Mountain Biking South Dakota’s Mickelson Trail

If Rocky Raccoon was a mountain biker, you can bet a satchel of Black Hills gold he would have packed his cubs and ridden the George S. Mickelson Trail snaking through the Black Hills of South Dakota. Running 109 miles from Deadwood to Edgemont, the trail follows the historic Deadwood to Burlington Northern rail line, which lasted from 1868 until 1983. The state’s first rails-to-trails project is now designed for bicyclists, whose piston-power comes from legs instead of locomotives.

Named for South Dakota Governor George S. Mickelson, the trail sees more than 65,000 bicyclists per year, some tackling portions and others the entire traverse. The longest climb is the 1,600-foot, 14-mile pedal out of Deadwood, but it’s rolling from then on, taking you over 100 converted railroad bridges and trestles through some of the best scenery in South Dakota. And all you need to bring is a credit card. No paniers, tents, sleeping bags, stoves or food. Just a little piece of plastic for hotels, meals and cold beer at the end of the day.

Which, of course, also makes it the perfect multi-day pedaling destination for parents and their kids.

Our adventure starts in Mystic, an abandoned mining/sawmill town hidden between forest-covered ridges in the Black Hills. A sign near the trailhead reads “Hill City: 14.6 miles,” our first destination before continuing on to Custer.

All we pack is our day gear and clothes to change into at the hotel. Of course, with kids along our gear list grows accordingly. This includes a trail-a-bike for Casey, bike for Brooke, and Burley for one or both should they get tired. We also carry spare tubes for all the oddly shaped wheels.

Mistake number one: not realizing until we arrive that the Burley doesn’t fit onto my wife’s disc-braked bike. So it has to go on mine, behind Casey’s trail-a-bike, which also only fits on my bike. The result: a triple-rigged, snake-like Dr. Seuss-mobile evoking looks from other riders that say, “Are you really pulling that on this trail?”

Aside from the roller coaster behind me, another discouraging sign is the roller coaster-like trail ahead of us. Though the trail only reaches a maximum 4 percent grade, every person coming our way marvels at the downhill they just rode. I try to distract my kids from hearing the news, but that’s where we’re heading—up a 4 percent grade for the next seven miles to Red Fern. We’re also starting at a heat-peaking 1:30 p.m. on June 24; the day before in Deadwood, the thermometer crested 94 degrees.

A 4 percent grade isn’t overly burly, but it is with a Burley. The heat gets the kids whining quickly and they soon grovel into the Burley behind the trail-a-bike. This means awkwardly tying Brooke’s bike to the top, where it hangs like an ill-fitting awning.

All this weight is towed by dad. Behind me coasts Casey, Brooke, Brooke’s bike, a trail-a-bike, Burley and duffels full of day gear. Making matters worse is the pulling apparatus. With all the weight in the Burley, the now-weightless trail-a-bike lifts with each pedal pump. I’m the Little Train Who Could, sweat brimming my brows with every crank.

Respite comes in several old railroad tunnels, which trap cool air inside the mountain. Following the creek, Brooke now thankfully back on her own bike, we arrive at a series of restored railroad trestles. If they were strong enough for trains, I figure they’re strong enough for the train of wheels behind me.

We clickity-clack across and regain the chipped limestone trail, as smooth as the card dealers in Deadwood. A veritable history lesson unfolds around each bend. We earn a few speckled flakes at “Wade’s Gold Panning” for a fifty-cent fee, and pass abandoned railroad buildings and ghost towns, each empty cabin prompting Casey to ask, “Who lived there?”

The trail’s last turn takes us into Hill City just in time to see an 1880s steam train pull up from the town of Keystone. Steam billowing from the engine matches poltergeist-type clouds circling ominously overhead, so we high-tail it to the Comfort Inn, parking our bikes right off the trail in the hotel’s basement. Bikes from other trail-riders are perched in similar stalls.
Seven seconds later the kids cannon-ball into the swimming pool to wash away the day’s grime. Then it’s straight onto buffalo burgers at Buffalo Bob’s (not to be confused with his more famous brother, Bill), topped off with ice cream cones. Back in the hotel, the kids fall asleep before their heads hit their pillows.

The night’s rain makes the next day’s trail tacky for our 17-mile ride to Custer. “It smells good out here,” says Brooke as she helps me wheel the bikes out of the basement.

“My butt’s sore,” chimes in Casey as she climbs on her trail-a-bike and scrunches-up her face up for the inevitable helmet fastening. “The seat’s giving me a wedgy.”

After waiting for the handlebar’s turtle to squeak, a telltale indicator that she’s ready, we roll off on leg two, the train whistle blowing as we pedal out of town.

We make it a whole half mile before our first swim stop under a bridge in a small creek. A mile later the kids belly-flop into a beaver pond. We find the deepest swimming hole of the trip below a culvert where someone has used a muddy finger to paint a picture of a hunter and a bison. “I don’t think those are from real Indians,” says Brooke, sparking a conversation conversation about Indians and animals that lasts the next few miles.
The kids sing and yell as we ride over wooden bridges so they can hear their vocal chords vibrate on the planks. Like dominoes, rows of identical ponderosas line each side of the trail. We take a Skittles break six miles in, and in another three we crest a pass, marking the end of the uphill. In the distance the Crazy Horse Memorial, carved into a giant granite outcropping, seems to beckon us onward.

We pass a twosome pedaling recumbent bicycles, a Boy Scout troop from Colorado, and several couples coming the opposite direction. A couple on a Harley waves at us from the road, prompting Casey to give them the thumbs-up sign.

The kids also learn about setting and achieving goals. They keep their eyes out for mile markers, asking how long it took to get to each one (six to 20 minutes, depending on potty breaks), and play such games as dodging pine cones and counting trees. On the trail-a-bike behind me, Casey happily sings such favorites as “The Ants Go Marching One by One” and “Miss Mary Mac.”

We cool off at a water pump at Mile Marker 49, sticking our heads under the faucet, before following a lodge-pole fence into Custer. We arrive to a church celebration with a bonanza of free Bouncy Castles, arts and crafts projects and snow cones. While the kids busy themselves back in civilization, we grab the car, break down the bikes and begin packing for the trip home.

If You Go
Gear: Bring bike repair equipment, rain gear and a credit card.
Skills: The trail follows the old railroad line, so you’ll rarely put it in granny; the maximum climb is a 4 percent grade.
Cost: Users age 12 and over are required to purchase a daily trail pass for $2, available at self-registration sites en route.
Details: The 109-mile trail can be ridden in one long day in either direction, or make it a multi-day outing by staying in such towns as Hill City, Custer and Pringle. The trail has water fountains, milepost markers, interpretive signs, and shelters with picnic tables and bathrooms. For accommodations and car shuttles, try the Deadwood Chamber (800-999-1876); Custer Chamber (800-992-9818); Hill City Chamber (800-888-1798); of Edgemont Chamber (605-662-5900).
Season: April-October.
Don’t Miss: Swing by the Crazy Horse Monument outside Custer for a closer look after your ride; and you might as well hit Mount Rushmore while you’re in the neighborhood.
Fun Fact: Visit Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, where Wild Bill Hickok was shot while holding his Deadman’s Hand of aces and eights on Aug. 2, 1876.
Map: Take I-25 north and turn right on U.S. Highway 85. In Lusk, stay north on U.S. 85 through the Black Hills into Deadwood.
Info: www.mickelsontrail.com, (605) 584-3896.

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