Mickelson Trail: The Black Hills from bottom to top and back again in four days

We had planned on doing this ride last fall, but our dog Finn’s health was such that we couldn’t leave him, so we postponed the trip to this week. It is still spring in the Black Hills, though that doesn’t mean a lot in a place where the weather is “wildly unpredictable” as a local guidebook says.

We are riding with our friends Paul and Cindy with whom we rode across New York State a year ago. The Black Hills, the beautiful and mountainous western reaches of South Dakota, is a 10 hour drive from St. Paul. The four of us packed ourselves and our bikes in our Honda CRV and drove south on I35 and then straight west on I90 to Edgemont, the southern trailhead of the Mickelson Trail.

Cindy and Paul

George Mickelson was Governor of South Dakota from 1987 to 1993. He was a big supporter of the development of this trail, a former Burlington Northern railroad line that transported people and freight from the southern end of the Black Hills to the city of Deadwood in the north, passing through Custer, Hill City and Rochford. The story of the evolution of the trail from railroad to bike trail (after Governor Mickelson was killed in a plane crash) is long and full of the overcoming of the resistance of various non-supporters, including some local homeowners. (We read that the three things to watch out for along the trail are rattlers, poison ivy and “irate ranchers.”)

Our drive out yesterday was long and we were happy to settle into a small hotel in the, frankly, sad, little town of Edgemont. As we checked in to our humble hotel, the receptionist/housekeeper, asked “Do you want to see the rooms? They aren’t normal hotel rooms.” We assured her that we would be fine with the rooms – and then she told us that the hotel contracted with BNSF to house their workers on a temporary basis. Railroad workers came and went, carrying their backpacks of gear and getting shuttled out to locations unknown, to … work on the railroad all the live long day, I guess. It was a little like a hostel for the workers, but served us well.

We rode 60 miles on our first day, north out of Edgemont. We asked a woman to take our picture at the trail head, and she said “You know it is closed, don’t you?” We had heard from a fellow in the hotel that there was a spot where construction on a bridge over the trail had led to a temporary closure, but he had told us that it probably would be possible to walk around. Our photographer was adamant that the trail was closed, but we’ve seen these things before and have generally been able to find a way to get around – construction workers have been kind, for one thing. About 15 miles into the day, we came to the site, and found it messy, but rideable. (The locals aren’t always experts.)

Edgemont (left) to Hill City elevation. The last ten miles were pretty sweet.

Day one was pretty much all uphill, with 2500 feet of elevation gain. It was also sunny and about 75 degrees and we were thankful for the delicious cold water from hand pumps at a few rest stops along the way. There wasn’t much else, except glorious landscapes. Our lunch plans were dashed when we arrived at Pringle, 32 miles in, to find there were no cafes, gas stations or convenience stores at all. Lunch was energy bars and gorp with water. it was disappointing, as we were looking forward to a sandwich and ice cold lemonade but this one of those common situations in bike travel where you just have to keep going. Custer was 12 miles up the trail and we knew we’d find something there.

The Mickelson Trail is unpaved, mostly hard packed local limestone or gravel. There are spots where the surface is a little loose and more gravelly than we like it to be. It requires some caution and also slows down the bike, so we rarely topped ten miles an hour, except going down hills. Lisa crashed on a gravel road a few years ago and she was feeling some PTSD at times. But the landscape was stunning and pulling into Hill City after a nearly 10 mile descent was awesome and then, showers, pasta and an early night as we prepare to ride the next leg – 50 miles to the northern terminus of the trail in Deadwood. We will be climbing again.

In the category of goofy things you see out west
Crazy Horse from the trail

3 thoughts on “Mickelson Trail: The Black Hills from bottom to top and back again in four days

  1. Dan and Lisa
    You are such beautiful people with enormous hearts. I am so in awe of your spirits of adventure and all that you are doing. I send my love and wishes for a safe journey with your friends. Have great fun!!

    Liked by 1 person

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