Magnificent Michelson Trail Rides
Barry's stated reasons for returning to the South Dakota Black Hills, which he'd visited with his parents decades before, were (1) to show the area to me and (2) to ride the George S. Michelson Trail, not necessarily in that order. ☺
I really didn't know much about the trail before our trip, but I now know that it is in the Rails to Trails Hall of Fame and deservedly so. This 109-mile rail trail is a real gem, with some of the most beautiful scenery we've encountered in our travels around the USA. And it's a blast to ride, with no super steep climbs (most 4% grade or less, though they can be long), since it was formerly a rail line. But there are sufficient climbs and descents to keep it interesting, dramatic tunnels, rocky cliffs, rolling pastures, bold creeks, native wildlife, cooling forests, and mountain views galore. And no cars, of course! I just can't say enough about this lovely packed-limestone trail.
We were fortunate too in that we planned enough time in the Black Hills -- and had cooperative enough weather -- to ride on the trail at length on three different days. Barry's goal was to complete the trail end to end, which he did in two separate day's rides, but mine was just to enjoy riding what I could, and to support him in his efforts to ride the entire trail by driving the car to the appropriate pick-up points.
If you are interested, here's a map of the trail and the various trailheads mentioned in this blog post.
Ride 1: Hill City to Deadwood
On our first Michelson ride, Barry pedaled to the Hill City trailhead from our rental suite about a mile and a half down the road. He then headed north to Deadwood. In the meantime, I drove up to Deadwood with my bike, parked the car, and rode south on the trail until I met him. By our calculations, we'd meet up at the Dumont trailhead at approximately 1:30 pm and whoever got there first would wait for the other. Cell phone coverage on this rural trail is practically non-existent, so there would be no calling each other; we'd just have to hope that neither of us had any mechanical issues.
Fortunately, everything went even better than planned. We both underestimated how long it would take us to get to Dumont as this is the highest point on the trail so we both had long climbs to get there. Despite this, we rolled up at exactly the same time -- 2:18 pm, to be precise. Amazing!
After comparing notes and eating a quick snack, we headed north to Deadwood. In this direction, it is nearly all downhill, so we were able to fly, especially fortunate since the skies ahead were looking threatening. Just as we pulled into the trailhead at mile marker 108.8, raindrops started falling.
On the day, Barry ended up with 49 trail miles, and I got in 32.4. It took me 2.5 hours to ride the mostly uphill direction from Deadwood to Dumont (including stops for photos and snacks) and just an hour to ride the other direction, almost all downhill. Fun!
Ride 2: Hill City to Edgemont
A few days later, it was time for Barry to ride the southern portion of the Michelson. Once again, he set out from our rental in Hill City, this time pointing his bike southward on the trail. I drove down to Edgemont, parked the car at mile marker 0.0, and began pedaling north to meet him.
This was a slightly longer day for Barry mileage-wise but mostly gradually downhill. Once again we'd calculated that we'd meet at approximately 1:30 pm at the Minnekahta Trailhead (milepost 16.2). This time we calculated more accurately based on our experience a few days ago. I actually rolled in a little early, and Barry rolled into Minnekahta just four minutes behind me at around 1:25. Once again we had no mechanical or other issues.
After meeting up, we headed south to Edgement. Overall, this section of the trail was not as scenic as the part north of Hill City, being lower in elevation, more open, and at times close to the roads, though it was still pretty. We had a stiff headwind, so even with the slight downhill tilt of the road most of the time, I was feeling a little tired and slow towards the end.
Edgemont was our least favorite "trail town". They make you ride on the road for a mile between the parking and sign-in area at the trailhead and the trail itself. While we like road riding, this is pretty lame. Not everyone is comfortable riding on roads, some have young children with them, and the like. So Edgemont got a thumbs down from us for this reason.
With this second ride, Barry had now ridden the entire Michelson Trail and achieved his goal! Mileage tallies for the day were Barry 60 trail miles and me, 32.4 again.
Ride 3: Rochford Round-Trip
This last ride a few days after Ride 2 was just for fun and to be able to ride together. Barry wanted me to see some of the trail north from Hill City that I'd missed out on, including several tunnels. This was an exceptionally beautiful part of the trail, he said. And it was!
We rode out from our rental on the road and accessed the trail in Hill City, then rode north to Rochford. Actually, we'd planned on going "only" 20 miles one-way (so 40 total for the day), which would have put us somewhere between Mystic Trailhead and Rochford, but I was feeling good, so we went ahead to Rochford, giving us 23.5 miles for the first half of the ride.
This was a especially pretty stretch of the trail, as Barry had said, and I am so glad I got to see it. Around almost every curve I found myself oohing and ahhing from the beautiful scenery, including many high rock cliffs and a bold stream with several small waterfalls beside us much of the way. There were also lots of tunnels to go through, and we got to see a horse round-up off to the side of the trail.
There were some interesting and creative cairns along this stretch of trail. We wondered if they had been built by the Michelson Trail Trek riders who were just through here a couple of days earlier?
The ride back from Rochford to Hill City had its share of long climbs, and I was getting fatigued, but the last seven miles or so are downhill. Unfortunately another headwind scrubbed off our speed.
Along this last stretch, we caught a view of Harney Peak, which we'd summitted just a few days before. Hard to believe we were up that high!
And back in Hill City, just beside the trail, I was astonished to see that the Little Free Libraries I've come to love in Prairie Village (Kansas) are -- gasp -- a chain?! (But this is a chain I can totally get behind!) They even have a website and a Facebook page!
I ended the day with 47 miles, my longest ride of the year, and Barry got a couple of extra miles by going ahead and turning back to find me. We were running a little late finishing up as we met several friendly cycling pairs at various trailheads and had nice chats while we stretched and grabbed a snack. So we stopped at the grocery store on our bikes and picked up dinner on the way back to our rental suite. All in all, a great ride and finally a day with no carbon burned!
If you like to ride...
The Michelson trail is beautifully maintained and supported by user fees ($3/daily pass or $15/annual). It's worth every penny. If you like riding on packed limestone (best for hybrid, cross, or mountain bikes) without worrying about cars, you need to plan a trip to South Dakota to ride in the Black Hills!
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Emily & Barry
We're a long-married, early-retired couple who are currently traveling as nomads with no fixed home base. After years of living in North Carolina (Emily's home state), we spent 18 months living oceanfront on Ambergris Caye, Belize, a year road-tripping the US in a Honda CR-V, a year in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and are now roaming North America in our 32' motorhome, Pearl, following warm weather whenever possible.
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