dress for the evening official happy hour and cookout. We met outside Harry and Janette’s cabin; Pete had already laid and started the fire. Jeanette laid out all the snacks while Mike and Susan prepared the rice and salmon for the grill. After the fire burned down to glowing embers, we laid the foil wrapped fillets onto the grilled and continued the conversations for the next 20 minutes while the fish slow cooked to perfection. It seems that a rigorous ride justifies gluttony and we had no hesitation to enjoy the wonderful bounty. Grilled Salmon, dirty rice, salads and of course rum cake for dessert…wow…what a great and fitting highlight of the day. We added some more wood to the fire after dinner and visited a while longer while draining the remaining wine bottles. Susan discussed the route for the final ride into Rapid City and then we split to our separate cabins for the evening. We had ridden 38 miles with just over 3400 feet of climbing.
Friday 06 June 2013: Sylvan Lake to Rapid City
Mike and Harry left about 6:00 to shuttle the cars to the Comfort Inn in Rapid City; we had plenty of time to pack up and walk to the lodge for breakfast before we had to start our final ride at 9:30. We carried all of our luggage to the trailer for the final time. The route today was a 36 miles spin through Hill City along highway 385 to Sheridan Lake Road. We retraced our ride from yesterday, descending over the freshly laid asphalt around the switchbacks and down into Hill City. The weather conditions were ideal…no clouds and 60 degrees…as good as it gets. We coasted into Hill City and stopped for a short restroom break and then continued to the right turn onto Sheridan Lake Road. To this point the ride had been almost totally downhill, but now we encountered some slow rolling hills up to the Spring Creek picnic grounds where we stopped for lunch. Laura had made sandwiches for the group using left over grilled chicken breast and salads…it a perfect lunch in an idyllic setting situated on the banks of a flowing creek. We had only 16 miles to go to our final destination…there were a few hills to climb and some headwind but the vast majority was downhill. As we turned right onto Catron Road we were facing our final major climb, then a left onto Tower road with an exhilarating descent from the radio towers down to the hotel. The total distance for the day was 36 miles completed at an average speed above 17 miles per hour. The total climbing was the least of the trip…only 1341feet for the day but we had descended 3000 feet for Sylvan Lake. After we arrived at the Comfort Inn, Becky and I loaded our bike into the car and then showered and got ready for the evening activities. Sometime after 5:00, everyone started to gather in the lounge for happy hour. There were still plenty of snacks and beverages after a week of daily afternoon social hours. We each gave our camera disks for Susan to load on her computer so there would be a master set of all the photos taken from the trip. The conversations revolved around experiences from the 6 days in the Black Hills as well as other tandem tours from the past and plans for future trips. We had dinner reservations at Stonewalls at 7:00, so we loaded into vehicles and drove the short distance to the restaurant. They had wisely given us a table far in the back away from the other guests. Our table tended to be a little louder and more boisterous; there was a good menu with a nice beer and wine selection. I chose the pork medallions and Becky chose halibut with a couple of O’Dell’s IPA to compliment our selection. The revelry soon ended as we cleaned our plates and emptied the bottles…time to return to the hotel and say our final goodbyes for the trip. This was the fitting end to a fabulous bicycle experience in the Black Hill of South Dakota. We all said we would return and we’re looking forward to the next Tandem Tour!