There’s So Much More to the Area Than Just the Trail
My friend Ella has a goal to ride in every U.S. state. Back in September 2015 she had her sights set on state #45…South Dakota. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid, plus had some extra vacation time, so I decided to join her on our very own Lucy and Ethel road trip. (If you’re under 50, Google it!) Since we ride at different speeds, a trail ride sounded better than a road ride. So the focus of our trip was to ride the George S. Mickelson Trail.
Burlington Northern built the rail line over 100 years ago to accommodate the miners who had rushed to the area to pan for gold. The line ran from Edgemont to Deadwood, directly through the beautiful Black Hills. In 1983, the rail line was abandoned and the bike trail was completed in 1998. The trail is 109 miles long and contains more than 100 converted railroad bridges and 4 rock tunnels.
The trail is the same path taken over the years by such luminaries as General George A. Custer, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Potato Creek Johnny.
Type of Gear Needed
The trail surface is primarily packed gravel, so a cross, gravel, or MTB are recommended. Even though the trail is well-maintained, there were many spots of loose and deep gravel. You needed to keep your downhill speed under control, as your tires could lose traction. There are 14 trailheads that offer parking and clean toilet facilities. Mile posts along the trail are 4-feet (over 1 m) high cement pillars that people have donated in memory, in honor or with a favorite quote.
The weather can vary, because the trail is at elevation. The low point is Edgemont, at 3,400 feet and the high point is Dumont, at 6,350 feet. Mornings were cool, with the afternoons warming nicely.
Day Trips or Self-Supported
The Mickelson Trail lends itself to a self-supported or day trips. If doing self-supported, there are towns with hotels and B&Bs, or some camping options. There are shuttle services, but we found them to be very expensive. We decided to make Custer, S.D., our home base for the week. It is right on the trail, which gave us options to ride from the lodge or drive north/south, picking up a trailhead somewhere along the route.
You must buy a Mickelson Trail Pass, which is available at self-service stations along the trail, authorized vendors, some state park offices and online. Passes are $4/day or $15 for an annual pass.
The third weekend of September is the Mickelson Trail Trek. It sells out quickly but is a great way to experience the trail with a large group. The three-day ride covers almost the entire trail and includes trail passes, shuttle service, as well as some snacks and meals.
As with the Katy Trail in Missouri (click to read our article), cell coverage is spotty along the trail and even the roads. So make sure you have the supplies you need.
We drove from Chicago to the trail, a trip of 1,000 miles from our home base in Chicago, taking two days and stopping briefly to sample the local highlights along the way.
Day 1, September 5 – Chicago to Kimball, S.D. (700 miles)
This was a designated driving day with a stop at the famous Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. We took a few pics, signed the guest book right after a couple from Naperville, Illinois (a town 15 miles from us back home). Small world. Then we had lunch, including the obligatory corn chowder, before heading out.
Day 2, September 6 – Kimball to Custer, S.D. (300 miles)
In route to Custer we stopped at the famous Wall Drugs and had breakfast. Then we headed to Badlands National Park. There we stopped to hike the Notch Trail, which included a rope ladder straight up the side of the mountain. From the Badlands we headed to Custer State Park and took the Wildlife Loop Road. There we saw prairie dogs, bison by the hundreds, pronghorn antelope, deer and, of course, burros. We named two of them we saw “Jack” and “Ass.” (No points for originality!) They are the only critters in the park you are allowed to feed. So they got some sweet baby carrots from us. Finally, we ended our day at Rock Crest Lodge for the week.
Day 3, September 7 – George Mickelson Trail
Today we decided to drive up to Dumont Trailhead and bike to Deadwood and back. For the most part, the grade of the trail does not exceed 4%, but parts are considered strenuous. Dumont is the highest point (~6,300 feet) and the 19-mile stretch from Deadwood to Dumont is the longest incline.
After taking Ella’s picture in front of the trail sign to document her riding state #45, off we went. Within a short time we came across a gate. Parts of the trail are called “open range” areas, which mean cattle roam freely. So you must open and close gates along the trail not to let cattle out.
Most of the ride was downhill, and I kept looking at the percentage grade on my Garmin as the miles ticked past, thinking this is going to suck coming back. We got to Deadwood and found a converted garage that is now a combo glass blowing shop and sandwich café. Can’t make these things up. We sat on the deck eating our Spark Plug sandwiches when I thought I saw a dog running through traffic. Then I realized it was three deer running through town in a perfect paceline.
We biked around Main Street, but it was very commercial. So we headed back to the trail for the 1,700-foot climb back up to Dumont. By the way, it did suck! But the scenery was beautiful, so that evened things out. There was a VERY short section of downhill on the 19-mile stretch and I came around a blind corner and almost slammed into two deer. Luckily, I was able to stop and no wildlife was injured on this ride.
Day 4, September 8 – Mystic and Tunnels
Today we drove to the Mystic trailhead in the middle of nowhere, hearing the Deliverance theme in our heads. The goal for today was to hit all 4 tunnels. The landscape along this section of trail was very different from the previous day. So it almost felt like you were on a completely different trail. Unfortunately, our ride was cut short as Ella had a mechanical. We still got to see 3 out of the 4 tunnels and felt it was a successful day.
We headed to Hill City and Rabbit Bike Shop, which came highly recommended by people we met on the trail and on Yelp. The shop was stocked with 75 rental bikes, high-end accessories and a very kind owner named Ed. He promised to have the bike fixed and back to us the next day.
While in Hill City (a great town to hang out) we walked around the small shops, ate lunch and then headed to Mt. Rushmore to see Abe, Teddy, Georgie and Tommy. When we were finished there, it was almost dusk, so I suggested we head back and drive the Wildlife Loop in reverse at Custer State Park.
I figured the animals would be more active this time of day, and we were not disappointed. As we came to the bison area, hundreds of them were blocking the road. You truly got to experience their massive size. One even used our car as a scratching post. Once we made it through bison rush hour, we found Jack and Ass again, along with 20+ of their friends. They would stick their heads in the car and gently take carrots from us. Nothing like having burro drool all over your windows.
Day 5, September 9 – Harney Peak Trail
With Ella’s bike in the shop, we decided to drive Needles Highway to Sylvan Lake. This narrow road meanders through the mountains as you go through single-lane tunnels. It was a beautiful but unnerving drive. Once at Sylvan Lake, we picked up the hiking trail to Harney Peak, which is the highest point in South Dakota, highest summit in the U.S. east of the Rockies and west of the Pyrenees. The out-and-back trail was 7.6 miles, with 1,600 feet of climbing to spectacular views.
After the hike we drove down the mountain and saw road bikers from a Colorado club slogging up. I had a cowbell with me (don’t ask me why) so I’d ring it whenever we passed a cyclist heading up. They’d smile and give us a thumbs up. You can never have too much cowbell! We drove to Rabbit Bike Shop, picked up Ella’s bike, and then to Prairie Berry Winery for some tasting. Nice finish to another great day.
Day 6, September 10 – Custer to Hill City Ride
Today, we rode from the lodge and had a 7.5 mile-climb to Crazy Horse Mountain. Then a 10.5-mile decent into Hill City. Rain was in the forecast around 1 p.m., so we didn’t stay too long before making the 10.5 mile-climb up to Crazy Horse Mt. and back down to Custer.
We found a cute café in town that was a restored 1881 bank, then made a stop in the all-in-one photo/bike/t-shirt store to tell the owner we survived the Deadwood-to-Dumont climb and then off to Hill City and Miner Brewery for beer tasting.
Day 7, September 11– Custer, S.D. to Grimes, Iowa (670-mile drive)
It was time to head home. We had a special stop for the evening in Grimes, Iowa, to ride the High Trestle Trail. The 25-mile trail boasts a trestle that rises 13 stories above the river valley and is a work of art during the day. But at night it lights up.
I equate it to the sunset parties in Key West. Everyone gathers on the bridge at sunset to watch the bridge light up. We timed it perfectly and were riding on the bridge as the lights came on. Truly a magical and an amazing end to a fantastic trip.
Mickelson Trail Resources:
George S. Mickelson Trail map and elevation: http://gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/mickelson-trail/docs/mickelson-trail-guide.pdf
Traillink.com (Rails-to-Trails Conservancy)
Sheri Rosenbaum regularly contributes articles and reviews products for RBR. She’s an avid recreational roadie who lives in the Chicago area and a major advocate for women's cycling, serving on the board of directors and volunteering with the Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club. Click to read Sheri's full bio.