1999 Mickelson trail tour in the Black Hills of South
Arlyn & Sandy Aronson firstname.lastname@example.org
|As we leave Deadwood SD.
A mine lift from Home Stake gold mine can be seen.
|One of the many tunnels we rode through||The stop at the Rochford country store (nearly a ghost town)||One of the many gates we passed through|
|This is the last downhill to Edgemont in 115 degree temps||At 6 A.M. heading north again near Edgemont||A rough camp location on the last night|
In my home state of South Dakota a new rails to trials opened up this
past summer. It's called the Mickelson trail, named after the governor
died in a plane crash the same time the Branch Davidian's set fire to their compound in Texas. So nearly no network covered the plane crash and the
state's tremendous loss, but that's another story.
It's located in the western section of the state in an area of ancient
worn down mountains called the Black Hills. The southern section starts
small town called Edgemont, and heads up through the center of the hills to end at Deadwood in the north, about 110 miles later. Last summer we
read about the entire trail's opening, so we decided this may be a fun trail to tour on. We started by questioning our local friend about the
trail's surface and its ride-ability. He stated it was very hard and fairly fast to ride on. Since we've been on a few of Wisconsin's crushed
limestone trails this sounded just as nice. Then a few weeks before our departure he modestly changed the description to "you need pretty big MB
tires for it!". This forced us off our new bike Merlyn (Meridian tandem) to our old Red, a R&R Burley that some fairly large 26 in. tires would fit on.
It's a day's drive west to my folks' home in central SD where we dropped
our off our puppy dog Holly. This is where she retired from after
spending nearly 10 years herding sheep (competing in trials). We overnighted there then did the short drive west to the hills where we
picked up some 2 inch MB tires for Red. Then we headed north to our friend's home in Sturgis. After some difficulties in mounting the tires
we still had plenty of time to drive to the trail head in Deadwood, eat and load Red. There we contacted the local police department for parking info.
a bicycle cop showed up at the trailhead parking to give us a permit for the 5 days. We ate, bought trail food then loaded Red. In doing all this
we hadn't noted the location of the actual trail!!! But in one corner of the lot there was some RR tracks entering the parking lot. It looked more
like some gravel piled on top of RR tracks but it had to be it. We mounted and slowly headed south out of Deadwood. The rails protruded enough in
places to make crossing them a bit hairy but we trudged along and finally got out of town. It was slow going in the loose gravel and uphill be we
eventually got out of town. In trail brochures they talk about the 3% grade the trail has, but we found bridges out where we stood on Red's
cranks in our 26-30 gear and nearly broke traction rolling up gravel embankments. We eventually couldn't even locate a RR grade where the trail
had become more of a path through the woods. After a steep climb out of the canyon we passed through another trailhead and were back on the RR
grade. This was the only time a RR grade wasn't followed. 10 miles from town we found a nice quiet spot to rough camp in the woods a bit off the
trail. (this is legal on National Forest service lands) We were plenty tired from "only" 3% grade and gravely surface, not to mention driving the
past 1.5 days. Sure slept well in that cool mountain air.
Monday July 26th
Nice to be back in the woods and hills where Sandy & I met biking
years ago. Cool air makes for some nice sleeping . We ate, broke camp and
headed down (really up) the trail again. Soon we came to the 1st tunnel of the trail and next to the tunnel a car was parkedr. We stopped to take a
photo and said "hi" to the folks loading their camping gear. They nervously looked the other way. Then the thought hit us that cars are NOT
allowed on the trail.
After a few more miles we finally peaked at 6100 ft having started in
Deadwood at 4637. We ran out of water but going down hill towards Rochford
(very near a ghost town) brought our speed up considerably. Here we could buy some snacks and reload with water. Zipping along we started seeing a
few cyclists and followed a group. We starting seeing some abandoned buildings, but nothing that looked like a rural store we expected. I'd
been to Rochford a few times by car and we expected to see a trail head sign, a Rochford sign or something. We saw neither and soon passed all the
buildings. Then we passed the remains of the old gold mill where I said to Sandy "I think we passed Rochford!" We turned off the trail onto a gravel
road and headed back up hill to town. We found the rural store (post office and gas station) to not be very visible from the trail and having NO
sign for the trail users to see. There was a few cyclists there buying Gatorade and getting water like us here who we chatted with.
After a refreshing stop we headed south again. Within a few miles we
were again climbing from a low of 4800 to a max. of 5600 feet. We
passed through three more tunnels and one had enough length and curve to make us a bit nervous not being able to see in the middle. But we found
all of the 4 tunnels to be graded through fairly smooth. We peaked and headed downhill to Hill city which made for about 53 miles this
day. Really some beautiful canyons this RR grade follows. At Hill city we stopped at a friend of a friend's business and tried to buy a spare tube,
but he wasn't around. He has a bike tour, rental and shuttle service for cyclists in the hills. We ate at a very local establishment on main street
where we asked about tent camping that our trail guide mentions. We discovered there was NO camping in town and the closest (with pool and mini
golf) was 4 miles out and $18 per night!!!!! The next was another 4 miles (up hill) but a bit cheaper at $14. Heading up this canyon was a another
gear grinder but being on pavement sure seemed refreshing! Hehe We found this camp ground to be pretty nice with lots of tent sites. We'd bought
some fresh vegetables in town to mix in with our cous-cous that evening and did some hiking in the woods here.
Tuesday July 27th
We left early in the morning so we'd be zooming downhill back to the
trail without tourist auto traffic. Wow was it fun flying along around
hair pin turns back down to the valley bottom. We got back on the trail and headed south again climbing up another uphill grade. Starting at Hill
City at 4900 we peaked 10 miles later at 5900. After this peak it would be downhill (almost) all the way to Edgemont which was the low point of the
trail at 3450. The valleys we rode through were really nice but the heat was starting to get serious as well. In 15 miles we hit Custer and stopped
at a bike shop for a tube. (we had one but it was full of patches) This small town has the ONLY bike shop on the entire trail and it's not
much. We chatted with the owner a bit & ate some sandwiches then again headed south. As we went south toward Pringle the heat was getting
oppressive and the thought crossed my mind that we should have left early AM to head south. At Pringle we ate and re-loaded with water but there was
no camping here and the last 32 miles to Edgemont had to be done. Much of the adjoining land was now private so no rough camping allowed. But hey
its only 32 miles, all downhill!! Hehe The heat started to take its toll on us and was over 100 by noon. We sucked on our Camelback's in glee and
stopped at places the trail that had any shade. Passed many old mine sites where the rocks and soil again looked very Red, different from up
north. We then rode through a valley that was mostly pasture lands and hay fields. The heat had started to make Sandy ill and our water was
nearly gone. We were still 15 miles above Edgemont!!! This lower section of trial had just opened and we heard the local ranchers were in an uproar
over the theft of their land (a abandoned RR grade) for such a worthless thing as a bike/equestrian/hiker trail which would bring all the city
criminals out to steal from them. Anyway, our foolishness of bringing only 140 ounces of water and a bottle of Gatorade for a 30 mile down hill ride
was catching up with us. So we started eyeing potential water stops. We passed a few ranches but none had a drive we could access. Then we came to
one that had a nice short drive to the house so up it we nervously rode. We knocked on the door and a boy of about 10 answered holding a rag
to his very bloody nose. He was the only one home and it was his grandparents ranch. He offered us all the water we needed. We repeatedly
thanked him and asked if his grand parents hated the trail or not??? He said "no and I use it myself". We thanked him again and headed out the
door in relief. As we rolled back to the trail a pickup truck entered the drive then gunned the engine as he spied us coming down. It was a younger
gentleman certainly not a grandparent and he didn't look happy. (remember that all thieves ride bikes) We dismounted and chatted with him a bit
where he made a reference to the effect that we wouldn't have given out water and how "their" land had been stolen for them etc. etc. Many years
ago I lived in the area so I asked him about folks I knew. By the time we parted he'd cooled off and hopefully he'll not shoot any cyclist for the
remainder of the summer. The rest of the downhill to Edgmont went without incident. We climbed out of the RR grade and took an old highway the last
10 miles into town. Locals told us it was 110+ out with very light winds. Sandy remained border-line sick so we slowly rode to town. In town
the camping was w/o showers but it didn't matter to us, we NEEDED an air conditioned hotel. This marked the end of the ride south.
Heading North again
Wednesday July 28th The ride north.
We got up at 4 am so as to eat and be on the trail by sunup and did
it feel nicer out!!! It was about 70 as we rode out of town with the
sunrise. The trail paralleled the main highway so we just rode on the shoulder. We got on the trail when it cut away from the highway and up
the bluff's side. Wow it was a sight in the early morning light. These canyons with their sheer sandstone cliffs were as beautiful as any we'd
seen on the trail. We made it to back to Pringle very tired from the long climb but with a bit of water remaining. Here we spoke with a couple of
tourists heading south via highway. Then back to Custer for the day. As we passed the Crazy Horse monument we saw a couple of loaded tourists coming
down the trail. We chatted with them for quite some time and they were the only other loaded tourists we'd seen this whole trip that were taking the
trail like us. It was their last day heading south to Edgemont where they left their van. In fact we'd seen their van at the municipal camp ground
so we had to kid them about the tires missing! Hehe Today's climb back to Custer was about 2000 ft for this day. Here we found a super nice camp
ground near the trail, downtown, a grocery store and reasonably priced to boot. We recommend it.
Thursday July 29th
It was a just a 15 mile ride to Hill City but when we passed through
the 1st time we decided to purchase a 1880 train ride on our return trip.
a steam locomotive that pulls a few cars with tourists up and down a canyon over some 6% grades reported to be the steepest RR grade in the
world(???). The ride was really nice and since I had worked on a RR it made for extra fun for me. Here we ran into the gentleman who operates the
bike tour, rental and shuttle service from Hill City. We ate and chatted with him all afternoon and really enjoyed his company. We must suggest his
services if anyone's in need of them while visiting the hills. Jesse's an avid cyclist and knows the hills very well. (at the end we'll post this
number, e-mail or web site)
Late in the afternoon rain clouds to the northwest looked menacing and
the temps had moderated. We'd planned on wasting time in Hill city until
in the afternoon then ride north until a nice rough camp site was found. Jesse suggested some nice places to camp traveling north. So late
in the afternoon we headed north trudging up hill again. The clouds threatened but it didn't rain. We passed the spot Jesse suggested and I
was getting very, very tired. We stopped to inspect some spots along a quaint stream but when I stepped into the trail side grass a cloud of
mosquitoes rose to get something to eat from me!! The two things these hills usually don't get is real hot weather and mosquitoes and we'd now
seen them both! Hehe We jumped back on Red and kept riding north. I was STILL very tired. We eventually came to the northern most tunnel were on
Monday we passed that car parked on the trail loading camp gear. We stopped there and found an excellent spot on-top of the trailings pile from
the tunnel. Here the canyon was very narrow with a small stream flowing just below us and a sheer cliff where the tunnel passed within behind
us. And no mosquitoes!! We made camp and ate quickly since our daylight was fading. Early AM the rain clouds returned and the lightening flashed
as the thunder echoed in the little canyon like cannon fire next to our tent. It rained hard for the 1st time on our little tour. When we got up
the skies were still overcast but no rain. It took us much longer to load up since some equipment got wet but the ride north was rather short and we
had all day. As we left a drizzle started to fall but the trail didn't develop any mud and we had fenders on anyway. (I'll give a equipment note
at the end) The last 5 miles we took a different trail called the Fantail loop which is a different RR grade back into Deadwood. We found it more
appropriate to us being loaded than the one we rode out on. The last few miles were down hill and we just flew along allowing Red to float in the
gravel beneath us. Real loaded MBing I guess!! We were in the parking lot near noon and started to looking for a place to shower and eat. The local
PD told us the day's of 76 parade was about to commence which blocked us in town a few hours.
Great little tour.
We found the trail to be a lot more soft gravel than we expected and
felt our 2 inch MB tires to be a minimum for our loaded tour by tandem.
tandem may be more appropriate than our Red's setup which was more road like but still not worth switching for these 230 miles. Much of the grade
must have been 3% and we spent LOTS of time in the small front chain ring climbing. It seemed like we were going up incredibly slow or down hill at
15-25 mph all the time. In fact all the elevation's climbs we mentioned were low since they just represented the peaks. These conditions made it
very hard on my back and wrists. We had fenders on Red and glad we did. The rocks were constantly flying off the tires would have been hard
on us and Reds paint. The day we did a bit over 60 miles was more like a 100 miles day in energy expenditure. We expected to do less mileage than
we normally do when touring and glad we did. During the tour I started calling this the "Mickelson cow path" since much of it was open range. As
we went south there were more and more gates to pass through, two were so close to each other that the trailer was in 1st, as Sandy held the 2nd open.
Feel free to e-mail us for further details.
Arlyn & Sandy Aronson, email@example.com
Superior Tandems (906) 370-2911
Quality tandems and accessories
For trail info. & maps call or write.
Black Hills trail office
HC 37, Box 604
Lead, SD 57754
for shuttles, bike rentals or guided trips
Forest City Adventures
PO Box 6
Spearfish, SD 57783
firstname.lastname@example.org web site www.forestcityadv.com
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