Gillette to Spearfish

Thursday 30th June to Saturday 1st July – Stages 48 & 49

Thursday 30th June – Gillette to Devils Tower National Monument.

We were up & on the road by 8.30am, as we were hoping to arrive early enough at our accommodation to enable us to have a look around Devils Tower, made famous by Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster – Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It took about 5 miles to cross town & make our way onto deserted roads & along the way we saw our first piece of industrial architecture in the form of the Black Hills Energy Complex. It seemed a big coincidence to see this the day after reading about Powder Basin’s supplies of low-sulphur content coal!

We were soon following the course of the Donkey Creek & a railway line from the Black Hills Energy site on Highway 51. As we crossed a bridge I was pleased to see a train on its way towards us on a separate line. Little did I know that around the next corner in Rozet, we would pass a railway siding where thousands of locomotive engines were lined up, one behind the other. There wasn’t any freight, just engines!

I did some research after today’s ride to find out why – in the region of 40% of all the coal produced in the USA is from Wyoming & the majority of that passes through Gillette. However, the USA has finally re-joined the Paris Agreement on climate change & as it starts finding & using cleaner & cheaper sources of energy, there is less need for coal.

Donkey Creek is where all the spare locomotives are ‘parked’ – as recently as 2020, over 2,500 locomotives were mothballed here. There looked to be even more there now. This will have serious ramifications for Gillette – it’s still the coal capital of the USA, but that may not be the case for much longer. The largest coal mine in Wyoming is 90 SQUARE MILES in size & the coal is near the surface, so it’s mined by trucks with shovels so big, a US size family car would fit inside it!

Like so many towns & cities before it, Gillette needs to re-invent itself, but that won’t be simple or quick to do.

Continuing along the deserted 44 (it’s a frontage road for the I-90), we were hopeful that the small town of Moorcroft might offer up a coffee option. When we pulled up at Donna’s Diner we knew we’d hit the jackpot – home-baked fruit pies served ala mode were on offer. I chose the cherry pie & Sean went with the blueberry option. It was absolutely delicious & made up for the barren days since our stop in Boulder (on our way to Helena)!

As we left Moorcroft, we saw our first sign for today’s main event – a mere 31 miles to go. We passed farmers working hard in their fields, as they baled up the hay. At Keyhole Reservoir, I was expecting the green fields in the photo to be under water. As we circumnavigated the lake, the road took us up & down gentle rollers, which created a photo opportunity!

We still had a couple of 20 minute climbs ahead of us & the first one came into view soon enough. We were still skirting the edge of Black Hills National Forest, which offered us some protection from the mid-day sun. The climb up to Carlile would take us up to the plateau where we’d get our first long distance view of Devils Tower.

We were still 10 miles away from the National Monument & for the next 6 miles it hid from view, until we turned onto Wy24 & climbed a short, but steep hill.

Our accommodation this evening is being provided by Julianna & we met up with her at the Devils Tower View, where I had a big slice of lemon meringue pie. We then rode back to our tipi lodging where we dropped off all our kit & set off so we could explore Devils Tower further.

To reach Devils Tower, we had to descend for about a mile, pass the Trading Post, show our pass at the Entrance Gate & then climb a twisting 3 mile back road up to the Visitor Centre, which offered up big vistas of the Belle Fourche river valley below.

Devils Tower holds special significance for Native Americans & stories have been passed down the generations. Two young boys became lost trying to find their way across the giant prairie & they realised they were being tracked by Mato, an exceptionally large bear. Soon the bear was upon them & they dropped to their knees, praying for the Great Spirit to save them.

Suddenly the ground beneath them rose up, lifting them high on a giant pillar. The bear continued to try & catch them, getting onto his hind legs & scratching his claws down the pillar. Mato couldn’t catch the boys & he eventually retreated, tired & exhausted. The story ends with the boys being carried back to their village on the wings of Wanblee, a giant eagle.

As we walked round a 1 mile paved path at the base of Devils Tower, we spotted a climber in the shadows, who was rappelling his way back down. You can see him more clearly in the 2nd photo.

When we completed our walk, Sean went to the Visitor Centre & called me over, saying there was a snake in the eaves! A Bull Snake was trying to get into the roof to hunt the bats that were in there. However, that required the snake getting close to a birds nest with eggs in it – the parent bird wasn’t happy with this & kept attacking the snake & pecking its head!!

Descending back to the Entrance Gate we also passed a Prairie Dog city – they were all calling to each other & keeping an eye out for predators.

I stopped for a few more photos on the way back to Devils Tower View, where we stopped for fish & chips, washed down with a beer! It had been a long day of cycling & walking around the Devils Tower, but it was also an epic day out.

It wasn’t over yet, however, as we still had an evening in a tipi to look forward to & we also met Sue, who had travelled from Kansas City. I really enjoy meeting people & sharing our experiences, as it really gives an insight into how people live. Sue was planning to visit Devils Tower in the morning, then explore further afield from there.

There was a also a stunning sunset to enjoy, as the moon rose to take its place.

Stage Stats – 72 miles, 3,176 feet of climbing. A big day of cycling, followed by a couple of hours exploring the Devils Tower. We didn’t experience any Close Encounters!!

Friday 1st July – Devil’s Tower National Monument to Spearfish Campground.

We were up & on our way by 8am – our plan was to cycle 11 miles to Huwett & have breakfast at Red Rock Cafe. On the way I took a few more photos as we said goodbye to Devils Tower & headed along the Belle Fourche valley. My first thought was that I recognised the rocks colour from previous cycling trips to Utah & Colorado.

We had the road pretty much to ourselves as we made our way up & down small rollers on the way to Hewett – a feature of every town is that the City Limits sign includes the size of the population & the town’s elevation. Recently the numbers for the population have been small, while the elevation numbers have been big!!!

Red Rock Cafe was recommended by Julianna (our tipi hostess) & it delivered a great breakfast! While we were eating, Sue (who we met last night) came over & said hello. She’d got up early, driven to Devils Tower, walked the paved route & driven on to Red Rock Cafe too! We also met Rudy & his wife, 2 Dutch cyclists who were riding East to West – in a really uncanny twist of fate, Annmarie (who I met on a US cycling trip to Yellowstone in 2010) had hosted him at the very beginning of his adventure! I only found this out a few days ago when Annmarie got in touch!!!

Leaving Huwett, we were climbing for the next 90 minutes, slowly at first as we continued along the Belle Fourche valley, then we had one final look back to Devils Tower over 20 miles away.

After a short descent, we hit the main climb of the day, which went on for about 40 minutes & hit 10% near the summit. I was hoping for a sign at the top of the climb, but I was disappointed! Close to where the 3rd photo was taken, we learned about the first official government expedition to the Black Hills, led by General George Armstrong Custer. The expedition had more than 1,000 men to scout for a new fort location – the presence of engineers, geologists & miners indicated that recording the topography, geography & location of gold deposits were other important goals.

The expedition’s discovery of gold led to miners rushing to the Black Hills. This was a breach of the Laramie Treaty, which in turn resulted in the Sioux Indians defending their lands. The Sioux defeated Custer in the Battle of the Bighorn in June 1876. In 1877 the United States officially confiscated the Black Hills lands from the Sioux, the legality of which is still being disputed in the courts.

Dropping into Aladdin, we stopped at the General Store (the best preserved of the remaining 5 mercantile stores in Wyoming – opened in 1896) for coffee from a pod machine & a processed slice of banana bread. I wasn’t a big fan, but I had to check it out to know for sure that it wasn’t my thing.

We took Highway 111 & headed south, passing a number of ranches & farmsteads with customised gates & signs. We continued to climb (it was beginning to feel as if the whole day was one long climb!) through farmland, with occasional stands of trees – on the far side of the road the soft, sandy soil was being eroded away, as the grassland binding it together had been removed.

As we reached the I-90, we took a small frontage road that took us through Beulah, home of the annual Test Fest – yes it’s a Rocky Mountain Oyster festival, where humans eat bulls balls & it’s an annual June event!!!

Beulah also marks the last town on the I-90 on Wyoming, as the border with South Dakota is just along the road. Spearfish City Campground was now less than 5 miles away, but first we rode along a road on the edge of town where almost every residential property had flowers in the garden – my favourite example is below. As we entered the City Park, we passed a couple of people fishing in the creek that ran through the centre of the Campground.

We were quickly checked in & wasted no time getting our tents set up. I then set about charging up my tech – phone, laptop, power bar & Wahoo, so I can document my adventure.

While we were charging up our gadgets, we met Don (for the next day we called him Gus by mistake – luckily he already knows before he reads this!!). Don is now retired & spends a proportion of his time exploring the world on 2 wheels & has been to places as diverse as Germany, Norway, Denmark, Patagonian region in Chile & the USA of course. His current trip started in Astoria (Oregon) & is likely to end in New York, but it’s all open to change. We’re currently on a similar route & schedule, so we hope to meet Don again in the next couple of days.

While we were on our way to dinner in town, we got caught in a flash storm – the skies changed colour. the skies opened & for the next 20 minutes we were trapped under separate trees as the rain absolutely bucketed down. Ask Mr Google to look up Derecho for even more extreme examples of these types of storm in South Dakota – they saw green skies.

We finally made it to dinner at Nonna’s, where we both chose pasta courses & washed them down with a cheeky beer to toast another 3 days of glorious riding. Tomorrow’s a rest day, so it will be interesting to see how we cope with 3 nights of outdoor living on the trot!

Stage Stats – 66 miles, 3,133 feet of climbing. It felt like we were climbing all day as we crossed the state line from Big Wyoming – to the Great Faces, Great Places of South Dakota.

Saturday 2nd July – Rest Day.

Our rest day started with a walk to the laundromat to wash our cycling kit & off-bike clothes. We then strolled into town & stopped at Uncle Louie’s for breakfast, a 3 egg omelette, toast, juice & coffee.

On the way back to my tent I bumped into Kari from Rapid City, who was camping with her children for the weekend. Stella, her 7 year old daughter was having trouble with the stabilisers on her bike, so I was able to help them sort the issue out & ensure that Stella could continue on her bike ride! This is one of the very few things I can fix & it felt nice to finally be able to help someone else after all the assistance I’ve already received.

We caught up with Don this morning, he’s setting off later today & planning to stop at Trailside Campground tomorrow evening – he gave us the details & we’ve booked a couple of pitches there too.

We picked up dinner from the local grocery store & got about halfway through eating it before an evening storm threatened for the 2nd day running – luckily it didn’t come to anything! As I was washing up my bowl & cutlery, I met Gary & Denise from Wisconsin – they were due to visit the UK this year, but a combination of the war in Ukraine & rising Covid numbers in January meant they’ve had to delay their visit. Hopefully they will get to visit Cornwall & London next year, as well as take their cruise. I really enjoyed spending 30 minutes with Gary & Denise.

At about 9pm Alex from Colorado Springs came over & asked if we fancied joining him for a beer – it would have been rude to refuse! We spent a couple of hours enjoying Alex & Mary’s company (& beer!) – they shared some great ideas on places to visit when we get a bit further East. I’m pleased that I remembered to get a group photo of us all -thanks Chloe for taking the picture.

We headed for bed about 11pm, as we have another big adventure planned for Sunday.

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