George S. Mickelson Trail- South Dakota

We knew the George S. Mickelson Trail would be challenging both from what we’d read about the unrelenting climbs and from the wind blowing Kellie’s gloves several yards from where she’d laid them atop of the car.

The 108-mile trail runs south-to-north and we started at the northernmost point in the “old Western town” of Deadwood, South Dakota. (We’re thinking casinos and its proximity to Sturgis have helped to keep it alive.)  It was the first time either of us had been to South Dakota, so we hit Mount Rushmore the night before, then began the next morning on a paved trail that ended approximately one-quarter mile later. From then on, it was cinder and dirt, but well-maintained and lined with globe streetlamps for the next mile and a half.

We began our morning ride (we did two on the Trail that day) at 4,605 feet elevation on an old railroad bed where the tracks were occasionally visible. A narrow creek flowed behind the small homes that lined the trail until we got outside of town. Kellie had read that this end of the rail trail started with a 19-mile uphill climb (which she didn’t share with Jim), but the southern end appeared to start with a 45-mile climb. It was still only the standard 4% railroad incline but it was unrelenting and, of course, we were riding against the wind.

At the edge of town, we failed to see where the trail crossed the highway, so we ended up climbing a much steeper steep grade a mile upward on the shoulder of the main highway until we stopped, totally winded, to check our trusty TrailLink app for a map. (“How did frickin’ trains make it up this?” we wondered.)  Just how steep (and grueling) this was became evident when we coasted back down at around a 31 mph. 

So, it was a great relief to be back on the more gradually inclining path. Still, this was the slowest bike ride we’ve ever taken – it took over an hour to go nine miles up the Black Hills, but then it took only 25 minutes to come down with blissfully little pedaling.  

Outside of Deadwood, we rode along a mostly shaded trail with a babbling brook (is there any other kind?) and steep cliff walls. In the distance, we saw an occasional odd-shaped white building that we later learned was an old goldmine.

Soon we entered the green Ponderosa Pine forest and continued until the trail took a sharp switchback and began circumnavigating one of the high Black Hills (which are actually very green).  About 15 minutes later, we reached the top where a stunning view of several other Black Hills and valleys awaited us. A mile or so past this, we turned around and, while a white-knuckled ride around hairpin turns and on the occasionally soft surface, it was an exhilarating descent back to Deadwood.  

On our afternoon ride, we started in Hill City, another touristy Western town with chotchke shops, a number of wineries (rhubarb wine, anyone?), breweries and the ubiquitous carved wooden objects shops that specialized in eagles, bears, totem poles and cigar shop Indians.  

We set off on this segment of the trail as it wound through pretty mountain meadows and alongside shiny silver slate hillsides. Again, a long climb awaited us, but we prefer to climb first and coast back rather than the reverse.

A supported tour of bikers who had completed their ride for the day were setting up their tents in a field alongside the trail.  We had done a few trips like this back in the day – including our infamous mountain biking trip over the “dreaded Bitterroot Mountains” – and we couldn’t be happier to have those experiences in our past (not present).  Even the hassle of bringing our bags and bikes up to our hotel room every evening beat sleeping in a cold tent on a rocky, tilted field with no indoor plumbing or electricity. As Kellie told Jim at the conclusion of their last camping trip, “There is still a lot of luxury left to explore in the world and that’s what we’re dedicating our future travel to!”

We continued up the path, at one point, having to squeeze past an oncoming dump truck that was depositing crushed stone to resurface the trail. Otherwise, only pinecones littered the trail. While the scenery was stunning, the persistent sound of nearby Highway 38, where cars and trucks barreled past, prevented the experience from being as serene as the morning’s ride.

We met a local biker who regularly engaged his e-bike (“Cheater!”) when riding south toward the town of Custer and he told us that we were only five miles from the Crazy Horse Memorial. Ah, the payoff for this climb! Indeed, we could kinda see the mountain from the trail; thankfully, there was a sign that showed what the monument is intended to look like when it is finished. (Otherwise, I’m not sure we would have recognized the profile of a face and an outstretched arm formed out of rock.)

Our brewery stop along the Mickelson Trail was back in Deadwood at Jacob’s Brewhouse and Grocer. This was a large and very popular establishment with a couple of dining rooms, a gift shop, a wall of guitars and a brew pub. Kellie preferred the Betty Wit witbeir and the Dubbel De Carson Berliner Weiss to their fruity beers and Jim enjoyed the medium hoppy (59 IBU) American IPA #2.

The Mickelson is a LONG trail. If you’ve been on any other part of it, let us know in the Comments below.

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