Trail of the Month: November 2003
George S. Mickelson Trail, South Dakota
Named in honor of the former South Dakota governor who crusaded for the trail before his death in a plane crash in 1993, the George S. Mickelson Trail runs through the heart of the Black Hills connecting Deadwood with Edgemont 114 miles to the south. The Black Hills, arrayed along the western border of South Dakota, are an oasis of forest, rocks and streams in an ocean of prairie. In many places the trail is notched into the mountains—pressed up against granite walls to one side and dropping off to steep hillsides on the other. The granite gives way to slabs of slate stacked haphazardly like tall, thin texts on bookshelves. Since the trail was completed in the fall of 1998 it has become one of the premier rail-trails in the West, rich with boom and bust history of gold mining, and challenging for bicyclists as it cuts through rugged mountain terrain.
The George S. Mickelson Trail's northern section cuts a curving course through mountains and Ponderosa pine forests, over creeks and through narrow valleys by the towns of Deadwood, Lead, Rochford and Mystic. Every few miles the trail traverses a converted railroad bridge. There are 97 along the way. Indeed, if there's a signature feature to this rail-trail it is the bridges, many of which are set on trestles hundreds of feet high. And while the bridges may knit the trail together, it has tunnels, too. Just south of Mystic, a once-thriving mining town, trail users encounter a 40-foot-long tunnel that was blasted through rock and lined with beams cut to fit the curving contours that give the tunnel its keyhole appearance.
The trail's midsection from Hill City south through Custer to the White Elephant trailhead a few miles north of Custer features a gradually changing landscape, from mountains and corridors of Ponderosa pine to high mountain meadows and the open prairie. This is big sky country, where valleys begin to stretch out and long horn cattle graze in the fields. Numerous attractions are located close to this stretch of the trail, including the Crazy Horse Monument, which the trail passes by north of Custer, and Mount Rushmore, located near Keystone six miles east of the trail in Hill City.
While it took less than a year to build the railroad line in the early 1890s, it took more than 15 years to develop the Mickelson Trail on the right-of-way—from 1983 when Burlington Northern abandoned what was known as the "High Line" to the trail's dedication in September 1998. In addition to the support provided by the late governor, the Black Hills Rails to Trails Association was integral in crusading for the railbanking of this corridor by the state and seeing it converted into a multi-use trail. With prodding from the local trail group, Burlington Northern donated its right-of-way to the state in 1989. Shortly thereafter, though, landowners challenged the state's right to take the right-of-way under the federal railbanking law. The suit went from the state Supreme Court to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled for trail conversion.
Today, thanks to the hard work of numerous state officials and local trails activists, tourists and residents can enjoy the splendid Mickelson Trail with its magnificent scenery and abundant reminders of the Wild West.