Words and photos by Zach Stone
The Black Hills Expedition (BHX) is a 460-mile bikepacking race with 60,000 feet of climbing that circumnavigates the Black Hills of South Dakota. It takes you through every kind of terrain imaginable, from the flat and exposed roads of Custer State Park to long hike-a-bike sections through thick pine forest. One moment you’re carrying your bike on your shoulders through thigh-deep water, and the next, you’re wolfing down a steak at a fancy restaurant. Local riders always say the course made them feel like a tourist in their own backyard. The only thing wilder than the course itself might be the guy who dreamed it up, Jason Thorman. In the nine years he’s organized the event, he’s finished every time.
The route takes most riders between five and seven days to finish, and in that time, they might be rained on, wake up to frost on their bivvy, sweat it out in 100°F weather, or get caught in a hailstorm. I’ve completed the loop twice before, in 2016 and 2017. After four years of not competing, I was excited to toe the line for this demanding and adventurous ride. The weather called for mild temps with little to no chance of moisture, which was a pleasant surprise in comparison to 2017, when I finished at 4 a.m. during an icy 34°F rainstorm.
Day one went quite well, and I was able to ride from Spearfish to Sturgis at mile 100 for dinner. I grabbed some supplies and a Red Bull for the next day from a late-night gas station and rode off into the night. I expected to get another 10 or 15 miles before climbing into my bivvy. The ride out of Sturgis to the next town is a massive, relentless climb on steep singletrack to Nemo.
Sometime after midnight, I decided I wouldn’t save that Red Bull for breakfast after all, and it helped energize me until about 3 a.m. Over the next two hours, I moved slowly but didn’t feel the sleep monster too bad, so I just kept moving. Shortly after 5 a.m., I was able to catch first twilight, and by the time the sun rose, I felt completely refreshed. I’d heard that riding through the night was possible, but until that moment, I didn’t know it was an option for me.
After filtering water at Dalton Lake, I pushed to Nemo, imagining what I’d buy at the grocery store. That’s when I learned the store wouldn’t open until 9 a.m. I decided to press on in hopes of getting dinner at the Gaslight in Rockerville, 40 strenuous miles away.
I did manage to make it to the Gaslight, and a big meal and a few beers later, I rode off into the night to tackle the infamous Foster’s Gulch Trail. Foster’s is a short section of trail, but what it lacks in length, it makes up for in pure and total ridiculousness, especially when riding fully loaded at night. From Foster’s, the BHX follows the abandoned Washington Trail, which is less a trail and more a series of crisscrossing cow trails that follow a boggy spring.
Later that night and after missing my next resupply in Keystone, I decided to get some rest for the first time on this journey after riding/hiking for 42 hours straight. After some very replenishing sleep, I passed Mount Rushmore just after sunrise on my way to Custer State Park. My next resupply at the State Game Lodge was much needed and came just in time. Fall colors blurred together in the sunset as I whizzed down some tarmac to the southernmost point of the loop, Wind Cave National Park.
At the base of the loop, the course turns sharply north again, linking back up to singletrack and the Centennial Trail. This stretch proved to be arduous in the dark, and I missed another resupply at Blue Bell Lodge. At around 2 a.m., I decided to call it a night and slept on my favorite trail in the Black Hills, Paha Sapa. I woke to the first and only rain of the entire trip and hunkered down for about an hour until it passed.
Eventually, I made it to the Silver Lake Lodge where I assumed I would be eating a hot breakfast. That was not the case, so I settled for a couple of Reece’s Cups and a Hershey’s bar from the front desk of the hotel. The next section of the BHX follows an old forest service access road that winds its way up a steep mountain. On the way down the other side (and if you’re lucky), you can see the Crazy Horse National Monument. But, on this day, it was covered by dense fog.
As I got closer to Hill City, at around mile 320, all I could think about was a warm meal. I stopped at the Alpine Inn and ordered two separate entrées, the German platter and a monte cristo, as well as a tall beer.
After a much-needed resupply, I headed toward Silver City, where I turned onto Trail #40. This particular trail is known for two things: 30+ creek crossings and banks covered in poison ivy. I set my resolve on Deerfield Lake and planned to stay there for the night so I could grab breakfast in the morning. I woke up early and waited for the store to open. During an enormous breakfast, I checked Trackleaders and saw the second-place rider only a few miles away from the lake. I stopped for a couple of minutes on the shore and saw Garrick Ploog across the water. This was the first time I had seen a fellow rider since day one, so I gave him a customary eagle’s “cacaw!” to get his attention. We exchanged a few words across the lake then went our own ways.
The next section is fairly flat and mostly follows gravel roads, making it some of the faster riding on the course. But on this day, that wasn’t the case due to a 30 mile per hour headwind. Just before dark, I climbed to the Cement Ridge Lookout, a significant and final high point from where you catch a view of Spearfish and the finish line. Most of the riding between this point and the end is on the Dakota Five-0 race course, which includes some of the best singletrack around Spearfish. Progress was slow after dark, and I mistakenly put empty batteries in my Garmin a few times.
I eventually made it to the finish line at Crow Peak Brewery at 11 p.m. with a total time of 4 days and 17 hours. Garrick finished 15 minutes later, closing a once 40-mile gap down to a mere two or three at the end. Friends greeted us at the finish and we shared some high fives, a few beers, and some epic stories.
2022 Black Hills Expedition Results
- 1st Place: Zach Stone (4D:17H)
- 2nd Place: Garick Ploog (4d:17H:15M)
- 3rd Place: Paul Bosworth (5d:11H:55M)
- 4th Place: Jason Thorman (5d:11H:55M)
- 5th Place: Jim Gerhardt (6d:6H:30M)
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