Like Thunder Mtn rollercoaster – The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway: Custer to Custer
Friday May 17, 2013, 56 miles (91 km) – Total so far: 1,364 miles (2,196 km)
If cycling the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway is not on your bucket list, it should be. I have no idea how it wasn’t on mine.
My plan to start at daybreak is thwarted by a thunderstorm. I lie there, awake, pumped, ready to go. I’ve got no idea if I’m going to be able to complete this ride today, so I’m antsy with anticipation. I just want to get going.
The thunderstorm is just the lingering remnant from the ones that started yesterday evening and continued on and off through the night. They mostly just skirted around the campground, but I’m waiting until this one moves off before starting out. Once it’s finished rumbling through with a few gusts of wind and a dripping, but not a drenching, rain, I start packing up. By the time I make it out of the tent, it’s clear and calm.
We first have to back-track east on Hwy 16A which we rode out of the park yesterday. After cresting the Galena Divide and cruising downhill at speed for several miles, I feel prouder for having ridden that fully-loaded at the end of the day yesterday. I zip along, the sound of the wet pavement under my tires about the only thing making noise right now.
I turn off on Highway 87. There’s a short, steep climb, then a long and winding descent through open Ponderosa forest. The pavement is smooth and clean; there is no shoulder.
I then turn right onto the Playhouse Road. This is a rougher chip-seal, but the surface is smooth. I pass by guys doing chainsaw work near the campground. The park is pretty aggressively going after the beetle kill. I wonder what the budget is for that – must be enormous. There is one short, steep section heading east on this road, but I’ve got pretty fresh legs, so I just spin my way up.
Finally, I reach the junction with Highway 16A again – the Iron Mountain Road. And this is where the fun begins.
Back when I was 5-years-old, my parents took my older brother and me to Disney World. They took us on the Thunder Mountain Roller Coaster, and my life was never the same. It was my first roller-coaster, and as soon as that safety harness lifted up, I was ready to sprint back to get in line and do it again. And again. In all of my 5 years of life, I never knew you could ever feel so exhilarated. I didn’t think anything else could ever compare to being flung around at speed. All these years later, the memories are still vivid.
This morning, Iron Mountain Road becomes the Thunder Mountain of my adult years.
The climbing begins at the road junction and continues for maybe 5 miles. It is never too steep, however. It’s like I’m the cog pulling the coaster up the track to the top of the hill. Each pump of my legs is like the ‘clink-clack’ drawing you closer to the apex – about to be released downhill for a high-speed flinging. Of course, I don’t know this road, so I don’t know this at the time. But looking back, that climbing was like the tow to the top of the coaster.
Since it is pretty early in the morning, and on a weekday out-of-season, I’ve only seen 3 cars on the road so far. I am only overtaken by one car going my way on the uphill of Iron Mtn Road. I see three cars going the other way. This contributes to my excellent mood.
The climb begins in open grasslands, proceeds into open Ponderosa forest and eventually climbs into granite outcrops and thicker Ponderosa. The scent of the pines, as I take deep breaths pushing myself up the hill, takes me back to my college days and all the backpacking trips with pre-dawn starts to climb above treeline. I’ve got a smile on my face for sure this morning.
During the climb, the Iron Mtn Road treats you to three tunnels which frame Mt Rushmore in the distance. When Peter Norbeck was conceiving this road, he blasted the tunnels, then asked Custer State Park Superintendent Gideon to design the road to connect them. Gideon devised corkscrew tunnels known as pigtail bridges. What he didn’t know was that he really just designed the most super-fun roller-coaster ever for the cycling population (motor and bicycle). The road was completed in 1933 with the help of 16 men.
The last part of the climb is an ascent up switchbacks, though the grade is not too tough unloaded. At the top, there are several memorials to Norbeck, some interpretive signage and an overlook of the granite outcrops and pine-clad hills of the Harney Range.
And then the exhilaration begins. I think the following 4.5 miles are the most fun I’ve ever had on a bicycle. The road drops off the side of the mountain, twisting and curving through crumbly granite rock outcrops. The pine forest passes by in a blur. The first spiral bridge appears. Hit the brakes for the tunnel, but not too much. Then lean that bike right into the continuous spiral corner, knee out for balance. Try not to smile too big. Keep flying downhill. The next two spirals are back-to-back. Fly. Fly. Fly. (I do stop to take pictures – someday I’ll ride this again, no pics taken so I can really fly).
Holy freakin’- oh my god – somebody pinch me – this is the most fun EVER! The spiral bridges are just the beginning. The rock outcrops and pine forest blend into a peripheral blur of green and grey. No picture-taking now. It’s all about speed – the limit is 30 or 35. I’m consistently doing just under 40.
Just when I think the grin plastered on my face can’t get any bigger, I hit the section where the road splits. The uphill side of the road and the downhill side of the road are separated by a hill of trees. My road is now just a car-width – it’s like being on my own bike path. No – it’s like being on my own roller-coaster track. This is so phenomenally fun that I actually laugh out loud. The speed pulls tears back from my eyes towards my ears. I’m hanging on tight and just flinging myself down that road.
The roads rejoin for a few short, sharp curves through some granite rocks. On the brakes hard – down to 20 mph. Some motorcyclists see me barreling down my lane, complete with my laughing grin from ear-to-ear, and give me huge waves.
Down, down we go. All too soon, it’s over. Oh my, oh my, oh my. Somebody lift the safety harness. I want to do that again!
Where the Iron Mountain Road intersects Hwy 244, I have to stop and stand there for a few moments, just to stop shaking and let that all soak in.
Then I begin the steep climb up to Mt Rushmore. I don’t know this grade either, but it’s one of the steepest on my whole trip. You know a grade is steep when you can smell brakes at the bottom and transmissions at the top. This is one of those. I do have to stop and rest several times on this one, but there is a shoulder to rest in. The traffic is much heavier, since this is the way to the monument from Rapid City.
I have mixed feelings about visiting Mt Rushmore. I really hate overt patriotism. I also feel like this is about the most disrespectful thing a people could do to land that was effectively stolen from another nation. Technically, the Sioux signed off on the sale of this land after ‘defeat’ in the Plains Indian Wars, but the Sioux contend to this day that the ‘contract’ is invalid because many of the main leaders were still away at war when the treaty was signed. It is also claimed that not enough tribal members were present to make it representative.
I do recognize the technical brilliance and the artistic side of this though. So I think maybe I should look at that bit. I’m also starving and want to supplement my snacks with some cafeteria food.
45 seconds into my entry into the visitor centre and I’ve already had enough. Then, walking toward the cafeteria with my bike, and seeing grossly overweight Americans eating ice cream at 9am, I am really done. I go in, pee, get a plate of bacon and eggs, then sit outside to eat. Of course there are several people who engage me in conversation that saw me climbing up the hill – but I’m still heading back down to the parking lot at 9.30am. It is just way too overkill for me to want to stick around and try to learn about the technical side of carving the faces. See ya.
Westward we go, over hill and dale, amongst heavy beetle kill and heavier traffic. There is a good shoulder, however. It is about 14 miles to get to the turn-off for Hwy 87. I’m fueled up well and enjoying the ride….
Until I get to the turn-off. There’s a big sign that says “Road Construction next 12 miles. Expect delays”. Shortly beyond that, a very rough, milled surface begins. Oh, crap. There is no way I’m going to be able to do this for 12 miles. Maybe 6 miles uphill, if I walk parts. But I would probably shake every nut off the bike and every ounce of flesh off my breasts if I had to do this downhill. Crap. What am I going to do?
Shortly, I reach the stop-go guy. He is the site boss. He confirms it is like that all the way to the top. He says I can ride on if I want. I’m still trying to decide whether I should just head back to 385 and take that back. He then says the most golden words: “I’ve got somebody coming down to flag. I can take you to the top in my truck if you want.” I hesitate for about one-tenth of a second before saying, “Yes, please. I don’t think I can do that surface.”
So I get a ride up the six really steep, switch-backed miles to the top at Sylvan Lake Lodge. The supervisor chats with me as we go, so I learn a lot about road re-paving, equipment break-downs and organisation of large-scale roadworks. I also get a whole bunch of looks from the workers as we drive by. The poor supervisor is going to get ribbed about this after he drops me off. It is my lucky day, though, because that would have been absolute hell to have ridden on the bike. Nicely paved it would have been the hardest six miles of the day – with the deep grooved surface and all the construction traffic, it would have been close to impossible. So I can’t say I rode every mile – I actually got a ride up the hardest bit.
At the top, the guys and I stop for a few minutes to consume a rootbeer and some snacks at Sylvan Lake. There are a heap of people here. It’d be great to come back some day to hike some of the trails – there’s just no good way to do that today logistically. We find out that the downhill 6 miles of road construction is actually on Hyw 89. We’re heading down Hwy 87, so bike and bits aren’t going to be shaken to a pulp. Yippee!
And then the roller coaster begins again. I got the tow up from the road supervisor. The pin has been released, and down we go again, this time flying down the Needles Highway. Now that it is afternoon, there is more traffic, so I can’t let it fly quite like I did over on the Iron Mountain Road. There is quite a bit of congestion around the Needle itself and the two turn-outs beyond.
When laying out the Needles Highway, Norbeck looked for routes that would provide “the grandest views” – “a road to engage the senses in a masterpiece of engineering”. In 1919, the route mapped out was, to conventional engineering standards, impossible to build. When Norbeck asked his engineer if it could be built, he replied, “if you can supply me with enough dynamite”. Two years, and 150,000 pounds of dynamite later, they had themselves a road.
And yes, the road engages my senses. After the congestion of the Needles area, I can let it fly again. The traffic caught up there has passed me, the next batch hasn’t yet arrived. Once I do 13 mph through a couple hairpin turns advisory-signed at 5 mph, I let it go. The curves and twists continue, but not as tightly.
The BMXer inside me takes over. We take the lane and fly again. The huge grin reappears and the next 8 miles disappear in no time. I do a max of 38 mph on this ride down, but keep it above 30 mph almost the whole way. Yippee! Yippee! It can’t be legal to have this much fun!
Sadly, the steep downhill is over too fast. We then have some gentle downhill. The forest and rock outcrops re-emerge from the blur of my peripheral vision and become the pleasant backdrop to my pedaling once again. There are a few scenic little picnic areas before we climb back up to Hwy 16 and retrace our steps back west once again. I climb that same hill I climbed yesterday fully-loaded. At this point, my legs say they are done. I urge them on the final 4 or 5 miles.
The campground owners are happy to see me return. When I was discussing the route with them yesterday, they thought it would be a really hard ride but also thought I’d be able to do it since I’d ridden to the campground from Hot Springs without major difficulty. As strangers, they certainly had more faith in my capabilities than I did.
I’m so exhilarated when I get back to camp. I feel almost invincible – like that feeling you have in your 20s, before your brain fully forms and you realize you are mortal. I think I have just about had the most fun I’ve ever experienced on a bike. It was probably the most climbing I’ve ever done in a day-ride, too. Wow, I am riding so high. That was just so immensely fun! The weather is forecast to go crap tomorrow, so I’ve just squeezed this in. Jump up and down for me – this was awesome!
Seriously, if that ride is not on your bucket list, particularly the downhill ride through the spirals and beyond on Iron Mountain Road, then whack that ride on there. That was just one of the best days ever!