Trail of the Month: May 2010
South Dakota's Black Hills have a rather misleading moniker. Their name was translated from Lakota Sioux and reflects how dark the thick pine forests look from a distance, especially from out on the plains. But these aren't ordinary "hills." They make up a full-blown mountain range that is home to some of the tallest peaks—higher than 7,000 feet—east of the Rocky Mountains. You'll find ski slopes and gold-panned creeks, and nearly all of this range is part of the Black Hills National Forest.
What you'll also discover when sifting through this wilderness is another South Dakota gem: the 109-mile George S. Mickelson Trail, which winds a crushed-stone route south from Deadwood to Edgemont.
With every curve and contour, the Mickelson Trail noses its way through the best of the Black Hills like a bloodhound. Indeed you'll feel as though you're hot on the scent of every stunning view. The result is a showcase tour of evergreen forests, rocky canyons, prairie-scapes, old mining towns and Wild West heritage.
"[The trail] goes from the northern Black Hills and actually ends out in the prairie," says Doug Hofer, director of state parks for South Dakota. "You see everything from high desert to spruce forests, and the scenery is just unbelievably gorgeous."
As you make your journey along the trail, sampling the varied sub-climates and ecosystems of the Black Hills, you'll really get a sense of the topography. At times you'll hug steep granite walls, slip through tunnels or glide over creeks, and you'll cross more than 100 trestles. While the grade never exceeds four percent, the pathway features some fairly strenuous sections—especially the final 19 miles up to Deadwood. With a max elevation of 6,100 feet, the Mickelson Trail generally climbs as you head south to north. You can take advantage of the slope if you begin in Deadwood and head down to Edgemont.
At every twist along the way, wildlife opportunities abound. Keep your eyes open for bighorn sheep, elk, pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, jackrabbits, mule deer and countless other critters; even mountain lion sightings have become more common. Also, when you reach Custer, you can sidle over on a three-mile spur to the 71,000-acre Custer State Park. Bison, coyotes and prairie dogs reign in this sanctuary.
Not all of your animal sightings will be wild. Parts of the trail are considered "open range" areas, where you may actually encounter cows on the path. (Do not try to spook the cattle; calmly and quietly work your way around them. But don't wander too far, as Hofer says trail users are asked to respect neighboring property owners and stick to the trail corridor).
If the prairie meadows and ponderosas aren't enough, you'll find plenty of other memorable side excursions within a few miles of the trail, including Mount Rushmore, the mountain-sized Crazy Horse Memorial and Wind Cave National Park. "It does offer something for everybody, that's for sure," says Hofer.
One for the History Books
Anyone with a fancy for Wild West folklore will find the Mickelson Trail offers a great bounty of historical footnotes.
The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad started building the original tracks in 1890, a year after Dakota Territory became the state of South Dakota. It was one of the only service routes for mines that sprang up after the Black Hills Gold Rush stormed the area in 1874. In no time at all, the gold frenzy started kicking up legends as large as the landscape itself.
One of the most infamous tales occurred in Deadwood, now the northern terminus of the trail. Barely a month after arriving in town in 1876, Wild Bill Hickok sat down to a game of poker at Nuttal & Mann's saloon. The celebrated—and oft-exaggerated—lawman, gambler and gunfighter broke his own rule and sat with his back to the door; his usual spot was taken. For unclear reasons, Jack McCall later walked in and shot Hickok in the back of the head. The story is that Hickok held a pair of aces and a pair of eights, which has become known as "Dead Man's Hand." These days, you can catch a reenactment of the Hickok drama nearly every night in Deadwood.
Yet for all the fun and fanfare on the Mickelson Trail today, the pathway only succeeded thanks to the great determination of a great many advocates. "It seems like a long time ago now, but there was a time I didn't think we were going to get through it," says Hofer, who has worked on the Mickelson Trail concept since it first surfaced in 1983. "There are a lot of people who deserve a lot of credit."
Among them was the trail's namesake, George S. Mickelson. The two-term governor took a political risk and championed the rail-trail in his successful 1986 campaign. But in a tragic turn, Mickelson died in a plane crash in 1993 before he could see the trail vision realized.
Also, during those early stages of trail planning, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) provided important legal support for the state in acquiring the corridor. "[RTC] played a huge role and really paved the way for what is now one of the premier rail-trails in the United States," says Hofer.
The full version of the Mickelson Trail officially opened in 1998. That same year, the inaugural issue of Rails to Trails magazine featured the trail, thus sharing a hard-earned local treasure with the rest of the country. Tens of thousands of visitors have since discovered the scene-stealing majesty of the Black Hills. In all seasons, at every turn and town, this trail will truly keep your head on a swivel just trying to soak up all the sights.