Riding the George Mickelson Trail in South Dakota’s Black Hills has been on my list since I first read about it in a magazine that Rails-to-Trail Conservancy sends me periodically. So I scratched out a three day weekend here recently and packed my bike, gear and, oh yeah, my wife and fourteen year old daughter in to the car and up from Olathe, Kansas we drove.
Driving was part of the adventure. We stayed in Omaha on Thursday night and took in their Old Market District. Then it was up to the Badlands of South Dakota where I had my wife drop me off so that I could get in a twelve mile (or so) ride as they did a little hiking and visiting the Visitor’s Center. Beautiful! And there was this descent that would have been even more fun had it not been for the van from Nebraska in front of me… Yet, he was taking in the beautiful scenery, too.
As a final “pit stop” on the way to our destination in Deadwood, we were legally required to stop off at Wall Drug. I mean, anyone putting up that many signs for 500 miles deserves to capture at least a few of our expendable dollars, right?
769 miles later we arrived at our hotel in Deadwood, South Dakota. As my wife and daughter planned their shopping and sight seeing for the next day I readied my Masi CXGR gravel bike and supplies for the ride on the Mickelson Trail. At 6:54 am the next morning I turned on my Garmin Edge 25 and made the first kick towards Custer.
There was some construction creating a single lane on the main road leading to the trail and yet it was early in the morning, traffic was light and a police officer was right behind me to block any aggressive driving. As I pedaled I realized that one block to my right was “downtown” Deadwood so I hung a right and pedaled down and back the two or three blocks of brick covered streets to take in the sights and odd names of many of the stores in front of me.
Then it was on to the trail announced by bold architecture where I registered my ride and paid the fee for trail use. I believe the trail use for one day was $4.00 I only had one $1 bill and the rest were $20s. So, Merry Christmas Mickelson Trail!
One of my early observations of the ride was how well the trail was taken care of and, at least in the Deadwood portion, how it appears that they didn’t take up the old tracks. They simply covered the rails with chit gravel. I know this because in more than a few places the rail bleeds through and my tires were riding on steel. Not in a dangerous way, mind you. I had just never seen that before.
My second observation was how beautiful the Black Hills are. The smell of the pine and feeling the crunch of the gravel under my tires sparked my senses. And there was the noticeable coolness in the shadows as the cold water cast off waves of relief in the unseasonable heat…even at 7:15 in the morning. The sound of that rushing water. Of our five senses…the only thing missing was the taste. And with all the rain they’ve been having there wasn’t much dust to eat.
Up and Up and Up or Down
One of the things I probably should have done, especially as a Kansan, is check the elevation map. Listen, I promise you Kansas isn’t as flat as you’d like to believe. At least in the eastern third of the state. Yet, we do not have anyway to simulate hills that climb for the better part of 16 miles. Yes, our Flint Hills can have steep rollers, yet they do not go on for the distance per climb you get in the Rockies or Black Hills.
Look at the ride. Essentially, I only “climbed” four hills in the entire 67 miles. Yet, except for a very short respite, the first hill goes on for 16.9 miles. AND, I ride at 800′-1,000′ most days. This ride bounced me between 4,500′ and 6,200′ throughout the day. With only one night’s sleep at “altitude” this may have effected me more than I realized as I was climbing and climbing. Sure, my overall speed on the ride was respectable considering all the stopping I did for sightseeing and pictures along the way, yet I began to feel that ride in that last climb before Custer.
LESSON: For my friends in western Kansas, southern Illinois and most of Florida, you are either riding up and up or descending when you ride the Mickelson Trail. Very little, if any, flat.
And speaking of descents…WOW! Look at that first real descent. That’s over an 18 mile free ride! Well worth the climbing that precedes. I was torn between hitting speeds of 25 mph and taking in every sight as slowly as I could. The experience was truly a remarkable time on the trail and perhaps my primary lasting memory as time goes forward.
A couple of snakes of unknown species, a deer clearly unafraid of my being on the trail, a chipmunk here and again…that was really the only wildlife I saw on the trail. So I was disappointed on this front. It has been unseasonably warm in the Black Hills and this may account for the animals bedding down in the shade where I could not see them.
I will write more about the George Mickelson Trial in the near future. The trail was simply inspiring and I took more pictures and notes along the way. The journey was renewing, relaxing, exhilarating and hard work…all in the same day. That is a good day of bicycle riding in my book.