Lin Wilder

Riding the Mickelson Trail in South Dakota's Black Hills

Apr 18, 2022
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Our bike tour on the Mickelson began with both excitement and trepidation as family trips sometimes do. Our boys were excited to start the adventure. However, Hanna, in typical teenage style, let us know with the silent treatment and frequent eye rolls that riding her bike for days through the middle of nowhere on what just happened to be the weekend of her 14th birthday was not her idea of fun.

We hoped her surly attitude wouldn’t taint the whole trip for everyone else. We were relieved that as the miles passed her angry face visibly relaxed. Eventually, a smile broke through as golden aspen leaves surrounded us and she discovered that she could indeed ride her bike for miles through the boonies. 

On Day One we planned to ride 16 miles to our first cabin, less mileage than planned for future days due to this section of the trail having the most elevation gain and it being our first day out. Thankfully, this section is also one of the most beautiful parts of the trail with spectacular views and fall color. The kids’ faces showed the strain of the long uphill climb but some encouragement that there would soon be an equally long downhill section helped get them to the top. Once at the pinnacle, we whooped and whooshed our way downhill, enjoying the wind in our faces, the golden fields whizzing by, and the knowledge that the hardest section of the trail was behind us. We had plenty of time to rest and relax at the Carsten Cottages that night, and everyone was tired.

A little boy rides his bike on a dirt bike trail with rocky, rolling hills with few trees, mostly shrubs, in the background. He's smiling at the camera.
Flynn enjoying the trail
Lin Wilder

Day Two

The next morning as we had breakfast at our cabin and packed our panniers, we awaited the appearance of a hundred or so "Mickelson Trail Trek" riders, an annual group ride of the entire length of the trail which just happened to be the same weekend of our ride — just in the opposite direction. By the time we got packed up and ready to ride the 32 miles planned, the first trail trekkers pedaled by from the south on their final day of riding. 

Heading in the opposite direction from the trekkers, we enjoyed waving and smiling at each person as we passed. Riders on the trek were young and old and rode many different types of bikes. Some looked like pro-riders, decked out in colorful cycling jerseys, while others wore skirts, shorts, or jeans. 

The family of five poses for a photo in their bike helmets at the start of the trail. There is a train caboose in the background.
The Wilder family at the beginning of their trip
Lin Wilder

“Mom, did you see that?” said Flynn, as he pointed to a woman who looked to be in her 80s and was riding a heavy vintage cruiser bike with a wicker basket and leaving a trail of dust in her speedy wake. I shamelessly reminded the kids of this woman’s amazing energy later in the day when they were complaining of being too tired to pedal. 

After a thrilling downhill ride, we arrived at the ghost town of Rochford, where we visited the Moonshine Gulch Saloon, known for its history and eclectic decorations consisting of ball caps and business cards stapled to every inch of the ceiling. We were there too early for their famous burgers, so we ate a snack at the quaint Rochford Mall. From there it was several long slow uphills and breezy downhills into Hill City. That night we had burgers in Hill City and enjoyed the soft hotel beds before drifting off to sleep early.

Day Three

On Day Three we rode approximately 37 miles, made possible by having a special birthday destination along the way — lunch at the Purple Pie Place in Custer, a funky restaurant offering delicious milkshakes and pies. While it wasn't the birthday party Hanna wanted to have with her friends back home, this special lunch spot saved the day. 

Back on the trail after lunch, we fell into a quiet rhythm. The only sound was the crunch of our tires on the crushed limestone until suddenly my sons skidded to a stop to avoid the flock of wild turkeys strutting their way across the trail in front of us. Earlier that day we had surprised several deer on the trail. Also memorable on day three was the excellent view we had of the Crazy Horse Memorial from the trail and the herd of bison we encountered. 

Crazy Horse Memorial is a carving of a face in the side of a rock cliff. In this photo you see the face in profile and can see that the memorial is under construction - lots of scaffolding.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Lin Wilder

Leaving the trail to navigate a maze of dirt roads to get to our cabin for the night was the hardest part of the day. When we arrived at our final destination we all had sore bottoms but were proud of our accomplishment. When Sam found out there he had another 25-30 miles of trail left, he wanted to ride it, and I think we would have if our schedule had allowed us another day of riding. 

The Mickelson Trail was the perfect first bike tour for all of us, building our confidence and showing us the joys of self-supported bike travel.

Nuts and Bolts

Guides and Maps

There is a great guidebook to the trail, which includes a detailed map that can be purchased at mickelsontrailaffiliates.com. This website also has a lot of information on attractions alongside the trail, places to stay and eat, and tips for preparing to ride the trail. 

When to Go

The Mickelson can be ridden from spring through fall, though summer days can be hot, requiring riding early in the morning to escape the heat. We chose mid-September for our ride due to cooler temperatures and nice leaf color and it was a perfect time to go. 

Where to Ride

The Mickelson Trail can be ridden in either direction but the trail loses about 1,100 feet in elevation overall when ridden from Deadwood to Edgemont. There are 15 different trailheads you could use to customize the length of your trip. If you can’t swing an overnight trip, day trips are also possible. Local shuttle companies can help you get back to your car. 

What to Bring

Mountain bikes or cyclocross bikes are best for the packed gravel and limestone surface of the trail and comfort or hybrid bikes will also do, but skinny tired road bikes are not a good idea. Staying in cabins, rather than camping, reduces the amount of gear you need to bring. Our panniers carried changes of clothing, warm layers, hats and gloves, rain gear, food and snacks, water, a map and guidebook to the trail, first aid, sunscreen, a camera, and bike repair tools and supplies. 

Two little white, brown-haired boys in helmets look tired but happy standing by their bikes on the trail. The boys are ten-year-old twins.
Flynn and Sam, happy on the trail
Lin Wilder

Tips for Families

Your speed and distance each day will depend greatly on the age of your children and their riding ability. Tag-a-long bikes would work on this trail for younger children. Be prepared to stop frequently at the many trailside rest stops and attractions and bring plenty of high-energy snacks and water. Make sure you know how to fix a flat tire and have basic bike maintenance skills.

Accommodations

There are campgrounds, cabins, and hotels all along the George S. Mickelson Trail. On our first night, we stayed at the Carsten Cottages at around mile 16 of our ride between the Dumont and Rochford trailheads. The cabins were within sight of the trail, simple and inexpensive, and complete with bunk beds, a bathhouse, a detached kitchen to cook meals, and an outdoor picnic area. There were no other facilities or towns nearby, so bringing food for our evening and morning meals was essential. The kids enjoyed petting the various farm animals on the property. We were the only people staying there that September evening.

Our second night was spent at the trailside Quality Inn in Hill City, after riding about 32 miles. This hotel was equipped with a locked room in the basement for bikes and storage and was in walking distance to restaurants and shops in the town. 

We rode approximately 37 miles on our third day with one or two of those miles on dirt roads leading to the Country Charm Cabins, where we also stayed the evening before starting our ride. The proprietors allowed us to use a car to retrieve our vehicle back at the trailhead when we were done with our ride, a wonderful help.

Distance

The Mickelson Trail rolls for 114 miles through the scenic Black Hills in South Dakota from Deadwood to Edgemont. Riding with kids meant we took our time and stopped a lot to eat, rest, and see the many attractions along the trail. We took three days to ride over 80 miles (16 miles, 32 miles and 37 miles respectively). We chose to not ride the last 30 or so miles because we needed to get the kids back to school and sports. Many adults take two days to ride the whole trail, while others pride themselves on riding the entire length in one day.

Bonus tip for this Adventure

When in Hill City, visit Teddy Bear Town, a house packed to the brim with stuffed animals of every type, size, and from all over the world, most donated by visitors. Many other attractions such as riding the steam-powered 1880 train await families in Hill City.
 

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