Take Time to Travel: SD mountain trails offer escape for hikers, cyclists
BLACK HILLS NATIONAL FOREST, S.D. -- They're called the Black Hills, but the peaks and valleys that dominate this forest in western South Dakota contradict the region's genial moniker.
In the southern Black Hills, Harney Peak's craggy summit rises 7,242 feet above the level of the sea. To the north, Terry Peak surpasses 7,000 feet. Up close, the region is lush, green and quite mountainous.
And dissecting it all is the Mickelson Trail, a railroad line-turned-bike path that transforms the average visitor from tourist to trailblazer on a tranquil lane that is as scenic as it is serene.
"It's just a neat ride," says John O'Connell, a pilot who runs a crop-spraying business in Letcher, S.D. "In the Black Hills, it goes from rain forest in the north with the evergreens and spruces and through the whole ecosystem of the Hills. You come out at Edgemont with sage brush, rattlesnakes and prairie dogs. You ride a trail that the train ran on years and years ago."
O'Connell's current home in Letcher is nowhere near the Black Hills, but O'Connell is a native of Custer, S.D., in the southern Black Hills. Custer is the place where Black Hills gold was discovered in 1874.
The Black Hills' siren song to tourists began the moment word got out that gold could be panned from the frigid creeks of the previously unmapped and unknown region. It started a national frenzy, followed by a rush. Gold-seekers, and then pioneers, stampeded to the Black Hills from places like Sioux City, Yankton and Bismarck.
In 1889, Dakota Territory was halved and South Dakota was born.
Soon, trains were needed to supply the settlers in the mountainous region. By the late 20th century, however, those trains stopped rolling through the Black Hills. The state acquired much of the property and later turned it into the Mickelson Trail, named for former Gov. George S. Mickelson, who died in a plane crash in 1993 while in office.
The beauty of the 109-mile trail is that it's entirely out of the way and relatively unknown to the average tourist, who may not realize the ease with which it can be navigated. Hiking is one obvious mode of conveyance on the trail, but bicycles -- whether personal bikes or those rented at shops in nearby towns -- can make for an easier trip.
O'Connell has ridden the Mickelson's entire length some 20 times. He and his wife, Marci, are regulars at the annual Mickelson Trail Trek -- actually, the regulars call it the "Mick Trek" -- each September, but they enjoy the trail on their own at other times, too.
O'Connell says the trail is "never busy."
"Close to the towns, like Hill City, Custer and Deadwood, quite a few people are walking dogs or doing day hikes," he said. "But when you get out in the open part of it ... there's just not many people out there.
"It's beautiful, quiet and serene."
The trail stretches from the gambling town of Deadwood, in the northern Black Hills, to Edgemont in the south. It generally follows the lines of track that were last operated by Burlington Northern in 1983.
Along the trail are tunnels that allow hikers and bikers to pass literally through rocky crags and mountains. The trail also includes more than 100 converted railroad bridges that span trout-filled creeks, where fly-fishermen match wits with rainbows and where some folks still pan for gold flakes. The trestle in Sheep Canyon, on the southern portion of the trail, is more than 100 feet high and 700 feet long.
Few of the trail's 109 miles are near busy roads or highways, and most of the miles wind quietly in the backwoods where the average tourists -- bound by busy highways and slick travel brochures -- never roam.
The Mickelson can be, but is not necessarily, a difficult ride. Although the entire trail obviously has its peaks and valleys, it's possible for hikers and riders to tackle the trail in small, easy segments. With a bit of guidance, those without much stamina or ambition can find stretches that are almost entirely downhill, such as the span between the Dumont and Mystic trailheads.
That ride is approximately 18 refreshing, mostly downhill, miles through cool pine forests, with a break at the tiny mining village of Rochford in the middle. When seeking a trail outfitter -- many can be found via basic Internet searches -- ask about the Dumont-to-Mystic stretch. Even out-of-shape riders and inexperienced youngsters are likely candidates to finish this easy trek. For those interested in a shorter ride, that stretch can be cut in half by stopping at Rochford.
Although the trail's grade generally does not exceed 4 percent, there are some tougher areas. Remember: The Black Hills region is indeed mountainous, albeit poorly named.
"No. 1, it's good exercise," said Mark Van Den Hoek, a businessman from Mitchell, S.D. "It's also a nice mixture. It's out in the country, but you get a mix of some smaller towns, like Rochford and Hill City."
Van Den Hoek doesn't suggest the entire trail to novices, but said there are some beautiful stretches that allow riders to coast lazily amid some of the Midwest's most spectacular scenery. He recommends finding a topographical map of the trail and planning the trip accordingly.
If the valley floor-hugging Mickelson isn't wild enough, adventurous tourists may try a hike to the top of a few of the Black Hills' many peaks.
Harney Peak is the most popular, with approximately 18,000 hikers reaching its granite summit each year.
It takes anywhere from 2.5 to 4 hours to get to the top of South Dakota's highest point, but it's definitely worth the effort. It's an alpine setting with a view that stretches more than 60 miles, over to South Dakota's Badlands and into nearby states.
Ropes and climbing gear aren't required to reach the summit and the historic lookout tower at the top. Several groomed trails -- which can be strenuous but not necessarily over-exerting for the average person -- lead visitors skyward.
Harney is in the southern Black Hills, a short drive southwest of Rapid City. To the north and just outside the motorcycle town of Sturgis is Bear Butte, a bald mountain that holds much religious significance for the region's American Indians.
Like Harney Peak, Bear Butte also offers groomed trails to the top. Bear Butte's summit is more than 4,500 feet above sea level, but it is not alpine, like that of Harney.
Instead, Bear Butte offers a spectacular and unhindered view of the prairies that lead up to the Black Hills, and especially the region to the east and north, into North Dakota.
It takes less than two hours to complete the somewhat strenuous walk to the top of Bear Butte, where visitors are able to rest on a wooden observation deck.
- It costs $3 for single-day use of the Mickelson Trail. There are 14 trailheads along the route. Bike rental is offered by private businesses and not included in the trail fee.
- If you don't have your own bike with you, don't expect to simply show up at a Mickelson Trail trailhead, rent a bike and begin the trek. Calling ahead to an outfitter is an absolute must. Most outfitters will not only rent a bike for a decent fee, but they're also available to provide shuttle transportation to the starting point.
- Some portions of the Mickelson Trail pass through historic small towns, like the old town of Rochford, which has an elevation of 5,305 feet, a population of 25 and a rushing mountain creek slicing through it. The Moonshine Gulch bar is worth a brief visit.
- For all of the aforementioned trips, plan to pack water, sunscreen and a snack.
- Western South Dakota is home to rattlesnakes, but they shouldn't be a deterrent to visitors. Most regular visitors to the Black Hills never see these critters. However, it's best to stay on the trails and be on the lookout.
Wenzel is the publisher at The Daily Republic, Mitchell, S.D., which is owned by Forum Communications Co.