Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway
Wednesday September 14, 2016, 47 miles (76 km) – Total so far: 82 miles (132 km)
If you’ve never ridden the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway through Custer State Park in South Dakota, then you must! It should most definitely be on your bike bucket list. It is so, so fun and very scenic. It is a twisty, curvy, climbing, descending piece of heaven. Go early in the morning and you won’t even have to worry about traffic – because it does get traffic-y as the day goes past 10am.
I rode this in 2013 as a day ride during a tour, and the descent down Iron Mountain Road is still on my list of favourite downhills. Spiral bridges, tunnels, sections of road where the lanes split into uphill and downhill single stretches… it is so much fun!
I didn’t take pics this time that I took last time, so to see more pics of this amazing scenic byway, check out my Range Roaming journal.
Jen and I start by 7.30am, heading out of Hill City on the Mickelson Trail to the junction with the road up to Sylvan Lake. It’s quite breezy today but it never poses any serious issues.
We start into the climb through the pines with views over to the craggy granite of the peaks around Sylvan Lake above. Jen is a slower climber than me, but I just hang behind her today on this first big climb. There’s little traffic this early.
We talk about our lives and all the good things, all the bad things, all the uncertainties and all the ways we have various concerns and hopes for the future. We aren’t all that close these days and don’t email all that much between visits, but as soon as we are together, it’s like the days back in college when we were roommates. I truly value our friendship simply because it transcends absolutely everything – time, distance, relationships, careers, aspirations and worries. We most definitely have our own lives, but it is great to have a big catch-up every now and again.
The conversation carries us up that first big hill. At one point, when the sun throws shadows of our biking forms against the pavement beside us, I have to laugh. It totally shows our different riding styles. My legs are pumping, Jenny’s are slowly turning over. I am so much a spinner – she is so much a masher. But it’s all good. We both get there in the end – the tortoise and the hare.
We stop for a brief break at Sylvan Lake before heading out toward the Needle. Jenny’s mom is going on the 1880 train this afternoon, so we need to be back by 12.30pm for her to get to the train. It’s going to be tight.
There are a few people at the Needle and a nice English chap offers to take our photo. Several guys tell us today that they’d like to be riding with us – but that they don’t do hills. (And so they miss the best bits!) We take all the requisite photos, and then start flying on down through the craggy rocks and beetle-killed trees. Jenny is pretty cautious – has motherhood made her not such a downhill demon?
We roll down into fog. It is a bit eerie – wisps of trees and rock flying past as we descend through all that moisture. I’m used to fog in winter back in Oz, so it’s not as creepy to me since it’s such a common occurrence back home. But still, to go from all that sun into all that grey mist is a huge contrast.
Down, down we go through all that pleasant, park-like scenery. The aspen are just starting to get tinges of orange and yellow. In a couple of weeks, it will be prime. The smell of birch and cottonwood leaves with water and dampness makes me know I’m ‘home’. It is a really pleasant ride down to Playhouse Road where we hit the uphills near the campground and crawl on up. Then there’s the long downhill past some ponds to the junction with Iron Mountain Road. Jenny opens up and lets fly through there – the downhill demon is back – she was just cautious on the tight turns because of the oncoming traffic.
We start up Iron Mountain Road. When I did this in 2013, I was going through this section at about 7am, so there was little traffic. Today we are past 10am, so there is PLENTY of traffic. Everyone gives us room, though, so it’s no big deal. I’m not in great shape at the moment, so I can feel a bit of fatigue in my legs. Consequently, I need to go my own pace, so I ride on ahead of Jen. I’ve always been faster on the uphills. I stop and wait for her to catch up every quarter mile or less though. It does give me a chance to get some good pics of her climbing the final three switchbacks to the overlook. She’s been loving the road and the tunnels that frame Mt Rushmore just as much as I did in 2013.
We triumphantly reach the Scenic Overlook – our second big climb of the day finished. But we have no time to stop and walk around and take in the great scenery. We are too pressed for time. So we begin the amazing descent. This descent is so incredibly fun I cannot even describe it. You will just have to do it yourself some day! Spiral bridges, tunnels, tight curves, single-lane road all set among scenic, park-like pine and granite. Soooo much fun!
But today, our downhill is slowed by, of all things, a Town and Country mini-van from Wisconsin. Eventually they pull over to let us go by, as does a sedan from California, and then we can really let it fly. (I’m not on my bike, so I’m not as comfortable leaning my loaner bike into the curves, but it’s still fun!). Jen loves the road as much as me.
At the junction with the road to Keystone, we make the decision to just take the Mt Rushmore Road back to Hill City. It’s not a very pleasant ride because of all the traffic, but it does have a sufficient shoulder the whole way. Plus, after the first two killer uphill miles (grades up to 10%) to Mt Rushmore, the rest of the climbs and descents are very manageable. The alternative we’d planned was to use the Old Hill City Road. However, neither of us have ridden it, so it remains an unknown as far as grades and difficulty, etc.
So we grunt our way up to Mt Rushmore up that steep-arse hill. The line to get into the monument is backed up way down the road, so we get to inhale all the idling exhaust in the last quarter-mile or so. Ugh. We negotiate our way through the backed up lanes of traffic and on past the entrance.
Then Jen takes off like a fire has been lit beneath her. She is convinced we can average 15mph the rest of the way back to make it in time. I am so not convinced. I’ve done this road before. And I am not fit right now. Still, Jen gives it a good go. I watch her disappear into the distance. I just plod along on my townie bike. Mt Rushmore is high, but it’s not downhill all the way back to Hill City. Sometimes I see Jen in the distance, sometimes she seems long gone. Go, Jen, go!
Then, I see her up ahead. Stopped. On the phone. I roll up behind her. She’s finally conceded we are not going to make it back in time. The good news is that her sister, whom has done an out-and-back to Mystic on the Mickelson Trail this morning, will be at the cabin and can look after Baby H until we return. Jen’s mom will make the train ride.
Now that we aren’t racing the clock, I suggest we stop at the KOA at the bottom of the next hill. I’ve eaten three bananas today, but that hasn’t been enough. I’m starting to drag. Jen agrees, though her only need is a restroom. She’s been snacking all day and generally doesn’t eat junk.
So we pull in and I get a choc milk and an ice cream sandwich. The guys and I refuel. We re-sunscreen and then hit the road again. I feel like a new woman. Major bonk prevented. We ride up and down and over hill and dale. Against the wind. We blow down that final hill to the road junction with 385 and pull up next to a car at the light. The woman in the passenger seat rolls down her window and says, “You girls are very brave.” We just smile and roll off with the green light. I hate when people say that. Bravery involves fear, and nothing we did today involved any fear whatsoever. Are we so insulated from adventure that riding a bike down a hill is brave? Sheesh.
We ride up to the next road junction on 385 to catch the Mickelson Trail back into town. This is all downhill and with a tailwind, so Jen and I rip it up and sail back to the cabin. Appropriately, the cabin is named “Triumph Elm” – and we definitely feel triumphant. What a great ride and how much fun it was to share with a lifelong friend!