Day 18: Keystone to Hill City the hard way - The Empty Middle 2015 - CycleBlaze

October 10, 2015

Day 18: Keystone to Hill City the hard way

Today will be a long hard day, but it also promises to be summer-like. A high of 90F (32C) is forecast for Rapid City, with total blue sky sunshine. The weather forecast is awesome but I'm told that the Pinnacles highway is closed for repaving. I'm bummed because it's the most scenic road in the Black Hills, and it's an essential segment of today's planned route. I must do a long detour if I can't pedal that road.

I got up at 6:30 and had the not very good breakfast at the hotel. At 8:20 the husband drove me and the bike 2 miles up the steep hill to the Mount Rushmore entrance. That saved me 700 feet of 8% grade climbing.

Unlike yesterday afternoon, the entrance line was short and I found out that bikes get in free. The entry fee is $11 for cars. The facilities at Mount Rushmore have been completely rebuilt since I visited in 1993. Now there is a 3-story parking garage. The area between the parking garage and the visitor center resembles an airport terminal entrance.

The big new visitor center, gift shop, restaurant, and toilet building is quite nice. In 1993 there was a gravel path to the main observation plaza. Now the walkway is paved, with many posts that hold flags. I liked it better in 1993 when it was more park-like. Handicapped people surely like it better now.

Parade of flags leading from the visitor center to the main viewing plaza.
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The amphitheater below the observation plaza was rebuilt to expand the capacity from 850 to 3000. I shouldn't be upset when a park like this gets industrialized. It's a man-made shrine, not a wilderness.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Bikes get in free.
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The sculpting was done by Danish-American Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum. The carving of Mount Rushmore was federally funded. Construction began in 1927 and was abandoned in 1941. The original plan was to carve each president down to the waist and remove the rock debris below. World War 2 put a stop to those silly plans.

Of course the native Americans were opposed to white people mutilating a sacred mountain known at Six Grandfathers. The construction of Mount Rushmore surely motivated the Sioux tribe to "get even" by starting the Crazy Horse sculpture.

Four presidents: George Washington (#1), Thomas Jefferson (#3), Theodore Roosevelt (#26), and Abraham Lincoln (#16).
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I left Mount Rushmore at 9 AM. First back down the steep hill towards Keystone. But this time I continued past the Keystone turnoff on the Iron Mountain road. I've been looking forward to this road for a long time. I pedaled it in 1993 in the opposite direction. This time I'm going uphill on the most scenic part, so I notice more details. When going uphill all 3 loops are obvious. When going downhill in 1993 I didn't recognize all the loops.

Pigtail Bridge 1 on Iron Mountain Road, US 16A.
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The loops are called pigtail bridges because they form a complete circle like a pig's tail. The bridges are made of wood, like a railroad trestle.

Pigtail Bridge 2. Iron Mountain Road was built in 1933.
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Iron Mountain road has 3 tunnels that frame Mount Rushmore. The tunnels are very short, only 50-150 feet long. But the height and width are small. Buses and motor homes don't drive this road because the clearances are so tight and the consequences of error are so great.

Tunnel 1 is 14 feet wide, 12.7 feet high. Most vehicles fit if the driver has the nerve.
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Iron Mountain road gently climbs a forested mountain with few expansive views. The road features are the main attractions. The road was built in 1932 when cars weren't very powerful. The grade is mostly 4-5% with short sections of 6%.

View from tunnel 1. The giant white structures didn't exist when I saw this view in 1993.
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Two segments of Iron Mountain road have separate one-lane sections. Geography doesn't demand it. The designers just wanted to make the road more scenic. The road is a scenic byway, not practical transportation.

Two segments of Iron Mountain Road are split into separate one lane sections.
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Pigtail Bridge 3 connects to Tunnel 2.
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Tunnel 2 is 13 feet wide, 12 feet high.
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A few trees must be cut down to give Tunnel 2 a surreal peek-a-boo view of Mt. Rushmore.
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After climbing 1000 feet I took a long stop at the big picnic area near the summit of Iron Mountain road. Very nice. I scrambled up a granite dome to get a better view of the Harney range to the west, the highest peaks in the Black Hills.

View of the Harney Range from a National Forest picnic area at the summit of Iron Mountain Road.
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Near the top of the descent I stopped at the Peter Norbeck overlook. Most of the overlook is now obstructed by trees. It had a more open view in 1993. I could see the lookout on Harney Peak, the highest peak in the Black Hills. I plan to hike there the day after tomorrow.

View from Peter Norbeck overlook on Iron Mountain Road. The view was less obstructed in 1993. Harney Peak lookout visible in the upper right. Brown areas are freshly dead pines.
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Tunnel 3 on Iron Mountain Road. 13.3 feet wide, 12.3 feet high. The tourist map shows the tunnel dimensions.
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After tunnel 3 the Iron Mountain road continues to descend into valleys that are less forested. I noticed the turnoff for Playhouse road during the descent, but stayed on Iron Mountain road. Shortly afterwards I entered Custer State Park.

Iron Mountain Road descends to Custer State Park after I failed to turn on Playhouse road.
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By the time I got to the bottom of the descent it was apparent that my original plan must have been to turn on Playhouse road. I was expecting today to be 28 miles, but this route is 15 miles longer, and that's before any detour to get around repaving on the Needles highway.

I was glad to discover a restaurant on my route, Game Lodge in Custer State Park. The lunch buffet allowed me to quickly get a huge meal. I need a big lunch because today I have a huge amount of climbing ahead.

My reward for the longer route was a much-needed big lunch at the Game Lodge buffet.
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I had already been in Custer State Park for a long time, but I passed an entry gate where cars must pay admission. The attendant insisted that the Needles highway is still closed today. So I resigned myself to stay on US 16A most of the way to Custer, then take SD 89 north to Sylvan Lake to reconnect with my planned route. That adds 5 miles and 200 feet of climbing and forces me to stay on busier roads. Not terrible by itself.

Stockade Lake, I think.
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It was a long slow uphill grind from Game Lodge to the edge of Custer. The west wind didn't make it any easier. Then I turned north on SD 89. Now back on a low-traffic road. Still uphill. I'm climbing to Sylvan Lake which at 6200 feet elevation is the highest point of the tour.

Highway 89 passes many granite formations while climbing to Sylvan lake.
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It was almost sunset when I reached the summit near Sylvan Lake. The lake is only 1/2 mile away but I didn't detour there today because I'm running out of daylight. I turned left at the T onto SD 87 towards Hill City. This is a narrow winding road completed in 1922. It goes through the narrowest tunnel of the day. This one will for sure keep motor homes off the road. The Needles highway was completed in 1922. Its 3 tunnels are narrower than the tunnels on Iron Mountain road.

Tunnel 4 is on the descent from Sylvan Lake. 10.5 feet wide, 10.6 feet high. Excellent large vehicle filter.
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After the tunnel the road descends into the granite canyon on long gently graded switchbacks. Grades had to be gentle in the 1920's.

The descent has gently graded switchbacks.
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Once in the bottom of the canyon I continued 5 downstream miles to the intersection with US 16. Then another 4 downhill miles to Hill City, elevation 5159 feet. I arrived at 6:30 PM, just a few minutes before dark.

The canyon is surrounded by impressive granite formations.
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Hill City has a population of 949 but seems bigger because of all the tourist facilities. I got a $90 room at Quality Inn. Dinner at Slate Creek Grill a mile away on the opposite end of town. Hill City is not historic but is still a charming mountain town.

I was so exhausted that I went to bed at 8:30 PM. Today was the most strenuous day of the tour.

Today was a scenic day with great weather. High of 83F (28C) up high in the mountains. I'm still furious that the Pinnacles highway was closed on what is probably the last nice weekend of the year. I really wanted to meander among the granite pinnacles and ride through 2 more tunnels that are even narrower than today's 4 tunnels.

Distance: 51.3 mi. (82 km)
Climbing: 4547 ft (1378 m)
Average Speed: 8.1 mph (13 km/h)

Today's ride: 51 miles (82 km)
Total: 948 miles (1,526 km)

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