Day 16: Hot Springs to Custer - The Empty Middle 2015 - CycleBlaze

October 8, 2015

Day 16: Hot Springs to Custer

Today is short but mostly uphill, climbing from 3448 feet (1045 m) elevation in Hot Springs to 5303 feet (1607 m) elevation in Custer. From a deep canyon in the foothills to the high country of the Black Hills.

Unfortunately today's weather is much worse than yesterday. Temperature 58F (14C) in the morning, forecast to drop during the day with frequent rain. In the morning everything was wet but it wasn't raining. It threatened to rain for the next few hours.

First I spent an hour looking around historic Hot Springs. I walked up a long staircase to the Veterans hospital which is on the rim of the canyon 100 feet above downtown.

Veterans hospital in Hot Springs. Spanish mission style, completed in 1907. Originally called Battle Mountain Sanitarium. 2 of 6 wings visible.
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Then down the staircase to look around downtown a bit more.

South Dakota and North Dakota gained statehood on November 2, 1889.
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The visitor information center is in the former railroad station. My motel is visible across the creek.
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One final walk to the waterfall before hitting the road. The one-sided downtown strip is visible on the left.
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One of many Victorian houses on steep slopes. This reminds me of Eureka Springs, Arkansas and Galena, Illinois.
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Historic stone hotel and courthouse. Here the creek is behind the buildings.
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Finally on the road at 9:40, still not raining. On the way out of downtown I took a short detour past Evans Plunge to see Chatauqua park in a spectacular red rock side canyon with a clear spring-fed creek, only half a mile from downtown.

The bath houses closed long ago. Now visitors and locals go to Evans Plunge.
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Chatauqua park has still another spring fed creek half a mile from downtown.
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Then finally out of town heading north on US 385. Past pastures for a few miles, then into Wind Cave National Park which has no farms and no fences. I found the cave tour to be disappointing in 1993, so I won't go there today.

Wind Cave National Park. Climbing into the Black Hills.
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The 7% grade getting out of town got me sweaty. Then rain started a few minutes later. I pedaled in light rain for several hours. My clothes were wet the entire time and the temperature dropped to 50F as I gained elevation. It was impossible to stay warm. The wind was nearly calm, so at least I didn't have to deal with wind chill.

I saw a few bison. Wind Cave National Park and adjoining Custer State Park are open range with a large bison herd.
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The weather was awful but the route was very scenic. Gradually more forested as I gain elevation. US 385 has light traffic with very few trucks. No farm traffic here!

Climbing near a burned area. US 385 has a wide shoulder and not much traffic.
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I have a love/hate relationship with US 385 today. Traffic is light and the shoulder is wide but the grooved concrete is extremely loud.

Granite outcroppings become more common as I climb into the Black Hills.
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In the middle of Wind Cave National Park is today's only intersection. SD 87 continues north to the cave entrance and Custer State Park. I turned left to stay on US 385 which goes northwest to Pringle and then north to the town of Custer.

Lunch stop at Pringle, population 112.
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I stopped for lunch at the restaurant/bar in Pringle. Getting inside the warm building felt good for the first few minutes, but then I became increasingly cold sitting still in wet clothes. I sat next to the wood stove but it didn't help. I really needed to refuel with a high calorie lunch, but it was a relief to get back on the road and start pedaling to warm up.

Nearly every restaurant and store in the Black Hills has a Welcome Bikers sign. That doesn't mean they welcome bicyclists. The signs refer to motor-bikers who attend the world's largest motorcycle rally every August in Sturgis, on the northern edge of the Black Hills. The 2015 rally had an official attendance of 739,000 people. The city of Sturgis estimates that the rally brings $800 million to the state of South Dakota each year. The Black Hills is a great destination for bicycle touring, but not during the first half of August when every campground and motel is overflowing and you must share the road with hundreds of thousands of motorcycles.

Bicycle sculpture in Pringle, a "trail town" on the 109 mile Mickelson trail.
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In Pringle my route starts to parallel the 109 mile Mickelson Trail. In this area the trail is parallel to US 385. I stayed on US 385 which is better graded and has a much faster surface than squishy wet crushed limestone.

It rained nonstop for 4 hours, finally ending at 2:30 PM. Afterwards I still couldn't dry out because it was 50F (10C) and I wasn't moving fast enough to get good airflow. I was working hard, always going uphill except for two 200 foot descents.

The landscape gets more forested as I climb into the mountains.
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The clouds were low and thick all day. I imagine that on a sunny day I would have good views of the Black Hills between Pringle and Custer. Today I couldn't see the high peaks until I was almost in Custer.

High peaks of the Black Hills finally become visible near Custer, South Dakota.
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I arrived in Custer at 4:15 PM. Population 2067 but it seems bigger because of all the tourist facilities. The sky was so gray that it seemed like it would get dark any minute. I pedaled east a few blocks to see downtown but didn't spend much time looking around because I need to get out of the wet clothes. Downtown is mostly tourist-related shops.

Former courthouse, I suppose.
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Downtown Custer, South Dakota. One of several tourist towns in the Black Hills.
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Then 1 mile west on busy US 16 to Super 8 to get a $81 room. Special tourist town price, 50% higher than the last two places. Custer is a mile-high town with a short tourist season. 3 motels are already closed for the season.

It was a relief to finally strip off the wet clothes. I was so chilled that it took an hour to warm up afterwards.

At 5 PM the clouds suddenly parted and I saw blue sky for a while before sunset. Tonight will be cold. I'm glad I'm not camping.

Today had more climbing than any previous day and it had the slowest average speed of the tour. That's life when climbing into the Black Hills. The scenery was great but it was a miserably cold rainy day. Fortunately the remainder of the tour will have better weather.

Distance: 35.7 mi. (57 km)
Climbing: 2558 ft. (775 m)
Average Speed: 7.1 mph (11.3 km/h)

Today's ride: 36 miles (58 km)
Total: 871 miles (1,402 km)

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