This article first appeared in expanded form as a four-part series on the author’s blog. All photos are by the author.
Two places within a day’s drive of the Twin Cities impress me as spectacular landscapes. If you, sometimes tire of flat corn and wheat fields, as I do, the North Shore of Lake Superior and the Black Hills are wonderful destinations. Most of us are pretty familiar with the North Shore, but I’m guessing fewer people have visited the Black Hills. And if you want to combine a bike trip with beautiful scenery, I’d highly recommend the Mickelson Trail in western South Dakota, which runs north and south through the best of the Black Hills. We rode the trail from south to north and back again between May 22 and 25, 2023.
The Black Hills, to me, are defined by forests of Ponderosa pine, the forest floor covered with pine needles and punctuated by many outcroppings of rock. The region has a rich geology that led to the onset of mining for gold and other minerals in the 1870s. This activity displaced the Sioux people who claimed the Black Hills as home. (Black Elk, the Sioux holy man who was the subject of the book “Black Elk Speaks,” believed that the Black Hills were the center of the world.) George Armstrong Custer led the first mining expedition to the Black Hills in 1874, two years before his demise at the Battle of Little Big Horn, which took place just 300 miles to the west.
The 109-mile Mickelson Trail follows the rail line that ran for about 100 years from Edgemont in the south to Deadwood in the north, carrying passengers and freight until being closed in the early ’80s. Discussions then began about converting the track into a recreational trail. The rails-to-trails movement had begun in the mid-1960s with the creation of the Sparta Elroy trail in Wisconsin, and really picked up in the 1980s as railroads were in decline. The Mickelson Trail was among the early conversions.
The trail is named after George Mickelson, governor of South Dakota from 1987 until his death in a plane crash in 1993. Mickelson was a champion for the trail, which was finished in 1998 after resolving right-of-way disputes with local ranchers. The Mickelson Trail has become one of the “bucket list” cycle paths in the nation. (Outside Magazine ranks it #8 on its list of the 25 best rail trails in the U.S.)
The mountains of sedimentary rock (gray, blue, orange), granite and other minerals are spectacular all along the Mickelson Trail, and are often accompanied by lovely streams and creeks. Our ride began in the tiny town of Edgemont, the southern terminus of the trail. We rode 65 miles to Hill City on our first day and about 45 miles to Deadwood (the northernmost trailhead) on day 2. On day 3, we rode south back to Custer (65 miles) and on day 4, back into Edgemont (45 miles), for a total of 220 miles.
Trail surface: the trail is mostly crushed limestone. There are places where the stone piles up a bit and is almost gravelly. I was riding a Trek 520, a classic touring bike with 32 mm tires, which was fine, but I wouldn’t recommend riding on narrower tires. My wife, Lisa, rides on an REI Coop touring cycle and had slightly wider tires, which worked great. The surface is definitely slower and noisier than a paved trail.
Hills: Riding from south to north, you will encounter a nearly relentless climb on the first day — Edgemont’s elevation is about 3,600 feet, and the trail tops out just before Hill City at over 6,000 feet. Since this is a rail to trail, the incline should theoretically be no more than 5%, though I have to say it occasionally felt like more than that. The highest point on the trail is Dumont, 19 miles south of Deadwood, which we encountered on our second day. Riding south out of Deadwood comprises the steepest climb of the trail, though the stretch from Edgemont to Custer is the longest climb. Since we rode both directions, we experienced all the ups and downs — north to Deadwood was a lovely ride downhill but south out of Deadwood is a different story! Riding south back into Edgemont was a long glide down the hill. If you were to ride the trail only one way, it is probably easier to go north to south. (Shuttle services are available if you want to leave your car at one end, shuttle to the other and ride back.)
Access to water and food: shelters and water from hand pumps (cold and delicious) are regularly located on the trail. Finding water elsewhere can be problematic, as there are not many towns or stores along the way. There are no places to purchase food or water, for example, between Edgemont and Custer — 45 miles. Bring your own snacks and fill your water bottles at every opportunity.
Lodging and dining: We stayed in hotels, which you can find in Edgemont, Custer, Hill City and Deadwood. The hotel in Edgemont was very simple, and was used as a kind of hostel for railroad workers, but it was just fine for us the night before we set out. Dining possibilities in Edgemont are very limited — we ate in Hot Springs. There is nothing in Pringle, and the only place to eat in Rochford was closed the day we rode through, so some planning needs to be done. There is camping along the trail, or nearby. (We rode by a couple of campgrounds we’d stayed in on previous car trips.) A 3.2-mile spur out of Custer connects the trail to Stockade Lake, on the western border of Custer State Park (which is the state park that is most like a national park in our opinion).
Sights: The landscape provides stunning views throughout the ride. The big view, for me, was seeing the Crazy Horse monument, though it is at quite a distance. Aside from the spectacular landscape itself, there are also points of interest along the trail with interpretive signs, sites of old mines, and a few museums in the towns. A couple of odd things greet the rider along the way as well, including a bike “sculpture” in Pringle — a huge pile of discarded bikes. We got lucky one day and came upon a couple of cowboys/cowgirls wrangling a cow away from the herd — super cool to watch.
If you are willing and able to haul your bikes on the 10-hour drive to the Black Hills this or any summer, I think you should seriously consider riding the Mickelson Trail, and check it off your cycling bucket list!