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General, The Outdoors, Travel

Biking Through the Black Hills of South Dakota

Last August, my dad and I rode 270 miles through the Black Hills of South Dakota, along the Mickelson Trail and through Custer and Wind Cave National Parks. It was an amazing trip, and I clearly underestimated South Dakota.

We were hoping for another trip like this one in 2020, but COVID-19 had other plans… so I spent some time going through my photos to document this awesome adventure.

Day 1: Rapid City to Deadwood (50 miles)

We spent our “night zero” in Rapid City, and kicked off the trip bright and early with a 50-mile ride to Deadwood.

Black Hills - Rapid City to Deadwood

We started things off with absolutely beautiful weather, blue skies, and rolling green hills. Oh yeah, and some serious climbing. Just shy of 4k ft of climbing, per my Garmin watch.

We stopped for lunch in Nemo. A massive Trump flag reminded me that I was far from the liberal bubble of the San Francisco Bay.

The afternoon brought some rain. It started to come down pretty hard during a long downhill section of riding. I was a bit apprehensive to rip downhill quickly on a wet road, but I got over my fear quickly and let off the brakes. I was downhill cruising and loving life… until my bike chain exploded.

I felt incredibly grateful that this didn’t happen earlier in the day, as I wasn’t prepared for such a scenario. I was only a mile or so from Deadwood, so I was content to walk the remainder in the rain. My butt was relieved to take a break from the bike seat anyway.

On previous biking trips, we’ve spent our nights camping, but we opted for hotels this time around. Initially, I felt a little spoiled with this approach, like I was “cheating” or something. After a nasty storm rolled into Deadwood, I felt 100% content with our decision to stay in hotels.

I’ve taken pride in “toughing it out” in the past, but I can’t deny that a good night’s sleep in a bed after a day of riding is an amazing luxury, and I was grateful for it each night.

Day 2: Deadwood to Hill City (53 miles)

I woke up with sore knees and a sorer ass. I hadn’t had a 50-mile day of riding in quite some time, probably since our midwest bike tour in 2016.

Lincoln's head on the side of the road in South Dakota

I was not stoked to jump right back in the saddle for our longest day of riding, but I got over it quickly. I had no choice because the elevation began as soon as we hopped on the Mickelson Trail.  Come to think of it, we started climbing right after passing this random Lincoln head, so I blame him.

I felt a little discouraged by how sore I was feeling, and I kicked myself for not bringing ibuprofen, but I was able to muster up the strength to conquer some serious hills.

I had previously read about the old mining town of Rochford, SD, and was excited for a rest stop there, specifically to visit the Moonshine Gulch Saloon. This provided the motivation I needed to keep pedaling uphill.

Lush green hills in Lead, SD

The lush green hills of Lead, SD

I was really enjoying my time on the Mickelson Trail. Some portions were truly stunning, with green grass as far as the eye can see. I rode alone for most of the morning and didn’t pass another soul for miles.

When I arrived in Rochford, the Moonshine Gulch Saloon was closed, even though the sign assured me that it was “Open”.

The Moonshine Gulch Saloon in Rochford, SD

The fabled Moonshine Gulch Saloon in Rochford, SD

I sat on the front porch to rest and enjoy the silence for a moment. Some locals drove by and slowed down to give me the scoop: the owner doesn’t have strict hours; she opens the saloon whenever she pleases. Monday at 11:30 am probably wasn’t a peak time for the bar, so I chalked it up as a loss.

Just as I stood up to leave, I heard the loud clang of the door being unbolting. She didn’t open the door to welcome me in, but her unlocking the door and flipping on the neon lights said to me “I suppose we’re open now, so c’mon in”.

A cold can of Buffalo Sweat at the Moonshine Gulch Saloon

I chatted with the owner briefly and then enjoyed a can of “Buffalo Sweat” ($3!) out on the porch. I’m not much of a stout drinker, but this was thin and light and really hit the spot.

Some passing bikers noticed the beer can and slowed down to ask me where I got it. It turns out that this beer has been discontinued and is a local favorite. They went inside and bought up all of the remaining stock.

At this point, I had seen 50% of Rochford. There was one other business across the street from the Saloon, the “Small of America” General Store.

Small of America in Rochford, SD

The “Small of America” in Rochford, SD. This is the main store in town.

I poked around this quirky little store for a few minutes and then got back on the Mickelson Trail towards Hill City.

This stretch of the trail was absolutely breathtaking. It took some real discipline to not stop every 5 minutes for photos. There was stunning beauty in every direction. as far as the eye can see… I was loving life on the Mickelson Trail.

Larsson's Crooked Creek Resort in Hill City, SD

The sun sets on Larsson’s Crooked Creek Resort in Hill City, SD

Crooked Creek Resort was our accommodation for the evening. It’s a large campground/RV park with cabins, and I found it to be quite pleasant.

Day 3: Hill City to Hot Springs (49 miles)

I woke up feeling well-rested and ready for another day of riding on the beautiful Mickelson Trail.

Coffee and mappin' in the morning

The morning routine: coffee and route review

I started off cruising downhill with the wind at my back. As a result, I accidentally breezed right past the Crazy Horse Memorial. I realized that I had passed it about 1.5 miles too late, and didn’t feel like riding back uphill directly into the wind.

I settled for a “distant” view of Crazy Horse instead. I’m confident that it’s a bit more impressive up close.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial… from a distance.

I assured myself that I wouldn’t make the same mistake at Mount Rushmore and continued on my way.

I passed some cozy-looking homes on giant plots of land, backing up to stunning walls of rock, and fantasized about what it might be like to live like that. It must be incredible to step out onto your front porch with your morning cup of coffee and watch the sunrise.

Not a bad place to settle down!

A lot of these properties contain old vehicles in various degrees of disrepair. It’s interesting how an old sedan from the 80s just looks like trash that the owner hasn’t bothered to remove, but a much older worn-down vehicle somehow looks like a decoration. I suppose it needs a few decades to build character. Give that ’86 1986 Chevy Celebrity another 20 more years and you’ll have a nice piece of art on your property.

We stopped in Pringle, SD for lunch. This quirky little town has character! I explored some old buildings and a massive “bike graveyard” before continuing on to the town of Hot Springs.

I was blissing out on the Mickelson trail towards Hot Springs, trying not to run over any of the thousands of homicidal grasshoppers that were diving directly into my path.

The final stretch of riding had some elevation surprises in store, but I mustered the energy to climb these final few hills… only to come to a screeching halt when I spotted a giant rattlesnake on my path!

A rattlesnake on the trail near Hot Springs, SD

A rattlesnake on the trail near Hot Springs, SD

I hung out with this guy for a few minutes and then we went our separate ways. Well, I kept pedaling until I got to Hot Springs. I’m not sure what he did.

I got into Hot Springs early in the day, and I was surprised to find a rather large downtown area. I took down an entire pizza by myself while I waited for other folks to get into town.

Welcome to Hot Springs, South Dakota!

We stayed in a little hotel in downtown Hot Springs, but spent some time in Upper Chautauqua Park, where some other folks on the trip were camping that night. It was beautiful!

Day 4: Hot Springs to Custer State Park (42.7 miles)

I woke up feeling well-rested, excited to check out Custer State Park and see some bison.

Hotel sign outside of Hot Springs, SD

I loved this hotel sign just outside of Hot Springs

The first few miles of riding were on the side of a highway, which isn’t ideal or very scenic. Things got interesting when we entered Wind Cave National Park, and started to ride by a few bison… and then a few more.

We spent the majority of the day riding through the prairie past herds of bison, and had to stop and wait for them to cross the road several times. I’ve never been more excited to be “stuck in traffic”.

We spent the night at the State Game Lodge. This unique hotel is inside of Custer State Park. Large packs of bison were passing through the property the whole time we were there.

State Game Lodge in Custer State Park

The State Game Lodge in Custer State park

I chatted with a fellow rider at dinner who told me about an alternate route for the following day. He explained that it was more difficult than the standard route that the group had planned, with more extreme climbing, but the views would be totally worth it.

I didn’t commit to this plan, but tucked it away for consideration. More on that in a bit.

Day 5: Custer State Park to Hill City (30.3 miles)

30.3 miles was the plan for today. The ride started with quite a bit of climbing right off the bat, so I got in the zone and powered through the first few miles of hills. Then I realized I was on my own, so I decided to try out the alternate route that I was told about the previous night.

I had a general sense of where I was heading, but I downloaded a trail map of the area via AllTrails, just to be safe.

For quite a while, I was confident that I was on the right track. Then the trail got a bit more narrow. It was primarily composed of rocks and sand, and generally difficult to ride a bike on.

This trail would have been fine for a mountain bike, but it was far from ideal for the hybrid I was riding.

Then I ran into some serious mud. Miles of it.

Muddy trail in the Black Hills

Eventually, it became clear to me that I was on a horseback riding trail.

It was also right around that time that my bike chain popped.

Crap! I had no spare links or tools, and I hadn’t had cell coverage for the last 10 miles or so. I was not prepared for such a scenario. I gave in to the sunken cost fallacy and decided to continue onward rather than turning around.

I got off my bike and started carrying it. The trail was all mud, and for certain stretches, I had to carry my bike overhead. I was no longer enjoying myself, which is evidenced by the fact that I took zero pictures of this part of the day.

Then the trail ended completely. Somehow, despite my impeccable navigation skills, I was completely lost.

I tried bushwhacking for a bit, thinking perhaps a section of the trail was overgrown, but couldn’t find any identifiable trails. I looked at the AllTrails map I had downloaded earlier, but this section showed no trails at all. Where the hell was I?

I heard helicopters overhead, and for a split second, I wondered if someone had perhaps called a search team, as I was several hours behind the general timing plans for the day.

Then I realized these were probably helicopter tours of Mount Rushmore, and laughed at myself. What a ridiculous thought.

I backtracked a few miles and eventually ran into some folks on horseback. They told me that if I followed the trail they were on, it’d take me to Rushmore, but they had no idea how far that was from us.

This was a huge relief, as I knew I could figure out a ride from Mt Rushmore to Hill City.  I continued to carry my bike, and eventually reached a portion of the trail where I could see the side of Rushmore through a break in the trees.

A few more miles of walking and I made it to Mt Rushmore. I snapped a quick pic, was able to get my chain fixed, and was on my way.

Mt Rushmore, shot by someone no longer interested in sightseeing

I redeemed the second half of the day by taking yet another alternate route to Miner Brewing Company. This leg of my journey involved a GPS and zero bushwhacking.

Miner Brewing had some solid beer. Posting up on a barstool at a brewery was a fantastic development after my muddy hiking excursion.

This was the last night of the trip, with a shorter day of riding to follow, so everyone gathered to have a drink and share their experiences from the past week. I told my story of getting lost in the woods. I’m great at being self-deprecating, and this was a prime opportunity for it. Folks really seemed to get a kick out of the story.

Day 6: Hill City to Rapid City (27 miles)

Our final day of riding would take us back to where we started: Rapid City. I figured these final 27 miles would be a breeze. There was a little bit of rain in the forecast, but nothing we hadn’t seen on the trip already.

Dad and I stopped for some coffee at a little drive-thru hut, and then we got to ridin!

“A little bit of rain” turned into a torrential downpour, and I was not dressed appropriately. Before I knew it, I was soaking wet and freezing cold, riding into headwinds.

This ended up being the most challenging day of riding for me, and to be frank I was ready for the day to be over. As such, I don’t have any photos from this portion of the ride.

Lost Cabin Beer Co

Beers with pops at Lost Cabin

Once we got to Rapid City, the weather cleared up, I dried off, and my mood improved.

We were able to explore downtown Rapid City, and we checked out some local breweries. Lost Cabin Brewing was my personal favorite.

My dad flew out the following morning, but I decided to stay for one extra day.

I wanted to do some trail running in Badlands National Park, as it was only an hour away and I wasn’t sure when I’d be back in South Dakota.

Day 7: Running in Badlands National Park (10 miles)

I rented a car and drove out towards Badlands, passing through a small ghost town in Scenic, SD along the way.

This was my first time visiting Badlands National Park, and I was stoked to experience it via trail running. It ended up being a great way to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.

The Badlands were hot and humid. All week long, I’d been underestimating the sun in South Dakota, and today was no exception.

Castle Trail in Badlands National Park

Castle Trail in Badlands National Park

I hopped on the Castle Trail and started running.

I noticed that there were frogs all over the trail, so I spent a lot of the run looking down to avoid stomping on them. Whenever I did look up, I was blown away by the bizarre scenery.

Badlands is otherworldly. I struggle to find the words to describe it.

It’s not “beautiful” per se, but it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The scenery is striking, with bizarre shapes and colors abound. There weren’t many other people out there on the trails, and at times I felt like I was alone on another planet.

I got a solid 10 miles in and was running out of water as I got back to the car. 10 miles was a perfect distance to feel accomplished without being exhausted for the rest of the day.

Back in Rapid City, my last meal in South Dakota was a delicious plate of cajun cuisine from Jambonz Deux.

On the flight home the next day, I was thinking about Burning Man, as I knew we were flying over that general area while the event was taking place. To my pleasant surprise, I was able to make out the “clock” city grid of Black Rock City from the plane window!

All in all, this was a very satisfying trip. It provided a great opportunity to spend a week with my Dad in a part of the country that was new to me.

South Dakota is vast and beautiful. Everyone is spread out, and things seem to move at a slower pace than what I’m accustomed to. I really enjoyed slowing down and spending a week in the saddle taking it all in, and I look forward to a time when traveling for trips like this is a possibility again!

2 Comments

  1. John A Vantine

    Phenomenal epitaph to an amazing adventure! Thanks for your kindness in not sharing that, while you were zipping about and crushing hills and exploring, I was mostly on a one man walking tour at the very end of all other riders pushing my bike up hill after perpendicular hill waiting in vain for death or a downhill run, whichever would come first! In spite of this, looking forward to another trip once we make it on the other side of our pandemic!

  2. Nancy Cappelli

    I enjoyed your photos and daily experiences. What a great trip you had and what a gift to share these experiences with your Dad! God bless you both!

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